Thursday, February 2, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part 7!

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