'This is my dream': Westminster man impresses as rock band frontman while living with Asperger’s syndrome
By Lisa Gregory
For the Carroll County Times|
Apr 13, 2019 at 5:00 AM
For 25-year-old Jack Gurecki, the singer and frontman for the rock band Ignite the Fire, the social landscape can sometimes be a minefield.
After a performance, the Westminster resident must make his way from the stage and into a crowd of people eager to interact with him, get an autograph, share a few words. He tries to always be gracious and kind.
But, “People don’t realize he is fighting something. He is struggling,” said Michael Nelson, guitarist for the band.
That “something” is Asperger’s syndrome.
Medical professionals now categorize Asperger’s as part of the autism spectrum, rather than as an individual syndrome. Gurecki is on that spectrum and was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 4.
As such, he sees the world in a different way, not always understanding the subtle nuances needed for social interaction. He has trouble with sarcasm and takes things literally. He avoids eye contact. And he knows he can come off as quirky, a little different.
Since joining the band seven years ago, Gurecki has worked to become a powerful presence on stage, overcoming the challenges of his Asperger’s and connecting with audiences who thrill to his soaring vocals.
But he can still struggle when not performing.
“Once you are off that stage and you don’t have that command and people are allowed to be themselves in front of you and expect you to be a certain way in front of them, well, it can be very intimidating,” he said. “It’s difficult. But this is my dream.”
As a child, Gurecki’s family referred to him as the “little professor.”
“He memorized everything and by the age of 2 was so articulate,” said Janis Gurecki, his mother.
But there were other early behaviors that caused his family concern. He referred to himself in the third person and would exhibit a repetitive “flapping” motion with his arms when over-stimulated or upset. “It helped me to cope with and calm the random, unsettling world around me,” he recalled.
As an adult he has found other ways to calm himself, such as plugging in his ear buds and listening to music or even the sound of his own breathing. He often does this before shows, saying it is like meditation.
Once he was diagnosed, his mother set out to learn all she could about Asperger’s and was determined to help her son better navigate the world around him.
“I owe a lot to my mother,” Gurecki said, noting he was homeschooled for much of his elementary school years.
Jesse Saperstein, who is a best-selling author and autism advocate, spoke to about 50 people Wednesday evening at McDaniel College to share his experiences, both those where he found success and those where he struggled.
“They are hard to figure out, and they are never the same person to person,” he said, noting that the reason he does not make eye contact is because he is overwhelmed by micro-expressions, such as a snarled lip or a raised eyebrow, that he does not understand. “With a lot of people their emotions are subtle. It was hard for me to figure out what people were feeling and therefore be able to empathize.”
As such, actors like Jim Carrey and cartoons, with their exaggerated expressions, were invaluable to him early on because he could more easily determine what emotions they were conveying. And by studying these characters he became enamored with the idea of being a performer himself.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do?’ ” Gurecki said.
His mother enrolled him in a theater program when he was 8. And with his ability to memorize and mimic he soon became a standout. Jack once portrayed the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” and performed in other productions.
“I remember when he was little, I would sing to him,” Janis Gurecki said. “One time he turned to me and said, ‘Mommy, please stop.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t sound right.’ ”
His singing voice, as well as his talents for acting, memorization and mimicking, would serve him well when he went off to public school for middle and high school.
“He could do all this cool stuff,” said Nelson, who was a classmate of Gurecki’s. “He was the impression master. Everyone in school knew him. He was a really cool dude. Strange but definitely cool.”
“He learned to relate to people through memorizing anything that he knew was social and that he heard the kids talk about,” his mother said. “Like doing voices. He could be a wallflower and throw out that one thing and then they’d realize, OK, Jack’s cool.”
Not everyone thought he was cool, however. He was sometimes bullied. Nelson remembers Gurecki acting as if it didn’t bother him.
But it did.
His mother still has a drawing Gurecki did during this time with the young Jack cowering on the floor in the gym locker room with three bullies hovering over him, one pointing a menacing finger in his face. The background is drawn in swirling motions, reflecting Jack’s emotions at that moment.
“That’s how he got through things,” Janis Gurecki recalled. “He expressed himself through his art.”
And still does. He is responsible for the band’s artwork, some of which has gone on to be tattooed on fans’ bodies.
In fact, he chose to study art when he entered college. But he also wanted to sing, so when he saw a flyer by a band called Ignite The Fire looking for a singer, he reached out to them.
“Talking to him on the phone he seemed very eccentric,” recalled Caelan Gregory, drummer and co-founder of the band. “And then when he showed up, he was very energetic but slightly off. He reacted to things more exuberantly. More over the top.”
Then he sang for them.
“After he showed us his voice, we were like, yeah, the guy can sing,” Gregory said. “He’s got a very distinct voice. I know he gets compared a lot to Brent Smith (of Shinedown) and Myles Kennedy (of Alter Bridge). That’s a huge compliment because if you think about that, that’s two of the most distinct voices in rock music.”
Jeremy Dove of Darkesville Studios in Winchester, Virginia, where the band’s last two EPs were recorded, called Gurecki’s voice “unparalleled.”
“I had heard about perfect pitch. But I had never experienced it before,” Dove said.
But there is more to being a frontman than just singing.
“I don’t think we initially realized the breadth of which his Asperger’s truly affected him,” Gregory said. “We would tell him you need to make eye contact, you need to engage. You’re telling this to a person who all his life has tried to avoid that, struggled with it.
“I would tell him something and you could see the apprehension, but you could also see that eagerness too. That eagerness of … I want to be a performer, a frontman. I want to sing.”
During the band’s early days, they would videotape their performances and then watch it and break down the film later like a high school football team. Often, Gregory would give Gurecki pointers. The band also prepared a script for Gurecki to follow when he was onstage.
When he started out, a lull on stage — say, stopping to fix a broken guitar string — could be dangerous as Gurecki attempted to fill the time. During one such lull at a show with huge posters of rockers such as Axl Rose behind the stage, Gurecki had to go off-script. Seeing the images, he commented: “There are a lot of iconic musicians up there. And, then there’s Axl Rose.”
He was attempting to be funny. Instead, there were frowns from some in the audience and grimaces from members of the band. Thus, his band nickname became “Brutally Honest Jack.”
“It’s like I’m missing a filter,” Gurecki said. “I’m not as affected by the social structure that everyone else has just intuitively picked up on.”
His ability to recognize and work through such potential pitfalls has been beneficial for both him and the band. Despite the challenges, Jack and the band have flourished, making a name for themselves and having their music played around the world.
“I couldn’t imagine being in a band with any other frontman,” Gregory said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Jack is often now described as “a hell of a front man” by those who come to shows. But even as he works hard to be accepted by society, he also would like society to return the favor.
“I wish people could learn to value our individual gifts, instead of focusing on our oddities,” he said of his Asperger’s.
To others he is more than just a “hell of a front man.” He is an inspiration. Like 13-year-old Adam Bertolette, who is also on the autism spectrum.
“For the longest time, Adam has known he is different,” said his father, Brian. “He gets very down on himself because he is not like other kids.”
That changed when he attended an Ignite The Fire show. “Here was this guy up on stage and everybody was clapping for him and cheering for him,” Brian said of Jack. “He was up there singing. This was somebody who was like Adam. That was a huge thing for Adam.”
After the show Jack sat down and visited with Adam and his stepmother Karen. And during his conversation with them, Jack passed on some words of encouragement.
“Jack told him it was okay to be different,” Karen said. Adam took Jack’s words to heart. “That whole weekend he was on cloud nine,” Brian said. “He was smiling. You could tell he felt good about himself.”
It was a moment that Jack also relishes, one that validates his journey as a frontman.