These days, J.C. Whitelaw prefers to steer a middle course.
The Detroit classic rock singer-songwriter and guitarist cruises in the center lane as passersby impatiently zoom ahead to the left and right on his latest politically charged single, “It’s Happening Here,” with the Disciples.
For Whitelaw, the lanes on either side of him become congested as drivers yell back and forth across a growing divided national highway.
“With all the Left and Right going at each other over the past four years, it would be hard not to be affected by it. I was shocked to see the level of hate that was conjured by both parties and friends alike and the disrespect for each other over a difference in opinion and ideas. I really believe the loss of civility in these times is unfortunately something that isn’t going away anytime soon,” he said.
Whitelaw emphatically channels those lingering frustrations throughout “It’s Happening Here” as raw, crunchy electric guitars, pulsating drums, crashing cymbals, thumping bass and spirited sax erupt in a fiery Rolling Stones-esque intensity.
In tandem, he passionately sings, “As horror becomes our laughter/Now we’re left in tatters/Scattered on the deafest ears/Happens here!/So now we walk in silence/While hate becomes our triumph/Lost all sense of sanity/Had to be/You and me/We can see/It’s happening here!/It’s happening here!”
“For me, it’s a snapshot of what’s going on right now – mentally, spiritually and socially. I was watching some televised opinion show that most would call news these days, and this melody came to me. I grabbed my guitar and laid it down. I had a few lyrics fly out, and then I left it alone,” Whitelaw said.
“A few days later, one of my old bandmates, Jon Ross, messaged me some lyrics he had been working on and shared the same sentiment that I was feeling. I basically cherry-picked some of his lines and mixed them with mine, and it really took shape over a week or so.”
Along with the single, Whitelaw released new video for “It’s Happening Here,” which features the Disciples’ Jimmy Sparks (drums), James Megerian (bass) and David Reinstein (sax) performing at Jimmy’s warehouse on Aug. 22. Detroit folk rock singer-songwriter Billy Brandt and vocalist Kristin von Bernthal also contribute to the track.
“The Disciples got together for a video/audio socially distanced recording session at Jimmy Sparks’ warehouse and recorded a set for the Beats Go On program. We donated all proceeds to the cause. We were pretty excited as we hadn’t played together since February, and this gave us the opportunity to work on some new material for the new record we’re planning on recording,” said Whitelaw, who worked with The Mission Recording Studio’s Sean Morse and Stellar Videography’s Tracy Viers on the track and video.
“The recording and video is from the second pass of the track after showing the band the song. It’s mostly a live take of the band except I layered in a lead guitar track and Kristin von Bernthal’s vocal tracks at Sean Morse’s Mission Studio. Sean also helped multi-track record the entire session at Jimmy’s warehouse.”
From Center Lane to Cathartic Journey
“It’s Happening Here” is the first new Disciples material Whitelaw has released since 2019’s Hammered, which eloquently chronicles Whitelaw’s immense grief after tragically losing his father, William Whitelaw, on Sept. 4, 2014.
At the time, Whitelaw discovered William Whitelaw had been brutally murdered in his Bloomfield Township condominium. His cause of death resulted from a savage beating that included 16 hammer blows to the head.
Nine months later, a condominium roofing contractor and prior felon was found guilty of first-degree murder and five other felony counts by a Michigan jury. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After his father’s killer went to prison, Whitelaw looked for a creative, therapeutic outlet to process and channel an overwhelming range of emotions. He immediately turned to songwriting and started a two-year, heart-wrenching Hammered journey to reclaim a sense of internal peace.
“I was able to somewhat capture a lot of those emotions musically and record them. That was a remarkable, cathartic journey. People who have this kind of experience in their life and aren’t able to vent it in some way is just maddening. Because I did, and I lost my shit,” said Whitelaw, who recorded Hammered in a historic, vacant house in Grosse Pointe.
Throughout Hammered, Whitelaw deeply ventures into a grief-filled abyss and bravely tackles an array of intense emotions head-on through a poignant, 12-track blues rock explosion. Each raw track beautifully highlights Whitelaw at different stages of the grieving process.
“These really fit, and they tell part of the story, and they’re still hopeful. It’s not really a batch of 12 songs; it is a journey that I took personally, musically and emotionally. It’s chronological, though the songs were written out of time, but they fit right into the peak,” Whitelaw said.
Whitelaw immediately confronts his deep-seated anger over the death of his father on “16 Blows,” a brief, fierce Clash-like recount of the tragedy. Backed by an army of frantic, charging electric guitars, thumping drums and enraged bass, he screams, “Tool in his hand/Coward came up from behind/To kill the man/I got blood on my walls/And I’ll never really understand/And they said, they said he’s dead mama/That’s what they said, and they thought it was me mama, yeah.”
“I captured that crazy paranoia, and I was able to actually do it. That’s a perfect example of how that morphed into what it became,” Whitelaw said.
“For ‘16 Blows,’ I didn’t know what I was saying, but I had the arrangement. It’s short and sweet, and that’s what it is. But Jimmy Sparks and Jimmy Megerian didn’t know what to expect, and I showed them how it went, and we took a stab at it. I don’t think any of the tracks are more than one or two takes.”
After experiencing a bout of rage, Whitelaw shifts to seven minutes of sorrow on “Still Some Time,” which opens with haunting, peaceful bagpipes that pay homage to his late father and their Scottish heritage. The bagpipes slowly transform into a somber wall of echoey electric guitars, steady drums, soft bass and serene piano.
Whitelaw calmly sings, “Gonna raise a glass to us all/And wish Godspeed to who falls/God only knows how we’ll make it/From behind this brick wall/Be sure and not miss your last call,” before switching to a tender, closing rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“During that time, my solace was grabbing my guitar and strumming some chords. It’s the perfect elixir for everything, and when I have my guitar in my hand, I’m into my music, and I’m bulletproof. Then, everything just becomes peaceful, and it’s a real gift. I wish more people had something like that in their lives to retreat to when they just want to unplug,” said Whitelaw, who underwent therapy to heal from the psychological trauma of losing his father.
Whitelaw quickly trades sorrow for numbness on the slow Petty-esque jam, “Just Getting By,” as alternating, buzzy electric guitars, ticking drums and throbbing bass provide an instant, painless escape. He quietly sings, “Been blinded by the scars that leave no visible clues/And simple solutions seem so easily refuted/I’m pacified with substance that leads to lame abuse/And surrender to all when there’s just nothing left to lose/Swear I never saw it coming.”
“For other records that I’ve made, it’s been a little more cerebral rather than emotional. This record is the only one in which I was allowed to play emotionally as opposed to playing from a cerebral point of view,” he said.
“Allowing yourself to do that is a tough thing to do, and that experience has really made me grow again. I’ve learned that skill of how to shut my brain off, and now I’m enjoying playing music more so than I ever did because it’s pure.”
Whitelaw started searching for musical purity while growing up in Haliburton, Ontario and listening to Traffic, Cat Stevens and other “Top of the Pops” records his father brought back from London. He played along to the records on his makeshift tennis racket guitar and begged his father for a real one.
“He made a deal with me that if I played a band instrument in school and showed a commitment to it, then he’d get me a guitar. I said, ‘Cool, I’ll play trumpet,’ and Louis Armstrong was really cool and had records. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll make that sound,’ and I played trumpet for a year and did the whole band concert thing. It was terrible,” said Whitelaw, who moved to the U.S. in 1977.
By age 11, Whitelaw’s father gave him a Fender guitar for Christmas and that led to a new musical appreciation for British punk bands, including The Clash and the Sex Pistols. With a guitar in hand, he embarked on a four-decade journey that included prolific stints in R&B, Motown, Americana and rock.
“Being a musician, I try to surround myself with other musicians who can do things that I can’t and bring them into the fold to produce a bigger picture. I happen to be really fortunate throughout my career to work with some incredibly talented people, and I’ve learned so much from them. We’ve created wonderful sonic things,” he said.
Another part of that journey included forming and playing in Ash Can Van Gogh, The Broken Toys, The Forbes Brothers and now the Disciples. Since releasing Hammered and “It’s Happening Here,” Whitelaw and the Disciples are planning to record their next project at Sparks’ warehouse over the next few months.
“The concept of this record is ‘A live rock ‘n roll band playing its ass off…LIVE.’ A half-dozen of the slated tracks are from the J.C. vault that needed the Disciples to breathe life into them, and the other six are new pieces. The idea is not to take a year to produce this record, but record and mix it in a very short period of time,” he said.