Marc Wasserman is no stranger to challenge. Whether on a stage or writing, Marc is not one to shy away from a daunting task. And now he’s initiated a bold undertaking in his attempt to put to paper an oral history of the American Ska scene. While still in its infancy, Marc’s as-yet-untitled collection of history and anecdotal experience centered around the birth and formation of America’s version of a British stalwart, the founder of New Jersey’s first ska band (Bigger Thomas) is at the outset of a historic venture. This is Marc’s first book, and it is also DiWulf’s first foray into the American ska scene. Marc, who divides his time between writing and performing, is finding the demands of being an author intense but satisfying. Tackling the history of such a revered and storied art form is not something to be taken lightly, and he is finding new challenges with every story told.
What was your impetus for writing this book? What made you decide to undertake this project?
I’ve written a ska blog called Marco on the Bass for some time. My goal has always been to tell the stories of bands, DJs, and people who love ska and reggae music. At one point I focused on posts about all the bands of the New York City ska scene of the mid-80s. I interviewed band members and at one point held a reunion party for the 25th anniversary of the iconic NY Beat: Hit & Run LP released by Moon Records that included all the key bands that were part of the NYC ska scene. That opened my eyes to the idea of documenting the origins of the larger American ska and reggae scene of the mid-70’s through late-80s that was influenced by the 2-Tone movement as well as other musical genres like 80s new wave, punk, and hardcore. It’s an incredibly rich subculture that led to the explosion of the 3rd wave ska in the 1990s with bands like Sublime, No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and more who drew their inspiration from bands like the Untouchables, Bim Skala Bim, the Toasters, Fishbone, and the Uptones.
Tell us a little bit about your life in music. When and how did you discover ska?
Hearing the Specials first album at a friend’s house in 1979 when I was 14 was a life changing experience for me. What I heard confused me at first. The sounds were alien. It was manic and gritty. The syncopated beat was different than anything I had ever heard, and the lyrics were almost indecipherable. But the punk energy of it was amazing, and the reggae vibe and its message resonated with me immediately. It was like a switch was turned on in my brain and I was immediately connected to something much larger. Suddenly, I felt like I was home. I immediately became a disciple of 2-Tone and bands like English Beat, the Selecter, Madness, Bad Manners, as well as UB40 and Steel Pulse. That was the start to a musical journey that has included starting the first ska band in New Jersey in 1988 – Bigger Thomas - and playing ska and reggae music for the next 30 years! I’m still at it, playing live with Rude Boy George and a studio project called Heavensbee.
I know you’re in the early stages of research and writing, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far?
How much more of the story I need to tell! By that I mean, that each interview I do leads me down another path to another story and so on. I thought I knew the whole story but the more I dig the more I realize there is so much more of a story to tell. It’s both overwhelming and exhilarating!
What do you hope people will take away from this book when all is said and done?
I don’t feel that the American version of ska gets the love and respect that other uniquely American sub-genres like punk, hip hop, and hardcore do. I’m hoping through the stories I’m collecting to show how important this music was to a lot of people. This is music that really changed the course of people’s lives. It’s amazing to learn how hearing a ska or reggae song moved a lot of a people to become musicians, promoters and DJs and those people created music scenes that impacted thousands of other people.
Who are some of the people you’ve interviewed so far? Do you have a favorite interview at this point?
I’ve been amazed at how interesting everyone’s individual stories have been. There is something hilarious, moving, harrowing, and sad in nearly every story that I’ve heard. It’s the human condition with a ska and reggae soundtrack! That said, a few interviews have really stood out. Ron Rhoades of The Shakers was particularly fascinating. The Shakers were the first American reggae band. They built a huge following in Berkley, CA in the mid-‘70s and were signed by David Geffen to Elektra/Asylum Records in 1975. Their story is a microcosm of the music business of that time, but also about how far ahead of the curve they were. No one got reggae music in 1976 in the halls of a major record label. I also really enjoyed interviewing Vicky Rose, who was the original bass player for The Toasters. She was one of the few female musicians in the nascent American ska scene of the early ‘80s. She also paints a vibrant picture of the East Village at that time, including a rehearsal space on Avenue A that was home base for The Toasters but also for the Beastie Boys and Bad Brains and many others.
What made you decide to tell the story using the oral history format?
At one point, a long time ago, I considered being an academic, so an oral history seems like the most accurate and academic way to tell a larger historical story from many varying points of view. Also, I didn’t want to bias the larger story with my point of view. But, I also find the spirit of oral histories to be super creative. They provide a ton of leeway in how you can approach telling a big story. Two recent oral histories that I loved reading and that have served as blueprints for my approach include Mad World – An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined The 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein and Walls Come Tumbling Down: Rock Against Racism, 2-Tone, Red Wedge by Daniel Rachel. I hope my book is as good as both of those books.
What has been the most difficult part of writing this book for you?
The most difficult part of writing this book is the actual idea of writing a book –if that makes sense. I’ve never written a book, so intellectually that’s been daunting. But the best advice I’ve received is to just put my head down and do the work and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m a hard worker and I’ve just been trusting my instincts, which, I think, is a good way to go. I see two parts to this process. The first phase is the research and interviewing process. I’m deep into that now. It’s a lot, and there are still a lot of people I need to speak with. Knowing when I’ve reached the end of that phase is one I worry about. I’m always worried I’ll miss that one key story. The second phase is the actual writing phase. I think that will be fun, but I still need to find the thread that holds the story together. I have an idea of how to do that, but I won’t know until I sit down and look at all the stories I’ve got. And it will be a lot of stories!
As a ska fan, why do you, personally, think this book is necessary?
I’ve had a lifelong love affair with ska and reggae. The music helped me get through some very difficult times when I was young, and being in ska bands; being a part of ska scenes has provided me with a surrogate family that means the world to me. As corny as it may sound, writing this book is my way of giving back to so many people who have given me so much and have inspired me through their music. Plus, the story of American ska is one that deserves to be told.
Your love and passion for ska has been well documented through your blog and your many years being a part of the culture. Is there any other type of music you listen to or that inspires you?
I’m equally as obsessed with ‘80s new wave as I am with ska. 2-Tone ska and reggae revealed harsh economic, social, and racial injustices with a power and a fury that was undeniable, but also danceable. It forever influenced my worldview and moved me to learn an instrument and start a ska band. While ‘80s new wave retained the vigor and irreverence of ‘70s punk music that had fueled 2 Tone, it incorporated style and art in a way that opened my world to ideas of love, friendship, fashion, and helped give form to my own burgeoning identity. I sought refuge in new wave's incredible diversity of nervy pop (XTC), synth pop (Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Human League), new wave songwriters (Elvis Costello), pop bands (Squeeze, INXS), pop-reggae (The Police) and more mainstream rockers (Billy Idol, The Romantics). Here in the US, 2-Tone was lumped in with new wave, so, in many ways, despite their completely different musical worldviews, they are inextricably linked in my musical consciousness.
What do you think is the reason for the longevity ska has enjoyed as a movement, as fashion inspiration, and as a music scene?
That’s a question I’ve asked a lot of the people I’m interviewing. Despite the diversity of the people I’m talking to, they almost always say that ska music helps to dance the blues away. When it’s done right, there is an undeniable power and energy to it that is emotionally and physically satisfying. You feel it in your soul. As a musical form it’s also mutable, which has had a lot to do with the more American forms of the genre: ska-punk, ska-core, etc., that appeared in the mid-‘90s. I think the 2-Tone dress style that was driven by the traditional Jamaican rude boy look just never goes out of style. Looking sharp and fashionable has always been as important as sounding good!
What can readers expect from your book?
If I do it right, I hope they can expect an epic story on how the music of Jamaica – ska, rocksteady and reggae-- has served as the inspiration for a uniquely American version with its own subculture. At the very least they will be able to read some very entertaining stories from a very diverse group of people who, at one point or another, have made ska music the be-all-end-all of their lives.
Do you have a title for the book yet?
I’ve got an idea for a title that I’ve shared with a few people and their reactions have been positive, but I want to sleep on it a bit longer before I reveal it.