CULTURE & ARTS
11/01/2018 06:18 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2018

Death And Saxes

At the Back to the Beach Festival, a 40-year-old skanker confronts his mortality (and his crappy taste).
Brandon Celi

 “Ska sucks / The ska revival isn’t cool, you stupid f**k / The bands are only in it for the bucks / And if you don’t believe me you’re a schmuck / But the trend will die out with any luck.” 
— Propagandhi, 1993

The memories of my first kiss are splotchy but they go something like this: In the summer between sixth and seventh grade, I went to a friend’s birthday party on the section of coastline located at Magnolia Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway, in Huntington Beach, California, where I was born and raised. The party was a bust — hardly any of the invitees showed up, confirming what I sorta knew: My buddy wasn’t popular. His parents were divorced, and he lived with his mom in an apartment; he wore the same flannel every day, and his shoes were L.A. Gears. (Three years later he’d introduce me to pot smoking.)

The three of us friends who did attend found ourselves outnumbered by aunts and uncles, so we took the birthday boy on a walk down the beach, whereupon an elaborate sixth-grade flirtation ritual took shape: Two girls our age started following us, started closing in, started yelling things. In the pairing off that came next, the birthday boy, in a testament to the cruelty of childhood, found himself walking back despondently to the aunts and uncles as I sat nervously on the beach with a girl named Yvette from the Valley. It was dusk, so the sun was setting over the Pacific Ocean, and the oil rigs dotting the coastline were throwing long shadows.

Yvette was pretty, and we talked for what felt like a long time, but the only exchange I remember was her schooling me in the dynamics of French kissing, which she proceeded to demonstrate. Our kiss was squishy and warm and fired every neuron my little 12-year-old brain contained at that time.

I never saw Yvette again after that night, but I kept coming back to that same stretch of beach, not to remember the kiss, but because it was our beach — mine and my friends’, the spot closest to our high school and our houses, where we would ride our bikes to go boogie boarding. We spent whole summers at that spot. On warm weekend days it’d overflow with interlopers from Riverside and Fullerton, but during summer weekdays, especially around sunset, during surf sessions when the surface of the ocean would become flat and glassy, it felt as if we had the place all to ourselves.


Twenty-eight years later, I’m sitting at a picnic table in what’s technically the parking lot of our beach, next to a barrel full of ice and RockStar energy drinks, asking the members of seminal LA ska band Fishbone what it’s like to turn 40, an imminent event in my case, and one that I am dreading.

“You see this gray beard?” asks Philip Fisher, aka Fish, the band’s drummer. “Do I look like I give a fuck about getting older? No, I embrace it.”

If you want to feel better about getting older, or at least gain some perspective on it, talk to a handful of people who’ve been playing in ska bands for 20 years. This was the premise that landed me backstage at the Back to the Beach Festival, a two-day celebration of third-wave ska whose inaugural installment was going down in Huntington Beach. Over the course of two days, 30,000 fans would come to see a lineup of bands who had their heyday during the Clinton administration: Sublime, Goldfinger, 311, Save Ferris, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone, Less than Jake, The Aquabats.

For those who don’t remember or never learned, third-wave ska was one of the more ignominious blips on the ’90s pop-culture continuum. Centered in Southern California, with clusters of bands in Florida and New York, its most lasting cultural contributions include soundtracking a number of ’90s rom-coms, popularizing the then-novel semi-ironic cover (as in Reel Big Fish’s “Take On Me”) and gifting the world with No Doubt, the heavyweight champ of ska bands who took third-wave ska to the apex of mainstream popularity, despite almost totally jettisoning most of the genre’s signature qualities — horn sections, skanking, making an ass of oneself. These tweaks were not accidental.

The skankers of the Back to the Beach Festival, in Huntington Beach.
Lizzy Gonzalez
The skankers of the Back to the Beach Festival, in Huntington Beach.

Because yes, definitely, for sure: Ska sucks, specifically third-wave ska. Few musical movements can compete for the derision it routinely receives, if it receives any thought at all. In an era during which nostalgia acts are a key part of major festival bills, ska gets the cold shoulder. To be playing this music in 2018 requires a special kind of obliviousness to its wider perception, a near imperviousness to self-doubt and embarrassment. As someone riddled with such feelings as I approach my fourth decade, I figured it might be good to surround myself with such naive optimism. I mean, just look at Fish’s brother and Fishbone bassist Norwood here:

I got a friend who told me he cried when he turned 40,” Norwood says (his full name is John Norwood Fisher, but everyone just calls him Norwood). “You know, because he thought he was getting old. And I was like, I’m celebrating it! Something got better. The older I get, the more I’m like: Oh wow, this is what it’s like if you live in the moment and you can appreciate it. I’ve refined my role in life as I got older, and it’s just better.”

As Norwood finishes this thought, a roadie swings by to remind the brothers of their next appointment, which is fortuitous, because I can tell by their body language that they’re not amused by the subtext of my questions. “Sad 40-Year-Old Man Attends Ska Show” was the working title for this article. In contrast to some of my professional peers backstage, I’m apparently wearing this headline across my face. Next to me near the picnic tables, a woman in her 20s is wearing six-inch spikes in her heels and 12-inch spikes in her hair, asking excited questions to all the bands for some kind of web series. For a certain type of person, Back to the Beach feels like a triumphant reunion, something to feel proud and excited about. It feels like something else to me.

“The ageless thing is inside,” Fish says. “I just try to keep the whole package oiled and moving. Speaking of which, we gotta go.”


Maybe one reason (among many reasons) that third-wave ska seems so stupid and embarrassing is that it seems to be gleefully squandering a rich musical inheritance. It can be traced all the way back to 1950s Jamaica, when American rhythm and blues songs like Fats Domino’s “Be My Guest” were popularized and then imitated by Jamaican soundsystem DJs like Prince Buster and Coxsone Dodd. In the hands of these Jamaicans, the shuffle became the skank — that emphasis on the upbeat that distinguishes ska and reggae, which arrived on ska’s heels (that’s right: ska came first). The first wave of ska included artists like the Skatalites, Derrick Morgan and Desmond Dekker. Many of these artists’ songs were informed by and sometimes directly celebrate Jamaica’s independence from England in 1962, which goes some way toward explaining why a fundamental quality of ska is its slack-jawed ebullience.

From Jamaica, the music jumped over to the U.K., where it was given a mod makeover and mixed with elements of pub rock, punk, then new wave. This was ska’s second wave, also known as 2-Tone, a term coined by the Specials’ Jerry Dammers. The term “2-Tone” was a explicit nod to ska’s miscegenation and a direct rebuke to phenomena like the U.K.’s fascist National Front. With their black and white duds, two-tone album covers and songs like “Do the Dog,” The Specials codified some of ska’s most important, longstanding themes — fighting racism, imploring unity and wearing funny hats. And they were soon joined by acts like Madness (named after a Prince Buster song that they then popularized), The English Beat, The Selecter and others in introducing ska to a much wider audience, which is of course what brings us to ska’s third wave.

To say that someone like Prince Buster or Jerry Dammers might have had a hard time imagining the music they helped pioneer and shape being played by a group of Mormons dressed like Space Ghost is, I dunno, maybe an understatement? Nevertheless, here we are. From the Specials, ska found its way into the hands of bands like Boston’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones, L.A.’s Fishbone and, perhaps as importantly, the Bay Area’s Operation Ivy, who mashed it up with both the sound and attitude of American hardcore punk. With Op Ivy showing the punk kids how to skank, it was only a matter of time before a bunch of them recruited members of the high school marching band to outfit their songs with horn riffs, which is how we got to No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, Skankin’ Pickle, Save Ferris and all the rest, including the Aquabats, a band formed mostly by members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, whose little ditty “Pinch and Roll” prescribes the specific technique for scratching one’s balls that I have followed for the entirety of my adult life.

Now, do I feel bad that a music so thick with history and purpose became, in its third wave, a vehicle for dispensing advice about how to scratch one’s nutz, celebrating the palliative effects of malted beverages and/or grousing about missing the bus? Should anyone feel bad about that? Does anyone? Allow me to invoke the persona of the Aquabats’ “Bat Commander” in saying, I dunno, kids — let’s find out!


Two days before the festival, I visit the Aquabats in the Fountain Valley rehearsal space where they’re practicing for their set. In their heyday, these guys were one of the most popular and successful third-wave ska bands extant. Known for their spandex costumes and kitschy stage shows — a mash-up of “Barbarella” and Captain Kangaroo — the band eventually landed a short-lived kids TV series, and its frontman, Christian Jacobs, was one of the creators of the popular Nickelodeon show “Yo Gabba Gabba!” which was itself largely informed by the Aquabats’ aesthetic.  

“Garrett!” Jacobs says when I poke my head in the rehearsal space. “I didn’t recognize you without the glasses.”

Oh, I probably should have mentioned this before: I was a devoted ska kid growing up. My first shows were ska shows, my best friends were ska friends. I played in a band called Tricky Dump Truck, an allusion to the scatting at the heart of ska (pick-it-up-pick-it-up). We booked exactly three shows. Back then I was beanpole skinny and wore the kind of thick Buddy Holly glasses you used to only be able to find at thrift stores. And I attended tons and tons of shows, including many of the Aquabats’ early shows, on bills they shared with all my favorite bands of that time: Reel Big Fish, Skankin’ Pickle, Dance Hall Crashers. If this lede feels buried, that’s on purpose.

“You guys,” Jacobs announces to the group, “Garrett’s here to write an article about people who waste their lives playing in a band.”

It’s worth noting here that I didn’t have to inform Jacobs of these intentions in advance for it to be obvious. For as long as I can remember, the current and former members of the Aquabats whom I’m personally acquainted with, including Jacobs, have never been anything less than exceedingly self-deprecating about the fact that their primary occupation as artists and musicians is to dress up in cheap costumes and perform songs like “Martian Girl” and “Super Rad.”

“What we were doing almost felt farcical in a way,” Jacobs will explain of the band’s early days, the two of us standing around in the parking lot after practice, bathed in the glow of suburban street lights. “What we felt about the ska scene was it was just fun, it was stupid, it was corny, and we were being stupid right along with it. We were the cherry on top of the stupid.”

And yet, somehow, they’ve been doing this for 20 years. Here in the rehearsal space, everyone looks a bit heavier than he did in the band’s heyday. And now that these guys are all suburban dads, their claim to superhero alter-egos like “Crash McLarson” is specious at best. (Crash himself, aka founding member Chad Larson, sits in a folding chair for the whole practice session.) Watching them rehearse songs like “Idiot Box” and “Pool Party” as various members’ preteen daughters sit quietly in a corner is particularly surreal, as is listening to Jacobs strategize with his bandmates in between songs about how he can score tickets to next week’s sold-out LCD Soundsystem show. It’s like poking your head in on Big Bird watching CNN; it’s just incongruous.

Ska was a joke. Even back in the day, it was so difficult for anyone to pay attention to it. Pick-it-up, pick-it-up, pick-it-up — it was a joke. John Feldmann, lead singer of Goldfinger

After practice, which ends around 9 p.m. in a state of total sobriety, the band members go home to their wives and kids. But at the show two days later, they will slay the crowd of 30,000. As the Bat Commander, Jacobs will lead his troupe through songs like “The Cat with 2 Heads” and in battle with the villainous Sand Fleas, one of the Aquabats’ signature mid-show melodramas. He will then invite onstage Back to the Beach co-producer Travis Barker — yes, that Travis Barker, of Blink-182 and reality TV fame, who got his first big break as “Baron Von Tito,” drummer for the Aquabats — to run through classics like “Powdered Milk Man.” For a certain type of ska fan, including your correspondent, this move will provoke pangs of heartwarming nostalgia and genuine glee.

“Some people play basketball at the park,” Jacobs tells me in the parking lot. “We put on rubber helmets and play shows.”

After the set, Barker will go back to skulking around the backstage area with his extensive entourage and various members of the Aquabats will go back to their day-jobs as cabinet makers and electricians. For a few moments, we’ll all be basking in the glow of childhood wonder, but it won’t take long for us to return to reality, the reality where ska sucks.


On Saturday afternoon I sit down with Monique Powell, the singer and sole remaining original member of Save Ferris, which is most famous for its ska cover of the Dexy’s Midnight Runners song “Come On Eileen,” as well as the single “The World Is New,” which, like so many third-wave ska songs, made a number of appearances in cheesy mid-’90s rom-coms (Save Ferris had a cameo in the Heath Ledger-Julia Stiles flick “10 Things I Hate About You”).

A reconstituted Save Ferris is playing tomorrow, which means the band doesn’t have its own trailer backstage today, so Powell and her team have set up a makeshift tent in a special VIP section, complete with a cooler full of cold drinks and a couple of beach chairs, all of it set up in order to receive inquiring minds like myself.

A reconstituted Save Ferris performs at the Back to the Beach Festival. You're grown. So grown.
Daniel Rojas
A reconstituted Save Ferris performs at the Back to the Beach Festival. You're grown. So grown.

Powell is 42, and today her look — bleach-blond hair, big glasses, white jumpsuit — is that of someone who will eventually retire near slot machines. I didn’t know her very well back in the day, but we attended some of the same shows and backyard parties, or at least that’s what we conclude after comparing notes — Reel Big Fish at Al Cappuccino, No Doubt at Viva Las Vegas. Today, in her own personal makeshift press tent, Powell is solicitous and endearing — she asks me as many questions as I ask her, especially once she discovers that we both survived life-threatening illnesses in the not-too-distant past.

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” she says excitedly.

I tell her about having testicular cancer, which is a true story I’ve never quite figured out how to tell. Certainly it happened — I was diagnosed, had surgery to remove my right testicle two days later, spent anxious weeks waiting to see if tests would reveal whether we’d got it all or if it had spread to my lymph nodes, was eventually declared cancer-free (we caught it early, etc.) without ever having to do chemo — but in my case it happened so quickly and relatively easily that I feel weird calling myself a cancer survivor, even though that’s technically what I am. The reason I bring this up is because when I was first diagnosed and during those first few weeks after, when the test results were still outstanding and the worst-case scenario was very much a possibility, I never made any kind of bucket list. I didn’t promise myself I’d finish my novel or pledge to visit a holy site or anything like that. For whatever reason, this brush with … whatever it was, was for me one of the least regretful times of my life, which I’ve always found odd.

This was not the case for Powell. As it turns out, at around the same time I was dealing with my cancer, Powell was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a condition that required risky surgery she was told she might not even survive.

“I made a deal with my dad,” she explains. “Right before I went into surgery, I promised him that if I woke up and if I could still sing and still walk then I was gonna bring the band back.”

This she did, recording and releasing a new EP that her father sang on. Then, sadly, he passed away. But Powell pressed on. She took Save Ferris back out on the Warped Tour in 2017, and is currently working on new material, coincidentally with one of the members of LCD Soundsystem (“Tell Christian I can get him tickets.”). Powell’s brush with death imbued her with renewed purpose, a determination to literally get the band back together. Here she sits, triumphant, ready to once again share the joys of ska.

This is a heartwarming story, but it has a flip side: It’s Powell’s readymade press hook, the one she’s been offering to anyone who will listen. I was disappointed to discover that she’d shared it (and was quoted) nearly verbatim with a reporter from OC Weekly last year. Undoubtedly, it’s part of her strategy for rehabilitating Save Ferris’ image following a very tumultuous decade or so during which Powell and her former band members sued one another for control of the band’s name, with the “winner” securing the right to play county fairs and nostalgia festivals like Back to the Beach. The whole affair was sufficiently heated as to create factions among the scene, and Powell’s become a kind of persona non grata to the extent that pitching her media tent a hundred feet from the backstage area may be more than just a symbolic gesture.

Like the Aquabats, Save Ferris kills it during their appointed set the next day; if there are detractors in the crowd upset about the brouhaha, none of them reveals himself or herself that I can see. Sporting her signature cherry-red bouffant wig, Powell performs three costume changes, peeling off layers to reveal skimpier and skimpier outfits beneath. At one point she invites Angelo Moore from Fishbone up on stage with her, which is the third-wave ska equivalent of Harry Connick Jr. singing a duet with Sinatra.

I can’t tell you what happens immediately after Save Ferris’ set, but I do know that in the weeks and months after Back to the Beach, the band will continue to tour. They’ll play a string of dates in Vegas, as well as festivals in England. They’ll release a live album and continue working on new material. I say “they” but it’s really just Powell at this point, going it alone with a crew of mercenary giggers. Having cheated death, she’s back in the only place that makes sense, on stage performing a rippin’ version of a Dexy’s Midnight Runners song. During our interview I ask her if playing ska at 42 still feels like living the dream: “For me, absolutely.”


I talk to a bunch of other aging ska musicians. I talk to Joe Gittleman, the avuncular founding bass player for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who’s a college professor most months of the year and a member of the one of the world’s most influential third-wave ska bands on his days off. Gittleman went on sabbatical recently to help write and record the Bosstones’ first new record in seven years. We talk about how when it comes to nostalgia acts, ska bands seem to get overlooked by mainstream festival bookers, that the music has never been re-evaluated or at the very least embraced lovingly if ironically a la yacht rock or synth pop.

“I think there’s a lot of value in ska music,” says Gittleman. He points to the tradition of advocating unity in the face of racial divisions, first as embodied by the 2-Tone scene, then as symbolized by the plaid worn by the third-wave bands. This is worthy message, even if it’s somewhat undermined by the preponderance of caucasian faces at the festival.

Whether you buy into the diversity angle or not, Gittleman thinks, and I agree, that ska is just plain fun. “What the fuck’s wrong with having fun?” he asks. “Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s all it is. What the fuck’s wrong with that?”

I interview Chuck Robertson, the singer from the Mad Caddies, who looks every bit like the single dad he now is: handsome if a little dinged up, nursing a longneck and a smoke. The Caddies are a ska band from Central California that never had a big break but still draw well enough to tour and play the occasional nostalgia-act cruise ship (specifically, ahem, “Flogging Molly’s Salty Dog Cruise”). Seated next to a mason jar full of sticky green nugs in the band’s trailer, Robertson tells me about the beach party he had for his own recent 40th birthday, which arrived shortly after a painful divorce. He credits the songwriting sessions behind the band’s new record, “Punk Rocksteady,” with helping him through the dissolution of his marriage. “With the pain of my divorce,” he says, “that lit me up like I’ve never been lit up.”

He adds: “When you’re young, you really take everything for granted. Now I have this newfound appreciation of how lucky we are to be able to do this, to just keep going.”  

I talk to the guys in Hepcat, who are one of my favorite groups at this festival and probably the least successful in terms of metrics: their releases are few and far between; they rarely tour; they have no outsize shtick. Hepcat play a brand of laid-back soulful ska that’s as close to the Jamaican original as any of the bands from ska’s third wave. The most noteworthy thing about the band, aside from the fact that they really do make great music, is that their singer, Alex Désert, is the guy in “Swingers” who says about all LA parties, “This place is dead anyway.” His advice to me about turning 40 is this: “Just remember when you get your prostate examined that he or she is a trained professional.”

But the guy who has what is in my opinion the most interesting and balanced perspective on all this — both the cultural phenomenon that is third-wave ska and the biological reality that is aging — also happens to be the guy who’s made the most money off it, Back to the Beach’s co-producer John Feldmann. With his short bleached hair, tasteful tan and lithe surfer’s body, Feldmann, or Feldy, as he’s known and consistently referred to, is an unsubtle ad for the age-defying effects of being rich and living in Southern California. Feldy is best known as the founding member of Goldfinger, whose song “Here in Your Bedroom” is nominally ska but definitely one of the more ubiquitous hits of the era, with an enormous earworm chorus that sounds like it was delivered by ocean liner. After launching several hits with Goldfinger, Feldmann became a successful writer/producer/Svengali in the alt-rock world, minting new bands and contributing to a slew of hit records. He’s like the Rick Rubin of mall punk.

“I wanna be a good dad, I wanna be a good performer,” he says in his trailer backstage. “But I wanna go to bed at night saying, ‘I fucking like who I am.’” Feldy meditates and reads books like Three Magic Words. The only thing he acknowledges slowing down as he’s aged is his libido — “My drive for humping isn’t quite what it used to be” — but other than that his ambition has remained steady and constant, even if happiness has become more elusive over time.

“I know now, being 50, that career success and money do not equal happiness on any level,” he says. “I know that there’s definitely more abundance of happiness when I was striving to get here. But you can’t go backwards. Once you fly business class and lay down on your way to England and sleep, how do you go back to coach?”

Feldy strives to live in the moment, and thinks this is generally a good idea. “If I’m hard on myself, I’m gonna be hard on others,” he says. “If I look back and say, ‘God, you could have done better, John, if only you did this different,’ then I’m gonna do that to my kids, I’m gonna do that to my wife, I’m gonna do it to the people I work with, and who wants to be around that guy?”

Feldy’s the one who had the idea to attempt Back to the Beach, as well as the connections to actually execute it. After Goldfinger played a similar nostalgia fest focused on ’90s punk, Punk in Drublic, Feldy decided it was time ska had its moment. So he called his buddies in Sublime, Fishbone, The Bosstones, Less than Jake. “I just said, Can we do a ska festival in Huntington Beach? Will you do it if I put it on? Instantly, everyone was like, ‘Fuck yeah.’”

There was only one band that couldn’t play the festival: Reel Big Fish. The act had already signed on to play the Warped Tour, so a gig in Huntington Beach would violate their radius clause. This was a glaring omission and huge disappointment, because Reel Big Fish are among Orange County’s most popular and successful third-wave ska bands. Feldy, however, had planned a surprise that would help ease the blow: “Aaron [Reel Big Fish’s singer] is going to play ‘Sell Out’ with Goldfinger tomorrow.”

Yes! “Sell Out.” If there was a single song I wanted to hear most this weekend to complete the nostalgia trip, it was “Sell Out.” “Sell Out” is many things — a technically excellent songwriter’s song, a rousing banger if third-wave ska ever had one — but it’s primarily the best illustration of how quixotic this barbarically stupid genre’s worldview was.

You see, for as patently ridiculous as third-wave ska is/was, the genre’s adherents inherited one of punk’s most strident values, one that in today’s world seems quaint: an aversion to becoming too successful. Imagine that! Seriously, imagine it: It’s 1995, you’re in a group where half the members are acne-strewn horn players from the high school marching band, you all wear bowling shirts onstage and sing about breakfast cereal and space aliens, and one of your primary concerns in life is that you might achieve a level of mainstream fame and acceptance that would compromise your carefully manicured value system. You play third-wave ska, and you’re worried you might just get too rich doing it.

What’s really amazing here is that there was a moment circa 1996, the year I graduated high school, where this seemed like a real possibility — that if you weren’t careful, you might actually get rich. No Doubt was just starting to blow up MTV, and major label A&R scouts were becoming as common at ska shows as plaid pants. All the bands I knew secretly or not-so-secretly had their hearts set on the label machine reaching out and taking their hands, leading them into a world of fame and fortune and hookers and god knows what else — for playing ska! I mean, shit, look at the Aquabats! They had not one, but two TV shows. Christian Jacobs has been telling people how to scratch their balls for more than two decades.

This all seems especially surreal against the backdrop of the music’s history. The anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism of first- and second-wave ska had given way to a third wave that dispensed with most of the politics but retained the anti-bourgeois gestures. Selling out was the key issue now; the deeper political question of who was doing the buying had been left in the past. This was music made for and by people who had the privilege of wondering if they really needed the money. It was stupid and embarrassing, and it was also aware that it was stupid and embarrassing, but it was not exactly sure why. And it was this dynamic that, coincidentally or not (let’s say not), attracted me to this music as a gawky, self-conscious teenager and that persists here, now, to this day, as a gawky, self-conscious adult. This inchoate regret is strong stuff, to tweak an old line of J.D. Salinger’s, and it’s the animating essence of both third-wave ska and “Sell Out,” a song that both prompted Reel Big Fish’s incredible, unpredictable success and served as a pre-emptive apologia for it.

Goldfinger's John Feldmann, king again for a day.
Wombat
Goldfinger's John Feldmann, king again for a day.

Which brings us to Sunday evening, when Reel Big Fish’s Aaron Barrett comes trotting out during Goldfinger’s set like Bruce Springsteen sitting in with Billy Joel, that is, if Springsteen had been sporting the same mutton chop sideburns and Hawaiian shirt for 25 years. The first song he plays with the band is Goldfinger’s hit “Superman,” which sounds decidedly like a Reel Big Fish song, maybe not coincidentally (“This guy played my wedding,” Feldy informs the crowd when he introduces Barrett). Then they launch into “Sell Out.” The horns blare like the drunkest guy at a New Year’s party, the song explodes like Evil Knievel jumping the Grand Canyon. I stand there in awe, a boneheaded grin slathered across my face that I couldn’t wipe off if I tried. Barrett sings: “The record company’s gonna give me lots of money / And everything’s gonna be all right.” In the middle of the song, Feldy hurls himself into the crowd, surfing along outstretched arms until he’s out in the middle of the throng. They prop him so he’s standing upright, his arms outstretched, chin thrust to the heavens, lording over that which he has wrought, these tens of thousands of knucklehead ska fans, including your correspondent, having a blast on our beach.

“Ska was a joke,” Feldy had told me back in his trailer. “Even back in the day, it was so difficult for anyone to pay attention to it. Pick-it-up, pick-it-up, pick-it-up — it was a joke. But I think that it permeated the culture. And obviously people want to have a good time. We’re living in this weird era with this fucking president that makes no logical sense, and we’re all trying to connect the pieces and go, ‘Are we really living right now? Are we alive?’”


I don’t know where regret comes from, or why some people experience it more deeply and frequently than others. I don’t know what worry is — what are the chemicals, what are the contents of the thoughts? It feels a certain way and I feel it constantly, but I can never seem to describe the feeling to my satisfaction. Some people turn 40 and it’s no big deal; some people face death and it’s no big deal. I am one and not the other. I am both at once.

I spent the night of my first kiss in a sleeping bag at the birthday boy’s house in a neighborhood we all referred to as “slums,” which is a cruel description looking back (I regret it). When I woke up the next morning, this first thing I did was call my mom. For some reason I’d felt guilty in the aftermath of my first kiss — not because my friend’s feelings were hurt, which they were, but because, well, I don’t know why. I’d experienced something thrilling, and one of my first reactions was to feel shame about it, to feel my first initial pangs of that inchoate regret, to apologize to … someone. There I was, at 12 years old, already a ska fan.

Garrett Kamps is a writer and editor. He’s the cofounder and executive editor of Third Bridge Creative, and his work has appeared in places like Deadspin, Gawker, Billboard and the Village Voice. He lives in San Francisco.

 
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