Friendtors! Part 3: My Mid '90s Ska Mix Tape
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
In this edition of Bright Sounds Dark Lyrics, take a journey with me to my early years discovering ska and NYC in the mid ‘90s with big shout outs to Mark Gilson, Fishbone, Operation Ivy, Madness, The Selecter, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sick of It All, The Toasters, The Pietasters, Mephiskapheles, The Scofflaws, The Stubborn All Stars, The Slackers, Inspector 7, Cenzo, and more!
So last we left off, I was a freshman at Fairfield University in 1993~1994 which was my first time away from home and struggling to meet new friends. You can read the whole sad story here. This was the year that I saw my first ska band Spring Heeled Jack, a life changing experience. Being a trumpet player, and former band geek, I was obsessed with this punkish music with horns that folks called “ska” and wanted to learn more about it. This was not an easy task before the internet, YouTube, or Spotify. My only resource at the time was to get referrals from friends and family. One guy on the same floor as me knew a little bit about ska and got me into Operation Ivy.
My brother pointed me towards Fishbone who to me are the true pioneers of 3rd wave ska. Musically they are very diverse and their sound ranges from punk to soul to funk to heavy metal to weird avante garde stuff involving theremins, but their ska songs to me are some of the best classic and iconic American ska that one can listen to. Very bright horns with funk and rock mixed in. Party at Ground Zero is always the first song that I play for people when I say, “This is ska”.
My first curated ska mix tape was given to me by my friend Mark Gilson who went to school with my brother at Connecticut College. Mark was born and raised in Manhattan which immediately made him the coolest person to walk the earth to a suburban bumpkin like myself. Stylistically speaking I would describe Mark as being more of an industrial metalhead, but what makes him unique is how outgoing and personable he is and how well he can connect with people of all walks of life regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or musical preference. When hearing about my newfound interest in ska, he took me record shopping with my brother at Bleecker Bobs in Greenwich Village where I bought a 2 Tone ska compilation CD and a Toasters T shirt which I liked for the cool black and white secret agent on the back that said, “NYC SKA”.
He also copied some of his older sister’s vinyl records for me which included various New York City bands like The Toasters and Murphy’s Law as well as a rare copy of the soundtrack to Dance Craze: the Best of British Ska Live! Mark ended up giving me this vinyl record later on which became a favorite of Tom Lawlor of TSC. I have fond memories of him blasting the live version of “One Step Beyond” by Madness in our shitty Kew Gardens apartment for its resemblance to Inspecter 7:
When I returned to Fairfield for my sophomore year, something special happened to me that semester. I was walking through the student union and clearly heard ska being played in the background on the campus radio station. Ska had not quite made it to MTV or the alternative radio stations at this point, so you can imagine how shocked I was to hear it, especially at a very mainstream college where most people were listening to Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews band. I said, “Holy fucking shit, someone else at Fairfield listens to ska!”. Yes, I took the Lord’s name in vain at a Catholic college. I started frantically running around asking people where the radio station was located. I ran across campus and busted into the studio on the first floor of one of the dorms to say, “Hi my name is Jeff! (gasping for air) I just have to say I’m so psyched that you’re playing ska music right now and wanted to introduce myself!”. That guy running the soundboard was named Tim and we immediately became friends.
Tim was a Freshman and I soon started hanging out with his circle of friends from his dorm. We formed our own little show-going crew which included him, his radio station cohorts "Hot Dog Boy" (Tony) and Matt, Joe F, Martine, Nicole, and a couple other people whose names I can’t remember. Our favorite venue was the Tune Inn, a shitty little all ages skater punk venue in New Haven, CT with no booze or décor other than broken skateboards hanging from the ceiling. Besides that it was just 4 walls, a concrete floor, a stage, and sweat, with a hint of clove cigarette smoke to hide the stench like incense. Two bands in, you could really feel the heat and humidity from everyone which released as steam out the front door into the freezing Connecticut night. As we became more brave, we started taking Metro North into the city to see shows at places like Tramps, CBGB, The Wetlands, The Cooler, and Coney Island High. These trips would always include a mandatory visit to the Moon Records storefront on 150 East 2nd street in the East Village to buy their latest CDs.
Moon Records was founded by the lead singer Bucket of the The Toasters who produced all of the best ska bands that toured the Northeast Corridor in the 1990s. Many of these bands were highly influential on Tri-State Conspiracy’s first album High Strung Mess, in particular The Piestasters, The Toasters, The Scofflaws, New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, and the infamous “Satanic ska” band Mephiskapheles. It’s hilarious thinking about how obsessed we were with Mephiskapheles at a catholic college, so much so that we all excitedly stayed up to watch the premier of the "Doomsday" video on 120 Minutes to celebrate our favorite local ska band making their way to MTV. Here are a few favorite tracks from that era:
Whenever I talk to folks about ska, especially on the west coast, most people immediately think of the more popular mainstream party bands like Reel Big Fish and No Doubt, but there was something much cooler about the New York City Ska scene. It was more mature, both aesthetically and musically. Musicians wore suits that emulated the mods of earlier generations and looked more sophisticated than other ska bands around the country who dressed more like high school or college kids. Horn players were highly accomplished musicians and continued the tradition of bringing jazz credibility to ska, as originally established by The Skatalites in Jamaica. Some bands like The Scofflaws and New York Ska Jazz Ensemble went so far as to play almost exclusively jazz standards. Around this time there was a movement within the 3rd wave ska scene to emulate the roots of 1st wave Jamaican ska. These traditional ska purists went so far as to replicate the low fi recording methods from the 1960s in order to create a more authentic sound. Such bands included The Slackers and the Stubborn All Stars. Moon Records also released several albums around this time showcasing veterans from the Jamaican ska scene, our favorite of which was the Laurel Aitken Bluebeat Years CD. This of course led us down the rabbit hole of discovering all of the original ska classics from the 1960s on Studio One and Trojan records as well as seeing one of the top ten shows of my life: The Skatalites at Tramps with most of the original members. These instantly became my favorite summer albums to listen to.
The gentrification process was only just beginning in the East Village around this time. It was coming out of the 1980s when the neighborhood was essentially a war zone run by drug kingpins and now trendy little restaurants and bars were just starting to pop up, like Benny’s Burritos and the original Two Boots Pizza. It was scary enough to feel exciting to go there, but safe enough that you wouldn’t actually get stabbed, that is unless you crossed Avenue A. A concerned homeless man made us aware of this one time when he said, “You boys shouldn’t be here right now, it’s getting dark out. This neighborhood isn’t safe!”. This of course was the best time to be in NYC in my opinion, right before Mayor Giuliani declared war against nightlife in Manhattan.
When visiting New York, I was spoiled in the fact that I could stay at Mark’s mother’s apartment in the Stuyvesant Town apartments in the East Village. He would chaperone my friends and I at these shows, as we were kind of nervous suburban kids who were unfamiliar with the city, and we’d end up staying over at his mom's afterwards playing Street Fighter II into the wee hours of the morning. One of my favorite memories of Mark was the time we went to see The Mighty Mighty Bosstones play at The Roseland Ballroom. He was very excited that the NYC hardcore band Sick of It All was opening, so much so that he decided to crowdsurf during their set. While this was happening, someone accidentally pulled off Mark’s prosthetic leg while passing him along which freaked everyone out, especially the guy who was still holding the lower half of Mark’s leg in his hand. The tough looking bouncer came up to him afterwards and said, “I have been doing this for twenty years and I’m not ashamed to admit that you scared the absolute shit out of me just now!”. The truly scary part of that Roseland show though was when the Bosstones took the stage. They had just elevated in status from underground punk band to big time MTV stars due to their hit single, “Where’d You Go” from the movie Clueless and suddenly every frat boy (or whitehat) wanted to see them. Roseland is a huge 1000 person venue, so a whole wave of people charged to the front of the stage which essentially led to an uncontrollable trampling. I could feel multiple layers of people piling on top of me. I thought to myself, “This is it, I’m going to get crushed to death like those soccer riots!”. I was referring to the devastating Hillsborough Disaster in 1989 England that was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Fortunately it subsided and someone helped me up. What doesn’t kill us brings us back for more.
I do have to credit Mark for being my gateway to New York, an NYC Ambassador/Friendtor if you will. In addition to letting me stay at his mom’s, he continued to show me around and help me feel at home in such a big city and remained a solid friend throughout my 17 years living there. Another favorite memory of Mark was the time Tri-State Conspiracy opened for Fishbone at Webster Hall years later. He wasn’t able to make the show but left a very thoughtful voicemail that morning saying, “Hey Jeff, just wanted to wish you good luck on the show tonight. It seems like just yesterday you were a little college kid playing Streetfighter II at my apartment after ska shows, and now you’re opening for Fishbone. Congratulations!”
As us Fairfield kids got even more brave and comfortable with New York, we started going to shows on our own without a chaperone. There was always that critical moment where it was approaching midnight and the headliner was just about to start. We’d make the executive decision as a team: do we leave halfway through the set so that we can catch the 1:20 train home from Grand Central Station? Or do we enjoy the whole thing and stay up all night until the 5:45 AM train. It was usually the latter. Those overnighters with my friends were truly magical moments that made me fall in love with New York City and ultimately want to move there after college.
Around this time I really had the hankering to play the trumpet again. I really wanted to be one of those ska horn players on stage whaling away as a sea of bobbing heads went nuts in the audience. I also wanted to sing. This is super embarrassing and dorky to admit, but I would sometimes lip synch to my favorite ska CDs while alone in my dorm room. I’d get dressed in a button down shirt, bowtie, and wrap-around sunglasses and sing into a hairbrush while The Selecter, Operation Ivy, or The Bosstones blasted in the background. At this point I was a Junior and Joe F and I were roommates and best friends. I remember Joe walked in on me during one of my lip-synching sessions and I was completely mortified. If he caught me masturbating I think I would have been slightly less embarrassed than him seeing me doing this cheesy Risky Business routine. He of course never let me live this down.
I started practicing the trumpet again and learned the horn lines to my favorite ska bands. In particular I was most drawn to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Scofflaws, and Mephiskapheles. These seemed to have the most interesting yet catchy horn lines. Osho “Hollywood” Endo of Mephiskapheles was the first trumpet player that I truly aspired to sound like. He had a beautiful bright tone mixed with very complicated horn lines. Their music was sort of like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass meets Slayer.
Friends would often comment on my playing around this time, “Hey I was walking across the quad and heard you playing the Bosstones. Sounds pretty good!”. At one point I attempted to start a band at Fairfield without much success. I posted photocopied flyers around campus which said, “LOOKING TO START A SKA BAND!” which featured an image of the classic Japanese manga character Golgo 13. I thought it was a cool flyer because spies and assassins seems to be a popular theme in ska (like that Toasters t shirt). No one understood it though and I think I got only one or two responses to the ad, mainly people asking, “What the heck is a ska band” and telling me that their favorite bands were Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam. The seed was planted though and would continue to blossom.
I have to credit much of this band bug to my friend Tony a.k.a. "Hot Dog Boy". I would describe Tony as being a hipster from the Queens/Nassau border. He has a very thick New York accent and modeled himself after John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever in every way possible. At the time I thought Tony looked like a character from a Quentin Tarantino movie with his Italian Stallion pompadour haircut, ‘70s “pleather” jacket, and patent leather shoes. The 1970s revival was very popular around this time. Dudes wore gigantic sideburns, girls wore flared jeans, and films like Dazed and Confused, Boogie Nights, and Reservoir Dogs captured the nation’s imagination in theaters with their 70s soundtracks and aesthetics. Joe was a sharp dresser, something that rubbed off on me later when I moved to New York. He also had a good radio voice and reminded me a bit of Howard Stern.
What made Tony a hipster was his love of music. He loved ska, but also very much into college rock alternative bands like The Pixies, They Might Be Giants, and Weezer. Running "The Sausage Party” ska radio show at Fairfield along with Tim provided many free CDs and local concert tickets for our collective group to enjoy. Forget Rolling Stone, I would simply go directly to Tony and Tim for their latest recommendations from the CMJ Festival in New York. He played sax for the Fairfield jazz band and guitar for various side projects with his friends. Most of them were silly musical comedy acts with goofy lyrics with the exception of a ska band called Douglas Leader Orchestra started by his high school friend Pat. Tony often went on 4 hour driving excursions to join them for gigs at Syracuse University where Pat went to school, and sometimes they made their way down to Fairfield to perform at house parties. DLO were a legitimately great band with an amazing sounding horn section. Pat really knew how to write music and how to create thick chords with the horns. There is nothing that sounds better than horns playing a house party, especially if there is a lot of wood to resonate. I was envious of everything they were doing: how they brought so much life to the party, and how everyone was dancing their asses off. I had the band bug and was determined to have one of my own. The other thing I really admired about Tony was his salesmanship. He was very good at schmoozing and talking other friends into projects and activities. I most impressed when he was able to organize a boat cruise around Manhattan with Douglas Leader Orchestra headlining (this was before Rocks Off Cruises) and got all of his friends to pay $50 cover. I thanked him recently because I think some of this gift of gab rubbed off on me and helped me to get my new company off the ground. I consider him to be a Schmoozer / Bandleader Friendtor of sorts.
What I enjoyed most about this period of time was being able to hang out with a group of friends who I identified with. We were a bunch of nerds and proud of it. It wasn’t just the ska that we had in common, we seemed to have an appreciation for a lot of the same things, like The Simpsons, HP Lovecraft, Star Wars, films by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, The State (an underappreciated forgotten NYC centric sketch comedy show on MTV), Kids in the Hall, Buster Poindexter, and all sorts of obscure pop cultural references. We weren’t just friends of convenience like the other whitehats (a.k.a. bros with no frat affiliation) who clung together in herds out of fear of dining alone. We had a real connection. If we happened to see each other at the cafeteria we’d end up having very long conversations, much like my high school friends did at the diner. Most importantly we made each other laugh. And laugh our asses off we did. Nothing was sacred to us at catholic Fairfield U: all manner of dark humor and irreverence was rampant. It felt like family, something I hadn’t really experienced since leaving home.
One of my fondest memories from this era was watching movies in our dorm my Junior year. Joe and I were roommates for being equally silly goofballs who cracked each other up, not to mention being major AV nerds who were determined to have the best home theater system in our entire dorm. I remember us comparing specs on our stereo componentry prior to that Fall semester to decide who would bring what and being truly amazed at his state of the art 32 inch tube TV. We attempted to turn our dorm into some sort of cross between the Angelika Theater and a Times Square grindhouse. Our favorite movies at the time were Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Desperado, and various imports that my brother sent me from Japan during his years teaching high school English: The Killer (John Woo), Riki Oh! Violence Hero, and anime like Wicked City.
We’d watch the same movies over and over and quote the lines… unless of course someone new was joining us who hadn’t seen the movie before, to which we would politely ask if “open quotes” were acceptable or if they preferred silence. We didn’t fit in with the popular kids on campus and we didn’t really care. Other students on our floor became indoctrinated into our secret film society which was no real secret considering how loud our subwoofers were, which often caused dismay from our RA. We weren’t allowed to drink in the dorms which is why we kept bottles of vodka and whiskey stashed in the secret compartment of an old storage chest. Funny how a dry campus led us to develop a taste for straight hard alcohol.
I’ve been especially nostalgic lately about this period of my life during these last 6 months since my girlfriend and I have mostly been staying at home watching movies due to the pandemic. She has similar taste in horror and other weird underground cinema. You better believe that I still have a sweet home theater system after all these years.
I unfortunately had a falling out with my Fairfield friends in the 2000s. I transferred to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate NY to continue my engineering studies and when I moved to NYC afterwards the vibe wasn’t the same. They had all become roommates in Brooklyn and I was living way the hell out in Kew Gardens Hills since my job was in Long Island. I had felt somewhat outed, especially so when it came to my attention that Hot Dog Boy was jealous over me asking out a high school friend of his on a date. I never felt fully welcome hanging out with them after that, as I did when at Fairfield, and as a result I stopped keeping in touch. This seems to be the continuous circle of life. We leave the nest and find ourselves alone in the universe. This loneliness propels us to find new friends and if we are fortunate enough we find ourselves in a new temporary family of sorts, after which things continuously change. We go from the sheltered playground of college to working in the real world. People relocate or drift apart, falling outs happen, people get married and have kids, etc. We then move on to the next chapter of our lives where we are alone again and the cosmic ballet continues.
I decided to reconnect my Fairfield buddies a couple years ago for this blog. The loneliness of being a fortysomething transplant in Los Angeles had me reminiscing about how I used to make friends back in the day. I suddenly had a flashback to that time I heard ska being played on WVOF at Fairfield and in High Fidelity fashion I was curious to see what had become of those guys as well as to see what went wrong in our friendship. The reconnection has been interesting to say the least. If I can briefly summarize:
Joe F. was really happy to hear from me. He just had double bypass surgery when I first contacted him and told me that the timing was almost cosmic that I reached out to him. He was always a jovial and hilarious soul who seemed to embrace the reconnection. He never had an issue with me. He is currently a Sernior VP and COO of a real estate development firm in the Chicago area with a family of 4.
Hot Dog Boy was also open to the reconnection and extremely chatty, though I was surprised to learn that he was now on the extreme other side of the fence politically. I found his affiliation to be unusual because we are so similar in every other respect: we both still love ska, jazz, reggae, afrobeat, and various other forms of world music, films by David Lynch, Fred Armisen comedy skits, and getting into philosophical discussions. This of course led to many arguments which escalated up until the last election. Since then though we seem to have found a way to respect each other regardless of our differences, to talk about politics objectively not emotionally, and to make each other giggle like the Adam Sandler quoting nerds we were back in college. Like me, I think he just wants an old friend to talk to. It seems that being a suburban dad in Long Island has made him feel isolated in some ways. He described most of his friends as being friends of convenience: mostly other parents that him and his wife know through their school district or neighborhood, but otherwise do not feel much of a connection with, and he seems to miss the days living in NYC with other musicians and creative folks. Another friend made a similar joke about how suburbia causes parents to choose horrible friends only because their kids are in the same school district. Tony recently started his own business installing commercial audio visual equipment which has led us both to motivate each other. He currently lives in Long Island with his family of five.
I was suprised to learn from Hot Dog Boy that I had somewhat inspired the formation of his band Douglas Leader Orchestra. He reminded me of a kitschy Russian themed ska band concept that we both dreamed up during our Fairfield days called "Invanevich and the Skammunist Party". The aesthetics may have been somewhat influenced by KGB bar on 85 E 4th Street, a place that used to let under aged kids drink, as well as Russian military attire that was readily available at Army Navy surplus stores at the time and sometimes worn by counterculture kids in underground music scenes. Perhaps the idea of playing in a socialist themed band at a politically conservative institution like Fairfield also made us a little giddy about the idea as well. We met up during the summer with his friend Pat to jam as Invanevich and many of the ideas that we workshopped ended up becoming DLO tunes. One of my trumpet lines in particular was used in their song, "Thinking of You". That was the first time I had ever played ska with a live band. I remember the jam session well but was completely unaware that I had anything to do with inspiring that band, especially considering that I always considered them to be more of an inspiration to me in starting my own band. Learning this trivia all these years later was one of those, "It was you all along" Disney type moments.
Tim unfortunately has decided to opt out of our friendship and reunion. Whereas the mid '90s ska years brought back fond memories for the rest of us, it brought him to a bad place in time when he was going through treatment for cancer. I discovered that he may have harbored negative feelings towards me all these years for not keeping in touch when I transferred schools. He seemed to get very agitated with me during our Zoom calls, especially if I was in too much of a good mood about the things going on in my life. He accused me of being a terrible Zoom host, especially one time in particular that I wasn’t paying attention to one of his stories, perhaps after having a few too many drinks, even though it didn’t bother anyone else. He was always a cranky soul but I was surprised at the degree to which he felt so much resentment towards me. I even tried reaching out to him on multiple occasions to try to repair the friendship in the name of ska, but to no avail. I discovered that he was not a fan of ska before he started the radio show at Fairfield, but rather he was assigned the show format from his manager, copying similar formats at other college radio stations. Tim is currently a lawyer in upstate NY also with a family of four.
The good news is that the rest of us seem to have gotten back into the groove that we once were back in college. We have reinstated our “Sausage Party” ska radio show (to an audience of just ourselves) and now share music videos, jokes, and updates in our lives like we used to without getting into any fights. In the words of Meatloaf, two out of three ain’t bad. Hot Dog Boy recently shared a track from his ska/rock outfit Cenzo with Vinnie Noble of The Pilfers and Bim Skala Bim fame which sounds pretty dope. I was also voted “most ska” of the group, mainly because I played more shows than anyone else.
This weekend my high school friend Aaron Rennie called me up this weekend to catch up. He recently relocated to Florida with his family and is now feeling the same isolation that I did when I first moved to LA. I tried to give him the best pep talk possible about “finding your people”. It’s certainly not easy to do at any age and if anything seems to be a continuous struggle throughout life. But what other choice to we have? Well I suppose we can always dust off some old friends and see what happens. I asked Aaron if he happened to save any ska mix tapes that I made for him back in the ‘90s. He had his brother Matt Rennie dig this gem out of his parent’s basement. So here it is, my mid ‘90s ska mix tape. Title drop!