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! 

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