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At a Time of Upheaval and Crisis, Creative Expression Takes on New Urgency

For creatives feeling discontent in these fractious times, writer Mike Sager urges us to turn frustration into a tool for change.

I became an artist at the age of 13, when a tear gas canister careened off the cracked asphalt of Reade Street in downtown Baltimore and skidded toward my feet, billowing gray smoke.

The year was 1969. Billboard’s top song of the year might have been Sugar Sugar by the Archies — a group inspired by a comic book  but even a kid my age could see that clean-cut, Dick Clark frivolity had just about run its course. Aquarius, from the new-age musical, was number two. Following close behind were songs by the Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan. In an era of upheaval and crisis, creative expression takes on new urgency.  What we remember now as Classic Rock was created as the soundtrack of a revolution  a call to action, a cathartic expression of anger and grief, a tool for enlistment and change. Within that caldron I was forged.

With a friend I’d cut my 8th grade classes. We’d taken a bus to the Flower Festival in downtown Baltimore. Advertised on the radio as a peaceful gathering of artists and hippies, we were hoping to check out the music, soak in the vibe.

I had this long hank of hair I combed low across my forehead—my father, the ex-marine, hated it. And I was sporting a pair of bellbottom dungarees. I’d had to smuggle the pants out of the house without my mother knowing, as jeans were against the dress code policy enforced at my school, a source of great unrest among the students. There’d already been several sit ins by a bunch of us more activist middle-schoolers, demanding a loosening of the rule—did wearing corduroys instead of dungarees make us better citizens? It was ridiculous and arbitrary. We weren’t gonna take it anymore.

Of course, our militancy had trickled down from our older brothers and sisters. Outside the walls of Pikesville Junior High School, on larger and more important fronts, bitter social wars were raging—racial, sexual, generational. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had only just been signed. Cities and women’s undergarments were burning. A culture of protest prevailed. Even dinner was unsafe; less than a decade earlier, children had been expected to grow up to be miniature carbon copies of their parents. Now there was this new thing they called Youth Culture. Family disagreements were increasingly bellicose as these baby boomers called a halt to convention. Never again would children be seen and not heard. Music, art, film—a golden age of creative output was blooming. Self expression was the hallmark of the age.

Underlying everything, of course, was Vietnam. Lyndon B. Johnson’s dirty little war—and the Selective Services’ little paper draft card was a death warrant issued to every eligible 18-year-old. Every night we saw the carnage, brought to the TV screen by an enterprising and independent press. And every day, more of our older brothers were being killed and maimed. You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out that if something wasn’t done soon, we junior high students would be next.  Hey Hey LBJ. How many kids did you kill today? That question, the widespread protest, was damning enough to run one of America’s most powerful politicians out of office. I still remember President Johnson on the screen of our black and white television, his long horse-face somber and defeated.  “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” 

I remember the sound the canister made, the resounding tinny thunk, and the scraping sound as it skidded toward me. I froze. Stared for a long moment at the smoke billowing, unsure what to do. Ever since elementary school, living under the specter of the Cold War’s threat of nuclear annihilation, we’d faithfully practiced our duck and cover drills. Now here I was, being fired upon by forces from my own team. I had no training for that.

Some older kid kicked the canister away, but not before I got a snoot full of gas. I can’t remember what he looked like but I remember him leading me into a store full of posters and pulsing lights, music blaring.

Together with a woman in the store, they helped me wash out my eyes. In the wretchedness of my symptoms—the rubbed pepper pain, the weeping eyes, and running nose—I can remember only one emotion: I was angry as hell. And I wanted to do something about it.

In the months to come I was grounded, which gave me a lot of time to go to the library.  I started reading carefully all the news about the protests and about the war. I read up on the leaders of these movements: about the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), about Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., Elijah Mohammad.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered the writings of the psychologist and social disrupter Timothy Leary. While I never got into using hallucinogenic drugs, as Leary advocated, I did take great heed of the slogan he made popular: Question Authority.

I grew up to be a journalist. And for the past 40 years I’ve been doing just that. Asking why, seeking truth, finding evocative ways to bring to light my findings.

In these troubled times, there is only more to do.

More Posts by Mike Sager

Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist. A longtime writer-at-large for Esquire, he has been called “the Beat poet of American journalism, that rare reporter who can make literature out of shabby reality.” Since 2012 he has also been the publisher of The Sager Group, a consortium of multi-media artists and writers, with the intent of empowering those who make art.

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