“Punk was standing up against the stage, standing within the splash zone, catching stage divers, stage diving and hoping to get caught, listening to exciting, energetic, emotional, so-real-it-was-almost-insane music being played by exciting, energetic, emotional, so-real-they-were-almost-insane musicians in small rooms like CBGB’s, A7, and Maxwell’s in Hoboken. A bad show just wasn’t possible.”
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.
By: Steven DiLodovico
I often get asked how I got involved with co-writing No Slam Dancing. Did I know Amy from back in the day? That sort of thing. It’s kind of a funny story. Well, you may find some smiles in it; to me it’s more of a rescue tale than anything else. A harrowing escape, it was. From the depths of a hell-filled indignity I arose… ok, that’s a bit much.
But, for real, she did get my ass out of a bad, bad situation.
I had been living in Charlotte, North Carolina (don’t ask, it’s an even longer story than this, and one I am not at all fond of) for a few years doing nothing but existing. That, and informally adopting colonies of feral cats. I worked in the service industry; a befitting fate for someone as miserable and un-customer-service-friendly as I. I hated it. I hated my life. My wife was just as miserable. The business of existing was thoroughly inhibiting our desire to live.
I was scratching out a few bucks here and there doing some freelance writing. I hated that, too. Lots of “ehow.com” how-to articles for $15 a pop. You know; the big money. I had neither talent nor drive. I hated writing; I hated the act of writing and the self-abasement contained therein. Mostly I just couldn’t stand the sound of my voice in my head dictating the words.
I had a small gig; I forget who it was for, to write about my own experiences in the Philly hardcore scene of the ‘80s. It was nothing major, but it was better than writing step-by-step instructions for changing turntable belts and the other dumb shit I was writing. The piece was turning into more of an essay/memoir than an actual historic document. I was recalling all the great shows I had seen in such hallowed venues as Pizzazz, Revival and such, and I thought to myself; what about that place in Jersey we always went to? City Gardens? I honestly had not thought about City Gardens in well over 10 years. I figured I had to at least give the place a mention, since it had been so important to me at the time. When I was going there I knew practically nothing about the place. I knew there was some guy named randy who ran the place, and I knew that most of the Philly promoters absolutely hated him. That’s about all I had to go with, so I figured I better do some research.
There was no Facebook or Twitter or any of that other shit (Facebook may have been in its infancy at the time; this was late in 2007. If Facebook did exist, I sure didn’t know about it.) I went with the standard Google search and, surprisingly, found very little information about City Gardens. I did find something called “The Seedy Gardeners Group.” It was a Yahoo news group kind of deal, where members went back and forth with conversations via group emails (how quaint!). So I joined and began throwing about general questions asking to speak to anyone who attended shows (specifically hardcore shows) at City Gardens. Just about all of the responses I got were to the effect of: “most of us in this group went to the dance nights at City Gardens and were more into new wave than hardcore. Sorry.” I had effectively given up when I got this message from a woman named Amy:
Email me off group. I have a calendar with every City Gardens show.
Intriguing, to say the least. I emailed her. She told me she was writing a book about City Gardens and she had compiled a calendar with show dates and bills that covered about 15 years’ worth of the club’s existence. Now that was pretty fucking impressive. She sent me something called a PDF file. I had no idea what that was and it took me four days to figure out how to open it. Once I did, though, the floodgates opened and there was no stopping the heavy rush of nostalgia and sentimentality that washed over me. So many shows… So many that I had forgotten more than I remembered (there would come a time, a few years later when I was fully immersed in the writing of this book, where old friends would tell me detailed accounts of shows I had been to with them that I had no memory of. This would become a very common occurrence).
Even stronger than the memories of the shows was the memory of friends I hadn’t seen in so many years. The fun times, the scary times… everything we shared. I was very excited that someone was writing a book about City Gardens, and I enthusiastically volunteered to help in any way I could. Amy offered to send me a chapter she already had done and I couldn’t wait to read it. She sent me a link to a site called the Rumpus. They had posted the (now-infamous) story of the Butthole Surfers wreaking havoc in their own, special way. I was blown away. It wasn’t just the story that got me; it was the format. I had never read an oral history before. I quickly dashed off several of my own recollections and sent them to Amy. We began chatting through email. Amy and I were from two different eras. I was the young late-comer to everything; uninterested in anything that wasn’t hardcore, thrash, etc. The hard stuff. Amy was a new wave/dance night girl who covered a lot of early hardcore while doing her ‘zine Hard Times in the early ‘80s. We both had our areas of expertise and it was almost too perfect how complementary they were.
A few months went by and I kept sending Amy stories. I must have sent over a dozen, and I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of my City Gardens life. I really wanted to contribute to this book. Again, it was the format that pulled me in so deeply. All these different perspectives telling their details of the same story. It was sometimes contradictory and sometimes eerie the way two strangers would point out the smallest details and describe them identically. Meanwhile, Amy and I formed an electronic friendship. I would write her early in the morning before I left for my soul-killing job and return home each night to her reply. No, I didn’t have a phone where I could check email. I didn’t even have a flip phone then. Just a landline. I was always excited when I saw her name in my inbox, and always disappointed when I didn’t. She became a lifeline to my home and my previous life. I wanted in, and I was going to keep pestering her until she asked. I asked her if she had any contacts into the world of the later hardcore bands; the post-’86 wave. She didn’t. Either did I, really, but then I found this Facebook thing…
So, there I was: stuck in Carolina and writing like a madman. Writing to live, really. I got by on more “how-to” articles, interviewing bottom-of-the-barrel porn stars (true story!), and freelancing for a bunch of Hip Hop Magazines. I got to interview some really cool people, and it was fun and all, but I wasn’t making any money. Every week something got cut off; electric, water, gas… It was a laughable combination of juggling and plate-spinning, and each day something new crashed. And me on my psychotic unicycle looking ridiculous amidst the buffoonery. And with each shut-off notice came that dull, impotent anger and guilt-ridden shame of not being an earner of any worth. I just wanted to write; to disappear into that page and forget everything around me but it’s hard when you have a wife staring at you, wondering how the bills are going to get paid…
Each day got a little brighter, though; messages from Amy were a godsend. We would have these really great conversations through email and things were beginning to really click between us. Amy had a very motherly persona; I could tell that even before I heard her voice. As evidence I point to her many stray cat adoptions. She’s that lady in the neighborhood that feeds all the lowly wretches; she has room in her heart for every unkempt straggler, both human and animal. Amy was also very structured, organized and able to get shit done. I could tell just from her emails. She wrote me a proper resume to help me get a decent job (I had no problem getting jobs, I’m hip to the interview gimmick and how it works. What I was not good at was keeping my mouth shut long enough to actually keep the job. I usually got fired after about 6 months. But that’s a whole ‘nother story…)
I was really, really interested in her book. I wanted to be a part of it any way I could and I pestered her with every little thing I could remember about City Gardens. At this point, I’m pretty sure we hadn’t even talked on the phone yet.
I started contacting people; bands mostly. Almost every person I contacted from the hardcore scene of my era was enthusiastic and helpful. Jordan Cooper at Revelation Records gave me email addresses of a large part of the Rev roster circa 87-91. Every person I spoke to turned me on to two or three new contacts and it kept growing. The first person I interviewed was Richie Birkenhead. In my mind, it may as well have been Bowie or someone of that stature. I was that much of a fan and I was incredibly nervous. Luckily it was a phone interview. Richie was very mellow, very nice and endured a good two hours of me gushing about how much I loved all of his bands. Again: I couldn’t have been more un-punk.
I would transcribe these interviews from cheap microcassettes that had been used in a tape (TAPE??) recorder that was at least 25 years old. I’d send them off to Amy and tell her to do whatever she wanted with them. I didn’t care; at that point I was just excited to connect with people whose music had been such a big part of my life. Well, I guess my insidious plan of constant bombardment worked, because soon enough I got an email “formally” asking me to co-author No Slam Dancing with her. Fuck YEAH!
It’s fair to say that that day, that question changed my life forever.
I began conducting more and more interviews. All phoners; all done with my pitiful little tape recorder running the whole time. One interview would lead to two more introductions; conversations of, “oh, you should really talk to this person. They have a lot of City Gardens’ stories.” The scope of this thing began to unfold exponentially. It was very exciting to me; I had never attempted anything so ambitious and the escape it provided was invaluable. When I couldn’t even scrape together enough money to buy new microcassettes, I’d tell Amy, and within a day or two there’d be a package in the mail straight from some office supply chain with packs of tapes. When I couldn’t pay my phone bill to actually do the interviews, Amy would say, “send me the information,” and within an hour it would be back on and working. I’m not proud of these things, but this is the absolute truth. She had never met me, and was doing all this for me. For my family. Without having laid eyes on her, I was ready to do anything she wanted. In an instant she was elevated to that skinhead level of “I would take a bullet for this person” devotion. In my world, that’s the highest honor I could bestow on anyone, and Amy is more than deserving.
But, still, there was a lot of work to be done…
PART III: Amy’s Version
Since Steve is giving his side of the story of how we met – I will give mine.
I started working on this book years ago. How many? I don’t know. I say 15, but I fear it’s been longer than that. Finnegans Wake took less time. The Brooklyn Bridge was built in less time. At times I said I was done with this stupid project, screw it, I’m not doing it. But the Universe was having none it. The story of City Gardens and Randy Now was getting told. By me. No way around it.
I had one bright shining moment when the Butthole Surfers piece was published on The Rumpus – and then nothing. I was at a dead end. I had nothing. I would sit there looking at interview transcripts and wonder, What the hell am I supposed to do with this? I thought of all the people I needed to interview and it just made me want to get drunk and forget the whole thing. My efforts to bamboozle someone – ANYONE – into doing this book with me came to nothing. And then this message appeared on the Seedy Gardens Yahoo newsgroup from some a-hole I never heard of. Steve? Who was this dick? He was all like, I went to City Gardens and does anyone have a list of shows? My first impulse was to ignore it, but I couldn’t.
Emails were exchanged and I could tell this was the sucker, ah – I mean person – I was waiting for. And he knew that whole later era of City Gardens, the era when I had sort of stopped going as much. Literally, a prayer had been answered.
I think the point is never give up. If you’re a creative person and you hit hard times, JUST KEEP GOING. Don’t let circumstances take your vision away. Ever. Keep doing the work, keep producing. You never know what you’ll encounter. It could be life-changing. It was for us.
Social media made No Slam Dancing happen; made it a reality. Suddenly, digging up legends from the past was simple. Contacting them was even easier. Selling them on participating in a book about City Gardens was the easiest part of the entire process. The people who played there had almost as strong a connection with the place as the people who went there. I don’t want to speak in such sacrilegious terms, but I have to imagine the kind of reverence I got from people when they spoke of City Gardens was similar to that which people attached to CBGB’s. I’m not comparing the two clubs (or scenes) by any means, just saying that people had a fondness for City Gardens that went beyond just the structure of the building.
Well, I was working hard; every day was spent engulfed in this world of the past. I found old friends (“show friends”) and we would re-live those great memories through pictures of shows, old fliers, etc. I was getting a lot of interviews on tape; connecting with a lot of people. But there was a wall I was hitting: I was too far away, geographically speaking. I needed to get home.
And, in so many ways, this is what the whole City Gardens project was about for me: going home. I had been away 10 years and now it was time. I couldn’t get anything done being so far away. Phone interviews are great, but it’s just not the same as being able to look a person in the eye when you’re interviewing them. I’ve learned a lot about the interview process: I have found the subtle ways to coax a subject down the avenues you need to get down without being obvious or obtrusive. It was fascinating, and I felt the process evolving as I did. The art of the interview is not an easy thing, especially for me. It’s a constant struggle for me to NOT talk; to just ask a question and let the subject say his or her piece. I talk too goddamn much. I get real excited, especially when the topic is music, and start interjecting and exclaiming. Trying to transcribe my interviews is a fucking NIGHTMARE because I often step all over the responses. And, more than anything, I really, REALLY hate the sound of my voice! This is why I’ve NEVER let anyone else transcribe my interview tapes. I play them back and get the biggest douchechills just listening to myself talk. It’s horrifying.
But jumping into this project was the ultimate trial by fire and I sure did jump in head-first. I navigated on instinct and enthusiasm and a strong sense of purpose. I’ve never taken a single college class; I’ve never studied anything about “journalism” and this flaw was a huge hurdle in terms of self-doubt and lack of confidence. But, again, it was just the sense of purpose; of needing to be a part of this, that drove me. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? Yeah, I’m the fucking KING of that.
So, we went all in (“we” being my wife and I and our two cats). I called in some favors and tried to see about moving back to Philly. I knew in my gut this was what I had to do. Amy had been pleading with me to move for months now. She often offered her home as a place for us to live, and, again, let me stress: we had never even met face to face. I knew Amy only as a facebook picture and a warm voice on the phone. But I had reservations. Doubts. Fears. Bouts of paralyzing anxiety. I am a huge weirdo, with all sorts of annoying habits and “quirks” and I’ve only ever met one person who could put up with living with me (I married her). I didn’t want to inflict myself on these good people. But Amy kept insisting.
I had this job; I was working in an HR call-center that served as an outsourced department for employee health benefits enrollment. It was a giant entity that took on huge corporations as clients and pretended to be their HR department. Companies like Sears and K-Mart and whatever behemoth puppeteer controlled their strings. Their employees called us when it was time for them to re-up their health insurance. They actually thought we were part of whatever company they worked for. Usually the callers were just so happy to hear a voice that spoke English as its first language that they never stopped to think about if we were at all qualified to advise them on their health plans. What a fucking joke. We were $12 an hour wage slaves who couldn’t give two shits about the people calling. It was a 90 minute bus ride each way for me and it was fucking miserable. The last straw was when we were told that our department’s new client was going to be General Dynamics. General Dynamics orchestrated war and did absolutely nothing on this planet but construct things whose only functions were to kill and harm human beings. We got this huge presentation from a couple of over-hyper suits sporting raging war-boners. For real: even the lady suit had a rock-hard warrection while describing missiles and tanks and god knows what else. The people around me got excited, too, which was kind of disgusting and scary. I was sick to my stomach and, on a break, called my wife. I was almost in tears. Crisis of conscience? I’ll say.
So, we loaded up the truck and we moved to Beverly. I mean, Morrisville, that is. We cut all ties with Charlotte, having worn out our welcome there several years before. Just us, the cats, a few meager possessions, and one long-ass drive. Do you have any idea how frigging big the state of Virginia is? It’s forever big and takes twice as long to drive through. But we made it. Barely. It had been a long time since I had to worry about gas prices (the last time I owned a car was somewhere around 1994) and I was continually amazed at how often I had to stop and just how damn much money it took to fill that U-Haul up! We seriously didn’t think we’d make the last 20 miles or so, and as we pulled into my parents’ driveway I knew I was going to have to borrow money to get enough gas to make it to Amy’s.
We made it and it was the middle of a weekday, so Amy was doing her 9-5 thing. Her husband let us in and showed us to the room where we would be staying. And that’s when it all came clear to me. In a small bedroom towards the back of the house was a room filled with memorabilia. Some really cool stuff, too. Deep purple walls, Leopard print on the rug, a green vintage couch, a neon light up that said “lounge…” It was a neat, comfortable room. I almost missed it. It blended in so well with the rest of the décor. On the wall, perfectly matted and framed, was a punk rock collage that was beautiful to me. There, under glass, sat three never-folded record sleeves for Halloween, Three Hits From Hell and Bullet. Originals. Assembled in Glenn’s mom’s basement in Lodi New Jersey. Three perfectly un-creased, perfectly preserved and mounted for all the world to see and probably untouched in decades. They were pristine. Just the sleeves, no records or inserts or anything, up there on display like it was perfectly normal to hang such things in a home. It was a sign. It was an immense sign; a portentous forbearing of how all this would go. And it would go swimmingly. It told me that my decision was right; that this was where I belonged. That this was the first step down a path I was meant to travel. Seeing Amy’s Misfits sleeves hanging there so casually was a comfort beyond words and a boost of strength after such arduous journeys.
We had hours to pass, my wife and I, before our host came home and we would actually have the chance to set eyes on our punk rock benefactor. We stretched out under the Misfits monument and talked quietly. I felt a calm come over me; a certitude that only comes from knowing deep in your heart that you are right. It was a joy to know such peace and confidence and I could feel it sooth both of us. She felt it, too.
When Amy came home it was more like a reunion than a first meeting. There were hugs and excited talking. Amy laughed off the Misfits sleeve’s so casually. “Oh, those? Yeah, Glenn gave them to a guy I did a ‘zine with back in the day, and he gave them to me…” Yeah, cause that kind of stuff is no big deal, right? I was freaking out!!!!
We knew we were onto something here, we just didn’t know what, or exactly where it was going to go. But in those first few hours I don’t think either of us cared. Amy had some long-desired help with this burden of a book and I had the long-desired purpose for which I had been searching all my life. We settled in for a cold, cold winter. I hadn’t seen a Philly winter like that in over 10 years. We hunkered down and began walking up a long, snowy hill that at times was such an insane idea, neither of could believe we were attempting to do this.
The real work had now begun. It would be another 4 or 5 years before No Slam Dancing was finished, but we persevered and, eventually, we had a finished book in hand. The problem: no one had any interest in publishing it. We got a fancy agent and everything. No help. We were told it was “too Jersey,” that it “wasn’t sexy enough.” We had no idea what these things meant and we started to get discouraged. But we were not undeterred.
Around this time a new thing was kind of taking over social media: Kickstarter. Now, I get the criticisms of Kickstarter, I truly do. In many ways it is little more than digital panhandling for people who have no business creating anything. But, back before facebook went super-crypto with all their content-suppressing algorithms: you could post just about anything and all the people who followed your public page would see everything you posted. Oh, those were halcyon days. So, Amy and I dove in to Kickstarter and we relied on every DIY lesson 25 years of punk and hardcore had taught us. We figured that if people really wanted to see this book happen they’d be willing to contribute to its production. We were right.
The highlight of the No Slam Dancing days was obviously having Amy booked on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. That was one of the greatest nights of our lives. And it was HUGE for what we wanted to accomplish. The day after the episode aired we sold out our entire first print run. We quickly set a second in motion and sold all of those as well. It was fucking insane.
And that feeling; that sheer joy of seeing something through to the end; to contributing to a history that we loved and revered, and to see it all come to fruition in a very grass-roots kind of way, was inspiring to us. We wanted to do the same for other authors we respected and admired; authors who might face the same publishing challenges we did. We wanted to provide a home for history, especially the histories that would be overlooked by the mainstream world. We wanted to make dangerous literature and vivid histories. What began as a last-minute name invented just to have something on the spine of No Slam Dancing became an entity itself. DiWulf Publishing House: Heavy Lit Is Our Specialty.
-Steven DiLodovico December 2017
It is with great excitement that we announce Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore by Freddy Alva has reached our warehouse and will be going out in the mail very soon. This includes ALL orders through DiWulf.com as well as Amazon orders. Shipping should begin by 11/17/17, and all scheduled book signings will go forth as planned. Cancelled book signings will be rescheduled, and we will bring you that information as soon as we have it. Again, we cannot thank you enough for your patience and your continued support and we promise: you will not be disappointed once you have this book in your hands!
You can also get a signed copy of Urban Styles directly from the author at any one of the upcoming book signing events we have coming up:
Also, stay tuned for more information on book signings in Miami, LA, Queens NY, and Yonkers NY.
By: Steven DiLodovico
Freddy Alva is deeply entrenched in New York subculture, and has been since his teenage years. This Peruvian-born writer and acupuncturist has the underground in his blood. He was a fixture in the New York Hardcore scene of the ‘80s as more than just a spectator. Freddy and longtime friend Chaka Malik were responsible for the seminal ‘zine The New Breed and the subsequent compilation cassette that has now become a NYHC legend in its own right.
Freddy has now embarked upon a journey of documenting a largely underappreciated melding of subcultures: graffiti and its symbiotic influence over (and inspiration by) hardcore music. In the ‘80s, the hardcore that came out of New York City was so closely intertwined with hip-hop culture that it seemed like every band expressed some kind of intrinsic inspiration from a culture that was rapidly being taken up by the mainstream as a social phenomenon. New York Hardcore sought to keep it grimy, though. Almost every hardcore band out of New York had an “intro bust” in their live set or as the kickoff to their demo, every 7” cover had some form of a tag as the band’s logo. The two genres were, in many ways, inseparable. Many musicians also doubled as writers, and their tags were seen all over the city. Many Emcee’s took hardcore and punk’s DIY values and put their own music out themselves. The era was rich with a blending of subcultures that transcended race, economics, and geography.
In his new book, Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore, Freddy is seeking to celebrate a lost art form and to tell its outlaw story from the mouths and hands of those who lived and created it. I recently talked to Freddy about what the world can expect from his book and why it needs to be out there.
How did you find hardcore? Or did it find you?
I found hardcore by flipping through radio channels in 1984. There was a new wave station called WLRI out of Long Island that had a show called "Fun" in which they played harder-edged stuff like Throbbing Gristle, Killing Joke, and Clock DVA. I heard Killing Joke’s "Wardance" & was completely blown away. I went to a record store in the East Village to buy their record and, while flipping through the “K” section, I saw Kraut’s "An Adjustment to Society" LP. That struck a chord as I remembered seeing their "All Twisted" video on MTV, and by reading on the back cover that they were from my neighborhood of Queens, that sealed the deal. Kraut was the first hardcore record I bought, and that led me to seek out any other bands that played this kind of music.
What was your introduction into the graff world?
When I was 11 in 1980 and going to grade school everyone in my neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, had a tag and wrote to a certain degree. When I got old enough to ride the trains I noticed and took note of the incredible kaleidoscopic images graffiti writers were writing inside and outside of the subways, blanketing the city as their own personal canvas. Older local writers showed me and my friends how to write, rack up paint, and get into the tunnels. It’s all a rite of passage for people my age that grew up in New York City’s five boroughs.
What was your motivation for putting this book together?
My interest came about a couple of years ago when I did an article for the No Echo website entitled "Graffiti and The Hardcore Connection". In it I profiled several writers whose work I’ve admired, the only provision being that they had to have played in bands. I included writers from California and Pennsylvania, but the majority of the writers were from New York City. This led to me to think about the unique and widespread synthesis of graffiti and hardcore in New York, as opposed to other cities in the US, where there were instances of that fusion but not to the overwhelming effect as there was in NYC. That synthesis had been going from the beginning of hardcore in the city all the way up to the present era. My goal with the book is to spotlight a largely unknown connection between two important subcultures and show the common reference points that they both synergistically fed off.
What eras/years are you covering?
I’ve broken down the eras into 3 phases: the early days of 1980-85, the Golden Era of 1985-1995, and the current era from 1995 to today. I realize current graffiti historians put NYC graffiti into 5 distinct phases, my deviation from that is a bit different because of the hardcore angle. The music and subculture had not been properly developed and codified, arguably, until 1980-1981.
In your opinion, how important was the melding of the two cultures, hardcore and graffiti?
I think it was extremely important as hardcore was seen, in its infancy, as a primarily suburban, middle-class phenomenon. The inclusion of graffiti, a uniquely urban art form, allowed a wider range of experiences to draw from. Issues of class, race, and social status figured prominently in the hardcore scene, as reflecting a microcosm of what New York City is. Graffiti allowed kids to make their own personal urban stamp on what was, for the most part, a homogeneous hardcore scene nation-wide.
What is it about the two cultures that make them so similar?
I think there were parallels in both subcultures, such as the outlaw angle. The same mentality that took to go into unauthorized locales such as train yards was present in setting up shows in abandoned and/or illegal spaces. The drive to get your graffiti tag or name up as much as possible was also present in bands trying to get their name out by any means necessary via flyers/wheat pasting. In New York especially, the same kid that wrote and was down with a crew could easily make the transition to hardcore as the stark, utilitarian underground sound was an appealing alternative to the commercial fodder flooding the airwaves at that time.
How significant a role does the actual city of New York play in influencing and informing both art forms?
The geography of NYC greatly impacted graffiti as it took a person out of their comfort zone, namely the neighborhood they grew up in, and took them to areas they might never have gone and interacted with people they would never have otherwise. Graffiti was the great common denominator, crossing over ethnic/social classes and unifying kids from wildly different backgrounds into a common goal. The same can be said of hardcore: a small percentage of kids lived in the epicenters of NYHC, namely Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Kids traveled from the outer boroughs, upstate NY, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and it was NYC’s mass transit system that provided a direct and lengthy commute. The economic blight of the city in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s also played a huge role in shaping both art forms, as it allowed kids to use the bare minimum of resources to express themselves in a society that appeared to be falling apart at the seams. The dire circumstances provided a fertile ground for art to flourish.
You’ve interviewed a number of musicians and writers for this project, who can we expect to hear from? Do you have a favorite interview thus far?
I’ve done about a dozen interviews so far. Writer/musicians like Sergio "DEEM" Vega from The Deftones/Quicksand, Gavin "NATZ" Van Vlack from Burn/Absolution, Louie "KR" Gasparro from Murphys Law, as well as leaders of what is a unique New York phenomenon: graffiti crews made up of mainly hardcore fans, people like DMS president Danny "EZEC" Diablo and Ed HUSH from SPORTS (Skins & Punks Out Rocking The Subway) fit this category. My favorite interviews were the ones in which all I had to do is ask one question and the responder was off and running, speaking non-stop for the next ten minutes, covering many different important topics. It’s a pain in the ass to transcribe, but totally worth it. I would say all the interviews are my favorites, everyone explaining in their own fashion this thing we call NYHC graffiti and why it matters.
Along with interviews, will there be photos? What can we expect to see?
I want to showcase unseen photos of pieces and tags done by writers that played in bands as well as writers that did tributes to NYHC, either by name checking bands and/or doing flyers/shirts/logos/record covers that referenced this vibrant scene. There is a huge body of work from the past 36 years that most people have not seen put together in one place, all the better to highlight its full visceral effect.
Have you ever put up any pieces?
I was never good at doing pieces. I was more of a tagger and doing throw-ups kind of writer. The couple of times where a full piece did go up with my name, it was through the efforts of a couple of old friends of mine that were good at piecing. All I did is help with coloring the finished work and sign my name next to it. Belated thanks to ROTE and DEEN, both X-Men crew, for hooking me up way back when!
Who should be interested in reading this book?
There is an obvious built-in audience in the graffiti and hardcore worlds that are interested in these subjects, but I think that there’s a wider range of readers that would be into it. Anyone that enjoys reading about NYC in the ‘80s or urban metropolises in general, will find something to take away from the book. Plus, the pure visual impact that will appeal to anyone based just on the overall intrinsic aesthetic value.
What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
My goal is to document a largely unknown connection between two seemingly disparate subcultures that continues to resonate in this modern era, long after their respective heydays. I also want to give an alternate history of what’s long been held as the gospel truth in Hip-Hop history, namely the assertion that Rap was the exclusive soundtrack to Graffiti writing. This was clearly not the case from my experience and from talking to other people that were around back then. Guitar-based music such as heavy metal, hard rock, and, of course, hardcore, was the preferred soundtrack for many writers. The history of a particular subculture’s origins can sometimes be shown in a way to fit a particular agenda. My aim is to give a voice to an untold story, largely from the people that were there, and to ultimately give a multi-dimensional view to what’s become, to a large extent, a nearly extinct phenomenon: urban subcultures.