A few years ago a bar and restaurant in Rochester, NY had a song writing contest. I thought I could use it as an excuse to write some new material and get all of my instruments and equipment out, taking over the dining room.
They sent a topic to you although I don’t remember what mine was. I got mine and started writing. The song went through a few different iterations until the day of the contest. I think you had a month or something. The song went from a 50’s doo wop vibe to country to pop. It was a weird wild ride with pages of notes and lyrics. I did not win the contest, but had a fun night with a few friends, drinking beers and performing. I made a little kick drum out of pieces of rafter from my basement and an old bongo and used it to cover Can I kick It by A Tribe Called Quest.
The strangest thing about that is that I never recorded the song. I almost always record myself, a few different times actually, to listen back to the song and make it better. I’ve been doing that since 98 so I’m not sure why for this track I didn’t, or if I did do it I lost it. What’s even stranger is that I’m an obsessive lyrics person, saving the original lyrics and scrawlings, sometimes even stapling them to the finished version so I can look back at the differences. I have no lyrics at all for this song. I can’t even remember what it was called! No idea what it sounds like, no idea what the lyrics are…it’s almost like this song never existed!
This has happened to me before, but not very often. I’m fairly certain I wrote the song for my son, and that it was about being happy for who you are not what you are. But that’s as far as I can get from memory. It was performed once in public at The Lovin’ Cup. I don’t even remember the date. March of 2018 maybe?
What did come from that era was the track that got me into the contest in the first place. In order to be selected you had to send in a track. I hadn’t been writing much since my son was born but was playing a little piano at the time for his entertainment. I used to record a song in the morning that he could dance to throughout the day when I left for work. It was usually something quick and made up on the spot.
But one day I did a little fugue and it stuck with me for a while. I kept whistling at it until I reached an idea for a chorus. After a few beers one night I put it together on the piano and thought it sounded kind of cool. I wanted to pen some lyrics but couldn’t think of anything to say. It sat around for another week or two.
Then one day the line “The day I fell astray” popped into my head. I thought it sounded good enough to be a line in the chorus. But fell astray from what? My school work? My life? The last band I was in? I decided that maybe it was planet earth singing and not me. Maybe earth has always thought of herself as another inhabitant, a self-aware being that sees itself as one of us, just another human trying to survive. So the chorus came out “I’m melting away and I’m staying away, the day I fell astray.”
You need to understand where you were to know where to go and as an artist that means going back and digesting what you’ve already done, which can be painful.
I’ve always thought that I released the best of what I was working on at the time. So why go back and put out stuff from 15 years ago? But this is more about me growing personally than it is about filling up my blog.
From summer of 04 until fall of 05 I wrote over 100 songs. There’s so many little recordings, clips, blurbs, lyrics, bar napkins, and notes that I have no grasp at how many there actually are. I was hell bent on writing a hit for my band at the time, Drunkenpor, that I was writing a few songs a week or more. But sometimes those songs didn’t fit Dpor (which was a reggae/rock sound) but they got recorded, usually in one or two takes and a just a few tracks.
It was like they needed to be recorded to get out of my head. That year was an intense one in terms of song writing, and some of the tracks I penned then were still being kicked around by other bands in 2010. I’ve had a few periods since 04 where I’ve written several songs, but never as intense as that one.
The two songs below I forgot about completely. Over Now was meant to be the last track off Static in the Attic 2, a follow up to an album of complete acoustic songs that I self-released in 04 or 05. I had just as many electric songs and decided to split them up between two albums since they were all written around the same time. Static in the Attic was a term I had used when my electric piano would occasionally pick up someone’s Ham radio when I lived in an attic apartment in Syracuse in 03.
Static in the Attic 2 was never compiled and released. Two songs that were supposed to be on that album came out years later as Pat Buchanan’s Hearse songs; The Clash and Robot Counter Culture. The Clash got some radio time and when I heard it one night driving home from work, my own voice cawing through my truck speakers, I remembered its humble beginnings in Adams, NY that year when I wrote too many songs to remember.
Wow, I don’t remember writing or recording at all. I think it was written in 05. But I have no lyrics sheets with notation which sometimes I would label with a date to see how long it took me to finish. I was going through an old jump drive when I found it. It’s not recorded all that well, and there’s some pretty obvious mistakes during, but I found this song enlightening in a strange way. There was some good emotional writing going on here, with good foundational lyrics.
The chorus needs a lift for sure, but it’s just catchy enough to be remembered. It surprised me a little, as do so many tracks that I have been finding, for their sincerity or durability or lyrics or some other aspect of song writing that now I feel like I have to try to connect with. It was just happening then, even if I had no idea how or why.
I plan on releasing more of the old stuff as I find it. Having a full time job and family doesn’t allow me the luxury of setting up camp for a week and getting through all of it, but it does allow for just enough time a few days a week to spend a few minutes reminiscing over time well spent and looking forward to a future full of writing more songs.
I sold everything to move to the Pacific Northwest. Well, almost everything. But the things that left on LetGo and Craigslist burned. There were several guitars, mics, cables, pedals, amps, stands, a keyboard and a band’s worth of cords, cables, and connectors. They all left out of door as happy hands handed me cash for “like new” equipment.
I was happy to let it all go, honestly. I wanted everything gone and not just to raise enough money to move my family across the entire country during a pandemic. I was done. Tired of jumping from project to project, several things moving at the same time, and wishing I was working on something else while working on something else. I constantly confused myself and was diluting the things I was putting out because I was buried in constant chaos.
I can be insane. I want to do everything, play everything, write everything, read everything all the time. But I know that’s not possible so I decided to make a new me when I moved from New York to Washington State. Get rid of music, focus on writing and reading, fishing for sport and relaxation, and get into camping. For the first few weeks it went really well. But my friend Kevin let me borrow a guitar.
I had gone over a few times and every time ended up with one of his guitars in my hands. He told me to take an acoustic for a week or so. Just brush up on some skills. That was on a Saturday. By Sunday morning I’d already recorded several riffs and had come up with a new plan; an album of songs that I write, record, and produce while using mostly other musicians that I know. Why?
Because I’m crazy and I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I got into discussion with a few musician friends of mine. I realized that I can’t NOT create. I have to. It comes out of me. I can’t stop it. It will find a way to come out and I need to realize that and just let it bleed. The cut is wide open and taking instruments away isn’t going to close it.
I don’t know what this new music project is going to be exactly, but I know it’s going to happen whether I like it or not.
I change my mind constantly. One second I’m writing the outline of a new novel, the next I’m querying about a completed one, the next I’m retying terminal tackle to chase after steelheads, and the next minute I find myself setting up a closet as a makeshift studio to record an album I haven’t even written yet.
I haven’t played much guitar the last two years. I had a failed attempt at writing a bunch of songs two years ago. I had a month or so where I really wanted my old band, Pat Buchanan’s Hearse, to get back together. But it just wasn’t going to be possible. I hadn’t written hardly anything since my son was born. So I sat down to write a new PBH song and what came out was Once Surround. I made a demo of it to show the band, hoping that they would like it so much that they’d want to take it up and at least give it a shot at recording for real. It never happened.
Here’s what I had started. (I put the video together quickly so no judgement on it.)
I’m not sure of most of the lyrics. I lost the sheet I wrote them on. But the chorus sticks in my mind “Convoluted and confounded I was once surrounded”. At the time I wasn’t sure why I felt this way, but it’s unmistakable. I felt trapped, held back, and like “a dog in a pound”. But what’s interesting about these lyrics is that they’re in the past. “I was once surrounded” as if I was no longer. The song has a hopeful underdog feeling to it and the lyrics corroborate. It took a few years to put it together but I suddenly recognize why. This song, out of the hundreds that I’ve written and forgotten, has become extremely meaningful to me.
Right before my son was born I took a corporate job that had me on the road. It was a good job with great benefits and a pension. I couldn’t have asked for anything better at the time. I mostly traveled in the north east from DC to New Hampshire. I was home every weekend but usually pretty beat and didn’t feel like doing much. My wife went to work on the weekends waiting tables in a restaurant. Our lives were separate. I barely knew her or my my own son.
I missed his first laugh, first steps, first words, and other firsts that’s really hard to think about now. It was difficult but this was life. I was frustrated and wasn’t sure how to express that. I fought with my wife. I withdrew from friends. I argued with my parents. In general, I was unhappy. But I thought there was something more to it. I thought that I was just unhappy being a father and another cog in the wheel of capitalism. I wanted out.
I went to a therapist and told her what I was feeling. She asked me a dozen questions and listened intently to my answers. I was waiting for her to come back with the fact that she had no clue what was wrong with me, that I needed years of therapy, probably massive drugs, electroshock therapy, and most likely a complete lobotomy. Instead she giggled.
“You mean to tell me you’re stuck doing a job you don’t like, missing out on engaging family time, and not creating, writing, or playing music? No wonder you’re miserable!”
I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t written or created much during this time. She convinced me that I needed to. “You’re an artist at heart,” she said and I swear at that moment something changed in me forever. I had never considered that before. I had never even thought about really. I just thought I was a little kid having a hard time becoming an adult, playing in rock bands and reading poetry in dumpy coffee houses. Turns out, in a way, I am. But it’s not that I haven’t grown up, that’s how I cope with the stresses of everyday life, including becoming an adult, a dad, and a working professional.
So I was determined to get the old band back together. I made some desperate phone calls. No one wanted to listen. I thought if I just wrote a classic PBH track they’d have to come back! We’re were a good little punk rock outfit. They’d need to try it back on. I never felt so liberated as to play some rock and sweat it all out and feel better and get drunk and laugh and yell and scream and…have fun.
So I wrote Once Surround after a conversation with my friend Mike Leon. I pieced it together with a few riffs I had floating around and then once the melody hit me I penned the lyrics in a few minutes. I never really stopped to think about what I was writing. It just fit the mood of the song and my spot in life. I recorded the demo a few days later and then it got stored on an external hard drive and that was that. Until a few days ago when I found it.
If history repeats itself then the next big rock and roll movement will be here soon. It will be very short lived, powerful and strong, and its popularity will not be denied. It may have already started and we just haven’t realized it yet. No telling where it will come from or what it will sound like when it gets here. But it’s coming.
Fads move faster than ever in recent years. This includes movements in art, music, or pop culture. What is here today may literally be gone tomorrow. Certain things seem to stick around and become part of our cultural fabric while others quickly vanish into the oblivion and show up on VH1. It has been a while since rock music has seen an intense movement, but the ingredients are here, and the temperature is right, and we’ve had just the right amount of time; 25 years.
The first great movement in Rock and Roll was in the early 1960’s. Although the first rock and roll song was credited to 1951’s “Rocket 88”, Rock and Roll wouldn’t take on the form that we know it to be today; free, strong, moving, powerful, until the middle 1960’s brought to us via the British invasion. The second great movement came through underground bands in the 1980’s but exploded on MTV in the early 1990’s as Seattle grunge sound. It is unclear whether the ingredients brought together the perfect meal or whether the public was so hungry they would have eaten anything. But regardless, both major, important, and popular rock movement has been preceded by two awful things that seep into the public conscious, poisoning our collective well, and splitting the public; racial injustice and televised war.
The accounts of racial injustice to people of color throughout early American history have been many. But a few incidents around the mid 1950’s seem to stick out as a throbbing beacon of inequality. Around this same time the Vietnam War was officially started and America’s involvement would increase in Vietnam and similarly here in the states the war on racial justice was slowly reaching its acme. Resentment towards the government grew for being involved with the war, towards conscription, and with inaction towards the ethical treatment of all people.
In recent news the sign that commemorated the life of Emmet Till was shown to have been punctured several times with bullet holes. The story of 14 year old Emmet Till is a brutally sad and sadistic one. Till was murdered in Mississippi for talking “familiar” with a shop keeper while visiting cousins from his home town of Chicago. The two men charged with the crime were acquitted by an all-white jury after only 1 hour of deliberation. An investigation 7 years later found that most jurors believed that the 2 men who faced the charges were guilty, but didn’t want to convict them because life imprisonment for killing a black boy seemed unjust and only months later the killers would confess their crime in a story run in LOOK magazine. The killers were paid $4000 each for the story.
The year Emmet Till died was 1955, just one year after the Vietnam War was officially started. Stories of injustice were often worded strongly in favor of white supremacy. War and death, domestic injustice and perceived international justice were plastered across the newspapers and televisions and radios around the country. People started to become divided; those who supported the war and those who didn’t and those who supported desegregation and those who didn’t. The public was inundated with horrifying stories of young men dying for their cause, whether in a fight overseas for war or a fight here on our own soil for segregation, and sides continued to mount. The racial divides would come to their acme with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.
The British invasion and rock music exploded at nearly the same time the civil rights act was passed in 1965. The timing may have been coincidence, but it could have just as well have been alchemy. The people had spoken and the war was beginning to end, segregation was beginning to end, and a feeling of freedom left the public feeling liberated. 1969 was the summer of love and what was started in the 1950’s with the Beat Generation had culminated into liberation at a high (no pun intended) and deep level. Woodstock was anti war, pro unity and all about the music and love. The consciousness had changed and the nation was ready to accept the proliferation of rock, social awareness, and a peaceful, incorporated ideology. What was once counterculture was now accepted American culture.
Unfortunately that feeling wouldn’t last long. The 70’s ushered out a feeling of freedom and love as the 80’s brought in a “normalcy” and “prosperity” period. Although this piece is directed towards rock and roll and its two major movements in particular, failure to mention Punk Rock and Hip Hop here would be an epic failure. Both sounds were invented in the underground, paralleling general American sentiment at the time with a counter culture from the packaged 80’s pop music that dominated the airwaves. Punk and Hip Hop were sown from deep emotions from real people without the white wash (pun intended) of corporate America. The movement was strong yet largely ignored by the mainstream for years. Turns out punk and rap did more than just invent music; they both respectively spawned variations of their sound and generated billions of dollars in revenue and actually helped to shape the landscape of American vernacular. Although this music wasn’t considered rock music, rock had its deep roots in both form and cultural aesthetic.
As these genres gained popularity and current pop music was starting to meet its demise in the late 1980’s, a new sound started to emerge. Again, this new sound seemed to be enveloped in racial injustice and a televised war overseas. The sound was raw and powerful and had integrated lyrics to match the noise. It brought on a different type of social awareness, one that seemed more forceful and boisterous than the last one in the late 1960’s. This one was more morose, slightly more deafening, and its messages of peace, love, and understanding were backed by anger first before acceptance.
The Grunge movement in rock and roll could have started with The Replacements and Husker Du in the 80’s or just as easily with the Pixies or arguably REM depending on the critic. But its sound was made most famous by the explosion that was known as the Seattle sound; Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots just to name a few were the bands that made the sound the most famous and took over the airwaves. Grunge’s peak of popularity happened to again coincide with racial tensions here in America and a war overseas. Oddly, the culmination was eerily similar and exactly 25 years apart.
Again racial injustice started to build years before any major event would capture the nations attention. On December 20th, 1986 23 year old Michael Griffith and two of his friends were chased down by a group of white teens in Howard Beach, New York and brutally beaten. Griffith, while trying to flee, ran into oncoming traffic and was struck and killed. Griffith’s friend, Cedric Sandiford, continued to withstand the onslaught even as his friend lay dying near him. He survived. Although the case would eventually receive interference by Governor Cuomo, the initial charge for the teens was reckless endangerment. The teens eventually faced stiffer sentences.
On August 23rd, 1989 a similar occurrence deepened the ruts of racial injustice when 16 year old Yusef Hawkins and some friends were walking through Brooklyn when a group of 30 white kids of similar age gathered around them with bats and clenched fists. One of the boys was apparently upset as his love interest would not date him because she had a current boyfriend who happened to be black. These particular teens had no connection but the mob set upon them anyway. One of the kids in the mob had a gun and Hawkins was shot twice. He passed away at a nearby hospital. Justice did not come swift for the man with the gun, and over a year later he received his sentence.
These two mob mentality stories are cleverly forgotten as 1991 brought us one of the most memorable scenes of our lifetime. March 3rd of that year, Rodney King did not pull over for Los Angeles Police and led them on a short high speed chase. After the officers got King out of the car and subdued him, they beat him relentlessly. The entire thing was captured on camera and released upon the world. Racial tensions flared across the country, people gathered over a line in the sand and again took sides. The Gulf War was brief but officially had ended only days before on February 28th. The images of US Military intervening and winning plastered heavily over the news. Sometimes the stories ran back to back on the evening news expertly intertwining perceived moral obligations while clashing with human rights. A year later the cops involved were found not guilty and Los Angeles was enveloped in riots.
August 27th of the same year the icon Grunge band Nirvana released their most popular single and one that would become synonymous with the Seattle Grunge sound forever “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It is to this day a dystopian anthem that blends a dark and foreboding sound with the perfect blend of pop. It’s opening line a requiem for the country and the world at that time “Load up on guns / Bring your friends”. It sang to both sides of the spectrum. As the “Alternative Sound” grew so did its popularity and it could be argued that Woodstock was brought back to capitalize on the moment and line pockets or that 25 years later that feeling of freedom had returned, ushered in by war and racial divides and then played out through guitars, melodies, and emotion.
Now to our present date; the cusp of 2017, 23 years later from that 1994 Woodstock and a movement that shaped and changed our mainstream pop culture, fashion, and vernacular. Our conflicts in the Middle East have now been present on our television screen and personal devices steady since 2001. The war has been alive for 15 years and counting and not a moment has gone by that we aren’t reminded of it. Racial tensions have again flared, this time over countless senseless acts of violence from police from around the world. Again the line has been drawn and the public stands on one side or the other. From kneeling for the national anthem to Donald Trump the lines have been drawn and there isn’t much middle ground. Nobody wants to be a little bit right or a little bit wrong. It is all or nothing. It looks as if the perceived moral obligations abroad have nestled into our everyday thinking. You are either with us or against us and there isn’t much else in between.
Art imitates life. That feeling of drawing a line and taking a stand is a very raw emotion and one that brings courage and deserves valor. We are again approaching the 25 year mark and the ingredients are again available. Will 2019 provide us again with ground breaking music? 1994 was the epitome of the alternative and grunge movement. 1969 was the epitome of the Rock and Roll movement (now considered “Classic Rock”). 25 years before 1969 we had 1944 with the beginning of the end of WWII and Miles Davis moving to New York City to find Charlie Parker and the beginning of the wild “Bop” era in Jazz music. All the ingredients are here and the timing is almost right.
25 years, war, and racial divide are here again and who can know where it will lead.
Anthony N. White is a writer currently living in Rochester, NY.
He can be heckled on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat @Ruthieshusband