Thursday, February 9, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 7


The lead up to our first show at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick in late October of 1988 took a rather dramatic turn. We had only been together for about 8 weeks at this point, but our toaster Miggy was starting to show us another side of his personality. 

The response to Roger and Miggy from our first show had been significant -- they were both being recognized as minor celebrities around Rutgers and around New Brunswick. What we had learned was that while Miggy had charisma and charm, he also had a temper that could flare out of nowhere.  After making an impression on the crowd at Scott Hall, I think it's fair to say the attention that Miggy started to receive went to his head.  And, that attention mixed with the cheap cocaine he was fond of using wasn't helping matters. Much later, Roger confessed that as much as he wanted Miggy to be in the band, he had concerns about whether or not it would ultimately work out. 

I thought he would be great but I also knew that it would probably be the worst thing for the band. Because, I knew him. I knew his quirks, I knew the type of guy he was. And I'm like, "He's not a band guy." 

With our first demo recording done and now being shared and sold all over New Brunswick, we were focused on preparing for and promoting our very first show at the Court Tavern and also mentally preparing to play our very first show in New York City -- a SKALO-WEEN show -- three days later at the Cat Club -- where we were being billed as The Panic -- opening for the New York Citizens. To say we were all feeling a mix of excitement and stress would be an understatement. 

A few days before the Court Tavern show, Jim, Miggy and I gathered at Roger's apartment to work on a new song idea.  Also there was Roger's roommate James, who was also a very creative fellow.  He had designed the original logo for the band and also had lyrics for Jim's music he wanted to run by us.  

Here's what James remembers about what happened next:

I wrote a poem that Roger liked, so we decided to turn it into a song using Jim's music. When it was done, we had Miggy, Marc and Jim over to work on it. Right from the beginning two things became apparent: first, this was not a good song, and second, it was worse as a duet. Miggy was a great shouter, not a singer. I hated what he was doing to the song and we started to bicker, and tensions started rising. 

If memory serves, James' lyrics were more abstractly serious, while Miggy thought we should be writing an upbeat happy ska song about dancing rude boys and rude girls. Roger disagreed and asked Miggy if he had any other lyrics, but he didn't. Roger got annoyed with Miggy for not taking the session seriously.  Roger took James' side in the disagreement and Miggy felt Roger wasn't backing him up.  James picked up the story again:

Miggy decided to leave and like a dummy, I decided I needed to walk him out. At my front door, we exchanged additional unpleasantries, and then we came to blows. Actually, all the blows that we came to came from him. All I could do was cover up. It was like I was under a waterfall of fists. After a point, the boys were able to break us up and Miggy left. I ran into him on campus the next day. And, instead of beating me up, he hugged me and we talked it out. He seemed amused by the whole affair and the two of us just went back to being friends.

It turns out that one of the punches that Miggy landed on James ended up breaking his hand and Miggy showed up at rehearsal a day or so later with a cast on his left hand but not wanting to discuss what had happened or explain why he was wearing a cast to the rest of the band.  It was only much later that Roger shared more with me about Miggy, his complicated relationship wit him and Miggy's penchant for using cocaine. Roger had met Miggy in 1986-87 during his Sophomore year at Livingston College. The friendship revolved around listening to music, doing coke and smoking weed. According to Roger:

Miggy was super smart but he also could act like a real Jamaican rude boy and could blag his way into anything or anywhere: girls, food and drugs.  He was a hustler and tried to get over all the time.  He was a rude boy as a lifestyle whereas I was a political rude boy down with 2 Tone.  Miggy was happy with drinking, smoking, snorting.  He didn't have big plans beyond the next good time. 

Unfortunately, despite their shared love of ska and reggae and bonding over the pressure of being the sons of Caribbean immigrants who expected great things from them both, cocaine became the way for Roger and Miggy to connect. However, once the band and all the work required to keep it going became clearer and Roger became more of the center of attention-- cocaine became a wedge between them.  As Roger told me: 

Cocaine was a way for us both to get confidence and it was a coping mechanism.  We were both outcasts from the Black community, but Miggy was a loner.  And when I was with him, we hung out in his world.  He couldn't share the attention. He needed to be the center of attention.

Despite the fight we tried moved forward and kept rehearsing, though we noticed there was a change in how Miggy was carrying himself and his interactions with all us. The show at the Court on that Thursday night October 27, 1988 was packed.  Though the crowd was smaller because the basement held fewer people, the response was just as frenzied as the Scott Hall show a few weeks earlier.  And at the show that night someone showed up with a bulky late 80s video camera and recorded the whole performance.  Below is footage from that night.

It is surreal to watch the footage of us all performing from that night thirty five years ago.  We all look so young and so do all the people in the audience -- many of them friends and members of the New Brunswick music scene. What stays with me as I watch is the serious sense of purpose we all had.  For me, it was strange to finally be on stage at a venue I had been to many times as a paying customer. But more than anything, its unusual to see one of your very first shows as a musician -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- on display. I used to cringe when I watched this footage.  Now I feel a sense of accomplishment.  I had a dream to play the bass, start a ska band and play 2 Tone inspired music and here it is, in all its VHS glory forever captured by a fish eye lens and bad lighting in the basement of a dive bar in New Jersey.  

But the the thing that stands out most when I watch this footage is that cast on Miggy's hand.  That cast on his hand is the lasting memory I have of him, because within a few weeks, we would never see him again.

Stay tuned for Part 8!

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