Thursday, March 2, 2023

Ska In My Pocket: How Starting a Ska Band Changed My Life - Part 10


1989 dawned with great promise.  All our initial hard work through playing shows and promoting ourselves during the last three months of 1988 was starting to bear fruit and as our second demo tape made the rounds we started to get local media coverage and we started receiving calls to play more shows. I think it's fair to say that as the first ska band from New Jersey, we were responsible for helping to cultivate a ska scene in the Garden State.  And while it's true that The Toasters and the N.Y. Citizens were playing shows here. we were the first home grown ska band that  people who loved the music could see on a regular basis.

A lot of that had to do with media coverage we were able to generate which lead to word of mouth. In a time a few years before the advent of Internet, people actually read local newspapers and there were three newspapers at Rutgers University that covered the music scene: The Daily Targum which was the official Rutgers University daily paper, The Livingston Medium which was the weekly paper of Livingston College and The Rutgers Review which was the weekly paper of Rutgers College. Each of these college media outlets took notice of us and it had a direct impact interest in the band -- which started to grow exponentially and on the numbers of people coming to see us. 

Our first big show of 1989 was in at Livingston College where Roger and Steve Meicke were still active students in mid-February, 1989.  The show generated significant local interest including a blurb in The Daily Targum in the Friday weekend edition that was published ahead of our show. The paper was available over all four campuses of the University and being featured in the weekend section was a big deal. The result was a large crowd -- at a school that was notorious for students that went home of weekends -- waiting to see us at Lucy Stone Hall.  

Not to be outdone by their larger rival, The Livingston Medium sent a photographer to take our picture and a reporter who reviewed the show saying "They're unreal."  I assumed that meant good!   

As luck would have it, we had started playing out just as the first wave of American ska was beginning to make in roads in key markets around the U.S. During this time the New York ska scene of the mid 80s was shaking out lead by The Toasters who has started touring with their most dynamic line-up led by Sean and Lionel and backed by the best live version of The Toasters I have ever seen.  They were joined by the N.Y. Citizens and Skinnerbox who were also at the top of their game.  Further north in Boston, Bim Skala Bim were also spreading the gospel of ska across the U.S. and in the U.K. It is fair to say that ska was having a moment and as we started to establish ourselves as the only ska band in New Jersey we started getting calls for bookings all over New Jersey and then New York and then the entire Northeast. 

I don't remember much about our SKAFEST '89 show with the N.Y. Citizens at Middlesex County College other than a large crowd that turned out and that their manager offered to sell our shirts and demo tapes for us while we were up on stage opening for them.  At the end of the night their manager paid us what we were owed minus a 20% fee which he claimed he was owed for his troubles and it might have been close to $100!  We were shocked, but we were so green about the business side of music that we just shrugged our shoulders and accepted it.  It was a pretty slimy thing to do and that experience left a very sour taste in our mouth.  It was also the beginning of an unspoken rivalry we developed with the N.Y. Citizens and then all of the New York ska bands who saw us as upstarts from the wrong side of the Hudson River who often couldn't be bothered to give us the time of day.  We quickly took these snubs in stride and decided we were better off blazing our own path in New Jersey versus jumping on the coattails of the New York ska bands. And we would soon be vindicated in that decision. 

One bright spot from the show at Middlesex County College was that word about us made its way down to the Jersey Shore, specifically the Green Parrot located in Neptune, NJ near Asbury Park.  The club had been a restaurant for many years before it was bought and converted into a alternative rock venue. In tandem with local radio station WHTG-FM, the club created a thriving music scene at the Jersey Shore with the radio station introducing people to the bands and the club giving fans a place to see them. It was a perfect music ecosphere and were soon to be part of it.

Word about us also made its way to Randy "Now" Ellis, then the booking agent for City Gardens in Trenton, NJ. Ellis was a self-confessed "ska fanatic" and had been booking ska at the club as early as 1981 when he brought The Hooters, then a full-on ska band to the club. He later regularly booked The Toaster, N.Y. Citizens and Bim Skala Bim, making City Gardens one of the premiere venues for American ska. Ellis was also a fan of reggae and his one of the first promoters to book Toots and The Maytals, Yellowman, Steel Pulse and UB40 in the early 80s. 

For a brief moment, New Jersey was home to two of the best rock and roll music venues in the U.S. and our relationship with the Green Parrot via a Battle of The Bands competition and Ellis and City Gardens during 1989 would prove to be a game changer for us. I'll cover them extensively in future installments.  

No comments: