Thursday, March 9, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 11


Truth be told, I could write a whole book just about my experiences at City Gardens -- an iconic punk rock club located in Trenton, NJ -- between 1988 and 1992.  City Gardens may be one of the greatest music venues of the 80's and 90's on par with both CBGBs in New York and the 930 Club in Washington, DC.  The number of top-tier alternative 80s and 90s bands that played there is astounding  including The Ramones, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Green Day, Bad Brains and Gwar. 

From an historical perspective, A Flock of Seagulls, Thompson Twins and SinĂ©ad O'Connor all made their American debuts at City Gardens. Danzig performed their first show ever at the venue. City Gardens also hosted a performance by comedian Henny Youngman and counter-culture personality Timothy Leary. Jon Stewart, famed for his work with MTV and Comedy Central's The Daily Show, was a bartender at City Gardens from 1984-1987, before his stand-up comedy career and later television career took off.  James Murphy, leader of LCD Soundsystem, was an underage bouncer for City Gardens during hardcore Sunday matinee shows in the 1980s.  But the best thing about City Gardens was the diversity and variety of bands that Randy "Now" Ellis the club's promoter at the club booked.  As he told me: 

That was the thing about City Gardens: one night it was Jimmy Cliff, the next night it was the Circle Jerks, the next night it was Iggy Pop.

Even more astonishing was that Randy LOVED ska music! In fact, he loved ska music so much that he hosted what may have been the first all ska radio show in the U.S. -- One Step Beyond -- on local Trenton radio station WTSR-FM. Given those credentials, Randy was always on the look out for ska bands to book at the club.  He regularly booked The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim at City Gardens and both bands drew well and helped to popularize ska in New Jersey. Randy shared his thoughts with me when I interviewed him for my book Ska Boom about both bands.  Of The Toasters he said: 

 Everybody danced. Everybody sweated, everyone danced. They were a good band. They were tight. And it was also unique because they had the horns too. I can't think of many bands really back then that had a couple horn players with them. So all of a sudden we go from a guitar based drum front man, punk rock, Ramones-ish to a seven, eight, nine piece band with horns and keyboards and people dancing and singers, like, running around on stage. It was just a different thing and the kids loved it and danced their asses off to it.

Of Bim Skala Bim he said: 

You know, they were totally different than The Toasters. I probably can't give you the words but it was a whole different style. Maybe it was more rock, but they featured Vinnie on the trombone and he was full of energy and power. I just remember him running around with a trombone. Which probably was done in the '40s and '50s on trombone, but in rock it wasn't seen yet.. And they had Jackie and Dan up front who were great.  A lot like The Selecter. 

But Randy also loved all things New Jersey and when he found out about us just up the road from Trenton in New Brunswick, it was a match made in ska and reggae heaven!  I don't remember the details of how we ended up being booked for the first time, but we made our debut at City Gardens on Friday March 3, 1989 -- wedged between dates for Jane's Addiction and Paul Stanley of KISS -- opening for reggae legend Sister Carol (if you squint you can see our name in the Punk Card above).   At the time, Sister Carol was on a roll. She was coming off a role in Jonathan Demme's 1986 indie movie "Something Wild" starring Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels and had established herself as a leading reggae DJ.   

There was a decent sized, if small crowd at the club for the Sister Carol show, but we brought our high energy ska sound and Roger's dancing and stage jumps converted just about everyone who was there that night.  We made such an impression and sold so many t-shirts, that as Randy was paying us our agreed upon $50 for our 30 minute set, he asked if we were free to open for Bim Skala Bim two months later.  We immediately agreed and that was the beginning of a very important and fruitful relationship with Randy. 

That show with Bim Skala Bim was important because they were nice to us and also gave us some important advice about our stage show and songs. They became a band that we soon used as inspiration for how to be a band and how to interact with fans. Also on the bill that night was a great ska punk band from New Haven, CT called 6 Feet Under.  They remain one of the best and most overlooked ska bands of the late 80s era that I ever saw.

Randy was the first real promoter we had worked with and he was very clear with us about certain rules for bands at City Gardens that helped us to become a professional band.  Rule number one: show up on time for load in.  Rule number two: don't touch or move any of the gear for the headliner on stage and finally, never go over your allotted set time.  The biggest sin for a support band was to go over your set time. In retrospect, they were really very simple rules, but it was pretty amazing to us how many bands just couldn't follow them. To our credit, we never broke any of those rules and because we listened and followed them religiously, Randy booked us regularly.  But the fact is Randy just liked us.  He later told me: 

I definitely always loved "Ska In My Pocket", of course, and "Chaos: and "I Can't Remember My Name." But, "Ska In My Pocket" had hit written all over it. Why didn't that become the next "Gangsters" by the Specials, or even the "Israelites"? You were just as good as The Citizens and Toasters, you know? I mean how about Roger with all that energy?

Once Randy had taken us under his wing that spring of 1989 and crowds were coming out to see us -- and wearing our t-shirts to all sorts of City Gardens shows -- he booked us as openers for The Toasters and N.Y. Citizens that summer.  But it was opening for reggae legend Yellowman that September when things started to click. There was a sizable crowd at the show (a mix of punks, dreads, mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads) and we took full advantage of the opportunity to bring our 2-Tone inspired mix of ska, reggae, punk and calypso to the audience who warmed to us as our set. We definitely worked up a head of steam as we went along and this footage includes the last 3 songs we played that night including 'Telling Time', 'Chaos' and 'I'm Not Waiting' which all featured on our first self-titled album that we would record in early 1990. 

I think its fair to say that this show and one more show in late 1989 opening for HR from Bad Brains was  a key turning point for and really helped us to build a crowd at City Gardens. 

During 1989 and 1990, we probably played City Gardens 12 times.  Randy later told us we tied The Ramones in 1990 for playing the club 7 times in one year! Though we played more and more shows outside New Jersey and New York, we were always happy to come back to City Gardens which we considered our home away from home.

At the same time we were busy in Trenton, we were also building a following at the Jersey Shore at the Green Parrot.  More about that in the next post.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 10


1989 dawned with great promise.  All our initial hard work through playing shows and promoting ourselves during the last three months of 1988 was starting to bear fruit and as our second demo tape made the rounds we started to get local media coverage and we started receiving calls to play more shows. I think it's fair to say that as the first ska band from New Jersey, we were responsible for helping to cultivate a ska scene in the Garden State.  And while it's true that The Toasters and the N.Y. Citizens were playing shows here. we were the first home grown ska band that  people who loved the music could see on a regular basis.

A lot of that had to do with media coverage we were able to generate which lead to word of mouth. In a time a few years before the advent of Internet, people actually read local newspapers and there were three newspapers at Rutgers University that covered the music scene: The Daily Targum which was the official Rutgers University daily paper, The Livingston Medium which was the weekly paper of Livingston College and The Rutgers Review which was the weekly paper of Rutgers College. Each of these college media outlets took notice of us and it had a direct impact interest in the band -- which started to grow exponentially and on the numbers of people coming to see us. 

Our first big show of 1989 was in at Livingston College where Roger and Steve Meicke were still active students in mid-February, 1989.  The show generated significant local interest including a blurb in The Daily Targum in the Friday weekend edition that was published ahead of our show. The paper was available over all four campuses of the University and being featured in the weekend section was a big deal. The result was a large crowd -- at a school that was notorious for students that went home of weekends -- waiting to see us at Lucy Stone Hall.  

Not to be outdone by their larger rival, The Livingston Medium sent a photographer to take our picture and a reporter who reviewed the show saying "They're unreal."  I assumed that meant good!   

As luck would have it, we had started playing out just as the first wave of American ska was beginning to make in roads in key markets around the U.S. During this time the New York ska scene of the mid 80s was shaking out lead by The Toasters who has started touring with their most dynamic line-up led by Sean and Lionel and backed by the best live version of The Toasters I have ever seen.  They were joined by the N.Y. Citizens and Skinnerbox who were also at the top of their game.  Further north in Boston, Bim Skala Bim were also spreading the gospel of ska across the U.S. and in the U.K. It is fair to say that ska was having a moment and as we started to establish ourselves as the only ska band in New Jersey we started getting calls for bookings all over New Jersey and then New York and then the entire Northeast. 

I don't remember much about our SKAFEST '89 show with the N.Y. Citizens at Middlesex County College other than a large crowd that turned out and that their manager offered to sell our shirts and demo tapes for us while we were up on stage opening for them.  At the end of the night their manager paid us what we were owed minus a 20% fee which he claimed he was owed for his troubles and it might have been close to $100!  We were shocked, but we were so green about the business side of music that we just shrugged our shoulders and accepted it.  It was a pretty slimy thing to do and that experience left a very sour taste in our mouth.  It was also the beginning of an unspoken rivalry we developed with the N.Y. Citizens and then all of the New York ska bands who saw us as upstarts from the wrong side of the Hudson River who often couldn't be bothered to give us the time of day.  We quickly took these snubs in stride and decided we were better off blazing our own path in New Jersey versus jumping on the coattails of the New York ska bands. And we would soon be vindicated in that decision. 

One bright spot from the show at Middlesex County College was that word about us made its way down to the Jersey Shore, specifically the Green Parrot located in Neptune, NJ near Asbury Park.  The club had been a restaurant for many years before it was bought and converted into a alternative rock venue. In tandem with local radio station WHTG-FM, the club created a thriving music scene at the Jersey Shore with the radio station introducing people to the bands and the club giving fans a place to see them. It was a perfect music ecosphere and were soon to be part of it.

Word about us also made its way to Randy "Now" Ellis, then the booking agent for City Gardens in Trenton, NJ. Ellis was a self-confessed "ska fanatic" and had been booking ska at the club as early as 1981 when he brought The Hooters, then a full-on ska band to the club. He later regularly booked The Toaster, N.Y. Citizens and Bim Skala Bim, making City Gardens one of the premiere venues for American ska. Ellis was also a fan of reggae and his one of the first promoters to book Toots and The Maytals, Yellowman, Steel Pulse and UB40 in the early 80s. 

For a brief moment, New Jersey was home to two of the best rock and roll music venues in the U.S. and our relationship with the Green Parrot via a Battle of The Bands competition and Ellis and City Gardens during 1989 would prove to be a game changer for us. I'll cover them extensively in future installments.  

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 9

The departure of Ken "Miggy" Gayle from the band in late 1988 coincided with the addition of Sean Moore on trumpet. Sean was a New Brunswick music guy who hung out at the Court Tavern and was friendly with our trumpet player Kevin Shields.  It turned out that Kevin had played our demo tape for Sean and he really liked it.  According to Kevin: 

My buddy from town Sean was also a trumpet player and showed up at just about every show we played. After a while, he started to give me things for my horn. He gives me valve oil, he gives me a snake to clean out my trumpet, he gives me the impression that he’s got some time on his hands and that he actually enjoys the atmosphere of the barrooms and college gymnasiums we frequent. So I kinda back-door him into the band- y’know, “Just to see how it sounds,”Luckily for all concerned, Sean, unlike myself, obviously paid attention at his trumpet lessons.

 Jim remembered Sean just showed up at a rehearsal and that was that:

My memory of Sean joining the band is that he just showed up one day, I presume at a rehearsal.  I had no idea we were in the market for another horn player. I thought we would try to replace Miggy somehow. To this day almost 35 years later I don’t know who invited him, was it Kevin, Steve Meicke? It sure wasn’t me!   We simply added him to our motley crew of a horn section. His dog, Sid, was lovable, I must say….

My memories of Sean are similar to Jim's.  He just showed up at a rehearsal and then he was in the band! As it turned out, Sean was a very industrious fellow.  In addition to his trumpet and baritone playing he seemed to know everyone in and around the New Brunswick music scene.  Looking back now, Sean took on the role of promoting the band to everyone he met and those conversations and relationships were often invaluable to us in the early days.  While the rest of us had day jobs or college classes to attend, Sean seemed available to pick up t-shirts on a Tuesday or drive around dropping off press kits and demo tapes on a Thursday at clubs down along the Jersey Shore.  And, even better, he seemed to like doing it. Plus he was a chatty and personable guy and he could start a conversation or talk to anyone. In a lot of ways, Sean took on some of the duties a band manager would have normally handled if we were a normal band.  But we weren't!   

With Sean now officially in the fold, we decided to focus on three things.  First, we knew we needed a band logo.  Sean had connections via his brother-in-law with a t-shirt production house and had gotten his hands on large books with all sorts of designs in them.  As Roger was looking through them one night, he spied the prefect visual representation for our band.  It was a face that was half Black and half white wearing sun glasses. Some astute fans asked if it was based on the picture of Jerry Dammers on the cover art for The Specials first LP. It wasn't, but it certainly could have been.

We later dubbed the logo "Mr Two Tone" and Sean moved quickly to have a batch of the shirts printed with a large logo on the front and a PANIC! in large block letters along the back. They were an immediate hit and one of the most important marketing tools we had as the band grew and we played out more and more. We could not have had a more perfect band logo. It said everything we needed to say about who we were and what we were about in a picture.  It was brilliant.

Next we moved quickly to get official band pictures taken featuring the new line-up.  Sean knew a talented local photographer named Pedro Serrano and we made a date for him to take photos of us around the New Brunswick Central Business District near the train station and a new parking deck.  Pedro had a great eye and suggested we stand in front of graffiti spray painted on a train trestle in downtown New Brunswick that had the lyrics "One good thing about music/When it hits you feel no pain" from the Bob Marley song "Trenchtown Rock."  Those photos still remain my favorite band photos.

The third thing we focused on at the end of 1988 was rehearsing a new batch of songs and using the $500 we had earned from Rutgers University to go back to Greg Frey's studio in late December to record.  Greg was familiar with us from our previous session with him and we were able to record and mix the songs quickly. We picked the three best songs we had been working on to record: "Caught", a catchy ska pop gem written by Roger and Jim about infidelity;  "More and More" which had been one of the original songs Steve Parker and I had written together during early 1988 which was about struggling to figure out what to do when you are in your early 20s with no job prospects.  The third song was "This Means You", an experimental rock meets reggae song -- I'd been listening to a lot of U2 at the time -- about the terrible state of race relations in New York and America in the late 80s.  

"This Means You" was a song I had wavered on bringing to the band.  I had always paid attention to the news and current events and in the mid to late 80s, the New York City media was obsessed with several race related incidents that dominated news coverage that I followed closely and which were the basis for the song which was initially inspired by The Specials song "It Doesn't Make It All Right" and UB40's song "King" which both address racism head on. 

The first incident was a racial attack that took place in Howard Beach when Michael Griffith, a young Black man and two of his friends were set upon by a group white youths outside a pizza parlor in the predominantly white Irish and Italian Queens neighborhood.  

Griffith and his friends had been driving nearby when their car broke down. They had walked three miles into Howard Beach to find a pay phone to call for a tow truck when they were attacked.  In trying to escape from the mob who were brandishing tire irons, bats and tree limbs, Griffith ran onto the busy Belt Parkway where he was hit and killed by a car. 

The attack led to protests led by civil rights activist Al Sharpton and others with marchers carrying signs that compared the neighborhood to apartheid South Africa.  These protests brought out the worst in the white residents of Howard Beach who displayed blatantly racist signs reading "N*****s Go Home", "White Power" and "Bring Back Slavery" as protestors marched by. Following a trial that lasted much of 1987 and which drew non-stop media attention, the three main defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison.

At the same time, the Tawana Brawley rape allegation case -- first reported in late November 1987 -- also dominated local New York and national news outlets.  Brawley was just 15 years old when she accused four white men -- including police officers and a prosecuting attorney -- of raping her.  After hearing evidence, a grand jury concluded in October 1988 that Brawley had not been the victim of assault and may have created the appearance of an attack.   It further worsened relations between the Black and white communities. 

Regardless of the outcomes of each case, I was struck by just how bad things had gotten in the small corner of the world I lived in during the late 80s. I had paid attention in history class in high school and college and was familiar with the civil rights movement of the 60s, LBJ's attempt to create a Great Society and the strides made by Supreme Court decisions that seemed to level the playing field for everyone.  But, it now seemed like all that progress had been for naught and was being erased. And the song and its lyrics, were my early 20 something attempt to make sense of it all:

We had King and civil rights/to fight discrimination/White flight and Black power/all across the nation/It's twenty years later/and things haven't changed a lot/What we could have learned/we quickly forgot

Luckily, Roger liked the lyrics and sang them with power and conviction and the rest of the band liked it too and we were able to come up with an arrangement -- particularly Steve Meicke who came up with a mournful sax part -- that worked. Sadly, despite its initial promise, it was not a song that we played live very much beyond one or two shows. It just didn't fit the energy of the band and the other songs we were playing.  

By early January 1989, we were back to selling and promoting the band with our second demo tape featuring our new logo on the cassette cover and our new line-up.  1989 was about to be a game changing year for us.

Stay tuned for part 10!

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 8

After the high of the Court Tavern show, just a few days later we were off to play our first official show in New York City -- listed erroneously as The Panic -- with the New York Citizens (NYCs) at the Cat Club in the East Village. At the time, the Cat Club was one of the premiere live music venues in Manhattan that regularly booked up and coming bands including Jane's Addiction, Faith No More, White Zombie and 24-7 Spyz.

The fact that we were playing a ska show at the Cat Club in late 1988 spoke volumes about how far ska had come up from the underground in New York City in just five years time.  Thanks to The Toasters, The Boilers, The NYCs and The Scofflaws, ska had broken out of Sunday matinees at CBGBs as a younger audience inspired, by 2 Tone had fully embraced ska music and ska culture.

Hailing from Staten Island, The NYCs were among the first wave of ska bands that emerged in the  wake of The Toasters, then spreading the gospel of ska across New York City. My first impression of the NYCs and their manager was that they seemed like a gang who had an intimidating outer borough swagger, both on and off the stage.

The NYC's had their origins in a band called Legal Gender which included singer Robert Tierney, Mike Hicks (drums), Dan Marotta (guitar) and Paul Gil (bass). While attending Manhattan College, Marotta -- who was childhood friends with Tierney -- met keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik. Initially, Legal Gender had a new wave/punk sound with some ska influences, but it was the addition of Chris 'Kid Coconuts' Acosta (the Chas Smash of the band) and the recording of the song 'Overcast' (as a split 7" for Moon Records) which set them on the way to a new sound and a new name.

As a singer and a front man, Tierney embodied the best elements of a sneering Johnny Rotten and an eloquent Morrissey. Though the band were unpredictable and edgy and always seemingly ready for a fight, underneath their bravado lay Tierney's lyrics that revealed a sensitive, literate and socially conscious soul. And right beside him was Acosta who played the role of Dave Collins (of Double Barrel fame) and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, egging on the crowd and showing off the dancing skills he honed in clubs around New York City before he joined the band. Acosta was the perfect foil to Tierney, playing the hype man to a tee.

The group's sound was always difficult to encapsulate, with their inspiration ranging from '60s Stax to British punk, 2 Tone, as well as funk and dancehall. But the beauty of the NYCs, was that they had a genuine enthusiasm for myriad musical styles. Unlike the next generation of ska bands who came to dominate the early and mid 90s, the NYCs were initially more subtle in their genre-blending, preferring a purer sound, often times with only the lead guitar providing a counter style.  Check out this ferocious live show the band played at City Gardens in 1989:

As they matured, The NYC's helped give birth to a uniquely American version of ska (AKA: ska-core) that proliferated after they had broken up. Though The NYC's were contemporaries of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who took the ska-core sound and ran with it in the 90's), it was The NYC's who were among the very first American ska bands to try the kitchen sink musical approach  that helped give birth ska-core.  If you don't believe me just give "Helltown" from the band's seminal "Stranger Things Have Happened" EP a spin. I'd argue that American ska punk had some its earliest origins on this record.

I don't have any clear memories of our performance at the Cat Club that night, but we must have made an impression on the crowd and the NYCs because during the early months of 1989, they invited us to play other shows with them in New York and New Jersey. Though we always sensed a bit of a rivalry with them and they tended to treat us as outsiders because we weren't part of the New York City ska scene, they were also responsible for giving us a lot of early breaks. I later learned that Tierney was a big fan because we didn't have a typical NYC ska sound.  And to their credit, the NYCs also passed word on about us to Rob Hingley of The Toasters who was always interested in any new ska bands on the scene. He soon reached out to us to open a show.

Right on the heels of the Cat Club show, the Rutgers University Programming Committee reached out to us to play a show in the Student Center on a Friday night in early November and offered us $500!  We were ecstatic and immediately decided we would use that money to book another recording session with Greg Frey.  

Unfortunately, the drama with Miggy went up a level after the Cat Club and in the days leading up to the show at the Student Center, his behavior became erratic.  At the time, Miggy had a cadre of hanger ons and he liked to show off to them by buying a few hundred dollars of coke that he then shared.  I remember trying to track him down one day with Roger because he had missed a rehearsal and we walked over to his apartment which was a few blocks away from mine.  After several loud knocks on his door, we heard rustling and finally Miggy cracked the door open and looked out at us wide eyed.  He looked like he had been awake for a day or two.  As he mumbled some excuse about being sick, I looked over his shoulder and saw two women inside who also looked a worse for wear.  I hadn't ever seen coke or been around people who used it so I was a bit confused and concerned.  Roger on the other hand was clearly annoyed.  It was at the point that I noticed that Roger's demeanor and feelings towards Miggy shift. Roger later told me: 

Once it became clear that being in the band for Miggy was social and not musical, I turned off to him.  I was very tired  of his rock star charade. It was clear he was a one dimensional guy.

I don't think I realized then how painful this must have been for Roger.  He had a way of not showing his emotions.  Everything was "all good" and when we as a band encountered any obstacles or challenges he was always positive.  I quickly grew to love his unending enthusiasm for the band and what we were doing.  But I now know that Roger was embarrassed by Miggy's behavior and for good reason.   Roger had looked up to Miggy and his music knowledge and bonded with him as another Black man at Rutgers who shared his passion for a type music and a way of dressing that didn't fit the then narrative of what Black kids were supposed to be listening to -- early Hip Hop -- or the way they were dressing.  It wasn't clear on the surface, but underneath, I now know Roger had drawn a line in the sand about Miggy and he had just crossed it. As Roger said:

Miggy was more into partying and the work of being in a band just wasn't a priority.
Miggy arrived late to another rehearsal we had booked to prepare for the Rutgers Student Center.  We were planning to debut two new songs and so when he didn't show up on time, we began arranging the songs without him.  When he did show up, it was awkward and he mostly sat on a chair in the corner brooding.

The night of the Rutgers show he arrived late again, minutes before we were about to start playing.  He told us he needed to get five people's names on the guest list.  When we explained that wasn't possible, he then sat on a side speaker while we performed, occasionally shouting "PANIC!" at the end of each song. He didn't join Roger at the front of the stage, and when he did stand up, he had no energy or enthusiasm. It suddenly became very clear that Miggy being in the band just wasn't meant to be.  I think he knew that too, but instead of quitting, he acted out in ways that made it impossible for us to work with him.

After we finished our set, Roger and Miggy went outside to argue. After the argument, which we all watched from a distance, Miggy stormed off. And that was the last time any of us ever saw him. It was almost as if he had disappeared into thin air.  Sadly, much later we learned that Miggy had suffered a stroke in his early 40's and then after considerable time recovering in a nursing home and rehab hospital passed away in April of 2010.  He is buried in the Maryland National Cemetery. 

I've often reflected on the short time that Miggy was in the band. Though he remained a mystery to me and I never really got to know him very well, I am grateful for the time we shared together.  When he was on, he was an energetic performer and there were many people who often remarked that the band was at its best when he was up front with Roger for those few shows.  I'm sad he didn't get to go the distance with us, but I believe that different people play different roles in our lives. Some of a lifetime and others for just a short time Miggy's time was fleeting but memorable.

Stay tuned for Part 9!

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 7


The lead up to our first show at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick in late October of 1988 took a rather dramatic turn. We had only been together for about 8 weeks at this point, but our toaster Miggy was starting to show us another side of his personality. 

The response to Roger and Miggy from our first show had been significant -- they were both being recognized as minor celebrities around Rutgers and around New Brunswick. What we had learned was that while Miggy had charisma and charm, he also had a temper that could flare out of nowhere.  After making an impression on the crowd at Scott Hall, I think it's fair to say the attention that Miggy started to receive went to his head.  And, that attention mixed with the cheap cocaine he was fond of using wasn't helping matters. Much later, Roger confessed that as much as he wanted Miggy to be in the band, he had concerns about whether or not it would ultimately work out. 

I thought he would be great but I also knew that it would probably be the worst thing for the band. Because, I knew him. I knew his quirks, I knew the type of guy he was. And I'm like, "He's not a band guy." 

With our first demo recording done and now being shared and sold all over New Brunswick, we were focused on preparing for and promoting our very first show at the Court Tavern and also mentally preparing to play our very first show in New York City -- a SKALO-WEEN show -- three days later at the Cat Club -- where we were being billed as The Panic -- opening for the New York Citizens. To say we were all feeling a mix of excitement and stress would be an understatement. 

A few days before the Court Tavern show, Jim, Miggy and I gathered at Roger's apartment to work on a new song idea.  Also there was Roger's roommate James, who was also a very creative fellow.  He had designed the original logo for the band and also had lyrics for Jim's music he wanted to run by us.  

Here's what James remembers about what happened next:

I wrote a poem that Roger liked, so we decided to turn it into a song using Jim's music. When it was done, we had Miggy, Marc and Jim over to work on it. Right from the beginning two things became apparent: first, this was not a good song, and second, it was worse as a duet. Miggy was a great shouter, not a singer. I hated what he was doing to the song and we started to bicker, and tensions started rising. 

If memory serves, James' lyrics were more abstractly serious, while Miggy thought we should be writing an upbeat happy ska song about dancing rude boys and rude girls. Roger disagreed and asked Miggy if he had any other lyrics, but he didn't. Roger got annoyed with Miggy for not taking the session seriously.  Roger took James' side in the disagreement and Miggy felt Roger wasn't backing him up.  James picked up the story again:

Miggy decided to leave and like a dummy, I decided I needed to walk him out. At my front door, we exchanged additional unpleasantries, and then we came to blows. Actually, all the blows that we came to came from him. All I could do was cover up. It was like I was under a waterfall of fists. After a point, the boys were able to break us up and Miggy left. I ran into him on campus the next day. And, instead of beating me up, he hugged me and we talked it out. He seemed amused by the whole affair and the two of us just went back to being friends.

It turns out that one of the punches that Miggy landed on James ended up breaking his hand and Miggy showed up at rehearsal a day or so later with a cast on his left hand but not wanting to discuss what had happened or explain why he was wearing a cast to the rest of the band.  It was only much later that Roger shared more with me about Miggy, his complicated relationship wit him and Miggy's penchant for using cocaine. Roger had met Miggy in 1986-87 during his Sophomore year at Livingston College. The friendship revolved around listening to music, doing coke and smoking weed. According to Roger:

Miggy was super smart but he also could act like a real Jamaican rude boy and could blag his way into anything or anywhere: girls, food and drugs.  He was a hustler and tried to get over all the time.  He was a rude boy as a lifestyle whereas I was a political rude boy down with 2 Tone.  Miggy was happy with drinking, smoking, snorting.  He didn't have big plans beyond the next good time. 

Unfortunately, despite their shared love of ska and reggae and bonding over the pressure of being the sons of Caribbean immigrants who expected great things from them both, cocaine became the way for Roger and Miggy to connect. However, once the band and all the work required to keep it going became clearer and Roger became more of the center of attention-- cocaine became a wedge between them.  As Roger told me: 

Cocaine was a way for us both to get confidence and it was a coping mechanism.  We were both outcasts from the Black community, but Miggy was a loner.  And when I was with him, we hung out in his world.  He couldn't share the attention. He needed to be the center of attention.

Despite the fight we tried moved forward and kept rehearsing, though we noticed there was a change in how Miggy was carrying himself and his interactions with all us. The show at the Court on that Thursday night October 27, 1988 was packed.  Though the crowd was smaller because the basement held fewer people, the response was just as frenzied as the Scott Hall show a few weeks earlier.  And at the show that night someone showed up with a bulky late 80s video camera and recorded the whole performance.  Below is footage from that night.

It is surreal to watch the footage of us all performing from that night thirty five years ago.  We all look so young and so do all the people in the audience -- many of them friends and members of the New Brunswick music scene. What stays with me as I watch is the serious sense of purpose we all had.  For me, it was strange to finally be on stage at a venue I had been to many times as a paying customer. But more than anything, its unusual to see one of your very first shows as a musician -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- on display. I used to cringe when I watched this footage.  Now I feel a sense of accomplishment.  I had a dream to play the bass, start a ska band and play 2 Tone inspired music and here it is, in all its VHS glory forever captured by a fish eye lens and bad lighting in the basement of a dive bar in New Jersey.  

But the the thing that stands out most when I watch this footage is that cast on Miggy's hand.  That cast on his hand is the lasting memory I have of him, because within a few weeks, we would never see him again.

Stay tuned for Part 8!

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 6

Word had gotten out quickly around New Brunswick after our show at Scott Hall at Rutgers University and within a few days we were offered a gig at the Court Tavern, then the premiere rock and roll club in the area. 

The Court Tavern remains important in the story of Bigger Thomas and in the history of music in New Jersey. In its heyday, the Court Tavern was the Stone Pony of New Brunswick.  It was originally owned and managed by Bob Albert Sr. with help from his son Bobby Albert. During the day, the bar catered to lawyers and  courthouse staff who spent their days working around the corner at the Middlesex County Courthouse and jail complex.  But at night it became a full fledged rock and roll club and that was due completely to the younger Albert who -- to our great surprise -- was a huge reggae fan.  He was quickly captivated by us. 

During the 80s and 90s, the Court Tavern was at the center of a thriving original music scene in New Brunswick that included the Melody Bar, the Roxy Grill, the Plum Street Pub, the Budapest Cocktail Lounge and Patrix.  The Court Tavern started hosting live music four or five nights week beginning in 1981 and it helped to launch the careers of several New Jersey-based bands that all played the Court's modest basement stage en route to national and international stardom in the 1980s and ’90s under Bobby Albert’s stewardship. Crossfire Choir, one of the Albert’s favorites, signed with Geffen Records and toured with bands like Culture Club and A Flock of Seagulls. The Smithereens -- another Albert favorite --  broke through with their 1986 hit “Blood and Roses,” and Albert would host viewing parties when the Smithereens appeared on national TV shows. 

Like any good rock and roll dive bar, the Court Tavern had its idiosyncrasies including its unique smell.  When first entering the bar, a wave of sweat and humidity would smack you in the face. It smelled like  body odor mixed with stale beer and cigarettes.  Our trumpeter Kevin Shields -- a Court Tavern regular --  would often remark: "The Court: A second to smell; a lifetime to forget." The bar was also run a bit like a pirate ship with Booby Albert as the captain supported by a group of devoted first mates who kept things running in their own dysfunctional way.  

That said, the Court Tavern was a venue that any local or regional band had on their wish list as a place to play and to build an audience.  That was certainly true of us.  In fact, it was our very first show there in October 1988 that helped to establish our reputation as a live act with potential and to endear us to Bobby Albert who loved Roger and Miggy.

But before our first show at the Court Tavern, we quickly realized that we needed to record a demo of some of our best songs that we could use to book more shows and build an audience. We had been together as a group for less than a month when we decided to record but things were moving fast and we didn't know any better that we might have benefitted from playing more shows before we recorded.  

I had grown up as a huge fan of The Groceries, a local New Jersey band that had started in the late 70s at Princeton University.   The Groceries received regular airplay on Princeton's college radio station WPRB-FM and my friends and I would make every effort to see them when they played out around Central New Jersey.  They were a quirky combination of the Talking Heads meets Bob Marley with a dash of Madness and there was a definite ska vibe to their songs which endeared them to me.  I bought their 6-song EP at The Record Exchange in Princeton and played it often. The Groceries later opened for Gang Of Four, the Thompson Twins, The Dickies, Wall of Voodoo, Flock of Seagulls and The Smithereens. Unfortunately, they were never signed to a major label despite a loyal fanbase and good songs. Give their song "Nassau Street" a listen. 

Somehow and somewhere I had heard that The Groceries guitarist Greg Frey had opened a small 16-track home studio just outside Princeton (he later worked closely with Ween as the engineer on their 1994 major label release Chocolate & Cheese album).  I called him, explained I was a local Princeton kid that was a huge fan of his band, told him who we were and we set up a session to record three songs -- Ska In My Pocket, More and More and Come and Go. 

It was exciting and terrifying for all of us to be in a real recording studio for the first time, but Frey patiently walked us through the process and we recorded live as a band -- versus individually -- which really helped to get the energy of our live sound.  After we got the bass, drums and guitar recorded, Kevin and Steve Meicke recorded their horn parts followed by Roger and Miggy who recorded their vocals. 

The whole session including recording, overdubs and mixing took about four hours. Back in 1988, recording was still analog to a reel-to-reel tape and as a result, the final mixed recordings that Frey produced have a real warmth to them, particularly the sound of my bass guitar.  Listening back now I hear all the mistakes and flubs we all made, but I also hear passion and youthful enthusiasm that makes the songs still stand up 35 years after they were recorded.

We left Frey's studio in a hurry with a cassette master of the tracks and immediately went back to my apartment where Jim and I began shifts of high speed dubbing copies on my boom box onto to cheap cassette tapes we bought at the C.H. Martin department store in downtown New Brunswick. 

With the help of Roger's roommate James who had artistic talent, we knocked out a cassette cover featuring a panicking rude boy and typed up basic liner notes and credits. Kevin who was then working at a local Kinko's copy center laid out four cassette cover designs on a master sheet and printed out two hundred of them on the sly when his boss wasn't looking. Once we had the covers, we all took turns folding them and placing them inside each cassette cover. Adding the copyright c in a circle was a last minute addition down by hand to make sure people knew they were our songs! And voila we had music to sell and share! It was all very pre-Internet in its simplicity and DIY spirit. 

Check out the original version of "Ska In My Pocket," "Chaos" and "Come and Go" that we recorded with Greg Frey engineering and producing.

While Steve Parker, Jim, Kevin and I were working stiffs during the week, Roger, Miggy and Steve Meicke were still students at Rutgers and quickly became celebrities around New Brunswick because of the band. Roger remembered being recognized when he was walking to class and Miggy was known to shout PANIC! -- something he had done between each song at Scott Hall -- to announce himself wherever he happened to be. As annoying as we all found that, others loved it and it helped to promote the band.

What we had learned from that Scott Hall show was that Roger and Miggy together were a dynamic duo and that people were responding to them and our band. Looking back, that's not surprising. The fact is that it was rare in the late 80s to see a multiracial band but even rarer to see one fronted by two young Black men. But, as Roger later noted, we were just trying to create our own American version of 2 Tone:

I think the way we looked, had as much to do with our immediate popularity, as the way we sounded. I think we looked better than we sounded. I was dreaming of having a band with Black and white musicians, just like in the UK, but here. And here we are in New Brunswick, it's 1988, and we're doing it.

While Jim and I kept dubbing more of our demo tapes every day, Miggy, Steve Meicke and Roger were taking the tapes and selling them for $3 a pop, giving them out to people and playing them at Rutgers parties all over campus.  Miggy's networking in particular was instrumental to getting the word out about us.  In that sense, he played a very valuable role,  even if it was just for a short time. 

And through all of this whirlwind, we were writing more songs, rehearsing and getting ready to play the Court Tavern for the very first time. But before that first show, we would have our own sex, drugs and rock and roll moment that would change everything.

Stay tuned for Part 7!

Friday, January 27, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 5


In the span of just two weeks I had gone from meeting musicians in the living room of my small apartment to being in a six piece band.  We had outgrown my small living room so we booked a rehearsal at studio in downtown New Brunswick and that was the first time we could hear ourselves on proper amps and drums.  It was also where we introduced Steve Meicke to Kevin for the first time.  To say they were a "Mutt and Jeff" horn section would have be an understatement!  Kevin was an 30 year old punk rocker.  Steve Meicke was a 19 year old jazz loving New Brunswick hipster who had grown up at the Jersey Shore going to punk and hardcore shows.  Here's what Kevin remembers from that time:
Soon afterward we’re at a rehearsal studio in town and I meet Rutgers superstar-I’ve –lost-count -- Mr. Steve Meicke. The story is that he, Marc and Roger had met at a Ranking Roger show, the old “we’ve got to get together and do something” scenario. Sax in hand, he claims a love for many different types of music, among them guys like Coleman, Monk, et al, and his continuous, frantic noodling tell me he ain’t lyin’. 
In a stroke of serendipity, Steve knew Kevin's hardcore band Detention and had seen them play at the Brighton Bar, a punk rock club in Long Branch, NJ. 
I mention to Steve that I had played with a local punk rock band back in the day and I find out he indeed had been to one of our shows: “I got hit in the head with one of your albums!”. Talkin’ about your musicians bonding….
A humorous dynamic quickly developed between Kevin and Steve Meicke. As the older member of the section, Kevin quickly moved to assert his seniority by trying to put Steve in his place.  On the flip side, Steve -- who had studied music and knew his way around his instrument better than Kevin -- would often shrug his shoulders in mock dismay, particularly when they would debate what key they should be playing in.  They would often stop a song, and join Steve Parker for an animated side bar where they would argue over what notes they should each be playing.  These discussions would continue over the next three years!

After Steve Meicke joined our strange menagerie of musicians one more original member was about to join the band mix: Roger's rude boy friend from Rutgers, Ken "Miggy" Gayle -- who had introduced Roger to ska and reggae in the first place.  Roger had started talking Miggy up as soon as he joined the band.  
When we were getting things together I'm like, "I got a guy who can toast man, trust me. It's going to be great." Mind you, I never heard him toast before. But, I'm like, "Yo, Miggy, listen man, we're starting this band, and I need you man. You're going to be toasting." And he's like, "Really?" I said, "Yeah," I was like, "You alright?" He said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, no problem."
But other than introducing him as a friend and a possible "toaster," Roger didn't tell us much about Miggy and to be honest we never really learned that much about him.  Nevertheless, I was excited about the opportunity to have a singer and toaster up front -- just like the English Beat and The Selecter -- and so I was all in on Miggy joining the band.

When Roger finally introduced us to Ken for the first time, he told us to call him Miggy and so from that day forward that is how we and everyone else around New Brunswick knew him. Miggy was the son of Jamaican immigrants and had grown up Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. And now Miggy made us seven.  Kevin remembered that time as only he could:
At this point the “band-forming process” starts to resemble a pig-pile at a hardcore show. Soon afterward, I don’t remember when, Roger brings by his pal “Miggy”, a.k.a. Ken Gayle. Now there’s two “brothers”. My unsaid reaction: “What’s next? A chick?” I figure if the original music thing doesn’t fly we can be a hot-shit Sly and the Family Stone tribute. Oh well, I sez, in for a penny, in for a pound. 
I met Roger and Miggy out for lunch at a pub near the Rutgers campus before he came to his first rehearsal.  Miggy was wearing a porkpie hat, jeans, creepers and a t-shirt covered by a sweater vest.  During the short time he was in the band, that was the only outfit I saw him wear.  It became his rude boy uniform. The picture at the top of this blog post is the only picture I have of Miggy but it captures his essence and energy and personality perfectly.  I'll explain the cast on his hand in the next installment.  

Miggy came across as supremely confident and upon meeting me began to drop the names of then current musicians that he knew in the NYC ska scene.  He claimed that the Miggy moniker was given to him by the folk singer Tracy Chapman who approached him after one of her shows asking him if he was Miggy.  He told her that he was and then took the name for his new identity. After a quick lunch and beers, Miggy talked up his singing and toasting skills noting he took his singing inspiration from reggae singer Rula Brown and his toasting from Lionel and Constant Bernard of The Toasters and The Second Step. Roger explained why he had invited Miggy to join the band:
I really saw Miggy as a brother. Although we're the same age, or he might have even been a bit younger than me, I saw him as a bigger brother, because his music knowledge out-stripped mine. So we were always brothers. From the beginning, I knew he had to be a part of the band.
The first full band rehearsal was strange.  We all didn't really know one another very well but we were all in on the idea of starting a ska band.  And while Miggy and Roger had sold us all on Miggy's musicianship, the truth was that he really didn't know how to sing or toast that well, but he had a bravado that convinced the rest of us. Roger remembered that first rehearsal:
I remember him not being too great at it, at first. He was having trouble with the singing part, which I helped him out with a lot. He hd never really sung before. The toasting bit was a bit rough, but he had presence. And, it fit into what we were trying to do.  .It was two Black guys singing up front with white guys in the back. It was 2 Tone the way it should be, you know. I felt like he had to be part of it. 
Like the rest of us, Kevin was sold on Miggy being in the band despite some issues hitting notes:
Miggy sings and he “toasts,”and as we find out, he does both quite well. Then Roger and Miggy begin to sing together and I swear by all that’s good that it’s like some beautiful, contemporary version of the Everly Brothers or something. I mean, like BIRDS, if birds could be hip. I remember thinking we’re really on to something here.

Above all, Miggy was a connector and knew everyone at Rutgers and around New Brunswick and within days of joining the band, he announced that he had gotten us our first proper gig -- opening a huge benefit on the Rutgers campus for CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) which was trying to generate more awareness for around the political and humanitarian situation in the Central American nation.  Also on the bill were NYC ska darlings The New York Citizens and popular New Jersey hardcore band Vision. Both bands were then at the peak of their popularity and the show organizers were excited to include us -- the first ska band from New Jersey on the bill.

With our first gig now booked with popular ska and hardcore scene bands, the question of a band name and logo suddenly became of major importance! Luckily, Roger suggested Panic! and we all readily agreed!  Surprisingly, the name was inspired by The Smiths song of the same name.  Roger and his roommate James McKeon had been obsessed withe the band:

James and I went through a Miles Davis rabbit hole. Went through a Steel Pulse rabbit hole. We went through a Bob Marley rabbit hole. And then we went through a Smiths rabbit hole that was longer than our usual rabbit holes. It was almost about a year of nothing but The Smiths, with other stuff mixed in there. And, I loved the song Panic and the lyric Panic on the streets of London, Panic on the streets of Birmingham". So James and I were like, "Why not just Panic" you know. It fit our sound.

So Panic! it was! And soon enough we saw flyers up around the Rutgers campus wit our name on them. As exciting as that was, we have a lot of work to do.  With just two weeks to go before our first show, we rehearsed as much as we could and were able to cobble together an 8-song set based on the songs that Steve Parker and I had written plus two new songs -- "Ska In My Pocket" written with Roger and "Chaos", which Roger and I wrote together.  

The day of the show we arrived at Scott Hall, one of the largest lecture halls at Rutgers where I had taken several introductory classes when I was a Freshmen.  It had a big stage and is filled with close to 200 seats. It is a good place for a show. We were second or third on the bill, but we were asked to show up with our gear for a quick line check Roger remembered our arrival and then the surprising turn of events as we left the building:

It's our first show ever. So we get to Scott Hall early, for sound check and its empty. We do the sound check, and the organizers tell us, "Come back at this time." So we're like, "Whatever." I'm not sure of the sequence of events, but as we're walking out from sound check, the New York Citizens roll up. And we're star-struck. And as we are leaving,  they're like, "Where are you guys going?" And I said, "Well, I have an off campus apartment." It was like three blocks away. And they say, "Oh, do you mind if we come hang there before the show?" And I said "sure."  And we're like, "The Citizens are coming to our house to fricking' party." So they go do the sound check, and they come back to our apartment. The music comes on, we're hanging, we are drinking, and Miggy and I are talking to these guys. And they have a manager. That was enough for me that night. I was like, just hanging out with those guys, and they are telling us about being on the road and about shows. 

While Roger and Miggy and Steve Meicke were partying with the New York Citizens, I had gone back to my apartment to deal with a bad case of the nerves that had hit me during soundcheck.  Though I had played a few shows with my earlier college band, I was really nervous about not making any mistakes during this first show.  I was still relatively new to playing my bass and while I was home I started to run the bass lines for each song.  I was so in my head that I was forgetting bass lines I had written and panicking! 

We had all agreed to meet up outside Scott Hall before the first band went on.  I got there first and then minutes behind me arrived a loud group of Roger, Miggy, Steve Meicke and all the members of The New York Citizens! At that point we made our way into the hall together.  And what awaited us was not what we expected.  Roger remembered the moment:  

 We open up the double doors of Scott Hall, and there are 400 people crammed inside! And my heart dropped. I didn't expect that many people. So I'm scared shitless.

If Roger was scared shitless, I was scared to death! But a strange thing happened.  As we started playing -- including bum notes and out tune horns -- the crowd immediately responded to our songs and to Roger and Miggy who rose to the occasion and owned the stage like they had both been doing this for years. The more we played, the more the crowd danced and cheered.  By the time we played our last song, the crowd was screaming and yelling for more.  It was surreal.  Here's what Roger remembered:

I'll never forget, we played Ska in My Pocket. And the room is kind of lit, it was kind of like we were playing in a lecture hall. And then after the first song, I was like, "Can we just turn off the," and when they turned off those lights in the audience, then, man. Then it was like ... For me, I felt like I was in Dance Craze. It was the Dance Craze ... The audience is all in black, you just see the performers. And I felt like it was just like that. And the crowd was going ape shit, it was crazy. And then for Panic, the last song, it was, "You guys want to come up?" As soon as I said, "Come up," 30 people rushed the stage. And we started playing Panic, and it was just insane. And then after the show, I'll never forget. Everybody is clearing out, and I see you, we lock arms like, "That was pretty good, I think we're onto something." And then the NY Citizens were like, "You guys want to play the Cat Club?" "

Looking back, we could not have asked for a better first show as a band.  It a matter of 30 minutes we had announced ourselves to 400 people who now knew our name! And just like that we were a New Brunswick scene band.  Next up was our first show was at the infamous Court Tavern followed by our New York City debut with our new best ska friends the New York Citizens. 

Stay tuned for Part 6!