Thursday, February 23, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 9

The departure of Ken "Miggy" Gayle from the band in late 1988 coincided with the addition of Sean Moore on trumpet. Sean was a New Brunswick music guy who hung out at the Court Tavern and was friendly with our trumpet player Kevin Shields.  It turned out that Kevin had played our demo tape for Sean and he really liked it.  According to Kevin: 

My buddy from town Sean was also a trumpet player and showed up at just about every show we played. After a while, he started to give me things for my horn. He gives me valve oil, he gives me a snake to clean out my trumpet, he gives me the impression that he’s got some time on his hands and that he actually enjoys the atmosphere of the barrooms and college gymnasiums we frequent. So I kinda back-door him into the band- y’know, “Just to see how it sounds,”Luckily for all concerned, Sean, unlike myself, obviously paid attention at his trumpet lessons.

 Jim remembered Sean just showed up at a rehearsal and that was that:

My memory of Sean joining the band is that he just showed up one day, I presume at a rehearsal.  I had no idea we were in the market for another horn player. I thought we would try to replace Miggy somehow. To this day almost 35 years later I don’t know who invited him, was it Kevin, Steve Meicke? It sure wasn’t me!   We simply added him to our motley crew of a horn section. His dog, Sid, was lovable, I must say….

My memories of Sean are similar to Jim's.  He just showed up at a rehearsal and then he was in the band! As it turned out, Sean was a very industrious fellow.  In addition to his trumpet and baritone playing he seemed to know everyone in and around the New Brunswick music scene.  Looking back now, Sean took on the role of promoting the band to everyone he met and those conversations and relationships were often invaluable to us in the early days.  While the rest of us had day jobs or college classes to attend, Sean seemed available to pick up t-shirts on a Tuesday or drive around dropping off press kits and demo tapes on a Thursday at clubs down along the Jersey Shore.  And, even better, he seemed to like doing it. Plus he was a chatty and personable guy and he could start a conversation or talk to anyone. In a lot of ways, Sean took on some of the duties a band manager would have normally handled if we were a normal band.  But we weren't!   

With Sean now officially in the fold, we decided to focus on three things.  First, we knew we needed a band logo.  Sean had connections via his brother-in-law with a t-shirt production house and had gotten his hands on large books with all sorts of designs in them.  As Roger was looking through them one night, he spied the prefect visual representation for our band.  It was a face that was half Black and half white wearing sun glasses. Some astute fans asked if it was based on the picture of Jerry Dammers on the cover art for The Specials first LP. It wasn't, but it certainly could have been.

We later dubbed the logo "Mr Two Tone" and Sean moved quickly to have a batch of the shirts printed with a large logo on the front and a PANIC! in large block letters along the back. They were an immediate hit and one of the most important marketing tools we had as the band grew and we played out more and more. We could not have had a more perfect band logo. It said everything we needed to say about who we were and what we were about in a picture.  It was brilliant.

Next we moved quickly to get official band pictures taken featuring the new line-up.  Sean knew a talented local photographer named Pedro Serrano and we made a date for him to take photos of us around the New Brunswick Central Business District near the train station and a new parking deck.  Pedro had a great eye and suggested we stand in front of graffiti spray painted on a train trestle in downtown New Brunswick that had the lyrics "One good thing about music/When it hits you feel no pain" from the Bob Marley song "Trenchtown Rock."  Those photos still remain my favorite band photos.

The third thing we focused on at the end of 1988 was rehearsing a new batch of songs and using the $500 we had earned from Rutgers University to go back to Greg Frey's studio in late December to record.  Greg was familiar with us from our previous session with him and we were able to record and mix the songs quickly. We picked the three best songs we had been working on to record: "Caught", a catchy ska pop gem written by Roger and Jim about infidelity;  "More and More" which had been one of the original songs Steve Parker and I had written together during early 1988 which was about struggling to figure out what to do when you are in your early 20s with no job prospects.  The third song was "This Means You", an experimental rock meets reggae song -- I'd been listening to a lot of U2 at the time -- about the terrible state of race relations in New York and America in the late 80s.  

"This Means You" was a song I had wavered on bringing to the band.  I had always paid attention to the news and current events and in the mid to late 80s, the New York City media was obsessed with several race related incidents that dominated news coverage that I followed closely and which were the basis for the song which was initially inspired by The Specials song "It Doesn't Make It All Right" and UB40's song "King" which both address racism head on. 

The first incident was a racial attack that took place in Howard Beach when Michael Griffith, a young Black man and two of his friends were set upon by a group white youths outside a pizza parlor in the predominantly white Irish and Italian Queens neighborhood.  

Griffith and his friends had been driving nearby when their car broke down. They had walked three miles into Howard Beach to find a pay phone to call for a tow truck when they were attacked.  In trying to escape from the mob who were brandishing tire irons, bats and tree limbs, Griffith ran onto the busy Belt Parkway where he was hit and killed by a car. 

The attack led to protests led by civil rights activist Al Sharpton and others with marchers carrying signs that compared the neighborhood to apartheid South Africa.  These protests brought out the worst in the white residents of Howard Beach who displayed blatantly racist signs reading "N*****s Go Home", "White Power" and "Bring Back Slavery" as protestors marched by. Following a trial that lasted much of 1987 and which drew non-stop media attention, the three main defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison.

At the same time, the Tawana Brawley rape allegation case -- first reported in late November 1987 -- also dominated local New York and national news outlets.  Brawley was just 15 years old when she accused four white men -- including police officers and a prosecuting attorney -- of raping her.  After hearing evidence, a grand jury concluded in October 1988 that Brawley had not been the victim of assault and may have created the appearance of an attack.   It further worsened relations between the Black and white communities. 

Regardless of the outcomes of each case, I was struck by just how bad things had gotten in the small corner of the world I lived in during the late 80s. I had paid attention in history class in high school and college and was familiar with the civil rights movement of the 60s, LBJ's attempt to create a Great Society and the strides made by Supreme Court decisions that seemed to level the playing field for everyone.  But, it now seemed like all that progress had been for naught and was being erased. And the song and its lyrics, were my early 20 something attempt to make sense of it all:

We had King and civil rights/to fight discrimination/White flight and Black power/all across the nation/It's twenty years later/and things haven't changed a lot/What we could have learned/we quickly forgot

Luckily, Roger liked the lyrics and sang them with power and conviction and the rest of the band liked it too and we were able to come up with an arrangement -- particularly Steve Meicke who came up with a mournful sax part -- that worked. Sadly, despite its initial promise, it was not a song that we played live very much beyond one or two shows. It just didn't fit the energy of the band and the other songs we were playing.  

By early January 1989, we were back to selling and promoting the band with our second demo tape featuring our new logo on the cassette cover and our new line-up.  1989 was about to be a game changing year for us.

Stay tuned for part 10!

No comments: