Thursday, November 18, 2010

Interview With Hepcat Drummer Greg Narvas About His 'I Was a Teenage Filipino Skinhead' Comic Series

How and why do we fall in love with ska? For some its a short fleeting affair. For others it becomes a lifetime love that can transform and change who we are. Its a question I have considered for some time and its one that I try and explore each time I sit down to write this blog. I heard ska music for the first time when I was 14 years old (The Specials first album - which both frightened and enthralled me) and it was love at first listen. I loved the sound, the look and the energy of 2-Tone and it changed my life.

Growing up in New Jersey I was drawn into the New York Ska scene of the mid-80's which coalesced around Sunday all-age matinee shows at CBGB's and The Continental featuring The Toasters, Second Step, The Boilers, Urban Blight and The New York Citizens. But I soon learned that there was plenty more ska being made outside my cocooned New York ska world. It was then that I discovered The Untouchables -- who seemed to embody what an American version of 2-Tone should look and sound like and I fell even harder. Later I found out that The Untouchables were part of something much bigger going on in Los Angeles and Orange County (including Fishbone). It was a ska music scene that included hundreds and hundreds of nattily dressed kids on scooters who lived and breathed the mod and 2-Tone lifestyle, while I was still struggling to find a real pork-pie hat, Fred Perry shirt and creepers.

Greg Narvas, the drummer for iconic Los Angeles-based ska band Hepcat (see videos of him performing drums with the band over the course of his career here, here and here), lived the Los Angeles ska experience I wished for and he has a completely unique perspective on the ska and mod sub-culture that took root there in the 80's. He grew up inside it, first as a fan, and then later as a musician, and that insight has allowed him to put his considerable artistic talents to work in creating his fantastic autobiographical comic series 'I Was A Teenage Filipino Skinhead'.

The son of Filipino immigrants who settled in Los Angeles, Narvas was drawn into the Los Angeles ska scene of the mid 8o's, where he quickly found a home with a diverse legion of other mods, skins and rude boys who shared his passion for ska and reggae music, fashion and skinhead culture. Narvas details his journey of transformation and identity from 'new wave trendy' to booted and suited skinhead. Each issue of the 10 issue comic series, which is illustrated and written by Narvas, tells his personal story through the humorous adventures he and his tight knit crew of friends encountered attending ska shows, getting into fights, riding scooters, and shopping for records and clothes. Its a must read for ska fans everywhere and has garnered glowing reviews which you can read here and here.

The rise of a ska in Los Angeles is a uniquely American music story. It was a segregated city, where school busing in the late 70's and early 80's was necessary to ensure racial integration and where people were separated from one another by race, class and highways. Kevin Long, the original singer of The Untouchables has noted in his essay, 'Epicenter of a Scene' which chronicles the Los Angeles mod and ska scene, "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this scene -- more than the music and bands it spawned – was the emergence of an amazingly broad diversity of youth, arguably unlike any other music scene L.A. had witnessed before." It is this youth sub-culture turned social phenomena that Narvas recounts with such loving detail.

In part one of a two part interview, Narvas explains his transformation from California surf kid into a 2-Tone loving rude boy and skinhead and the experiences he had in the Los Angeles ska and mod scene of the 80's that form the basis for his amazing autobiographical comic series.

What was it like growing up in Los Angeles in the early 80's?

The early ‘80s was a great coming of age for me. It all started with my family’s move to Westchester, CA (a small community just north of LAX) in late ’79. I was 9 years old. Westchester was this clean, sparkling dreamland of a neighborhood—a stark contrast to the gritty, crime-ridden East Culver City which I had come from. In Culver City, I couldn’t even ride my bike around the block without fear of it being snatched by cholos. In Westchester, I could ride off into the sunshine all day with my parents’ only concern that I was home by dark.

Westchester was a surfer neighborhood, with the beach only a mile or so away. All my friends either surfed, boogie-boarded or body surfed. We all donned total Cali surfwear: Op (Ocean Pacific) shorts, Lightning Bolt shirts and checkered Vans. --I latched onto the body surfing thing and was crisp as a burnt biscuit every summer. There seemed to be only two things that really mattered: 1) That you wore real Vans slip-ons and not knock-offs, and 2) You listened to KMET, KLOS or The Mighty 690 (the top radio stations of the day).

My first exposure to any subculture was in the 5th grade, when I had a classmate whose older sister was punk. In complete contrast to the sun burnt, bleach-blonde sandy-skinned society, she was as pale as a dove, rail thin with sunken eyes which glared behind black eyeshadow. I went to their house once, to find her drawing a pair of hands on a t-shirt—one slashing the other one’s wrist with a razor blade. The only ink colors were black and red for the blood. It was such an unsettling image in my new found happy home—and I was intrigued instantly. My curiosity was further piqued by her Sex Pistols album, which to me was in complete, crushing defiance to the 5th-Grade taboo to mention 'sex.'

I think from then on, I was interested in things and people that broke the mold. Yet, as a kid on the brink of my teen years in a brand new neighborhood, I had to choose whether to fit in or be outcast. So I chose to fit in.

Most people I've spoken to who are into ska remember the exact moment when they fell in love with it. How did it happen for you?

My comic, “I Was A Teenage Filipino Skinhead,” starts with the landmark moment of my first Rude Boy sighting in 1983, on the P.E. field in Orville Wright Junior High School. It’s an indelible memory to this day—in the middle of a hot summer day, this guy strolled by donning a black trench coat, skinny tie, black slacks and loafers, with the stingiest brim and meanest wraparound shades I’d ever seen. Then on the back of his trench coat was this huge hot-pink-and-white checkered patch with the iconic 'Ska Joe' figure in the middle. On either side of him was the word “SKA.” I immediately thought that SKA was some kind of secret society (well, in a way, as I discovered years later, it was). Either way, I was totally intrigued by the rude boy, perhaps because he represented the same type of rebelliousness as my friend’s punk sister had—being different yet unflinching to society’s judgment.

So in my case, I actually fell in love with the fashion first before I even knew what the music was—but I knew that that’s what I wanted to be: a Rudie.

What was your first ska album you bought?

On my first trip to Melrose Avenue, as part of my initiation into the scene, I went to Vinyl Fetish to buy some ska tapes. I only had about 5-6 bucks on me, so I had to choose just one album. I had The Specials in one hand and the Dance Craze soundtrack in the other. I figured if I was going to get into Ska, I needed to be familiar with as many bands as possible. So I chose the Dance Craze soundtrack. One of the best decisions I’d ever made.

How did you go from being introduced to ska music to getting fully into seeing shows, buying records and becoming part of the LA ska scene? Was it a fast transition?

The transition was nearly immediate, after running into my cousin Rob who was a Rude Boy in ’85—at the precise time when I was tired of being “trendy” like all my friends were. I knew I wanted to hang with him and his crew from that point on, escaping every element of the mainstream world that I could.

I will admit that I hesitated at first, wondering if I’d lose all my friends if I started dressing differently and listening to different music. There were absolutely no subcultures in my high school at the time, except for a handful of punks. Finally at one point I said “Screw it,” not caring if anyone had anything to say about what I’d become.

Back then, Melrose Avenue was the place to get everything one needed to be in the scene. Shops like Cowboys and Poodles, ACE and Aardvark’s Odd Ark carried all the threads, Poseur carried shoes, patches and buttons, and shops like Bleeker Bob’s and Vinyl Fetish had all the records and tapes. It was a one-stop shop, pretty much.

So Rob took me there one weekend, and the following Monday I went to school in a whole new wardrobe. I figured I may as well go out with a bang, so I chose to wear the same black trenchcoat with the huge “ska joe” patch on the back…just like the rudie I’d seen years before. Yes, on a hot day at that. Everyone thought I was crazy. But it felt great.

I’m really lucky that Rob got me into it, ‘coz I learned right away the dos and don’ts of the scene, fashion-wise, and he pointed me in the right direction music-wise too. I’d say within months I already had tunnel vision—only caring about what the scene had to offer.

You moved pretty quickly from being a rude boy to a mod to a skinhead? What was it about skinhead culture that appealed to you? How did this decision (which you explore in your comic book series 'I Was A Teenage Filipino Skinhead") go over with your family and friends?

My first and foremost love was always ska, and my original intent was to be a Rudie. The mod scene, however, appealed to me more through the fashion aspect, and Quadrophenia (the ultimate mod-recruiting movie) made it an irresistible choice for someone like me who was seeking an exciting subculture. And knowing that the mods and rudies shared the same ground made it an easier transition as well. So before I knew it, I was donning a parka (on hot days) and strutting to soul on the dance floor.

However, I quickly learned that the 'modern' mod scene was nowhere near as exciting as its original ’60s English ancestor, at least not in L.A. Sure, the fashion was there, so was the music and scooters…but the mods tended to be really reserved and even conceited at times. In addition, There were no rival rumbles as in Quadrophenia; instead, there was only the occasional jeer from punks who dumbly recited The Exploited’s 'Fuck A Mod' lyrics, or trendy jock know-nothings who called us “nerds on mopeds.” And whenever the opportunity arose, the mods I’d be with backed down from the confrontations. It just didn’t make sense.

Meanwhile, my love for ska simply could not subside, and it would surface at the dance clubs, when my feet would be itching to skank when the DJ would put on 2-Tone. But there were hard lines back then—though the mods and rudies shared the floor, ska was reserved for the rudies, and mods only danced to soul. It was an unwritten rule, as fundamental as the fashion aspect, in which mods never sported ska patches on their parkas and rudies never wore mod buttons on their bombers—part of what made each mod and rudie “real.” So I was stuck in a sticky situation…more or less a rudie trapped inside a mod’s body, I suppose. Being that my cousin Rob was increasingly becoming a ska connoisseur didn’t help either, as we began to spend every weekend shopping at exclusive small record stores who stocked the latest releases in the genre.

One must keep in mind that around ’86-‘87, there were only those two groups to define the divide: mods & rudies. Skinheads, though seen as the 'harder cousins' of the mods, were still largely reflective of modern Oi! bands and even punk influences, and even if they liked ska, they never advertised it aside from maybe skanking with the rudies every once in a great while.

So how did I make the conversion? There are three landmark things that happened that eventually caused me to don the Docs, and this happened in mid-’87:

1. Hearing Roland Alphonso & The Soul Brothers’ Phoenix City, which I fell in love with immediately and made me instantly realize that 2-Tone ska actually wasn’t the original ska, and…
2. Discovering Nick Knight’s Skinhead book, that made the story clear that original skinheads started in ‘60s/’70s England and dressed as sharp as the mods did…
3. And the discovery of Symarip’s Skinhead Moonstomp album, which ultimately made us realize that the early Jamaican music pretty much belonged to this original clan.

The 'Skinhead' book and Symarip album discovery was reinforced by an appearance of a handful (almost literally) of a new breed of skinheads on the scene who didn’t dress like the typical Oi! skinhead, but instead, nearly matched the images we’d seen in the Skins book. Instead of the typical Fred Perry/braces/bomber jacket/18-20 hole Doc deal, these skins dressed in plaid or checkered long-sleeve shirts, jeans and short Docs (8-10 holes tops). In place of the typical shaven head, they wore their hair slightly longer (though still a buzz), using perhaps a #4-#2 clipper guard at most, but never clean shaven. This was accented by a shaven “part” on one side, and finished with long sideburns, or heavy “chops” which were sideburns that flared out toward the mouth and chin.

This distinct look was equally characteristic by them being the only ones who danced to the old ska which we’d discovered, and then even more enthusiastically to the obscure, gummy and bouncy old music which we later learned to be called Skinhead Reggae…the same reggae which we’d heard on the Symarip album.

The skinhead stomp on the dance floor was carefully measured to the music; a skanking bout, surely, but not as gleeful, fast and frantic as the Rudies’ hop-along to the 2-Tone hits. We soon learned that this curious few were known as 'traditional' skinheads—skins who chose to follow along the lines of the original aesthetic and musical tastes of the original ‘60s skins of England.

As they stomped I saw the things that appealed to me most—a true dedication and love for the music, meticulous attention to detail in the fashion, and a somber seriousness in the entire entity—almost identical to the mod thing but with a tougher appearance. And it seemed to be just what I needed.

Rob, who surely felt the same attraction, had converted almost overnight. He had the easy way in, since he’d already been a Rudie from the start. As a Mod, I certainly had more changes to make.

First off, I knew I had to get my own Docs—which were a dead ringer for all non-Mods (Mods never wore them). Everything else fell into place almost naturally. The cool thing about these skinheads was that they weren’t a complete departure from the mod scene—since they evolved from mods, there was still that same visual aesthetic, except for the hair and footwear. The only real departure was the music—skinhead reggae was something that truly defined the traditional skinhead culture, and nobody else’s.

As soon as I settled in, I couldn’t have been more happy and comfortable. Rob and I both hit the streets and the dance floors as proud traditional skinheads—ambassadors of a small, emerging new scene, who stomped on the floors to the curiosity of the Mods & Rudies, who often looked on with some puzzlement to this new, but indeed old, music that began to blare from the speakers every once in a while. At the same time, coincidentally, Trojan Records began to release album after album of early reggae and ska reissues, which fed our growing love for the genre.

For a while everything was perfect. We’d established ourselves as a truly unique identity and had made the impact, and the best part was that we were so few in numbers. It couldn’t have felt better than to be part of a small, exclusive bunch, who only made their presence known upon the needle’s drop on an early reggae tune.

Yet unfortunately, at the same time, a brewing storm appeared on the horizon, as the emergence of a “neo-nazi” skinhead culture began to make itself known, mostly to the media, who couldn’t wait to grab hold of this new 'terrible' sensation (like they always do).

When I was a mod, and even a skinhead, nobody from my 'normal' circle of friends really cared; not even my family and relatives, who had maybe initially wondered why I wasn’t like everyone else, but accepted the fact that I wasn’t a total outcast and an outright rebel. But as soon as Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera showcased these 'Nazi' skinheads on their talk shows, everything went down the drain. Suddenly everyone 'knew' what I was according to the definition of 'skinhead' on TV.
The New York and LA ska scenes of the mid to late 80's were really the epicenters of American ska. Can you describe the LA scene as you remember it?

As I describe in my comic, one outstanding aspect of the scene, from what I remember, was the real dedication within the subcultures. Mods were really mods, rudies were rudies and skins were skins. There was no “sitting on the fence” or “sort-of” anything. The worst thing anyone could be considered (or called, rather) was a poseur—someone who claimed to be something but didn’t get all the details right. I think the mid- to late-‘80s was a time when subcultures really went out of their way to set themselves apart from the “trendies.” It was the greatest feeling to be in the scene, and to be around others who cared as deeply about the music, fashion and culture as we did. Although there were some rivalries and scuffles here and there, overall it was a proud and tight community.

We were lucky to have places to congregate and shop for our music and clothes—especially Melrose Avenue, which was heaven sent for all the subcultures back then. And there was no shortage of clubs and shows either, and it seemed like all the clubs and gigs were all ages! I don’t ever remember being carded for anything, and I was dancing and drinking every weekend ‘til the wee hours of the morning at the golden age of 15.

Fashion was such a huge part of the ska scene here in NYC in the 80's. Can you describe the importance of fashion in the LA scene and how hard it was to find the right gear?

Hahah…as I said before, image was everything in the L.A. scene. Some of the unwritten, but serious rules from what I recall:

• Mods would not wear docs (boots), although 'Monkey Boots' were fair play.
Ska patches or buttons on mod parkas were a no-no.
• Mod patches or buttons on rudie apparel (i.e., flight jackets) were a no-no.
• Skins wouldn’t be caught dead sporting any mod patches or symbols on anything they wore, although some did wear some ska stuff (hence the term “2-Tone skinhead”).
• The premium mod parka of choice was the M-1951, M-51 or M-65 fishtail (isn’t it always?)
• Any kind of “trendy” footwear was avoided at all costs. At the bare minimum, one would wear 'Winos' for casual wear. Then when the Adidas Samba trainers finally arrived (whew!), people wore those for sneakers.
Fred Perry shirts and jackets were fair game, if not a requisite, for everybody. That was probably the only piece of apparel that the mods, rudies and skins had in common…the glue!

The traditionalist skinheads tried even harder to separate themselves from the Oi! and “2-Tone” skinheads, through a few basic rituals:

Fred Perry's were ok, but the preferred top was a button-up long sleeve with the sleeves rolled up, in a solid or check pattern. Authentic Ben Sherman's, the ultimate trad top, were ultra-rare and nearly impossible to get unless one knew someone in England, or knew someone who was crossing the pond and could get one for them.
Flight jackets, the stereotypical coat of the contemporary skins, were a no-no. The jacket of choice was a Levi’s denim sheepskin coat, which pretty much became the beacon of the traditional skins—you could spot one from a mile away. Harringtons were also a great asset, if you could get your hands on one.
• Boots were never higher than 10-hole. The preferred height was 8-hole Docs. When Doc Martens released the Highlander soles, those were highly sought after since they most closely resembled the boots on the Symarip album cover.
• Unlike most mods, rudies and skins, the traditionalists didn’t wear any buttons or patches advertising their taste in music and/or bands. The true test was in the clothes, not the pins.
• Traditionalists never shaved their head completely bald; the preferred look was a #2-#4 guard (I wore a #4) with long sideburns or “chops.”

It’s both a comedy and a tragedy to see how instantly available everything is these days, in the information age. I see Fred Perry's and Ben Sherman's nowadays which I could only dream of having back in my day; the same goes with 'Crombies' and 'Donkey Jackets' which were prized possessions of the original skinheads of ’69…kids sport those things like nothing nowadays, while they were impossible to find 25 years ago (hence the affinity for the Levi’s sheepskin jackets, which were the next best thing).

When did you decide to become a drummer? Did you play the drums before you were into ska?

I’ve always been attracted to rhythms for as long as I can remember. I was tapping out rhythms on practically any surface imaginable as early as the 4th Grade (1980), which drove my classmates and my teacher absolutely nuts. It got so bad, actually, that my teacher called my parents in for a conference to discuss this “nervous habit” that I had. So for awhile I had to restrain myself from drumming in class. It wasn’t until years later (about ’84 I think) that I finally got my first drum set to scratch my itch.

I had a neighbor my age who was really into classic rock and heavy metal. He played guitar. When he found out I played drums he flipped. “Dood! You wanna jam??!” So then began a series of jams in his garage, mostly doing tunes like Roy Orbison’s 'Pretty Woman' and Sex Pistol’s 'Anarchy in the UK'.

When I got into the scene a couple of years later, bands like The Selecter really turned me on to ska drumming. I first started drumming to 'On My Radio' (which was, and still is, my favorite song by them), then I got into 'James Bond', which was a very unusual song to me as it was the only one in which the snare (rim click) and kick were played in unison on the 2's and 4's.

After getting into early ska and reggae, one of my favorite songs was The Maytals’ Broadway Jungle, which I listened to with my ear literally against the speaker of my Yorx stereo system, trying to figure out what kind of drumbeat was being played. It was so minimal, but the groove was ridiculously heavy. At first I thought he was playing just the rim click, then I realized it was simply a variation of the 'James Bond' type of playing, where the kick was hit in unison. It was a landmark discovery for me, and from that point on, I was hooked.

Part two of the interview will focus on Narvas's experiences playing drums with Oi band Lion's Pride and the early days of Hepcat.

Below are links to where you can purchase copies of The Untouchables 'Wild Child' album and copies of Hepcat's 'Right On Time', 'Out Of Nowhere' and 'Scientific' albums:


dublinsax said...

Great read, always interesting to hear what the 'scene' was like elsewhere in the 80s

macp64 said...

Good solid blog as always, and an illuminating interview with Narvas - his mid-80s scene was so different than our nascent L.A. mod scene, (circa 1981-82). Ours had ska and reggae so inextricably bound up with mod and soul, while theirs evolved and compartmentalized.

- Mike Page

Monica Sklar said...

I really appreciate the depth of this interview in covering the importance of image/dress as it relates to the development of a scene and an individual's experiences within it. As a scholar of dress (PhD with a specialization in subculture), I found this to be a blast to read and very informative in the details! Hope to see more interviews like this!

STILO71 said...

His words are spot on,No One wanted to be called a Poser what ever you claimed you lived it 24-7 and you better have had a Lamby or Vespa if you trully claimed to be a Mod. My scoot got me so much action,we would hunt for scoots all around Pasadena,Sierra Madre,Arcadia the wealthy had them,and when they couldn't get parts from Scooterville they trashed em.

Mark B Weiss said...

Aaron Carnes, 2021, p.206 sent me here: “In Defense of Ska”