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
The cultivation of one’s mind is the most powerful form of aesthetic. It leads to a greater perspective and knowledge of the world around us, shaping our perspective. Perspective is the weapon of choice for change, a weapon that is not tangible, but it can motivate us in the way we feel about each other, change the way society operates, infiltrate the systemic issues of people and culture. Perspective can offer resolve. It’s a weapon that can be more damning than a scream and more brutal than a gun.
But it’s the same weapon that leaves the beholder open to self-doubt, self-intimation, and even tragic silence. Eric Flemings possesses this weapon. It is his super power; it is akin to a lightning bolt thrown by the mighty Zeus or the super human strength and flight of Clark Kent. But his Achilles heel is no longer self-doubt. He found a way to use that, too. He found a way to get better at his strengths and work on his weaknesses.
Eric Flemings didn’t mean to become a rapper. He didn’t even know he could rap until his junior year at The University of Bridgeport in Connecticut while he was freestyling with some friends. They were stunned that he could rap. Turns out so was Eric. He was there to get his Biology degree, which he did, but he uncovered something else in the process; his unbelievable aesthetic for words. An aesthetic that he has turned into a genuine perspective and one that is intensely deep with understanding. Much more than his 23 years would indicate.
Once Eric realized his passion for writing bars he did what he always does; studies. He studied rap hard, hitting the books on style, history, scheme, approach, cadence, and hooks. He consumed, memorized, theorized, and over thought every line from Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, and so many other greats. “I’m good at memorization and critical thinking”, he says speaking of his love of science. “It’s critical thinking and rap will always be a part of me.”
His days of sounding like Kendrick Lamar were numbered. As emulation turned to influence he quickly started developing his own style. He practiced his craft and melded it to his life in science, cross referencing his true love of rap with his cognitive intelligence to become a doctor. “I’ve written a song about the cardiovascular system. I can write an album about all the body systems”, he jokes.
The current rap on the radio wasn’t enough for him. It was catchy and fun but it didn’t hold the weight of words in which Eric thought true rap was supposed to. He knew that hip hop culture was much more than selling sneakers and albums. His genuine thirst and curiosity brought him to other rappers and artists that came before his time. His head bobbed, his mind exploded. These guys had it all; rhythm, intelligence, and perspective. Before he knew it he was waking up early, like back in his high school days, just to write a few bars.
Eric grew up in Stockton California. He got himself out of bed every morning at 4:30am to catch the bus, get to school, and make it to his sports practices after school. “I have always been independent, even at a young age”. At 16 he moved to the east coast, in with his Aunt in New Jersey where he would finish school taking mostly AP courses. He was ready for the next step, ready for college, ready for more learning, ready to be part of something bigger than himself. Eric saw the value, opportunity and future in medicine. “My philosophy is to go where the opportunity is”, he quips.
Eric felt moved to rhyme about the nation’s current status and about the unequal undertones surrounding the election and urban culture. The clip was reposted by Save Hip Hop Culture on Instagram and Eric was suddenly thrust onto the scene. He speaks about inequality with fearsome passion, yet calmly and quietly highlights his points with a scholarly wit and the professional collection of a skilled orator. He supports Black Lives Matter but believes that the systemic undercurrent has been built into our culture. “You don’t just wake up tomorrow and decide to enslave this person.” He says about our early ancestry. “In order to sell the idea you have to have the population agree with it. You have to make this black person something less than us.”
Eric talks of changing the approach to something more long term. In order to change perspective the systemic cultural undercurrent needs to be altered. Protests during the Civil Rights Movement changed the laws, but protests now are not able to change the perspective. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X paved the way for equal access to resources, now it’s time to use aesthetic to change everyone’s perspective to engaging in equality. ““Imagine if MLK had social media?” Eric says.
He does not feel the need to feed the negativity, but rather sees plenty of room for positive change in his community and communities elsewhere. “It’s time to build up our own community, the police will be coming from our own community”, he says quietly. Eric sees everything in a very positive light, commenting that he thinks most people are not inherently bad, most people are not racist, and most people are willing to help. Conversations with him make you feel uplifted and empowered, determined to make positive change, to relinquish self-doubt and become energized.
A full length album is up coming. He is still putting it together, practicing his craft and getting the word out. His talent cannot be hidden any longer, and neither can his excitement. But, “With talent comes doubt”, he says about his constant overthinking. But he won’t let the attention get to his head. “Your narcissistic bubble gets popped and you have to recalibrate and come back at it again. I go through those phases all the time.”
Mr. Flemings has only just started on a path that will never leave us doubting.