Monday, September 27, 2010

Exclusive: Marco On The Bass/Duff Guide To Ska Interview With Robert Tierney of The New York Citizens & ATwood 9

My fellow Big Apple ska blogger Steve Shafer (Duff Guide To Ska) and I get together every now and then to talk shop (Steve managed promotions for Moon Records during its heyday in the 80's and early 90's so he has a unique insiders view of the American ska scene). Inevitably our conversation turns to memories of the New York ska scene and all the bands who who have come and gone. One band name in particular never fails to come up - The New York Citizens (NYC's).

The NYC's retain a certain mystique for those of us who remember them in their prime. While The Toasters may have been the heart of the 80's New York ska scene, it was the NYCs who best represented its musical soul through their constant genre experimentation, limit testing, outspokenness and their ferocious live show. They existed in that pre-Internet world before YouTube and Facebook so their is almost no evidence of their important imprint on American ska. In some ways that makes them a fascinating band to write about because they only inhabit our memories. As a result, Steve and I agreed it was high time that their story was told. In our mind there was really only one person who could do that -- the band's enigmatic lead singer Robert Tierney (my interview with band bassist Paul Gil not withstanding). We contacted Tierney and delivered him a list of interview questions we drafted together.

While The Toasters hewed to a 2-Tone inspired sound, The NYC's created a compelling musical stew with ska as its base, but that also drew inspiration from '60s Stax, British rock and punk, new wave and 2-Tone, funk and hard rock. In fact, you could make a case that along with Fishbone, The NYC's helped give birth to a uniquely American version of ska (AKA: ska-core) that proliferated after they had broken up. While The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are often credited with inventing ska-core, the very first proto ska-core song ('Hell Town' from the band's 'Stranger Things Have Happened' EP) was in fact written and recorded by Tierney and The NYC's

The NYC's had their origins in a band called legalgender which included Tierney, Mike Hicks (drums), Dan Marotta (guitar) and Paul Gill (bass). While attending Manhattan College, Marotta met keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik. Initially, legalgender 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 from The Smiths. 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. In fact, one of their most enduring songs 'Shut Up And Listen' may be one of the best songs you have never heard. Its catchy, memorable and timeless. I always felt that Tierney was an artist trapped in a ska band. His lyrics often spilled from his mouth at breakneck speed to keep up with his band mates playing, but if you stripped away the music you were on occasion left with some true poetry.

Amazingly there is no video of the band performing 'Shut Up And Listen', however Connecticut ska band Sping Heel Jack performed a cover from their reunion show earlier this year (which demonstrates its classic song status).

My first encounter with Tierney and The NYC's came when my band Bigger Thomas (then known as Panic!) opened a show for them in September of 1988. My first impression of them was that they seemed like a musical gang -- they had an intimidating swagger, both on and off the stage. Though it was our very first show (we had been together about a month), we must have made an impression, because The NYC's were initially responsible for passing word about us on to others around the New York ska scene including Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters. Over the early months of 1989, The NYC's invited us to play other shows with them. Though we always sensed a bit of a rivalry with them -- we often elevated our game when opening shows for them -- and they often treated 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 (including a pivotal show opening for them at The Cat Club that billed us as The Panic!).

Because the NYC's broke up before they could trade on their growing popularity its difficult for younger fans to understand their influence. Indeed, none other than rock superstars Green Day were inspired by Tierney and he remains friends with the bans's singer Billie Joe Armstrong. When The NYC's finally ended their run in the mid-90's, Tierney founded The Atwood 9, who were the band that seemed best suited to his lyrical ambitions. Indeed, my belief that he was the Morrissey of ska was reaffirmed by the band's recording of The Smith's classic 'Ask'.

To see the band live is to get a sense of their essence. However there is very little history of the band online. In fact there is only one video from a later incarnation of The NYC's circa 1993 performing the song 'Room Next Door'. This video gives you a sense of their sound and stage show.

But enough of my pontificating. Without further ado, here is an extensive and comprehensive interview that Steve Shafer and I conducted together with Tierney about the story of legalgender, the NYC's and Atwood 9.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most? What was the first record or single that you bought?
I grew up in the village of Grasmere in the borough of Staten Island, N.Y. Born in the same hospital as David Johansson of the New York Dolls. My sister, Carrie, already had gotten me into the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Bowie and T-Rex by this point. Glam Rock was the music being played at the local roller-skating rink. The first record I ever bought was the first Queen album, and to this day, it still is my favorite of theirs. Maybe I just have a soft spot for the first album I hear by a band. I’m sure I'm not alone.

When did you decide you wanted to be a singer and songwriter? Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I'd been writing songs since I was 12 years old, but never really thought too much about being a singer. I guess it was never a conscious decision to write songs, but something that everyone in music did at the time. The problem was that I couldn't imagine wasting my days teaching a singer how to sing one of my songs. It just seemed like a colossal waste of time. I figured out the bass guitar with the help the Mel Bay book for the electric bass. Before that, I would hammer away on my parents’ piano and put words to whatever I could come up with musically. The first song was called "Angels in Black" in 1978 (a song which was recorded 25 years later with members of the ATwood 9. I co-wrote this timely gem with the great Alex Rosati, an equally unusual kid from the neighborhood. It was a great thrill to see him in the audience at one of the New York Citizens' shows up in Boston a decade later.

I suppose the singing part came naturally since I'd sung for a couple of cover bands in the early '80's. The first of these bands - The Fugitives - was with Chad Rad of legalgender and the New York Citizens when we were 15 years old. We did everything from Bowie (Rebel Rebel) to Squeeze (Another Nail...). I picked up the bass again and began a year as a bass player with some older musicians called South Ferry. They were more into Classic Rock like T-Rex, The Clash and the Rolling Stones. I soon grew tired of playing covers and wrote better songs to show Chad. This resulted in starting up legalgender.

You were an original member of Legal Gender right? How did you meet the other members of the band? How did you come up with that name?
Yes, I had a closet full of songs by 1983 and eventually talked Chad out of his cover band. We started as a trio under the name legalgender with a great drummer named "Bad Ronald" Mormino. We recorded at home and it was our band for a change. We were having fun, and nobody was as eclectic as we were. I'm not so sure we knew what the word meant until we read the local music press describing us as such. It was musically schizophrenic. This followed throughout legalgender and into The New York Citizens’ years.

Our first song to reach the local college radio airwaves was "Bombs 4 Beirut." (No doubt it was the first song speaking out against Muslim extremism.) The local radio station played the next studio effort "Ulterior Motives." Our drummer, "Bad Ronald," quit simply 'cos he wasn't allowed out past midnight and just got tired of being grounded for two weeks every time we played a two-set show. I met Paul Gil on the Staten Island Ferry one day and told him we were looking for a drummer. He'd helped Ronnie out by getting his gear to shows, so I knew him slightly. He'd been in a band with Mike Hix and we were so desperate to get back on stage after a month’s hiatus that we took Paul as a byproduct of our need for a drummer.

As for the name legalgender, I was reading a lot of Wilde at the time and we were rehearsing at Legal Tender Studios. That was probably the most fun I'd had in music. There were very few restrictions to our act. We had tons of original songs - three albums worth. I always felt the more members who joined the group, the more conservative it became. Chad agreed that we probably should have remained a trio. I used to write a bass line and sing to it at home, show Chad and Ronnie the song on our way to the venue and rehearse it at sound check. It was well polished by show time. That was my idea of a challenge, and it was great fun, too.

We'd rehearse the later legalgender/ New York Citizens’ songs until I never wanted to hear them again. I'm not into repetition. I never stuck to script until a song was recorded and released. That’s what I enjoyed about all my bands’ live shows. They were spontaneous. Nobody knew what was coming next, and that was exciting. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't and sometimes, it was just downright offensive. It was all in good fun, of course. At least it was new and exciting. We never played the same set twice. I had hundreds of set lists strewn all over my apartment. I stayed up nights writing songs and set lists. I really hope it wasn't all in vain. Please remember me as one who cared about quality control of all my bands and a person who was a true music fan.

Legalgender recorded one of the original singles for Moon Records. What was that experience like?
The song “Overcast” was recorded and mixed in one day. It was a great first effort as a six- piece band in the studio. It was recorded at Sleepy Hollow Studios and mixed by Tory Abbadessa, who also filled in on bass, when Paul couldn't manage to make it to a show. This occurred at a benefit for the homeless, so I suppose Paul missed the entire meaning of the song "Pounding the Pavement." You don't exploit the homeless for profit and not support the cause. His days were numbered since 1987. I'm surprised he even lasted until the summer of 1990. He'd quit once in 1988 and finally in 1990, so I guess 1989 would have been his favorite year with the group. It was the only year he didn't quit. I read that he wanted to reunite the New York Citizens, but when he hung up on Chad he hung up on the entire Ska scene. Paul really should follow his beloved Beatles’ Yogi Maharesh's call to "Be here now." Don't waste today on yesterday.

When/how did you first meet Bucket - and what led Legal Gender/the NYCs to become involved with Moon?
As a band, legalgender had been doing a mix of New Wave, Ska and Reggae. I saw the Toasters and met Buck at The Ferry Club on Staten Island. We gave him a live cassette from one of our CB-GB's shows, which sounded more like a studio recording because the audience was thin and quite distant. I remember how we had a version of "Pounding the Pavement" where Coconut sang one verse and I sang the second. It was like Public Image Limited met the Specials. I always hoped that Buck actually liked our music, and not because we were the only gang in town. The "Hit & Run" compilation was due out and I really wished we could have contributed the 1985 studio version of "Key Largo" as a trio, but we missed the boat on that one. Coconut and I caught the Moonska review for the "Hit & Run" compilation record release at Danceteria and I was very impressed with the Toasters and a number of other bands on the scene as well. The Second Step, Beat Brigade and City Beat were among my favorites. I also remember quite a few evenings waiting for Bucket outside Forbidden Planet to hear his latest plan. Buck was talking about a series of split singles called the "Six Pack," and I knew we had to be part of that. We got the opportunity to release a seven-inch split single with The Scene. Bucket spoke very highly of Mel Rock, and we jumped at the chance to share a single with her band. I still have the test pressing of that single along with all the New York Citizens’ vinyl test pressings. I guess I'm just sentimental that way.

When and where did you meet Chris 'Kid Coconuts' Acosta? Is he responsible for pushing the band towards a more Ska sound?
I met Coconut at New York Technical College in a graphic arts class in the winter of '85. He liked my boots and overall dress. I said I had a trio called Legalgender, and he listened to one of our home recordings. The song was "Control/Control." He liked the song, but noted that the mix was much faster than we intended. He thought my voice sounded like Belinda Carlyle from the Go-Go's. I loved that critique, as I love all harsh critiques of my work. Bad reviews always entertain me more than good ones. They're usually funnier, or at least good fodder for a night of actually criticizing the critic over a bottle of wine. He started as our manager of all things.

As for the Ska influence, I'd seen the Specials on SNL back in 1980 and bought their first album immediately. I learned a few of their songs on bass, but couldn't actually sing and play Ska bass lines simultaneously. I soon loved Madness and the (English) Beat and knew by 1983 that I'd be in a Ska/Reggae-influenced band someday, but it would take more than a trio to fulfill that dream. Like a good mortician, more bodies were needed for the business to survive. After winning tickets in 1986 to see Bad Manners at the old Ritz through WSIA (College of Staten Island Radio), I invited Coconut, and started thinking about the whole coconut-playing idea, which would sound like the character from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." I thought the general public needed more comedy for their musical dollars. Get him up on a stage I thought. It just might work as musical/ comedy of sorts.Every singer wishes he/she was a successful comedian of sorts, while every comedian wants to be a Rock star. I wrote "Jailboy Meets the Third Reich" that week and it later was rearranged and titled "Sticky Situation." Personally, I lean more toward the "Jailboy" version because it was a raver - like "My Boy Lollipop," as opposed to the English Beat- styled "Sticky Situation." We went back to the "Jailboy" version for live shows from time to time. Coconut was christened "Kid Coconut" by Bucket and he found a purpose in the music scene that he loved.

Why did you change the name of the band to The New York Citizens?
We were becoming more and more influenced by Ska music by the end of 1987 and I really wanted a band name that both unified the band and sounded like a band that played Ska music. We made a list of suggested names that were put on a huge list. It included some great ones!

I remember saying "Just think about something we all have in common" and those were the greatest. Okay, so votes were cast, and we ended up with The Citizens. I thought the name was a bit xenophobic, noting that it smacked of Enoch Powell, the NF marches, or just another hate group. I said I didn't want to get on stage shouting "We're The Citizens and you're not!" It also reminded me of a bad Oi band from England, but we had a show coming up and left it as The Citizens until we could reevaluate the final version of the name. Later that month, an old subway token sparked the NYC’s idea when I noticed the NYC insignia.

When I saw the keyboardist, Jackie O'Sullivan, coming home and ran downstairs all smiles and shouting "The New York Citizens - what a great name for a band!" It was whimsical and reminded me of the New York Dolls as well. I also remember Mark E. Smith from The Fall saying how bands should be more representative of their hometown. I'm still proud that I helped to improve the name. How we made up the name, The Citizens, will go down as a mystery in Ska folklore. I remember Jackie O'Sullivan hated the original moniker as much as I did, and he was very quick to jump on this new and improved name.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? When and how did you hit on the original NYC's sound combining Ska, funk, rock, old school rap and hints of punk and metal? I always thought The NYC's were more Ska-influenced, rather than a Ska band. (Yet at the time, The Citizens were considered one of the leaders of the NYC Ska scene). Do you agree?
The old Legalgender songs just wouldn't die and were always brought up at the end of rehearsals by different members. Someone would always ask to do an old Legalgender song and rework it to fit the set. The irony that people called songs like "Brooklyn's on Fire" a new song was quite funny. You know, the whole "The new songs aren't the same as the old songs" argument falls flat when the "new" songs could quite possibly have been the oldest in the lot. I had a motto that we shouldn't let style get in the way of a decent song and no song is ever truly completed. We had live versions of songs and rearranged oldies, but goodies. That was always our goal - to give the audience the best songs we could and not just a stage show of 16 Ska/Punk songs that sounded exactly alike.

I really hope we never had two songs that sounded the same. Even when "The National Front" influenced the music of "Boxer Shorts" or "Ants Die Young" influenced "Pounding the Pavement," they never ended up sounding even the least bit similar. It was rare that a song would sound exactly the same as the way it was written. That always kept me interested for better or worse. The more you write, the more you realize that. I remember how the first keyboardist was upset that a song wasn't turning out the way he'd planned and I said that this particular song was much more interesting than he could ever had dreamed it would be. He was new at the game, but soon learned that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

When I brought "Nuff Said" to a rehearsal, it went from being a Punk tune to a Swing/Ska song because our drummer wasn't getting the punk beat down. But next thing we knew, we'd created a new species. That never bothered me in the least. What bothered me was how long it took the "musicians" to get a song down to the point where they felt comfortable doing a song live. I listen to many styles of music and probably only skim the surface of some genres, but try to understand what makes a good song so brilliant. Chad and I were as influenced by Judas Priest as we were influenced by the TwoTone bands. We were certainly less influenced by the Jamaican Ska/Rocksteady groups than by '80s British Rock. We didn't want to come off as a wanna-be band. We were really quiet about stating our influences, because I felt that it was the general public’s job to figure out our influences rather than spoon feeding them this information. Art is a two- way street.

The New York Citizens were a bit of a hodge- podge of musical ideas and I suppose my theory that a band should have multiple influences may confuse the audience, but I liked how the crowd didn't really know what was coming next. A bit more musically schizophrenic than even Legalgender, but that's what you get when you have members coming and going every couple of years. I think it would be safe to say that we were a Rock band rather than a Ska band just like The Clash would've been best described as a great Rock band rather than a Punk band. I wanted to be more than just another scene band, but the scene was very good to us. Some threw stones at us from day one, but I never minded, since these were, no doubt, the same people who heard "London Calling" for the first time and cried "Sellout!" The important thing is that everyone eventually got what they wanted, or needed.

I wanted to be influential and feel I succeeded in that my old friends (and fans) - Billie Joe and Mike from a young band out of the Bay Area - came backstage, partied with me and told me of Billie Joe's idea for a Rock Opera. When he told me how his band had just changed its name from Sweet Children to Green Day, I thought it was a better name. He said he didn't know what he'd say to a huge audience and how to handle an important interview, I just said: "Well, I don't wanna be an American Idiot." That struck a chord with them and they promised a character in their Rock Opera. Hence the character "Tunny" was developed for the album and Broadway musical. I asked that the character be a sort of Richard Dryfus-type from "Whose Life is it Anyway." Knowing how some would love to see me legless. I said "Oh, and you could even have a title track, which was a sort of "Cheech and Chong" impersonation of sorts. I could go on about the titles I suggested for the "American Idiot" release such as "Holiday" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," but you get the general idea. These members of Green Day are among the best people I met in my years of making music. My sister heard them once and said "Hey, here's that guy who wants to sound like you." I love that brilliant sense of observation. As for answering your question- In a scene of followers, it's easy to be a leader, just as in a world of believers, it’s easy to be a Messiah.

When did you have the conversation with Billie Joe about the rock opera (which became American Idiot)?
Billie Joe and Mike from Green Day came backstage at The NYC's show at the Full Moon Saloon in San Fran, in the fall of 1990. Matt Malles (Toasters bassist) and Vic Axelrod (keyboards) were on that "Tour. It was the tour after "Stranger Things..." tour. They'd just changed their name from Sweet Children to Green Day and I thought it was a better name for them. They were really cool kids, maybe 18 years old at the time and we got along really well. It's a shame that people give them a bad rap because of their success. Like them or not, they were good guys. I actually said that I'd love to be their singer, but they said Billie was already their man. They said they'd use some of my off the cuff ideas when they ran out of their own. I was pretty shocked when I heard they were made "American Idiot" into an album, including the 'Jesus of Suburbia' one.

Could you describe the mid-to-late 80s NYC Ska scene for the benefit of those who didn't experience it? Which were some of your favorite bands from that time?
The New York scene was quite vibrant - the only scene in town, as far as I was concerned. There were bands forming every few months. I remember kids handing me demos when we were on stage. It was like "Hey Coconut, do something with this cassette, my hands are too pruney right now." New opening acts were abundant. There really were tons of decent NYC Ska groups. My favorite acts were the Toasters, The Boilers, Skinnerbox, Bigger Thomas and Scofflaws. I liked playing with bands as different from the New York Citizens’ sound as possible, which I suppose wasn't hard to do. I also liked the quirky bands that strayed from the obvious influences, like The Connotations. This was a fun band to gig with. Some bands I just liked to use as my personal whipping boys as you probably already know, but seriously I loved being known for the hidden mystique and controversy that was the New York Citizens. I enjoyed the controversy, the misquotes and even the cries of sellout from time to time. I felt the whole scene needed a shaking and I loved rattling cages.

I first met Chad on a lunch line at school when we were no older than 8. He liked professional wrestling and I told him I did as well. I said it was of course fake. But I said I told him I'd be his manager, if he did decide to go pro. We took that mentality into the music scene and some people just didn't get it. That's also the legacy of the New York Citizens - we did it and ran. We didn't linger around after the party. We arrived fashionably late and left early, metaphorically speaking of course. There were a few great bands across the country as well. The Now from Washington, D.C.; The Skeletones, No Doubt, Let’s Go Bowling, DHC from California, Gangster Fun from Detroit, The Alstonians, Bosstones, and Springheeled Jack – a band that, in fact, covered "Shut Up and Listen." I was quite flattered that they took a garage-gospel song. I just know I'm forgetting a few, but they know who they are.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows in New York City that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
No, I cannot share those memories without incriminating ourselves and past deeds. We lived, loved, loathed and took photos on occasion. Those shows were a six-plus year blur and I wouldn't have it any other way. The stage brawls, insults to other bands and dressing room scuffles were all part of that tornado known as the NYCs. I enjoyed hearing the rumors far more than being bored with the truth. Even the "Truth about the New York Citizens" CD was only a half truth. I loved the idea of keeping the general public guessing about what would come next.

Tell me about recording “On the Move” in 1988 which is the quintessential NYCs’ record. What was it like working with Bucket in the studio?
The "On the Move" sessions were a bit like "Give 'em Enough Rope" was for the Clash. I don't know how many of our members had ever been in a recording studio before, but the energy was lower than the live show. Don't say this, don't do that... pure conservatism and a lack of spontaneity. It still turned out not to be the worst album put out that year. "Bats in the Belfry" and "Cue Ball" were omitted from the LP. This irked me for a time, but I admit, if you need to pay the $80 on eBay for the import, I suggest you do so. Half the songs on that LP were never re released and that's how I wanted it to be. It was a moment in time and will never be again. Never give the game away and always leave them wanting more. Bucket was fine; we were the problem. We turned a two-song single into a four-song EP, and then eventually into an eight-song LP. It may have been a rash move to release some of those songs, but I can and must live with it. I hope you enjoyed that debut LP, because 1988 will never return again.

I was always curious about the songs “The National Front” and "Sticky Situation" (which is about striking back against fascists). Do you think an American audience understood who they were in the context of British politics?
It's not mine to speak down to an audience. Whether speaking of Germany under the National Socialists as in "Sticky Situation", which was a fictitious story about being chased down by Nazi storm troopers in the streets of New York City, or "The National Front"- a near-instrumental that was originally going to be recorded as The New York Citizens’ theme, but eventually I realized that would be taking the easy way out. The RAR concert LP featured a song “Ku Klux Klan" at a British audience and they didn't seem too confused. So why not bring the ideas of anti- NF sentiments to an American audience. We're not going to bicker over semantics like that. Are we? If so, I'm glad we broke up when we did. The Italian lyrics reveal that fascism and bigotry span the globe – through North and South America, into Europe and across the globe. To ignore the real problem and get caught up in semantics, you're missing the whole point. Perhaps I gave the general public too much credit. I always hoped the question would be asked: "Was Enoch right?" without misinterpretation or backlash. So now that I've been crucified for my lyrical content, we now have an Australian, New Zealand and French National Front as well as other organizations, including Al Qeada, Hamas, Hezbollah and a multitude of hate groups throughout the U.S. and the world. Are you still concerned with little ol' me and my choice of words? The names have been changed, but the ideology remains the same. I believe the sentiments were there and the warning signs were not heeded. I suppose when baby boy Jesus comes back, we will make the same mistakes. We'll kill the prophet and refuse the message.

Could you also give us some background on "Pounding the Pavement" and "Helltown"? What was going on that led you to write these songs?
“Pounding the Pavement” was sparked by Reaganomics and the advent of homeless families. I recall Frank Zappa talking about how hobos and winos became families living in cars, shelters, or on the streets. The music was taken from an earlier Legalgender work called "Summer." This later became the intro of “Ants Die Young” which was the “Stranger Thing have Happened” EP outtake This was our Ska-Punk protest of apartheid in South Africa. I tried not to get the other members involved, because they weren't responsible for the controversial lyrics and should not be forced to explain, or defend the lyrics, even if they could. I remember a few members saying how they were asked about the meaning of various songs and I just said: "Well, tell them you're a musician and for them to figure the lyrics out for themselves."

"Helltown " was, I suppose, the first Ska-Core tune. This was written in a night’s time. I was told by a certain keyboard player that the New York Citizens would only become anything of note if they rode the coattails of The Toasters. I thought that funny and went home that night and invented Ska-Core. It had speed, sarcasm and a bouncy chorus to pogo to. Again, it was not without its controversial lyrics and fairly original music. I guess what the lyrics were saying was that it doesn't matter where you come from; we all can feel as if we're running out of time in our own hometown.

Both our bands were part of the “NYC Ska Live” album recorded at the Cat Club in 1990. Do you have any memories of that show and what are your thoughts about the album?
That was the night we introduced a little ditty called "Ransom." It was a great showing of all the groups involved, and it was pulled off quite well by the fine folks at MoonSka, despite the Joe Massot filming fiasco. I remember doing a sort of a "Ministry of Funny Walks" segment for him a week before. I suppose he's my six degrees of separation from Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin and Bridget Bardot. The vinyl release wasn't terrible at all. It may not have done the NYCs or the All MoonSka Review justice, but there are very few great live compilation albums out there. This "NYC Ska Live" LP was no worse than many live releases in my record collection.

I know people were looking for a "Dance Craze" type of situation, but we should really have separated ourselves from that scene altogether. I know it sounds harsh, but we needed more of our own identity. Most people probably just heard my strong tone and didn't realize that I was out for the good of the whole scene - whether it was for New York or the whole country. I'm sure there are bands who sat at home making Robert Tierney voodoo dolls, but they didn’t help the scene much by mimicking their heroes so obviously. Each and every one of our bands would either make the entire scene look like pros or hacks. I always feared the latter. The bands who succeeded in honing their craft (whether famous or not) made me proud to be a part of the scene and feel as if I weren't wasting my time. This may all sound foreign to most, but please, put yourself in my size elevens. No one would take my band seriously if they were turned off by their band. We were all connected and we were not just representing our respective bands, but the entire U.S. Ska Scene. I never hated anyone in other bands. They were out for a good time as I was, but I also was striving for a certain immortality. In fact, I pity the fools who consider themselves my enemies. I'm a New York Yankee fan - I pity my enemies, of course.

Our bands shared the stage at City Gardens in Trenton, N.J., quite a few times. What are your memories of that iconic club? You recorded a fantastic live version of “Lemon Jelly” there that appeared on “The Truth about the New York Citizens.”
Thank you for the compliment and for participating in that show and all the stages we shared. I really do hope the Ska music audiences enjoyed that recording. It was very difficult to reproduce the fun on stage and in the crowd that night. There were mic stands being knocked around as usual and the occasional squealing feedback from the PA system, so we played that song two or three times that night. The fact was that we aimed on making a live album and walked away with one solid track that never really worked very well in the recording studio. Ian Brown of the Stone Roses once said "Shoot for the stars and you may just hit the ceiling.” Well, I'd be happy enough to hit the ceiling and succeed in making someone feel the way I felt when I first heard "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" when I was a kid.

Green Day shared these sentiments and a love for that album. That really brought us together. I'm not a big fan of studio recorded blues progressions, so I thought a live recording with hundreds of shouting people would express the true feeling of the song. I hope there were plenty of heavy drinkers in the crowd that night, because it sure sounded that way from my last listen. It’s been 15 years since I've listened to a New York Citizens song and I'm sure that when I do eventually give The NYCs a listen it could be somewhat fresh again.

As for City Gardens, it was a great club to play or attend as a spectator. I've seen a few shows there myself and must admit that it was well worth the trip to Trenton. It was the type of venue that every town in America should possess and cherish. Our bands played there together many times and I hold those memories dear. I needed a finale for the "Stranger Things have Happened" EP and I'm very grandiose in my thinking about an album or even an EP I suppose the bit at the tail end was my way of saying "Goodnight and God bless" to the loyals along with hope for having a good laugh at the same time.

There exists a show worth of songs that remains unmixed. If anyone thinks another live performance of the New York Citizens is worth the time and money, an historical show might work. Please remember that the NYC's final show was as the headliner at the famed Irving Plaza in New York City. We walked away - still on top, with a great set list of old and new songs performed by top notch jazz musicians rather than many of the original band members. I was even more impressed with the short, yet potent 1993 live recording from the Manhattan School of Music which I'd like to see released with all the musical chops that the final lineup had to offer.

Please remember that I'm a genuine music fan first and a singer/songwriter second. I have absolutely nothing to gain or lose by revealing my true feelings on the subject of any of the bands I've started and led through the years. I always try my best to take an objective view of each group. And though I may have walked away from The New York Citizens with the lion’s share of monies, I must admit, there wasn't all that much to speak of. I never said I was only in it for the money, which would be the Coconut’s statement from the stage. He was the member who wished us to be more of an Acid-House group, which would certainly never come to pass as long as I was a founding member and musical director. Please never confuse the two - chalk and cheese really.

The band also recorded 'Stranger Things Have Happened' in 1990 which had some classic songs including “Shut up and Listen" and “Boxer Shorts.” What are your memories of that recording session?
I remember that recording session starting in the fall of 1989 and ending by the spring of 1990. It took many hours and lots of capital, but I was determined to release what I considered a more universal release than "On the Move," or, for that matter, any of our earlier songs such as "Overcast" or "Rude Girls."’ I really wanted to be proud of our studio work and give the folks their monies’ worth. We went through all the seasons recording that EP. We began with 10 songs and as the money got tighter, the song list got shorter until we were left with four very strong songs. We recorded "Rude Girls" six months before at a Tarrytown, N.Y., studio and released it on two different 1989 compilations, “Rude Awakening Vol. 1"- a UK compilation released by Chet Selwood for the Cartel and "Mashing Up the Nation Vol. 1" in the U.S. Both compilations have been out of print vinyl releases for some time now. Once we weren't receiving any royalties from the U.S. version, we halted the U.S. company’s production of it. We had nothing to lose by doing so. We played it live and asked the audience to bootleg it if they liked. It didn't matter to me, just as long as it didn't line the pockets of some New England scumbags. The song was omitted from the CD version and the release really suffered artistically speaking.

What upset me so much about that deal was that I wanted "Rude Girls" to be a compilation - only track and not take the record buying public for a ride. I didn't want folks to buy that compilation and see a song they would have somewhere else. That's a very American capitalist rip-off attitude. I collect a lot of singles and the U.S. versions usually have an album track as the B-side. I explained this to Chad one night, but it wasn't until 2001 that he got my drift. Now, if you multiply that by five, you'll see what I was up against for years. We'd also recorded a rather dreadful version of "Seventeenth Floor" which apart from using it for the "NYCs are the Most Rockiness Band" (1989) demo cassette, which would only see the light of day over my cold, dead body. It was a rather Urban Blight-esque version with congas and a DX-7 picking up the slack of the rhythm incompetence. It was loosely based on the TV show "Good Times” in which the Evans family lived on the seventeenth floor. I always enjoyed reminding people of their personal past as nothing to be ashamed of. This country is loaded with that silly sentiment. A song becomes a major hit, only to be reviled in the upcoming years. Again, the song was not without its charm. The female backup vocalist of this track was impressive on the chorus, but I never felt that it was truly up to snuff. It was written in 1988, but only masterfully executed in the studio years later. This is another misconception about our songs: What people considered "new material" often included songs that were two years’ old. In this case, it was a four-year-old tune. The lyrics were actually a rework of the 1987 Legalgender track "Cue Ball," which was one of the first songs that Bucket ever had a hand in mixing. We were always chopping away at the old songs and making them fresh. The female vocalist for "Seventeenth Floor" also was featured on "Rude Girls," so I never felt we wasted her time completely. It's not as if she was Beverly Sills anyway. In my defense, when you are rumored as being as demanding as I was rumored to have been, it really puts quite a strain on yourself as well as the group as a whole.

I hope history remembers our hard work. "Shut Up and Listen" was a garage/gospel song on speed. It was the song that I was banking on as the most influential on this 1990 release. I wasn't terribly wrong as I've heard the Spring-Heeled Jack version of this tune. It brought a tear to my eyes to think that a band from another part of the country would be so enamored of a song I'd written on my grandparents’ porch on the day of a family funeral. It was written on the same day as "Envy," a short limerick based on a composite of typical, dime-a-dozen girlfriends, the type many young fellas can relate to. The kind of girl who says, "I want to be known as something more than just your girlfriend.” It was easy to respond to that with "Then leave me and make your own mark on this world." We've all been there unless, of course, you were dating all the right women.

Funny enough "Boxer Shorts" was recorded twice that year. Once it was recorded with our original sax player for "Rude Awakening Vol. 2"-a U.K.- compilation released by Chet Selwood for the Cartel. The mix was slightly low-end and slow, whereas the "Stranger Things have Happened" version had a reworked sax line and was much more up-tempo. It was also more high-end sounding. At a later date, I was relieved to be able to rerecord this lovely little tune. Since that doesn’t happen often, it was quite a luxury. I wasn't called "One take Tierney" by choice. It was financially cast upon me very early in the game. Someone said "Boxer Shorts" reminded them of the TwoTone groups, but I'd written the bridge in 1984 and thought it was very Bob Dylan-influenced. Play it slow on an acoustic guitar and you'll see what I mean. Besides, I’m not sure any of those TwoTone cats were Dylan fans.

I've read that the band was never completely happy with its recorded output - that the studio recordings didn't fully capture the NYCs’ live sound and energy. Are there any live recordings in the NYC vaults that might be released at some point down the line? And which studio recordings come close to meeting your expectations?
I never speak for any band member other than myself, but something tells me they believed my hype. As I recall, I was the only member who gave a second thought to the first album being perfect, but it did reveal a moment in time - that time being 1988. As other members walked around town feeling smug about their efforts, I was feeling that the next release had to overshadow the last album. You really can't rest in the music business. Perhaps in the bedding industry, you can, but it doesn’t work that way in the entertainment business. You can't convince yourself that you've peaked. I'm sure our recorded work didn't reflect our energy, but neither did Bad Manners. I heard a few albums, but they weren't half as good as that glorious night at the old Ritz. Maybe you can't have a sideshow and a perfect recording. Maybe that's the difference between a good band and a great band.

Maybe The New York Citizens circa 1989 wasn’t a great band. You could go and have a great time at a NYC's show, but you couldn't take the great time home with you except in the spaces of your mind. Hold those memories tight. This world will never be the same, but I'm okay with that. As leader and song writer, I didn’t have the luxury of leaving the band at any point. As my friend the Mole would say, “It’s a coward’s argument to say that the band was worse when some members left the band.”

I would say the production quality of the recordings got better in 1991 with "Ransom." We went into Kampo downtown after the newer lineup gelled for a solid year. The original band members left before the fall of 1990 and were replaced with a tight-knit bunch that brought out a certain musicality that our group had lacked up until that point. To be honest, the engineer was far better than anyone we'd worked with before and that was the other half of the battle.

I even wrote "Easier Ways" and "Shut Up and Listen" have far more lyrical honesty than say "Rude Girls" ever could. "Overcast" may have been different because it was our introductory song about the weather down the shore which took up huge chunks of my summers as a child. I was riding my bicycle down the boardwalk in Lavallette, New Jersey, when I saw the newspaper headline that Elvis Presley was dead. I wanted to share these thoughts, but the Ska crowd gave me the impression they just wanted more of the same. As for current dreams, I would like to release the live recording from the Manhattan School of Music one day. It's only a half an hour recording at most, but a very clean example of the New York Citizens at their best. It was a 1993 live show which I'm sure our last drummer would die to release. He was always so excited about that recording, and I'm sure the audience could appreciate a fine piece of musicianship such as this lost gem. The only studio track never released was a club version of "Sunshine Superman" by Donovan. It was originally on the 1991 "Ransom" demo, but was lost for nearly 15 years. It was Donovan’s homage to Lennon/ Macca, but I think I’d sooner dedicate our version to Jagger/ Richards.

The band did a few national tours and opened for a number of national acts like Big Audio Dynamite, Fishbone, The Ramones and more. Did the NYCs have an agent or did you book your own gigs?
When we first decided to leave the East Coast on our "Coast to Coast" tour to support the "On the Move" album, Bucket advised us on the do's and don'ts of touring the States - where to play, where to avoid and who to talk to and who would treat us right. The only thing better than learning from your own mistakes is to learn from the earlier mistakes of others. The Toasters already had been to the West Coast, so the path had been laid out for us. We never had an exclusive deal with any management agency, but word of mouth spread slowly and phone calls miraculously came in, asking if we'd support this group or that group. We basically were our own manager. There were peaks and valleys during the years and just as we thought we wouldn't get another gig that mattered, someone would be on the other end of the phone, asking us to open for a group that I grew up listening to. It was thrilling for the first 10 minutes, as all experiences are. After a few high profile shows, I started seeing it as work and even saw a legend like Mick Jones as just another co-worker. A sweet guy to be honest, but I could no longer be a simple giddy music fan. I would have asked him to produce our next release, if I had known that he'd go on to produce The Libertines some day. Good God, which would have made me the Pete Doherty of American Ska! Okay scratch that idea, but what a great band The Libertines were. They were the last group that I truly loved.

Why did the NYC's break up?
A better question would have been "How did the NYCs stay together for so long?" That is to say, those members come and go and we picked up the pieces every two years or so, only to replace a member with another. They didn’t seem built enough to last. They would come and go. Eventually, when our last bassist went off to make it big and followed the Swing fad, Chad had enough of the auditions, rehearsals and daily problems. I agreed that I wouldn't want to "stay at the party too long" as Steve Albini once said about Big Black’s demise. I believe that six years under the same name would suffice.

I felt no bitterness, but more of a relief. A few of The New York Citizens tried out for the ATwood 9 in 1996, but I just couldn't take them on. The ATwoods were all new to the scene with the exception of John Jordan from Quebec's Me, Ma, and Mergenthaler. Although I'd seen Dave Mullen and Daryl Foster in the audition room on Ludlow Street, I just couldn't take them on board. The scene had changed and there was no place for them in our brave new world. The second bass player "Stinky" stopped by during auditions after the swing fad had died, but Mike Chini already was standing there on bass. Mike was also a classically trained piano player and sang backing vocals. I suppose some of them thought I owed them a job, but there weren’t any. I owed the audience great songs and shows and I believe that The ATwood 9 would be the future as well as my newest vehicle.

I only hope I delivered with my New York Citizens and ATwood 9 material. I was satisfied to put smiles on faces of people who went out of their way to come to shows or find our releases in small record shops and by mail order. I was always impressed by those people who found The New York Citizens and ATwood 9 releases, because let's face it - they weren't easily available everywhere. Fortunately, MoonSka released a CD called "The Truth about the New York Citizens" which gave a glimpse into a portion of the New York Citizens’ studio work.

Tell me about the ATwood 9. You've said the band was better than the NYC's? Why?
The same way the NYCs learned from the Toasters’ touring experiences, The ATwood 9 learned from the NYC's mistakes. Every ATwood member knew his place, whereas the NYC's were a bit too young when everything started moving as quickly as it did. The ATwoods had a hands-on producer in the band. A big horn section was led by John Jordan, the best sax player I've ever worked with. We had Dave Anderson, a guitarist who had many more influences than just heavy metal, a bass playing keyboardist, or was that a keyboard playing bassist? Either way, he offered more than any bassist the NYCs had to offer. Everyone sang backup vocals. The recordings were better productions since I'd learned tons in the year hiatus from The NYCs and put it to good use. I recall there was a band that refused to play with The Atwood 9. I think that probably was the second smartest idea they ever had -- the first being their breakup. The ATwood 9 would have wiped the stage with those jokers.

As a band, The ATwoods wasn’t full of strong personalities like The NYCs. A band doesn't need distractions such as strong personalities. A good musical group needs direction and focus, and unfortunately the NYCs often lacked that focus. The ATwood 9 band was made up of solid musicians who were heavy fans of music in general. I really loved The ATwoods because they were smart in their influences and attitude. The NYCs may have been a glorious accident of sorts, whereas forming The ATwood 9 was no accident. The ATwoods were the band of my dreams to be honest, but with the untimely death of guitarist David Anderson in the year 2000, I knew I didn’t want to continue the group without our co-founder. I'm most loyal to band members, and I couldn't imagine The ATwoods without Dave Anderson. The ATwoods died out for a far better reason. Only death could have broken up The ATwood 9. We were a tighter bunch, even after the breakdown of the musical group. I haven't played a live show since Dave Anderson’s death 10 years ago.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The NYC’s?
I had such a good time with all the bands I've started, whether they were Legalgender, the New York Citizens, or The ATwood 9 that I can't remember much. That’s a joke. But seriously, I met a lot of great folks, fun folks, and great bands. To tell one or two stories just doesn’t do the experience justice. I'm truly sorry about anyone who missed out on the whole NYC Ska scene in the late '80s, because we had the feeling that we were the only scene that mattered at the time. You must admit, Marc, that we (the scene bands) were the envy of all the other bands of different genres. We were new and original, young and energetic. We weren't a rehash of past glories.

Is there any way we can convince you to be a part of an NYC's reunion?
Thank you for showing interest and for the offer, but I'm more into revolutions than reenactments. I'd hate to be in a group touring around, dusting off the old songs and playing the role of the circus monkey. In order to have a reunion of any kind, I would have to be asked personally by Chad and Coconut. I truly think that if a new album with new songs were in the works, something could be arranged, but not with the same old material. If that were the case, the answer would be no. The friends and fans of the New York Citizens deserve better than that.

What are you up to these days?
I got back from Chicago last year with a demo that I'd recorded at the Mystery Street Studio and performed entirely on my own. I'm quite proud of the new material. It's an honest collection of Glam, Rock, Ska, Reggae and Folk music which has influenced my entire life, not just musically. I call the collection "The Honeymoon Widows." I've also written a Ska Opera for and about the New York Citizens called "Sorry Won't Fix the Broken Lamp," which probably will never see the light of day. There is a very good live New York Citizens release from 1993 called “You just had to be There” still on hold. The ATwood 9’s debut (1998) will be available as a digital download through Megalith Records and the full- length CD “These are The Atwood 9”, which was meant to be released in 2001 and dedicated to the memory of Dave Anderson is still up in the air. Thank you, Marc, for allowing me to tell you the story of my all three of my bands, beginning with Legalgender and progressing through the New York Citizens and on to The Atwood 9. I can only hope I finally passed the audition. :-)

The ATwood 9 CD is available to listen to or download from


James Joyce said...

This was a great read, thanks for putting in all the work! I have to say that Stranger Things Have Happened is my all time favorite US ska release. I originally had it on tape in high school, and even the non-ska fans would be totally into it. Later I got it on LP, and everything else they release. As for unreleased material, based on their live stuff already available, if those live shows ever see the light of day, it would be unbelievable. At least they should go up on so we can buy and download it. Thanks again for everything!

Osmosis said...

Wow, that's everything I needed to know about Rob, the Citizens, and Atwood 9! Thanks for the kind words, and the correct spelling is Me Mom & Morgentaler, silly Americans. Peace out from Montreal - John Jordan,