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! 

Friday, January 20, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 4


Though the band that would ultimately become Bigger Thomas had started to quickly come together at the end of July 1988 in my apartment on Louis Street in New Brunswick, NJ, it was a night out with our new singer Roger Apollon Jr to see a Ranking Roger at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ on Friday August 17, 1988 that the band finally crystalized.  That night was also the start of my life-long friendship with Roger.

Housed in a decrepit former supermarket deep in the badlands of Trenton, City Gardens hosted a wildly eclectic mix of hardcore, post-punk, indie, ska, hip-hop and metal — Nirvana, R.E.M., and the Ramones are on the long list of influential bands that played there — throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Steered by postal worker turned promoter Randy Now, it served as a kind of CBGB for the disaffected suburban youth around New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Randy -- a huge ska fan and host at the time of the only all-ska radio show on WTSR-FM -- would soon become instrumental to the success we would have during 1989-1991. 

A trip to City Gardens was a rite of passage for anyone into alternative music in the 80s. And it was one of the very few venues outside New York City that was regularly booking ska and reggae in the 80's. Given our new mission to start the first ska band in New Jersey -- and the fact that Ranking Roger, the former singer of the English Beat and General Public, was performing at the club -- it seemed like another sign from the universe that we were on the right path.  And so a pilgrimage to the iconic punk rock club was in order.

After I met Roger and we talked about our shared musical interests, I mentioned the show and that we should go.  Despite his excitement about going to the show, Roger had never heard of City Gardens. 
I told one of my roommates, "I'm going to Trenton to see a show at City Gardens," and he was just like "what? Why? What's down there?" "City Gardens," I said.  "City Gardens, what is that?"

Originally it was just going to be me, Roger and a college friend of mine named Bennie, but when I went to pick Roger up at his apartment in my beat up 1979 Toyota Corolla, I was surprised to see that he had invited two of his friends from West Orange to join us. I was even more surprised when Bennie and I were invited inside to find lines of coke lined up on a glass coffee table!  After Bennie and I declined the offer to snort a line, we piled into my car. Me and four Black men.  

The coke made Roger and his friends very chatty but I later learned that they were all a bit anxious about where I was taking them.  When we pulled up out outside the intimidating, low slung building to park, I could sense their growing unease.  They were thinking: "what's going to happen to us inside this white punk rock shit hole." I did my best to reassure them that it was nicer on the inside than it looked on the outside. Roger later told me:
I was not impressed with the outside, you know, driving into this parking lot and I saw the structure I'm like, this looks sketchy. And I didn't really know you that well, so I was just like where the hell are we?  You know, I have no idea. And even my friend Clay was like "What the fuck..."
At the time, Ranking Roger was on an ill-fated tour to promote his solo record "Radical Departure" which was his attempt to be a full-on pop star.  It didn't go well. But to be honest, his record had some of the ingredients that were necessary in the 1980's for an artist to have a pop hit.  Was it radio friendly? Check.  Did it have a catchy MTV video?  Yup! It even debuted on 120 Minutes!  Did it have a marketable singer?  Indeed!  Did he have any hits with previous band?  You bet! Add Roger's winning personality, good looks and smooth vocals and you would assume that he should have had a hit on his hands right? Nope. And its a shame. But the small audience at City Gardens that night was not only seeing a bona fide 2 Tone star but the opening band Chiefs of Relief featured ex-members of Adam and The Ants, Bow Wow and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook! 

Once we had paid our ten dollars to get in and our eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness of the front of the club, Roger and I made our way to the back lounge to get a drink.  And there, to our shock and amazement was Ranking Roger playing a pin ball machine!  There were two or three other people watching him and so we joined them in quiet, hushed anticipation.   Roger was in a state of shock:
So we walk over, and I didn't want to be all weird. Because he was just focused on the game, I think there were a couple of people looking up at him. I was definitely like, "That is Ranking Roger and he's playing pinball." I was in awe of Ranking Roger.
When Ranking Roger finished his game, he nodded at us and said "hello." Roger was starstruck for a minute, but I put out my hand to say hello and then mentioned that Roger and I had just started a ska band inspired by him and the English Beat.  Ranking Roger opened his eyes wide and said "Really! That's great." He asked us there were any other ska bands in the area and we told him we thought we would be the first and he encouraged us to stick with it. We made friendly chit chat with him and then, as the lounge became more crowded, he politely excused himself and headed off to the band's tour bus. 

After he left, I scanned the low light of the lounge and I immediately recognized The Specials and General Public bassist Horace Panter sitting by himself nursing a Budweiser. I elbowed Roger and said, "I think that's Sir Horace Gentleman of The Specials over there!" After having just met Ranking Roger we were emboldened and walked over towards Horace.  No one had noticed or recognized him, so he seemed pleasantly surprised when Roger said "Are you Horace?"  When he nodded, he invited us to sit down and chat with him for a bit.  Like Ranking Roger, he was very encouraging about us starting a ska band and wished us luck.  And with that, having met two of my musical heroes, I could have happily left City Gardens and called it a night. But there was much more in store for us!

Roger and I found my friend Bennie and Roger's two friends out near the stage just as the show started. And while we were watching Ranking Roger and dancing, we saw a barefooted white guy doing a goofy hackysack skank to the music.  It was our future saxophone player Steve Meicke!
So, we're dancing and my friend Clay is like, "Look at that guy." This guy, he was jumping around, barefooted, wearing a sideways baseball cap with an asymmetrical haircut and like surfer shorts, doing the skank step. We're just making fun of him. I don't know how we met. I don't know if you met him first, or I met him, or even how we got to the conversation of we're in a band. But I must have said, "I'm in a band." Or, "I'm at Rutgers." He said,"Me too. I play Sax." I said,"You play Sax?" "Yeah. I'm a Jazz student at Rutgers." He starts laughing and smiling. And then I said, I'm in a ska band, up in New Brunswick" and he stops smiling. And he starts getting real serious. He literally started stroking his chin and he said "Really? You guys are trying to start a ska band in New Brunswick?"  He's like, "Yeah man, give me your number." So sure enough that's how Steve joined the band. I didn't know if he was good or not but Steve was a really handsome dude, and we were going to need to get girls at shows. 
Steve called Roger the next day and we agreed to meet a local rehearsal studio we had found that was located right above the popular Cheap Thrills record store in downtown New Brunswick. And with that chance meeting at City Gardens we were now six -- me, Steve Parker, Jim (who had finally signed on to play drums), Kevin, Roger and Steve Meicke. But, there was still one more original member to join our rag tag ensemble.

As a coda to that hot summer night in 1988, just seven months later we would play our first show at City Gardens in the Spring of 1989 opening for Sister Carol. It would be the first of many shows at the club over the next 2 and a half years. And a  little over three years later in September 1991, Bigger Thomas opened for Special Beat at City Gardens -- a band featuring members of The Specials and English Beat -- and both Ranking Roger and Horace remembered Roger and I and greeted us warmly.  Ranking Roger said, "Congratulations on going from paying punters to musicians playing here!" 

I interviewed Roger for my Ska Boom podcast in 2021 about our experience at City Gardens that night.  Give a short snippet of that interview a listen.

 Stay tuned for Part 5!

Friday, January 13, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 3

After our first meet and greet rehearsal with trumpeter Kevin Shields, I received another call about the ad I had plastered all over New Brunswick from a singer named Roger Apollon Jr. At the time he called me, Roger was attending Livingston College at Rutgers and working part-time as an orderly at St. Peter's Hospital in New Brunswick. Roger was the oldest son of Haitian immigrants and lived in West Orange, NJ.  He was musically trained and had studied piano and knew how to sing and dance.  Better yet, as we we would soon learn, he was the consummate front man!

Roger distinctly remembered seeing my ad on a Rutgers campus bus:
I'm on the Livingston campus bus and I see "Calling all rude boys and rude girls." I'm looking at it. It's looking for singer, drummer, everybody. It's like seven people. I'm like alright, it's like one guy. So I see it, I'm like "Ah, whatever." I'm like that's just so weird. Anyway, I get off the bus and I see that poster again!  I rip it down. I put it in my pocket, you know, no cell phones. I'll call later. I completely forget and then I go into my pocket later on at work at St. Peters. 
The first time Roger called me, was from a payphone inside St. Peter's hospital. He said he was a singer and had just left a reggae band called the Caribbean Musical Ensemble . Because he was working -- I could hear him being paged in the din of background noise inside the hospital -- our first call was short, but we made a date for him to stop by to meet up with me, Steve, Kevin and Jim.
When he arrived at my door a day later, I'm not sure I looked like what he was expecting me to look like. Once he saw me -- curly Jewfro and glasses -- he was ready to split. But the fact I was wearing a Fishbone "Fuck Racism" shirt when I answered the door was my saving grace. 
When you answered the door, I was like "it's a solid no!" 'Cause even though you had a Fishbone T-shirt on, I was like, "this guy can't possibly like reggae, really? Ska? No way. I was expecting to see a white version of me, right? A well dressed rude boy!" I'm thinking, "I don't know how I'm gonna get out of this." 
In an odd coincidence or perhaps fate, I had seen Roger a few weeks earlier on the platform of the New Brunswick train station while waiting to catch a train to New York City. He was a short, handsome young Black man with a box fade haircut wearing a pair of cool dark sunglasses, black brothel creepers and a shirt that said SKA underneath a dancing Walt Jabsco. I was stunned and had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn't seeing a ghost.  Sadly, I was unable to work up the nerve to approach him then and there. I figured I would try and find him at Penn Station but lost him in the crowd pouring off the train. Clearly the universe was sending me a message that I was on the right path. And here he was again standing at my door. 

Once inside my apartment, Roger was greeted by Steve, Jim and Kevin:
So we walk in and it doesn't get any better, 'cause I see Steve Parker on the couch, who looks like an accountant, and then I see Kevin Shields, who is this rockabilly dude with a six-pack of little Budweisers, the half ones, which I've never even seen  before. He's sitting there, he's like "hey."
Here's what Kevin remembered about meeting Roger:
We meet up again and there’s yet another new face and a Black one at that! I mean, I just got kicked out of a Rockabilly band! You know how it is, on the phone he sounded… taller. Hello to Roger Apollon Jr.
 Introductions made, Roger was willing to give the songs a listen:
I'm just like all right, I'm here, what have you got on the table?
I'm not going to lie.  It was awkward.  I barely knew Kevin and I had just met Roger, who despite his misgivings hid them well with a friendly smile.  That said Steve didn't help our cause with Roger, but the songs Steve had written started to grow on him: 
And Steve says like two words. He's noodling on his guitar, ignoring everything. You're doing all the talking and you play the tape, and I think the first song is "Moving". On the demo it had a calypso start, and then it gets to the ska part. I was like all right. Steve's singing on it, it's too high for him. I like the beat of it, cool, whatever, what else you got? "More and More" was on that tape. And I was like you know what? Not bad.

Give the demo version of "More and More" a listen: 

Kevin's first impression of Roger and the rest of us grew that afternoon once he heard him sing along to our songs and to play a melodica he had brought along for the occasion: 
Neat and petite, Roger's sitting on the edge of the sofa, playing along with us on a melodica! I’m thinking “That’s a pretty cool sound, this dude’s got some music in him.”Then he starts to sing. I think we’re on to something here. 
My new friends have a real good work ethic. They seem to be chomping at the bit to get something going musically, and their songs, even in their larvae stage, are quite good. Through interrogation (see: “conversation”) I find out all of these chaps have been in bands before and have some good experience under their belts. 
Everyone’s learning the songs, ol’ Steve and Marc have been busy lads ‘cause they’ve got lots of them and there ain’t a dog in the bunch. Yes, I find out, Mr. Cooper has drums and he knows how to use them. Everybody makes suggestions, everybody takes direction. Seems Roger’s got some song ideas hisself, as does Jim. The multi-headed beast is beginning to stir.
It was exciting to learn that Roger knew how to write songs.  In fact, it was at this rehearsal or the one after when Steve and I played him a new song idea, that he quickly, on the spot, wrote the lyrics for what would become our most popular song "Ska In My Pocket."  Like all the best songs, it took about five or ten minutes to write from start to finish.

Like me, Roger was drawn to 2 Tone while in high school.  Being one of the few Black families in the predominantly white New Jersey suburb of West Orange had a huge impact on him and he dealt with racism on a regular basis and 2 Tone spoke to how he was feeling:
You know, racism was pretty right in your face. People didn't really care. It was kind of like standard. I was called all these names and so for me the political stuff I heard in 2 Tone music, I felt like that was the answer to the messed up stuff I was seeing happening to me.

Song by The Specials, The Selecter and English Beat spoke directly to Roger and his experience as a young Black man and became a philosophy for living:

2 Tone just made instant sense to me. Black and white, working together, doing music together, collaborating, right? Why work separately? Why not work together and look what happened. So 2 Tone was more than the music. It was the look, but it was also a way of life and how to live. 
I later learned, Roger had yearned to be in a band for some time, and that desire was stoked when he met a fellow Black classmate and real live rude boy and son of Jamaican immigrants -- Ken "Miggy" Gayle -- who would later join our band for a short time (more on that in a later post).
Ken was the only other rude boy at Rutgers. You know, 40,000 students, there's two rude boys and we're on the same campus, you know? So we're fast friends. He tells me this band called The Toasters is coming to town, and says he knows the band. Ken is a great guy, but talks a lot of shit, right? Like he embellishes. So we get there, and sure enough he knows Lionel. That show just blew my mind.
At The Toasters show he attended at Rutgers with Ken, Roger was was able to finally see a live ska band:
There was maybe 100 kids, not too crowded. This was when it was Lionel and Sean up front. And at the end of the show Bucket had people come up. He waved to me. I was like what? I got up on stage and I was like "aw, this is it!" I'm on stage dancing with Lionel, and I'm like, "I have to do this. I have to figure out a way to do this."
Ken took Roger to another Toasters show at CBGB where he experienced first hand the vibrant NYC ska scene, but it was seeing Fishbone at Sarah Lawrence College a few weeks later with Ken that truly opened Roger to the idea of joining a ska band:
I went to Fishbone at Sarah Lawrence, I'm literally the only Black guy there. The band start playing, and girls are coming up to me like "Are you with the band?" I'm like no, I'm not." The second girl was like "Are you with the band?" I'm like,  "no, I'm not." Third or fourth girl came up like "Are you in the band?" I'm like, "I am." That was the first time I was the most popular black guy in an all white space. Like, I could actually get laid now. All the girls were looking at me. Even the white dudes were like what's going on? Ken came and then played it up, "Yeah, yeah, he's in the band." My point is, I was popular 'cause of Fishbone. And they destroyed. It was awesome. They vamped, they improvised, they crowd surfed, they threw instruments, they caught them, they played the songs perfectly. It was incredible man. And they were all Black. I mean, these were Black guys. I'm like all right.
And while Roger may have been still making up his mind about our songs and us as potential bandmates, it was my massive ska and reggae record collection which sealed the deal and convinced him to sign on with us:
And then I saw your room with all the records and that was like, "okay!."Because I saw records in there I never even heard of.  And I thought I knew a lot about reggae and ska. The truth is I knew nothing about ska. The Skatalites? I knew nothing about them until I met you. I mean you had ... it was like a library. Once I saw your record collection at least I knew you were all right. So for me that was an in. And then you seemed like the spokesman for the band.  'Cause Kevin had quips, but he didn't know what was going on, and Steve said nothing. I'm like, "Marc is kinda running the ship, then alright, this should be fine."

As a way to hook him in, I loaned Roger two albums I thought he would like and would introduce him to 60s ska.  One was a Skatalites compilation and the other was a Prince Buster greatest hits record which he said he listened to obsessively for a weeks the rest of that summer. 

A few days later, after several more living room rehearsals, I invited Roger to go to City Gardens in Trenton, New Jersey to see a Ranking Roger solo show! 

Stay tuned for How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 4!

Friday, January 6, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 2


I love band origin stories. In fact I love them so much that my book Ska Boom: An American Ska & Reggae Oral History is all about the origin stories of 18 bands that helped to create a uniquely American version of ska and reggae. As a former reporter -- if only for a few months -- I learned early on that you have to include multiple points of view for any story to be honest and factual and attempt to reflect the reality of a situation.  That is why an oral history appealed to me so much. An oral history is predicated on the notion that everyone who was part of an event or collective and/or creative experience of some kind share their unique perspective to get to some semblance of the truth. 

And so, it gives me great pleasure to share how my bandmate Kevin Shields experienced meeting Steve Parker and myself for the very first time and how those initial meetings actually led to us starting the band that would initially be called Panic! and ultimately become Bigger Thomas.

Kevin was the very first person to respond to the flyers I posted around New Brunswick, NJ advertising for people to join the band.  In those pre-Internet days of the late 80s, people actually looked at things posted on public bulletin boards.  Classified ads were another way to find potential bandmates, but I chose to go old school.  I felt a designed flyer -- and I'm using the word "designed" here very loosely -- would be faster and make more of an impact.  

So I put a few ska albums -- The Specials debut, The English Beat's "I Just Can't Stop It", the "Dance Craze" LP and a Skatalites comp in my backpack and brought them to the Rutgers student center where I Xeroxed the front and back covers for ten cents a page.  I then cut out phrases and logos I liked -- "Calling All Rude Boys And Girls" was particularly appealing as was The Beat Girl and Walt Jabsco-- and then typed up a few lines about what Steve and I were looking for -- essentially everything but bass and guitar -- and then laid it all out on another sheet a paper with tape.  I took that designed page to a local Kinkos and had 25 copies printed on bright blue and pink paper.  My thinking was that those colors would be more eye catchy than white. And I was proved right, because a blue one outside the infamous Court Tavern -- a rock and roll dive bar institution a few blocks from the Rutgers campus -- caught Kevin's eye.

Kevin was a son of New Jersey through and through.  Raised in Hillsborough near the infamous Johns-Manville asbestos plant, he was seven years older than Steve and I. He was the fourth of five brothers -- some of whom he played bass with in a hardcore band called Detention.  Detention made a name for themselves on the Jersey music scene of the early 80s playing with a who's who of American punk and hardcore bands including Suicidal Tendencies, Circle Jerks, Kraut and more. Detention were well known for their song "Dead Rock and Rollers" which was an early 80s college radio hit. Kevin called it "97 seconds of fucking genius."  Give the song a spin below:

Though he was the son of teachers, Kevin had decided to enlist in the Coast Guard just four days after graduating from high school in June 1976. He stayed in for four and a half years. He later regaled us with crazy stories about his time protecting the coastlines of our country and his experiences in basic training.  One memorable story was how his drill sergeant would scream "nut to but" at recruits lining up for the day's march. Kevin would often shout this at us as we were about to get ready to go on stage.  Another from his time manning a boat was "stab and steer" which he would say followed by "drive it like you hate it" when one of us would take over the wheel when the band was on the road.  It never failed to make us laugh. Kevin recalled that his experience in the military, "...turned me from a precocious, impulsive, immature teenager into a precocious, impulsive, immature young adult."  The other thing his experience in the military did was change his relationship with music forever because his time stationed on the New Jersey coastline put him close to New York in 1978-79 to witness firsthand the rise of punk and new wave. Later when he was stationed in northern California he experienced the rise of hardcore.  Needless to say, Kevin knew his way around a dive bar club.

It was clear that Kevin had done a lot more living than either Steve or I and though he hadn't been to college, he was one of the most well read and intelligent people I've met.  He chalked this up to reading the newspaper and raucous dinnertime conversations where he and his four rowdy brothers were quizzed on current events and literature by their parents. Kevin also had a very dry sense of humor that really kicked in after he had a few beers. Later on, once the band got going, Kevin was responsible for memorable one liners, often to either break the tension of an uncomfortable moment (every band needs a cut up) or to point out what a stupid idiot he thought someone in our band or another band was.  None of us were spared his sharp wit. I just chalked it up to him learning to survive life with four brothers and then serving in the military. Nothing escaped his observation and like the good punk rocker he was, nothing was sacred, except when we were performing which he took very seriously.

When I was in the early days of writing Ska Boom, I reached out to Kevin for his memories about the start of the band.  They are pure, unadulterated Kevin:

Bigger Thomas had its’ beginnings in the fall of 1968, when I began to take trumpet lessons at Sunnymead School, in Hillsborough, New Jersey. 

Twenty years later I was sitting in my living room with one of my housemates, smoking a Lucky Strike Green the size of Wyoming and watching the “Reggae Sunsplash” festival on TV. I was really enjoying the music- upbeat, rhythmic, fun! Inspired, I turned to him and said “You know, I really ought to break out my trumpet.” He said “You should”. 

Literally a few nights later I stumbled (see: “walked”) out of the Court Tavern downtown when my eye was caught by a flyer posted on the bulletin board outside the bar. Checkerboard margin, black on Kinko’s blue, 2 Tone styling. “Wanted: musicians for original music band. Need drums, keyboard, vocals, TRUMPET”. 

Being recently band-less for the first time in six years and bored, I took down the phone number given. Finding the number the next day, I gave a call. Me: “I saw your flyer outside the Court. Whadda you guys lookin’ to do?” Voice: “My friend and I have been writing a lot. Ska, mostly, reggae, pop-rock, worldbeat stuff. What instrument do you play?” Me: “Trumpet”. Voice: “Really!”. 

When Kevin called I was shocked.  Not in a bad sort of way, but more at how quickly my hopeful entreaty to the larger universe to start a band --albeit New Brunswick -- had actually connected with another living person. I had yearned to be in a band for so long that the reality of it actually happening was almost too much for me to bear. I know now that I was looking for a surrogate family and for a band of brothers, but back then, before years of therapy, I only knew I felt compelled to complete this particular mission to play music.  It was a mission I had devised and harbored for nearly five years since seeing the English Beat and Madness live during the summer of 1983.  And so, sight unseen, I quickly invited Kevin over to my apartment to meet Steve and I.  My roommate Jim Cooper was there as well to serve as as witness to what unfolded. 

Steve and I had played with Jim in our earlier college band and I had met Jim in my dorm during my first week at Rutgers in September 1983.  We hit it off and often went together for dinner in the dining hall or record shopping after class or on weekends.  We also hung out a lot in his room with his two music loving roommates, smoked weed and listened to albums.  Jim was a big fan of The Police, XTC, R.E.M and all other 80s new wave and rock but had a special place in his heart for The Beatles. Jim hailed from Marlton, a suburb just across the city line from Camden, on the Jersey side of the Delaware River.  And unlike my experience with people from that part of South Jersey, who in my limited experience generally loved classic rock like The Who or Zeppelin, terrible 80s metal and had frightening mullet haircuts, Jim was the complete opposite.  He was a bit of a loner and was studying Biology with hopes of getting work in a hospital or lab after graduation. We became fast friends when we discovered we had both been to a huge new wave show at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia in August 1983 featuring The Police, Joan Jett, Madness and R.E.M.

Jim was a quiet and unassuming guy with a huge appetite for new music and books about music. He spent hours perusing pop music history books at book stores and was partial to listening to albums loudly on his stereo headphones while lying on the floor in the dark. Jim was a self taught drummer and guitarist.  A lefty like his hero Paul McCartney, he sometimes played his guitar upside down so the strings were lined up correctly. We had further bonded over our shared struggles of self-taught musicianship and did our best to learn songs together from records.  When I graduated from Rutgers, I asked Jim if he wanted to find a cheap apartment to share and he had agreed. 

Steve and I had asked Jim to join our new ska band, but he was initially non-committal in a very Jim sort of way. It usually took time for Jim to warm up to anything new or different  But, he did say he would sit in on any meetings we had with anyone who came by the apartment and so on the appointed afternoon that Kevin stopped by, Jim was there, quietly taking it all in.  

When Kevin arrived I was caught off guard.  Unlike Steve, Jim and I, who were reserved and quiet, Kevin was loud and quick with witty observations and biting comments.  Kevin initially struck me as a young Rodney Dangerfield, if Rodney had previously been in the Coast Guard and then  a semi-successful hardcore band followed by a rock-a-billy band. Kevin arrived sporting a Stray Cats-style pompadour, a battered trumpet case and an eight pack of 8 ounce mini Budweisers.  He called them nips.  As someone who didn't drink, I was amused by the idea of nips.  They seemed like beers made for toddlers. Needless to say, I had never met anyone like Kevin.  And I'm pretty sure he had never met anyone like the three of us either.

So I go downtown to meet The Voice and his buddy. I got my pompadour skyin’, trumpet case in one hand, eight-pack of Bud nips in the other. I am, after all, a rock’n’roll star. The Voice: Marc Wasserman, bass guitar, songwriter. His buddy: Steve Parker, guitarist, vocalist, songwriter. 

I see these two penniless college grads and all I can think about is the shotgun scene from “Easy Rider”: “Hey, Roy, look at them ginks!” Now I’m introduced to penniless college grad Number Three, one Jim Cooper. Round-rim glasses, mop of blond hair, slap a uniform on the fucker and he could have been in Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.”Jim plays drums but he’s just gonna be temporary”. 

Notes are played, songs taught, ideas exchanged, nippers drunk by me. We are sufficiently encouraged that they invite me back a few days later.

After pleasantries were exchanged, Steve and I played our songs on a small boombox and Steve shouted out the notes and changes to Kevin  while we bashed through the songs.  Kevin did his best to play along on his trumpet but it was clear he was quite rusty.  As we went through the songs, we asked Jim to push the button on a small Casio keyboard that had drum pre-sets on it so we would have some sort of beat to keep us in time.  Our first rehearsal was the sound of Steve and I playing our guitar and bass along to a Gene Vincent rock and roll drum sample with Kevin bleating along nascent versions of what would later become horn parts to our songs.  Though I'm sure we all had a case of mutual culture shock after 90 minutes of rehearsing together, we were sufficiently inspired enough to agree to all met again a few days later when we would be joined by a new face -- Roger Apollon Jr!

Stay tuned for How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 3!

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 1

Happy New Year! 2023 marks the 35th anniversary of the founding of Bigger Thomas -- the very first ska band from New Jersey.  I intentionally did not include the story of my own band in my book Ska Boom: An American Ska & Reggae Oral History. I felt uncomfortable telling my own story and instead focused on the bands I felt needed to have their stories told. But now, in honor of this important milestone, I'm going to tell my band's origin story across several posts here on my blog.

It still seems odd to me that the Garden State, which has been home to some of the greatest and most diverse bands and musicians in the history of popular music -- Sinatra, Monk, The Four Seasons, Springsteen, Fugees -- didn't have a dedicated ska band until I helped to start one in the late 80s. Its even more curious that our rag tag group of seven musical misfits culled from a poster I put up around New Brunswick, NJ would be the band to do it. But we did and it changed my life. 

When I reflect back on how we started and what we accomplished in three short years, it boggles my mind. We quickly went from being a local New Brunswick band to playing and performing with a who's who of ska and reggae bands: Special Beat ( a super group featuring members of The Specials and English Beat), The Selecter, The Skatalites, Bad Manners, De La Soul, The Alarm, Jimmy Cliff, The Skatalites, Burning Spear, Boogie Down Productions and nearly every key American ska band of the 80's and early 90s. 

How did I end up being in the first ska band from New Jersey? The simple answer is that ska and 2 Tone music in particular had been a defining hallmark of my high school and college years. I loved it so much that I willed myself to try and learn the bass so I could be in a ska band. And though I could barely play the bass, I did the best I could. As it turned out, my timing for wanting to play ska was impeccable. In 1986, I had discovered a thriving ska scene in New York which was just a train ride away from New Brunswick. I shared what that first experience was like in the introduction to my my book:
I was paging through the concert listings in the back of the Village Voice and I discovered that there were ska bands playing in New York City! And, shortly thereafter, after, I was watching The Toasters, Beat Brigade, Second Step, The Boilers, and A-Kings all playing a uniquely New York version of ska music. Except these were American kids (well, except for that one British guy fronting The Toasters) singing in New York accents about what was happening on the streets of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. It looked like ska. It sounded like ska and, most importantly, it had the same intensity as the 2-Tone bands I revered. It was LIVE and it was LOUD! And what was really inspiring was that the clubs were packed with kids my age. They wore pork pie hats. They wore Doc Martens and Creepers and they were adorned with band patches heralding my new heroes: The Specials and The Beat and The Selecter. I had found my tribe. I picked up a copy of The Toasters first EP Recriminations, and The Boilers Flotsam cassette tape at Bleeker Bob’s in Manhattan, and then found my way to a copy of NY Beat: Hit & Run; a compilation featuring all the NYC ska bands I was seeing live. This was real and it was authentic and it was life changing.
Between 1986 and 1988 -- inspired by that show at CBGB -- I did my best to learn how to play the bass. I wasn't pretty but I did an apprenticeship in another band formed with college friends -- including original Bigger Thomas drummer Jim Cooper and guitarist Steve Parker -- where the process of writing songs and rehearsing helped me to better understand where the notes on the fretboard were and how to play them. This college band played a mix of new wave, pop rock and rock and roll.  It was fun but I kept pushing to play ska with the support of Jim and Steve -- and when the band ended, we were finally ready to start a ska-only band. 

1988 was a turning point for me for a lot of reasons. At 23 I was a bit lost about what I wanted to do with my life. I had graduated from Rutgers University a year earlier and had done quite well in school but was at a loss about how I could turn a B.A. in Political Science into a real job. My girlfriend at the time was career oriented and though she supported my vague ideas about playing music or starting a band, she also was worried about my future or more accurately our future now that we were college graduates. She had turned an internship at Merck -- just up the road from New Brunswick in Rahway -- into a full fledged job at graduation. She got up every morning at 6 am, put on a suit and commuted to work.  It was a shock to my system just watching her do it.  I wasn't sure I could do it.

In contrast, I worked a series of minimum wage jobs before unexpectedly getting a 3-day a week, part-time job to join the New Brunswick Home News as a real estate reporter in early 1988. Like learning the bass, learning to be a reporter in a newsroom was hard. I was surrounded by reporters who had been trained and knew how to conduct interviews quickly and then knock out copy for stories that needed minimal editing. I quickly realized that the album reviews I had written for the Rutgers college newspaper hadn't prepared me for the task at hand. Working Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I was expected to pick a story topic, interview people for the story and submit it for editing before it was published in the Business section of the Friday paper.  I barely pulled it off.  And after four months of trial and error I was unceremoniously relieved of my duties by a senior editor.  Seeing my byline each Friday had been a real rush, but the pressure to turn around a story was more than I could handle.  I was also clearly out of my league. 

After being let go from the Home News, I was finally ready to start a band. Steve and I got together regularly that spring and early summer.  He loved ska and reggae and we had bonded over that. On first glance, Steve was not someone you would expect to be a guitar god.  He was skinny, unassuming and quiet.  But beneath his veneer was one of most talented musicians I've ever met.  And despite looking like the 99 pound weakling in those Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books, Steve had an anti-authority streak a mile wide.  That anger had caused him to miss graduating from high school because he flat out refused to go to gym class.  He just wouldn't go because there were kids in his gym class who bullied him. And despite being pressured by his teachers and school administrators he held his ground. In addition to bonding over music, we also shared less than satisfactory high school experiences -- I had also been bullied  in high school-- that we funneled into the angry protest songs we were writing. 

Steve had turned his small suburban New Jersey bedroom into a recording studio.  He still lived at home, but his parents encouraged our music making.  His father had been a notable studio musician in the 60s playing on a number of AM radio hits so the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree. Steve had several guitars and basses -- including his father's Gibson Les Paul -- a small drum kit and a TASCAM 4-track.  I would bring him rudimentary bass lines and lyrics for songs and he would disappear for a few days and then play me fully realized songs he had fleshed out and recorded.  I was amazed by what he has created.  He was able to take my aspirational ideas and turn them into real songs.  More importantly, Steve respected my ideas and saw value in them and in me.  After several months of woodshedding together that spring and summer, we had close to ten songs.  We both agreed it was time to find other people to play them with us.

And so, I created the flyer you see above using Xeroxed bits and bobs from albums I loved to advertise for ska musicians. I stapled and pasted them up all over the Rutgers University campus, on campus busses and outside music venues and bars.  And then I waited.  And not two days later, I got calls from trumpet player Kevin Shields and singer Roger Apollon Jr. 

Stay tuned for How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 2!