In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was deeply involved with racist skinhead organizations, a reverend of a self-declared Racial Holy War, and lead singer of the hate-metal band Centurion, which sold 20,000 CDs by the mid-nineties and is still popular with racists today. Single parenthood, love for my daughter, and the forgiveness shown by people I once hated all helped to turn my life around, bringing me to embrace diversity and practice gratitude for all life. Today I am a speaker, author of My Life After Hate, and very fortunate to be able to share an ongoing process of character development working with Serve 2 Unite. Leveraging an online magazine, S2U engages students creatively with a global network of peacemakers and mentors in partnership with Against Violent Extremism, The Forgiveness Project, and Over My Shoulder Foundation
My first memories of music involve a turntable and Beatles records at the neighbor kids’ house. We listened to “Hard Days Night”, “Don’t Bring Me Down” by Electric Light Orchestra, and “T.N.T” by AC/DC. Stuff that would rarely be found playing on the same radio station—at least in the mid-70s before all of the above were considered “classic”.
In 6th grade the needle dropped on FEAR-The Record, The Clash-Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and The Dead Kennedys-Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. An indelible memory of hearing the word “fuck” in a song for the first time. That day a voice was given to inherent rebellion in the soundtrack to my life. FEAR was pure electric audio rage looking to escape via the first opportunity to blow a hole in something. The liner notes of the DK record hipped me to the curious horror of Jim Jones and 900 people lying dead together, along with a critical examination of the sick society that set the stage for such things to happen. The Clash went a step further to decry injustice, melding British punk with Jamaican reggae for the first time to illustrate the humanity left behind the wake of imperial wealth.
“Hip-Hoppers and Punk Rockers.” —a theme illuminated by Joe Strummer that segued into my b-boy phase. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, along with RUN-D.M.C. and Afrika Bambatta were the seismic force that produced a wave of suburban white kids enamored with the idea of being black, while conveniently ignorant of the realities of inner city struggle—despite the clear lyrical depiction of said struggle. We taught ourselves to breakdance watching Beat Street and stole away to ghetto roller-rinks at every opportunity to battle in the hip-hop tradition.
As venue after venue closed due to gang violence, and the trend I was once at the forefront of became mainstream, my musical and cultural tastes continued to wander. There was a brief stoner classic-rock revisitation that claimed my Aunt Geri’s vintage vinyl copies of Led Zepplin II and Who’s Next, before I returned to what was to become a true calling: punk.
While I never had the coordination to skateboard, I loved the California skate-punk sounds of Agent Orange and The Faction. Youth Brigade, Social Distortion, and 7 Seconds were in the mix as well, but the wounded aspiring alcoholic in me craved something darker. An interview with Glen Danzig in Thrasher Magazine captured where I was at with something to the effect of, “…violence is a fact of life: you either celebrate it or get consumed by it.” This was shortly after Danzig folded the legendary Misfits and gave unholy birth to Samhain. Both bands were my life, and one of my finest moments of the era was getting shoved off the stage by Danzig himself during a Samhain gig.
As my 20-year fucked-up marriage with booze was in the honeymoon stage, I began my “singing” career doing lead vocals for a straightedge band called Stolen Youth. A sizable local following paid tribute to my talent for bellowing and creating an on-stage spectacle, but ultimately my quest for fuckedupedness drove me to flee the hometown where Stolen Youth was based and descend into the depths of the underground.
After promoting DIY punk shows, I “managed” a band from West Bend called Nuclear Overdose, who had the misfortune to embark on an ill-fated midwest tour I had arranged. Returning to Wisconsin, I ended up wallowing in the deliciously drug-and-alcohol-riddled dysfunction of the Kenocore (Kenosha) scene. Bands like Charming Deviants and 10-96 (the police call for a mental patient on the loose) lived the angst and hellbent self-destruction that fueled their music, and I gleefully leapt in to join them.
Per my lifelong adrenaline addiction, I needed the music to always be harder, faster, louder. A kid I had met at Camp Minikani years earlier had introduced me to Slayer and Venom, and I turned him on to Agnostic Front and the Cro-Mags. We were both stoked about the transaction.
Styling myself in the skinhead-influenced look of the New York Hardcore scene, I began to dabble in nationalism just for the kick of irritating the drastically-leftist peace punks. The idea of might making right was becoming more and more concrete when I was introduced to Skrewdriver.
In the early 1980s, lead singer Ian Stuart took an originally apolitical punk band and transformed it into what would become one of the most potent recruiting tools ever known to racist organizations. Interestingly, Stuart was at one time vehement in his apolitical nature, but was eventually seduced by the small-minded lure of hate. His reactionary response to extreme leftist groups was to join-up with extreme right groups and make records like Hail the New Dawn, the title track being the first Skrewdriver song I heard:“…The streets are still, the final battle has ended Flushed with the fight, we proudly hail the dawn See over the streets, the White man’s emblem is waving Triumphant standards of a race reborn”
I’ll never forget the spine-tingling rush as I heard that chorus. Simple bar chords chugging along, accompanied by chants of “HAIL! HAIL!”…fading in, leading up to Stuart’s gravelly voice. Willfully clueless as to the consequences of National Socialism, I was swept away with romantic violence just as teenaged German kids were a half-century earlier.
Skrewdriver was in constant rotation as my descent into the white power movement continued, along with a host of bands they inspired. One Way was my first contribution to the effort. I wrote songs about how Jews took my hard-earned money and gave it to lazy blacks, then bellowed them to the crowd as we opened for punk bands like The Exploited. Receptive audience members were moved to attack those that weren’t, and our crew swelled with a local band to rally around.
With a new drummer and bass player, One Way became the short-lived Hammerhead, which folded when lead guitarist and fellow driving force Pat O’Malley went to prison. A couple of years later Centurion happened.“Coward! Grovel before us! Today you pay for betraying our trust Centurion laughs as you whimper and cry You turned tail and ran now it’s your turn to die! Nigger! Prepare to burn! You attacked our people and now it’s your turn You act so bold, but we’ll slap you down The legions of hate will put you underground! Crush your enemies With racial loyalty It’s racial holy war! Centurion! Blood, soil and honor Legions attack, foes skulls crack We’ll drown the mud in an ocean of blood! Race traitor! Don’t cross our path! You’ll feel the steel of the White man’s wrath You’ve made your choice, you’ve chosen your side You’ll be caught in the middle when the races collide! Jewboy! Tremble in fear! Your days are numbered: Centurion’s here We’ll leave your kind to whither on the vine We’ve made up our minds to be rid of jew swine!”
I wrote that.
To acknowledge such shame turns my stomach. But it is truth.
Are truth and honesty the same thing?
It is true that I wrote those lyrics and roared them into the universe. At the time, I had myself convinced that I was honestly expressing a rage induced by perceived injustice. But was “The White Race” truly facing genocide at the hands of a shadowy Jewish conspiracy? Hardly. The truth is that I had fallen for lies. Because I honestly believed my own bullshit, while devoid of the faintest understanding of true honesty.
A pattern initiated by the hypocrisy of “white power” in general and “white power music” in particular. Ian Stuart said, “One must be honest to people about one’s beliefs, and especially when the survival of our very race is at stake.” This coming from a man who covered “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”, a song written for the musical Cabaret by Jewish composers John Kander and Frank Ebb. Did Ian Stuart know he was covering a song written by Jewish people? Or did he have himself convinced that it was an actual Hitler Youth anthem, as I had believed myself up until researching this bit of thought? In any case, Skrewdriver, Centurion, and every other white power band played rock and roll derived from the blues scale that wouldn’t have existed had it not been for African slaves creatively expressing their suffering.
We simply ignored any truth that was inconvenient. All of us were huge Slayer fans, never mind that lead singer and core of the band Tom Araya was Chilean, and thus considered a “mud-race”. Our rhythm guitar player wore a Sepultura shirt in our CD sleeve photo, knowing that the Brazilian band despised racism. Dishonesty ran amok and we were all too aware of it. We knew damn well (hell my mom knew back in ’82 the second she looked at the sleeve of my wax copy of Screaming for Vengeance) that Rob Halford of Judas Priest was gay, but there were white power bands who covered “Breakin’ the Law” in the same set with songs about “…killing faggots”. Perhaps most curious of all was our outright love for This is Spinal Tap. We literally watched this movie after every single band practice to the point where each of us could recite it line for line. On the sleeve of Centurion’s 14 Words you will find, “This one goes to 11”—an homage to a movie that couldn’t have existed without the creative genius of Rob Reiner and many other Jewish people. This is the very same sleeve with the lyrics you see above on it. We did a cover of “Tonight We’re Gonna Rock You Tonight” for vicious crowds of violent racists, who loved it every time. We talked all about killing Jews as we were delighted and inspired by the work of Jewish people.
Eventually, the value we found in This is Spinal Tap, and other culture forbidden to white racists helped dissolve the lies that blinded us. Once our guard was relaxed, the walls we had built between us and the rest of our human family crumbled with an increasing pace. Music continued to be integral to my life as old friends like The Beastie Boys helped lead me to a better place. From My Life After Hate:
“Paul threw in Check Your Head and from the first line of the first track, ‘Jimmy James’, I was rocked by the magnitude of my departure:
Well, people how you doing there’s a new day dawning
For the Earth Mother it’s a brand new morning
Indeed there was a new day dawning—again. Funny how it was Ian Stuart, lead of the primal skinhead band Skrewdriver, who struck me with title track of Hail the New Dawn almost a decade earlier. Hearing that song enticed me down a path rife with violence, hate, death, and imprisonment that I had narrowly escaped. Hearing this song was like a warm hug, letting me know that The Beasties forgave me even if I didn’t forgive myself; that I was welcome back no matter where I had been.”
The music of The Beastie Boys relieved my heart of the weight of hatred, and set an example of just how lovely life could be when diversity was embraced instead of shunned. Three bad brothers who happened to have Jewish heritage playing funk-dripping hip-hop with brilliant Asian keyboardist Money Mark, a black DJ-Hurricane, and keeping it all clean (of course) was Brazilian engineer extraordinaire Mario Caldato, Jr. The pure, honest quality of this music left me no choice but to cherish the variety of people that came together to make it happen.
“Without signs or speeches or symbolic flags, the common purpose of the rave kids was open, embracing, and nebulous all at once. And in a weirdly passive but irresistible way, so much more powerful than any fist, boot, blade or bullet could ever be….
…Finding myself suddenly directly in front of the DJ, clothes and body cavities rocked by the humming whomp of low frequency sound, the dance issue was reflexively solved as the music physically shook me. I let go of my ego, setting aside thoughts of my past, what I was wearing, how I looked, and everything set in motion. Without consciously raising a foot or lifting a finger, I was swept up in the primal dance that has caressed humankind since we first walked upright. Timeless, relentless drums led the way to a sublime group consciousness. Blaring horns and synths accented samples of R&B vocal riffs that earnestly celebrated the rave mantra of peace, love, unity and respect. Time was marked only by the minute-hands of gleeful cheers that arose when the DJ would artfully change records, and hour-hands of the DJs themselves changing.”
I spent yet another childhood in the rave scene. Plenty of self-destruction in this one still, but much easier on the world around me. Well, relatively easier at least. Yet even as I immersed in self-medication, I was progressing, and healing. And all along there was music.
I quit drinking in 2004. Without a steady stream of alcohol to numb a lifetime of hate and violence that had directed itself inward, I found myself in a state of suicidal depression that lasted over a year. Writing with music as my guide led me to a much better place.
As I was reliving a period of frenzied brutality to produce My Life After Hate, I found refuge in the music of a Brazilian singer named Céu. The gentle magnificence of her voice and the sheer craft and diversity of the music brought me back from the brink of oblivion that I had to peer over in the process of exhuming a past that was never properly laid to rest.
This wonderful music carries the basic human goodness of the earliest humans—the most primal beats—to a unique moment where all virtue is felt. Infused in ancient percussion, the open honesty of our existence radiates the courage of compassion. Cutting edges of digital soul. Each member of the band brings a unique and crucial contribution. The collective sound transcends language to convey a curious and lighthearted understanding of the indomitable goodness of existence. All arising from the epic and pervasive diversity of Brazil; a land still reeling from the inhumanity of slavery and genocide, yet emanating the purest joy and goodness of people and planet.
People often tell me that I do good work, and hearing this makes me appreciate the amazing people around me who enable it. Nothing happens in a vacuum. There would be no book to write if it wasn’t for every single person in it and every single person who knew them and so on and so forth. There would be no song to sing without the web of interdependence that captured it.
I’ve been meditating regularly since Fall of 2009. The music of Céu is infused with truths revealed via this practice. Impermanence demonstrated by the flow of creativity, making the same song brand new each time it is performed. Interdependence gloriously woven throughout time to produce a moment where neither hate nor violence can exist. Shining like the rising Great Eastern Sun. Boundless. Unconditional. Indiscriminate. Warmth for everyone. Once the song begins, feeling before thought as clear and expansive as a cloudless blue sky.
Yes, clouds will continue to come and go. There will be storms and suffering. Greed and aggression will howl us into doing harm. Ignorance will dull our ability to care for each other. It is up to us whether we let these companions come and go as they will, learning and smiling as we let them pass—or letting them lead us by the nose. Decide whether to return focus to love or to remain attached to hate. What greater gift could be asked for than this ability to respond with compassion?
There is no denying the power of music, and no denying the destructive power of hate music. The rage is all too real, despite, or perhaps because of, the hollow dearth of consciousness it stems from. I have run with the thrill of seeing people injured by the sheer violence of a Centurion set. Anyone who has ever actually poured gas on a fire can relate to the adrenaline rush of danger and carelessness. But when the wounds are bandaged and victims forgotten, where can honesty be found? Human beings cannot honestly enjoy seeing other human beings suffer. Only through the practice of dehumanization can we be shamed into finding pleasure in harm.
Let’s be honest with our human selves as we choose the soundtrack of our lives. I still love all of the music I ever have, and I still listen to it all, aside from the overtly racist stuff. But for my daily music—the kind that I make a practice of listening to—I choose music that is genuine, gentle, and powerful. I choose music that celebrates the human capacity for love and sets about realizing its boundless nature.
You can too.
Dedicated to the loving memory of Adam Nathaniel Yauch (August 5th, 1964 – May 4th, 2012)
4 years ago today dawned the understanding that I will find what I seek.
The catalyst for this realization was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “A Time to Break the Silence“, in which he illustrated an intention of peace for Vietnam with interdependent compassion and pragmatic genius. Dr. King’s openness and honesty demonstrated the authentic presence of our common humanity. He inspired a courage to face my past, and share my path with an aspiration for us to all guide each other to a place of caring. He gave me an appreciation of this basically good experience that we all co-create. He demonstrated a mutual responsibility to serve, revealing a natural affinity to unite.
Today I am graced with a fundamental gratitude for each moment of this life that wouldn’t be possible without the impact made by this brilliant man. Dr. King taught me ability to cultivate whatever I put my heart and mind to, and the sublime gift of mindful wisdom in choosing what to sow. Studying his lead, it was plain that we exist in a system that responds according to what we practice. Our practice shapes our lives, and all lives that intersect, which ultimately is all life. All reality. All existence. All that is at stake when we choose to look for inspiration, or insult. Whether we find interdependencies or isolation depends on this choice. Whether suffering is eased or perpetuated is decided each moment of every day, by every one of us. Together we have the gentle, irresistible power to break even the most hardened of hearts, and expose the tenderness within. Together we can topple engines of fear and ignorance and set love in motion to fill any void.
Together, we are a continuance of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
My love and gratitude are yours Dr. King.
You are always with us.