Thursday, February 16, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 8

After the high of the Court Tavern show, just a few days later we were off to play our first official show in New York City -- listed erroneously as The Panic -- with the New York Citizens (NYCs) at the Cat Club in the East Village. At the time, the Cat Club was one of the premiere live music venues in Manhattan that regularly booked up and coming bands including Jane's Addiction, Faith No More, White Zombie and 24-7 Spyz.

The fact that we were playing a ska show at the Cat Club in late 1988 spoke volumes about how far ska had come up from the underground in New York City in just five years time.  Thanks to The Toasters, The Boilers, The NYCs and The Scofflaws, ska had broken out of Sunday matinees at CBGBs as a younger audience inspired, by 2 Tone had fully embraced ska music and ska culture.

Hailing from Staten Island, The NYCs were among the first wave of ska bands that emerged in the  wake of The Toasters, then spreading the gospel of ska across New York City. My first impression of the NYCs and their manager was that they seemed like a gang who had an intimidating outer borough swagger, both on and off the stage.

The NYC's had their origins in a band called Legal Gender which included singer Robert Tierney, Mike Hicks (drums), Dan Marotta (guitar) and Paul Gil (bass). While attending Manhattan College, Marotta -- who was childhood friends with Tierney -- met keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik. Initially, Legal Gender had a new wave/punk sound with some ska influences, but it was the addition of Chris 'Kid Coconuts' Acosta (the Chas Smash of the band) and the recording of the song 'Overcast' (as a split 7" for Moon Records) which set them on the way to a new sound and a new name.

As a singer and a front man, Tierney embodied the best elements of a sneering Johnny Rotten and an eloquent Morrissey. Though the band were unpredictable and edgy and always seemingly ready for a fight, underneath their bravado lay Tierney's lyrics that revealed a sensitive, literate and socially conscious soul. And right beside him was Acosta who played the role of Dave Collins (of Double Barrel fame) and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, egging on the crowd and showing off the dancing skills he honed in clubs around New York City before he joined the band. Acosta was the perfect foil to Tierney, playing the hype man to a tee.

The group's sound was always difficult to encapsulate, with their inspiration ranging from '60s Stax to British punk, 2 Tone, as well as funk and dancehall. But the beauty of the NYCs, was that they had a genuine enthusiasm for myriad musical styles. Unlike the next generation of ska bands who came to dominate the early and mid 90s, the NYCs were initially more subtle in their genre-blending, preferring a purer sound, often times with only the lead guitar providing a counter style.  Check out this ferocious live show the band played at City Gardens in 1989:

As they matured, The NYC's helped give birth to a uniquely American version of ska (AKA: ska-core) that proliferated after they had broken up. Though The NYC's were contemporaries of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who took the ska-core sound and ran with it in the 90's), it was The NYC's who were among the very first American ska bands to try the kitchen sink musical approach  that helped give birth ska-core.  If you don't believe me just give "Helltown" from the band's seminal "Stranger Things Have Happened" EP a spin. I'd argue that American ska punk had some its earliest origins on this record.

I don't have any clear memories of our performance at the Cat Club that night, but we must have made an impression on the crowd and the NYCs because during the early months of 1989, they invited us to play other shows with them in New York and New Jersey. Though we always sensed a bit of a rivalry with them and they tended to treat us as outsiders because we weren't part of the New York City ska scene, they were also responsible for giving us a lot of early breaks. I later learned that Tierney was a big fan because we didn't have a typical NYC ska sound.  And to their credit, the NYCs also passed word on about us to Rob Hingley of The Toasters who was always interested in any new ska bands on the scene. He soon reached out to us to open a show.

Right on the heels of the Cat Club show, the Rutgers University Programming Committee reached out to us to play a show in the Student Center on a Friday night in early November and offered us $500!  We were ecstatic and immediately decided we would use that money to book another recording session with Greg Frey.  

Unfortunately, the drama with Miggy went up a level after the Cat Club and in the days leading up to the show at the Student Center, his behavior became erratic.  At the time, Miggy had a cadre of hanger ons and he liked to show off to them by buying a few hundred dollars of coke that he then shared.  I remember trying to track him down one day with Roger because he had missed a rehearsal and we walked over to his apartment which was a few blocks away from mine.  After several loud knocks on his door, we heard rustling and finally Miggy cracked the door open and looked out at us wide eyed.  He looked like he had been awake for a day or two.  As he mumbled some excuse about being sick, I looked over his shoulder and saw two women inside who also looked a worse for wear.  I hadn't ever seen coke or been around people who used it so I was a bit confused and concerned.  Roger on the other hand was clearly annoyed.  It was at the point that I noticed that Roger's demeanor and feelings towards Miggy shift. Roger later told me: 

Once it became clear that being in the band for Miggy was social and not musical, I turned off to him.  I was very tired  of his rock star charade. It was clear he was a one dimensional guy.

I don't think I realized then how painful this must have been for Roger.  He had a way of not showing his emotions.  Everything was "all good" and when we as a band encountered any obstacles or challenges he was always positive.  I quickly grew to love his unending enthusiasm for the band and what we were doing.  But I now know that Roger was embarrassed by Miggy's behavior and for good reason.   Roger had looked up to Miggy and his music knowledge and bonded with him as another Black man at Rutgers who shared his passion for a type music and a way of dressing that didn't fit the then narrative of what Black kids were supposed to be listening to -- early Hip Hop -- or the way they were dressing.  It wasn't clear on the surface, but underneath, I now know Roger had drawn a line in the sand about Miggy and he had just crossed it. As Roger said:

Miggy was more into partying and the work of being in a band just wasn't a priority.
Miggy arrived late to another rehearsal we had booked to prepare for the Rutgers Student Center.  We were planning to debut two new songs and so when he didn't show up on time, we began arranging the songs without him.  When he did show up, it was awkward and he mostly sat on a chair in the corner brooding.

The night of the Rutgers show he arrived late again, minutes before we were about to start playing.  He told us he needed to get five people's names on the guest list.  When we explained that wasn't possible, he then sat on a side speaker while we performed, occasionally shouting "PANIC!" at the end of each song. He didn't join Roger at the front of the stage, and when he did stand up, he had no energy or enthusiasm. It suddenly became very clear that Miggy being in the band just wasn't meant to be.  I think he knew that too, but instead of quitting, he acted out in ways that made it impossible for us to work with him.

After we finished our set, Roger and Miggy went outside to argue. After the argument, which we all watched from a distance, Miggy stormed off. And that was the last time any of us ever saw him. It was almost as if he had disappeared into thin air.  Sadly, much later we learned that Miggy had suffered a stroke in his early 40's and then after considerable time recovering in a nursing home and rehab hospital passed away in April of 2010.  He is buried in the Maryland National Cemetery. 

I've often reflected on the short time that Miggy was in the band. Though he remained a mystery to me and I never really got to know him very well, I am grateful for the time we shared together.  When he was on, he was an energetic performer and there were many people who often remarked that the band was at its best when he was up front with Roger for those few shows.  I'm sad he didn't get to go the distance with us, but I believe that different people play different roles in our lives. Some of a lifetime and others for just a short time Miggy's time was fleeting but memorable.

Stay tuned for Part 9!

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