It’s been almost a year since Marc Wasserman intrepidly began writing the oral history of the American Ska movement. His ambition for the project has been matched only by his passion and commitment to the music and the story. Crafting an oral history on any subject can be a daunting, exhaustive undertaking. So many elements come into play that the author can often find themselves overwhelmed and lost in the details. It can be a painstakingly slow process. The interviews, the coordination of timing, the willingness of an interview subject to be honest and detailed, and, worst of all, the fucking transcribing… it all takes a toll. The work is not for the faint of heart and it’s very easy to get lost and buried under too much detail. Marc’s dedication and perseverance are evident in the pages he’s amassed thus far. Several chapters deep, and the narrative threads are being tied together in a most satisfying and interesting way. Now, fully entrenched and animated with the passion only a true lover of the art can muster, Marc finds himself on a sturdier path the further along he goes; a surer path, one with much stronger footholds. As the story unfolds, so does the author. He’s hit the point of no return now. As the anecdotes and the history weave together, Marc has found a fitting title for this monumental project, and now, for the very first time, we are revealing it.
You’ve been at this for a while now; give us an update on your progress. How long has it been since you “officially” started?
The end of December 2018 marks nine months since I officially started working on the book. I actually started reaching out to people I wanted to interview in January of 2018 and then started writing my first chapter in March. It took me a while to organize what was initially an overwhelming topic. I was initially very scattershot about how I went about researching whom to interview, and I was all over the place. I remember being terrified that I didn’t think I knew how to actually do this. At one point my wife asked me if I was planning to write an encyclopedia of American ska! At the time it sort of felt like I was. My wife suggested I keep it simple and that short conversation actually helped me come up with my approach, which is to focus on key bands that I felt were true musical pioneers in creating a uniquely American version of ska and reggae. Once I had a road map, things started to fall into place and it was full steam ahead.
I hear you have come up with a title for the book. Care to make the official announcement?
I have! The book will be titled Ska Boom! An Oral History About the Birth of American Ska & Reggae 1976-1991. The name came to me fairly early in the process of researching and writing the chapters on each band. As I interviewed more and more musicians, it became clear that each and every one of them had a “lightning bolt” moment when they discovered ska or reggae. For some people it was hearing reggae for the first time and many musicians had life-changing experiences visiting Jamaica. For others, it was the advent and popularity of 2-Tone bands like the Specials, English Beat, the Selecter, and UB40 here in the U.S. It’s amazing how many people I interviewed saw the Specials play live on Saturday Night Live in 1980 and then went out and bought their first album the next day and then started a band. It was life-changing for each of them, and the descriptions they shared were almost universal. In addition to personal experiences that people were having with ska and reggae, it was quickly exploding across the U.S. into a specific sub-culture in places like New York, Boston, Chicago, and LA. It was a musical “boom” that has echoed ever since.
Can you give us a rundown of some of the people you’ve interviewed thus far?
At this point I’ve interviewed close to 125 people and still have more interviews to conduct as I am now at the halfway point of the writing process. My primary focus has been to interview members of each of the bands featured in the book as well as others who were there, including band managers, promoters, DJs, fans. Often I will speak to someone and they will refer me to someone else who can add to the story in some way. I feel like a musical detective. That said, I’ve had the chance to speak to a number of musicians who directly inspired me, and that’s been very exciting.
At this point, do you have a favorite interview?
They’ve all been great, but a few definitely stand out. I loved interviewing Brendan Tween and Mikal Reich of Mephiskapheles at the same time and in person! They are hilarious and often finished each other’s sentences, which made the story come to life in front of me. Their memories of the very early days of the band were priceless. I was a huge fan of the Untouchables – and they were a huge influence on me as a ska musician – and getting to interview vocalists Chuck Askerneese and Kevin Long was a thrill. They were both so kind and gracious to me and shared stories about the early LA ska scene that really bring that time to life. I also loved interviewing Jeff Baker about his life in ska. Jeff started one of the first ska fanzines in the U.S. before he joined the Boilers, who are one of the seminal NYC ska bands of the ‘80s who were a huge influence on many bands that followed them. Amazingly, several members of that band, including Jeff and Victor Axelrod, remain key figures in the American ska and reggae scene of today. I also loved speaking to Duck McLane of the Blue Riddim Band, who in so many ways is the first truly American reggae band. Duck is a walking and talking reggae encyclopedia, and the experiences he shared about visiting Jamaica and befriending members of the Soul Syndicate band and then touring the US are cinematic. The Blue Riddim Band story has mostly been untold, and I’m so excited to be able to ensure that they start to get more of the credit they deserve for honoring and playing an authentic version of reggae that was inspired by the original Jamaican artists.
What, if any, surprises about this scene has your research uncovered? What kind of stuff are you learning that you never knew before?
There have been quite a few! One of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that, for a brief moment in time, ska and reggae music was responsible for breaking down social, economic, and racial barriers that had previously kept people apart. Hearing reggae music for the first time was a truly transformative experience for a number of older musicians I’ve interviewed. Several, like members of the Shakers, Blue Riddim Band, and Rob Hyman of the Hooters, actually made pilgrimages to Jamaica very early on in the ‘70s to learn more about it and were inspired to play it. And, the impact of 2-Tone on the generation of American musicians who came of age in the ‘80s was truly monumental. Seeing the Specials, English Beat and the Selecter – who featured both black and white members singing passionately about racism, crime and politics – helped inspire diverse groups of people to forge unique connections and to found vibrant and racially diverse scenes in places like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The other surprising finding is how the message in reggae and early 2-Tone spoke to so many young people of my generation on a very deep emotional level. The music and the subculture that developed around it was a lifeline for teens that were angry, disconnected, and feeling isolated during the height of the Reagan era. The music built a community, and that sense of community helped support bands and DJs and clubs that helped spread the gospel of ska. One other unique finding is how many people commented on how important not having the Internet or social media or easy access to information made them work harder to find out the name of that song, or band, or search out an album. The detective work necessary to discover something that moved you was an important antidote to boredom. Creativity was valued and being creative was often a means to an end.
Knowing that the scope of this history is very wide, what are you doing to keep yourself on the path of trying to tell a linear story?
In songwriting there is this concept known as KISS. That stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid! I’ve ascribed to that mantra in this pursuit! The book is organized into chapters about each of the bands I’ve identified. And, within each chapter, I’ve followed a pretty simple approach. Let the musicians and DJs and fans tell the story of that band in their own words. Each chapter really is the human condition set to a ska and reggae soundtrack. The story of each band is a unique and utterly compelling microcosm of what moves us to be creative, and the absorbing stories – good, bad and ugly – that happen when creative people come together to make art.
So far, what has been the reception to the idea of the book been?
It’s been incredibly positive! For the most part, nearly everyone I’ve reached out to have been very receptive. Many share my belief that the story of the genesis of American ska and reggae bands and the music they made is one that needs to be told. I’ve heard “It’s about time that our story gets told” more than once. So many of these bands had a direct influence on third wave bands like No Doubt, Save Ferris, Rancid, and Reel Big Fish that came later and finally broke ska in the U.S. in the ‘90s. In fact, members of the Box Boys – LA’s very first ska band -- reportedly spotted a very young Gwen Stefani at a gig at the O.N. Klub in Silver Lake circa 1980-81. Who are the Box Boys you ask? Read the book!
Writing an oral history can be exhaustive. What are you doing to keep yourself focused on the project and how to best tell the story?
Oral histories are really about mining the gold from what cane be 3-hour interviews. My goal is to collect the quotable quotes and anecdotes that will really capture a reader’s imagination. Most musicians like to talk! The trick is to give them space to answer a question broadly and then hone in on experiences that I feel are important and will be entertaining for the reader. In many cases, this has been the first time in a while that some of these folks have reflected back on events from 30-40 years ago. To a person, they’ve all tended to look back wistfully on their youth. Often someone will remember something in the moment as we are speaking. That’s been powerful to witness. I ask how people came to hear ska and reggae music the first time, what inspired them to start playing, how they met their band mates, and the process of starting a band, which is often a surrogate family with all the good and bad that comes along with it. Interestingly, I’ve discovered that, more often than not, instruments find musicians and not the other way around. Most people have been incredibly candid and open about their experiences.
As this is your first book, how do you feel you’ve grown through the experience?
I feel like writing this book has been the culmination of a lifelong love affair with ska music. It hasn’t always been easy, particularly when I first started, but once I found my footing it’s been one of the most satisfying creative experiences of my life. Getting to write about what I love and talk to people about our shared love for ska music has been amazing. Most of the time it hasn’t felt like work. I’ve felt blessed and grateful that I’ve been given the chance to do this.
Do you find the scope of the work daunting? If so, what keeps you motivated in times of doubt or being overwhelmed? How do you find the time and balance between family, work, and all the musical projects you have going on? What keeps pushing you to go on?
Yes. It has been daunting at times. I’ve had to be very disciplined about creating time to conduct interviews, get transcripts made, and write. My wife and family have been very understanding about giving me time on weekends to work, and I took a week off from work this past spring to really get a bulk of work done early. I honestly feel a certain responsibility to all the people who’ve entrusted me with their stories to make sure this book gets finished and published. That really motivates me to keep moving forward at all times.