Planet Waves | Eric Nicolas "Amnesty": You Can Be Free



 You Can Be Free

CD Review | By Eric Francis

I met Eric Nicolas the ominous summer of 1999 (the year you don't forget) in a little Manhattan club called The Living Room. After he and his band started playing, it took me about two seconds to be transformed into a state of musical ecstasy that I have not felt since some my best moments at Grateful Dead shows.


When Eric performs, he's surrounded by this subtle light that I can only describe as happiness, and the sounds that he weaves are a tapestry of rich organic colors and textures. Reviewing that show for Planet Waves, my first impression sounded like this:

"I watch and listen as Nicolas rolls the acoustic guitar riffs off the words off the shining sight of his face expressing emotional authenticity that's a perfect hybrid of passion, gentleness, and sheer musicianship. The rhythm of his voice takes on meaning beyond the poetry of his lyrics."

I was able to see one or two more of his gigs before being spontaneously transported to Miami by Hurricane Floyd, but he made an impression, he felt like my brother, and we stayed in touch by AOL instant messages. During the past two years I followed the painstaking progress of his first CD, Amnesty, which was released a couple of months ago. (Okay, the boy is of the Taurus clan, which taught Virgo that perfectionism existed.) With the excitement of his live gigs an increasingly distant memory, and with the incredible care he and collaborators put into creating the album, I could suddenly hear Eric's words and the subtle care of his playing in a whole new way. And fortunately CDs don't wear out unless you use them as sand paper.

His songs are about gender roles... and growing up a man in a world that is angry at men... and his relationships changing... and what he has to say to his son about these things. I am not sure what I thought they were about, but it's always great to hear someone use the forum of art to convey a message that opens one's heart and mind -- but that is not literal or postured.

When the CD starts, you hear silence, then the clear voice of his guitar, and then his title cut, "Amnesty," begins:

Every man's got troubles, every man, every man
He is born in a bramble to find his way if he can
There's a path through the woods to a happier land
But the signs are in a language he can barely understand

Can you relate?

I started thinking. Both men and women struggle to express the realities we face trapped within our respective genders, forced to play out roles that have little or nothing to do with who we are, ensnared in the web of destiny woven by everyone else struggling in the same game. I think a lot of us are sick of this and afraid to say something, or not sure what to do. Eric's suggestion: Forgiveness.

I'm laying low and waiting for a sign -- there will be

Amnesty Amnesty
Let every woman and man agree
There will be amnesty

One gets the impression from hearing Eric's work that men are actually people, too. I was raised by a single mom in the '70s during Women's Lib, and given the impression that men are something sub-human, or occasionally super-human, but never quite human.

Many of us tend, as a result of some (however subtle) perception of political reality and a corresponding version of political awareness (or alleged correctness), to hold all men responsible for the conduct of a few other men. You know, it seems that all men take the blame for those who serve the world as Monsanto executives, oil barons and clearcut foresters; or the some other men who are abandoners, abusers and rapists. We all know that "not all men do these things" but there are a few people out there blaming all men for these things, and gender rage has a way of spreading.

But I think Eric is getting at something else: that men tend to hold themselves responsible for the struggles they subjected to by forces far outside their control. Blaming ourselves for the ills of the world, and of our own worlds (after all, one must be responsible if one wants to be a man), the result is that we can become, in our own minds, less than human, and as a result, we need to be more than human to get anywhere in life, which is impossible, so we're stuck.

But I think human is good enough for him. As he says in "Make Amends,"

I have been sorry all my life, I don't know what I done
But ever since I've had to prove myself to everyone
I'm doing it here and now with you today my friends
Oh won't you help me make amends?


In an interview a week or two after our first meeting, Eric said a few things that really stuck with me.

"Did I ever have a job?" he asked himself out loud. Yes, he said, he got his "baptism by fire" into New Yorkerhood (born in Topeka, Kansas, by the way) as a bicycle messenger. He also worked for a literary agent for five days writing brutal rejection letters to writers. Fortunately for me, he then went back to bicycle messengering.

"And then I quit to play music because I found that I was getting much better at bicycling in traffic than I was at writing songs. Because you are what you do. I decided to teach guitar, and learn how to be a freelance musician."

I have known, lived with and hung out with lots and lots of musicians. But I never noticed something till hearing is CD, which is how much guts it takes to put your work out there, especially without an arsenel of publicists to tell the world how great you are.

But as Eric reminds us,

You can who you are and you don't have to crawl,
And you can be free if you're willing to fall.

While I'm writing I'm playing Amnesty over. I haven't heard it for about a month... and a funny thing happened, it got better. If you're interested in getting a copy of his recording, email me and I'll send back the information.++

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