Ex-white rights fan just wants to be a rock star
in a drab low-rise overlookingthe Eglinton flats off Jane, George Burdi clutches a Creemore as the door swings into a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor. Sitar music plays low on the stereo. The vague whiff of incense hangs in the air, Divine Glory, I think. A Batemanesque knockoff of an Arctic wolf hangs on the wall over the TV.Here he is, the one-time high priest of the white supremacist Church of the Creator, founder of Resistance Records and former frontman of the racialist rock group RaHoWa.
Two years after he walked away from charges of spreading racial hatred, Burdi – aka Eric Hawthorne – has left the movement, found Hinduism, taken up meditation and is hoping to make a musical comeback on the strength of his newfound conversion. Two of his current band members are black. There’s also a fiancée who happens to be a woman of colour.
The story would make great promo fodder for any record company exec: “White supremacist makes good.” Perhaps that’s why Burdi’s current manager wants to sit in on this interview. The last thing he wants is some reporter trashing the concept. * * *Back when Resistance Records was raided and Burdi faced a long stretch in jail, his old foe Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress approached him. Farber offered to put in a good word with the Crown if Burdi would be prepared to sign a statement publicly renouncing the racialist views he’d formed in high school, when he met Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and worked stuffing envelopes printed with “Did six million really die?” out of Zundel’s bunker on Carlton.
The CJC had several discussions with Burdi’s lawyer, several more statements were drafted and overtures made to Burdi about going on a speaking tour. It would have been a real public relations coup.
But unlike other lesser lights, Burdi – the one-time heir apparent to the white supremacist throne – had his reputation to think of. He certainly wasn’t going to leave the movement labelled a sellout, a race traitor. And, in the end, he didn’t have to. There were so many problems with the evidence against Burdi and his two co-accused that Burdi ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge with no time behind bars.
Burdi was free to withdraw to a life of anonymity. That, however, would prove more difficult for Burdi than he’d imagined. That’s when he decided to call me. * * *I first met George Burdi at an underground gig of RaHoWa’s some 10 years ago. Back then he was screaming, “This time the world,” his fist raised in the air, his 6-foot-plus, 200-pound frame silhouetted against a Confederate flag.
Zundel had just won a landmark appeal. The beer flowed and skinheads – “gorillas,” Burdi calls them now – slammed their bodies against each other in the dance pit.
When he calls out of the blue, one night about a year ago, we make arrangements to meet at the Beirut Palace on Bloor near Dovercourt, just a stone’s throw from that scene 10 years earlier. He tells me about his new band and his renewed outlook on life. But he doesn’t want me taking any notes or recording our conversation just yet. At this point, he’s feeling me out, just wants to know what I think – sound good?
It’s a feel-good tale that Burdi weaves, full of tears and poignant moments of self-realization. He says he’d actually begun to reconsider his place in the movement a couple of years earlier, during that four-month stint he did in an Ottawa jail on an assault charge.
“I thought I was living for this argument, this political perspective,” Burdi will tell me later. “But suddenly I got this perspective of what it would be like to live in this spaceship a billion miles away from the Earth. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was a slave to my DNA, this scared little creature crouching in a cave.”
But after four separate interviews with Burdi over the last year, I’m struck more by what he doesn’t say. The portrait emerges when you read between the lines of someone selling insurance for a living while searching Hinduism for the meaning of life. It can be a harsh reality to confront every morning in the bathroom mirror, especially for a bright guy like Burdi.
We sit in his Toyota later, listening to a rough demo of his disc. Lusty songs of love have replaced songs of hate. But there’s something slightly off about this experience. Burdi’s calling me “buddy” once too often.* * *It’s spring the next time I hook up with Burdi. This time, in the basement of a darkened studio space on Richmond, Burdi’s looking over promo photos. He’s shirtless, tattooed – “To thine own self be true,” reads one of them – with bandmates standing behind. A Web page has been set up on the Net with four songs to download.
But I’m here to talk with Bryant Didier, Burdi’s dreadlocked number two in this musical adventure. He responded to an ad Burdi placed looking for bandmates.
“I felt it was a moment of destiny when we did connect,” Didier tells me in a sun-drenched courtyard outside the studio. “Hopefully, the music will speak for itself.”
Burdi knows there’ll be skeptics. It’s probably why he’s tried to enlist the support of his former enemy Bernie Farber, with whom he’s had two meetings. “I wanted to learn more about myself,” says Burdi.
Farber’s come away from both feeling uncertain. “He did his shtick, had his 15 minutes of fame, and it cost him dearly,” says Farber. “I’m not sure he’s reached any epiphany. I’m not convinced he understands that he has a lot of consequences he has to deal with. Obviously, he’s trying to work through this and there are very positive signs, but I’m not sure he’s taken the coat off entirely. He’s always wanted to do this on his own terms, and it just doesn’t work that way. I think he feels he’s screwed up his future.”* * *A year after our initial meeting things are not going as smoothly as planned for Burdi, when I’m invited to his apartment. The CD release has been pushed back – again. There have been a few lineup changes since we last spoke. And Burdi’s gone through a couple of managers. The doors that he thought would be opened are seemingly closing.
There’s still a part of Burdi that blames others for the road he’s taken in life. Teachers offered “irrational, simplistic and illogical” responses to his early fascination with eugenics, he says, and Catholic school priests couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give him a straight answer on the meaning of god. He says he went through a “spiritual crisis” as a result.
“You’re supposed to go through a process of inquiry, but I found that people were afraid of the subjects I wanted to talk about.”
Burdi had to prove them wrong. “It became this great big argument for me.” That was before he went through what he calls “an intellectual breakdown.”
Now, he finds himself on the outside looking in. He’s still trying to repair his relationship with his father. His fiancée’s parents are not exactly enamoured of the idea that their daughter’s marrying someone who’s not Indian. “We’ve gone through a very hard time,” she says.
How they found out about Burdi’s past didn’t help matters. It was during an A&E rebroadcast on right-wing movements. There was Burdi at his racialist best. In fact, he still keeps in touch with the odd old friend in the movement.
And there’s a recent issue of Resistance, the magazine Burdi once edited, kicking around somewhere in the apartment. He just can’t find it now. And on his computer screen, an e-mail waits to be opened from an old friend in the movement who’s seen his new band’s site on the Web.
Burdi says he’s not looking to become a radio star. He’d be very happy to sit and meditate about the meaning of life here in his tiny west-end apartment. But it comes off a little disingenuous, especially after he’s called me just a few weeks earlier to confess, during a rare moment of candour, how he’s bored with life.
“Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said then. “I don’t want my life to be my job.”
Burdi is finding out what it means to live in the real world. There’s a saying in Jewish culture that those who have done great harm must go through what is called T’shuva to make the world right.
Burdi has yet to make T’shuva. firstname.lastname@example.org