The following is an exclusive excerpt from the upcoming book Skaboom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History by Marc Wasserman.
I was a sensitive kid and small for my age. I had a full head of very curly hair that my mother loved but I hated. It made me stand out when I just wanted to fit in. And, despite my desire to just go with the flow of life, I felt things deeply. Where most kids my age seemed carefree, I worried a lot and often preferred to retreat into my own world; a world populated by Matchbox cars and green plastic army men. I was always more comfortable speaking to adults. They seemed to get where I was coming from and appreciated what my mother called my “old soul.” The way I saw it, kids my own age were mean, and the meanest ones seemed to relish taking advantage of my easygoing nature and extreme gullibility. I guess I was an easy mark. This sense of not quite fitting in was exacerbated by two moves in the span of three years. I was eight years old in 1973 when we moved from Princeton, New Jersey to Medfield, Massachusetts. When I was 11, we moved again: this time from Medfield back to Princeton. Instead of giving me a tougher skin, the moves made me feel more vulnerable and alone. The first move in 1973, which came at the height of the Watergate scandal and the last days of the Vietnam War, was particularly hard on me. As the expanding political crisis engulfed the country there was a growing crisis looming in my own home. My parents’ marriage was beginning to show very significant signs of unraveling. On top of that, my younger sister and I were the only Jewish kids in the local elementary school. Though I didn’t experience any overt anti-Semitism (that would come much later, in high school), I did feel like an outsider in a school that was nearly 100% Irish and Italian Catholic. Then, in early 1974, my six-year-old sister was diagnosed with a severe case of ulcerative colitis. She spent a lot of time in and out of Boston Children’s Hospital, and I spent a lot of time in the waiting room with my distressed parents. I felt lost and I was searching for some way to make sense of a life that wasn’t making any sense to me. My parents were distracted by my sister’s illness and by their own marital drama. So, it was music that spoke to me. Car rides became time for me to disappear into music on the radio, and I asked my parents incessant questions about who was singing each song, what the song was about, and why these 3 minutes and 30 seconds of pop music were making me feel so emotional. At some point my mother decided to take me to the local Lords department store in downtown Medfield. A small section of the store stocked 45 singles that were popular on the Billboard charts. Slowly, I began to put together the link between what I was hearing on the radio and the vinyl versions that I could buy and take home to listen to whenever I wanted. Once I had my own copies of the songs, I began to break them down and dissect them. These songs became a distraction and a refuge and shined a bright light on stories of injustice, sacrifice, and the emotional pain that was endured by the characters in each song. I imagined the backstory for the protagonist in “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” by Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods, and I worried about him: …The soldier blues were trapped on a hillside/The battle ragin’ all around/The sergeant cried ‘We’ve gotta’ hang on, boys/We gotta’ hold this piece of ground… And I was wrecked that Billy died in the end. Helen Reddy’s version of “Delta Dawn” also haunted me. Despite the upbeat, gospel-tinged choir, eventually Delta Dawn goes insane searching in vain for her lost love: …She’s forty-one and her daddy still calls her ‘baby’/All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy/’Cause she walks downtown with a suitcase in her hand/Looking for a mysterious dark-haired man… And Cher’s “Half Breed” painted a vibrant picture of racism that was rarely heard on pop radio: …Half breed that’s all I ever heard/Half breed how I learned to hate the word/Half breed she’s no good they warned/Both sides were against me since the day I was born… It broke my young heart. Terry Jack’s 1974 hit “Seasons in The Sun” was about a man who was dying, and it made me worry even more about my sister. …Goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die/When all the birds are singing in the sky…
Much to my great relief, my parents announced we were moving back to Princeton in the summer of 1976. The respite was short-lived. After three increasingly difficult years at John Witherspoon Middle School, followed by two challenging years at Princeton High School, my parents finally separated, and it became clear to all of us that their fractured relationship could not be repaired. I stood by as they angrily debated selling our family home as part of their pending divorce. Though VI the shouting and recriminations faded once my father left, the ensuing silence and his absence left me feeling very alone. I was also enduring the relentless efforts of a group of bullies at school. In American history class we were studying Prohibition and our teacher mentioned the famous 1920s-era gangster Hymie Weiss. Almost immediately a few of my classmates started to call me “Hymie Weiss.” What started as cruel teasing soon escalated. The more I protested the name, trying to reason with them that it was anti-Semitic, the more the teasing intensified. And then it crossed over into bullying. Somehow, one of them had discovered my locker combination. One morning, as I opened my locker, I was confronted with a picture of Yasir Arafat, leader of the PLO. Constant teasing was one thing, but it was at this point that I finally broke down and told my mother what was happening. Despite my protests, she called the school principal. He put an end to the bullying, but the result was that these former friends, with whom I’d walked to school, eaten lunch, and socialized with, completely stopped talking to me. I was no longer being bullied, but I was essentially on my own. Needless to say, the stress and pressure began to take its toll.
And finally, when everything seemed so hopeless, The Specials and 2 Tone came into my life. While commiserating with a high school friend, he pulled out The Specials’ debut, self-titled album, and put it on his stereo. “You’ve got to hear this,” he yelled over the first bars of “A Message to You Rudy.” 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. While the music was mesmerizing, the album art was just as powerful. A gang of seven men – five white and two Black – stared out at me with intent. They looked angry, as if they were daring anyone to take them on in a fight. And yet, there was urgency to their message of unity and understanding that I needed to hear. Just because you’re a black boy/Just because you’re a white/It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him/Doesn’t mean you got to fight, sings Terry Hall in the calypso-flavored “Doesn’t Make It All Right.” It sounded simultaneously joyous and pissed; hopeless and idealistic, nostalgic and innovative. It was everything I was feeling as a bullied teen searching for an identity, and it was a way for me to make sense of the fucked up world around me. In short order I connected the dots from The Specials to all the other 2 Tone bands. Soon I had collected albums by The Selecter, The English Beat, Madness, Bad Manners, and UB40. With no male role model at home I was immediately drawn to the charismatic, idealized, parental figures singing out to me: Terry Hall and Neville Staple, Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson, Suggs and Chas Smash, Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, Fatty Buster Bloodvessel, Robin and Ali Campbell – whose insight and lyrics regaled me with tales of life on the streets of exotic places like Coventry, Birmingham, and London. The songs were about racism, crime, politics, paranoia, and insanity. They were introspective; reflective songs whose descriptions of challenge and struggle spoke to me in ways that no music before had ever done. Though each band was unique, they all shared a similar, powerful message that comforted me and helped me develop a chip on my shoulder. I was prepared to fight for the underdog and call out racism and hypocrisy where I saw it. I learned that it was ok to feel angry and confused, and that I could channel that negative energy into something positive.
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After spending most of my free time listening to these records, I quickly became a full-fledged convert to the Church of 2 Tone, and it was a glorious revelation. Though I may not have looked like a Rude Boy on the outside – I had no means or money to get Creepers or Levi Sta-Prest trousers or a pork pie hat -- I was a Rude Boy on the inside and in my heart. And I still am today. As Bob Marley intones in “Who Feels It (Knows It):” Every man thinks his burden is the heaviest/But they know because they feel/Who feels it knows it, Lord. I knew it. Instead of drugs and alcohol, I escaped completely into music. I haunted local record stores and spent what little money I had on records and tickets to see live shows. Seeing The English Beat at the Fountain Casino in Aberdeen, NJ, in April of 1983, set me on a path I continue to walk to this day. What stands out about the show was the pure energy of the band and the almost out-of-body experience I had watching them. I paid very close attention to Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger in particular. I watched how they moved on stage, what they said between songs, and how they sang into their VII microphones. But it was the rhythm section of David Steele and Everett Morton that truly fascinated me. I was drawn to Steele’s fingers on the fret board: they were a blur moving up and down as he shuffled his legs and body in time. I studied the interactions he had with Morton. I listened to how the bass and drums were locked in, and how Morton’s syncopated rim clicks and Steele’s bass lines drove the songs forward. It was an education in stagecraft and performance that I had never seen up close. It also didn’t hurt that I knew every English Beat song by heart and sang and danced my ass off. But it was a Madness show later that summer (also at the Fountain Casino) that remains a touchstone of my life. Madness had embarked on a coast-to-coast American tour that summer, and they had a song climbing up the charts in the U.S. “Our House” was quintessential Madness. It was an upbeat pop classic with a jaunty piano line that anchored melancholy lyrics about the chaos and beauty of family life. It became my song.
As Madness was singing to me that summer, I hardly noticed the end of my adolescence and the start of my adult life. There I was, decked out in my homemade 2 Tone uniform: one of my father’s old suit jackets and a black tie, with a beer in my hand like a character from the “House of Fun.” I knew every song the band played that night and shouted along euphorically during “Our House.” A week away from leaving my childhood home for college, the counterpoint melody of the song took on a bittersweet meaning: Something tells you that you’ve got to get away from it… It was a sharp stab of reality and it was the end of my innocence. Off I went.
Then, in 1986, I made a very important discovery. I was paging through the concert listings in the back of the Village Voice and I discovered that there were ska bands playing in New York City! And, shortly after, I was watching The Toasters, Beat Brigade, Second Step, The Boilers, and A-Kings all playing a uniquely New York version of ska music. But these were American kids (well, except for that one British guy fronting The Toasters) singing in New York accents about what was happening on the streets of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. It looked like ska. It sounded like ska and, most importantly, it had the same intensity as the 2 Tone bands I revered. It was LIVE and it was LOUD! And the most exciting part was that the clubs were packed with kids my age. They wore pork pie hats. They wore Doc Martens and Creepers, and they were adorned with patches heralding my new heroes: The Specials and The Beat and The Selecter. I had found my tribe. I picked up a copy of The Toasters’ first EP, Recriminations, and The Boilers’ Flotsam cassette at Bleeker Bob’s in Manhattan, and then found my way to a copy of NY Beat: Hit & Run; a compilation featuring The Toasters, Urban Blight, The Boilers, Second Step, Beat Brigade, A-Kings… all the NYC ska bands I was seeing live. This was real and it was authentic and it was life-changing. Another step forward.
I had an epiphany after a few more highly influential ska shows I witnessed in New York City. As I stood in the middle of a heaving dance floor full of Rude Boys and Rude Girls watching The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim destroy CBGBs, I thought I can do this, too. And without any previous experience or musical education of any kind, I decided I would pick up a guitar. Shortly thereafter I learned that Paul Simonon of The Clash had not known how to play the bass when he joined the band. I decided I would also become a bass player. My decision was solidified when someone I met at a ska show told me that none of the members of UB40 had known how to play their instruments before they started the band. With that small, but very crucial bit of information, I lobbied my mother for a bass guitar. Seeing my passion for music she agreed and ordered me a cheap, cherry-red bass guitar out of the Sears Catalog. It arrived in a cardboard box and I stared at it for a few days in a complete panic. What was I supposed to do with this thing? When I slung it over my shoulder it was heavy and awkward, and the metallic strings clanged when I plucked at them. I struggled to fret the notes with my fingers. It was a disaster. I felt defeated. But I persisted. A friend who was a punk rock bassist took the time to show me where the key notes he played (C, G, and D) were, and soon I was playing very rudimentary bass lines. I still didn’t really know what I was doing or what I was playing, but I stuck with it. I did my best to pick out notes I heard while listening to my favorite records, but, in the end, it was easier for me to write my own bass lines and lyrics to go along with the ska and reggae songs I heard in my head and felt in my heart.
After an apprenticeship of almost two years playing very basic punk rock with a group of friends I met while attending Rutgers University, I made the jump to starting my own ska-only band with a talented musician named Stephen Parker. He shared my passion for 2 Tone, ska, and reggae music, and he had endured a few tough years in high school like me. We bonded over how music had saved us from bullies and from feeling isolated and alone. Even though Stephen was a much better musician then I was – his father was a well-known studio musician-- he tolerated my DIY bass playing. He really liked my lyrics, and he would often disappear with them for days at a time, only to return with fully fleshed-out songs he had recorded on a TASCAM 4-track recorder in his tiny bedroom. We soon had a small collection of original songs that featured my lyrics and proto bass lines and his dynamic drumming, guitar playing, and piano. We decided it was time to start our own band, so I hung a “Calling All Rude Boys” poster around the Rutgers campus advertising for other musicians. I added my phone number at the bottom. Within days I had received calls from Roger Apollon Jr, the charismatic son of Haitian immigrants, who had been a singer in a local reggae band. Kevin Shields, a member of a local punk band called Detention, also contacted me. He had played the trumpet in high school and he wanted to try it in a band. Roger brought along his Jamaican-American friend Ken “Miggy” Gayle, who lived and breathed ska and reggae. Miggy dressed like a Rude Boy and could also toast and sing. I was able to convince my Beatles-obsessed roommate, Jim Cooper, whom I had met my freshmen year, to play the drums. The final pieces were Steve Meicke, a saxophone player I met at a Ranking Roger show at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ, and Sean Moore, a gentle soul who also played trumpet. And, just like that, in the matter of a few short weeks during the summer of 1988, New Jersey had its first ska band: Panic!
We were a diverse bunch: black and white, Christian and Jew; college graduates and working stiffs. Our songs were as diverse as our lineup: they were quirky, thoughtful, and sensitive. They were influenced by 2 Tone and UB40, but they also had roots in ‘80s new wave and rock. With Roger and Miggy’s undeniable energy up front, Jim’s manic drumming and Kevin, Steve, and Sean’s horn lines, we were on to something. It’s hard to believe now, but our first show was opening for New Jersey hardcore legends Vision, along with the New York Citizens at a CISPES (Citizens in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) benefit show held in a large lecture hall on the Rutgers campus in September of 1988. The New York Citizens, at that time, were the darlings of the burgeoning NYC ska scene. We were terrified at the prospect of playing our first show in front of nearly 500 people. I don’t think I have ever been so nervous. The first few songs were a blur, and I made many mistakes (I actually forgot how to play one song), but the crowd loved Roger and Miggy’s crazy energy. Somehow, we impressed the members of the New York Citizens enough that the word spread and made it back to New York and to Rob Hingley of The Toasters. It was on the strength of these word-of-mouth reviews that we were booked for more shows throughout New Jersey. We were lucky enough to play some of Jersey’s most legendary clubs: the Court Tavern in New Brunswick (which was owned by the reggae-loving Bobby Albert) and City Gardens in Trenton (booked by the ska-obsessed Randy Now) and Green Parrot in Neptune. Soon enough we were being asked to play shows with The Toasters, New York Citizens, Bim Skala Bim, Public Service, The Now, The Hi-Hats, and more. Randy Now took a shine to us and booked us regularly at City Gardens to open for reggae (Sister Carol, Yellowman, Burning Spear), hiphop (De La Soul, KRS-One), and punk bands (Token Entry).
Winning a battle of the bands competition at the Green Parrot in 1989 gave us the time we needed to record our debut album, which we released independently in early 1990. Just as we were getting ready to finalize the artwork for the album sleeve, we received a cease and desist letter from a lawyer representing a heavy metal band called Panic. After a few shows without a name I suggested Bigger Thomas (I was reading Native Son by Richard Wright and was inspired by the name of the main character) and we moved right along. We really felt like the New York ska scene accepted us when Hingley and his Moon Records label invited us to be a part of the NYC SKA LIVE album, which featured The Toasters, New York Citizens, The Scofflaws, Skinnerbox, Skadanks, and The Steadys. The icing on the cake for me, personally, was opening several shows for both The Special Beat and The Selecter when they toured the U.S. in 1990/91. It was an amazing experience to see ska music embraced by American audiences from both the stage and in the crowd. I never dreamed, as a lonely teenager sitting in my room listening to 2 Tone records, that this music would present me with so many opportunities and experiences. I’ve had the privilege to meet many of my musical heroes; to share the stage with so many talented musicians, and to join a large, worldwide family of passionate people who love ska as much as I do. My love for 2 Tone and American ska has consumed much of my adult life and I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell the story of the origins of American ska. It’s an honor, and I feel compelled to honor the task by making sure that the stories of the bands, musicians, DJs, promoters, artists, and fans who helped create a thriving and influential subculture are told in the words and memories of those who lived it. This music, this scene that had such a huge impact on me and made me who I am today, also helped transform American music in so many ways. This endeavor is meant for two purposes: to express and celebrate a lifelong love affair I’ve had with ska music and to preserve a part of its history for music lovers who have experienced the joy I have known so well. I want to give back to the music that gave so much to me when I needed it the most.
— Marc Wasserman