Originally printed in the May 2006 Issue of The Upbeat Ska Zine.
Hometown Heroes: Spring Heeled Jack USA
By Jacob Wake-Up!
I have a confession to make. I’ve only seen Spring Heeled Jack USA once. I was a sophomore in high school and had only heard two songs, “Jolene” and “Waiting, Watching,” both from their 1998 release Songs From Suburbia. Wait, it gets better. The only reason I knew who they were was because I had a friend with a t-shirt featuring the album cover artwork from Songs From Suburbia, and because I saw them on the cover of the New Haven Advocate. I didn’t even hear their music until I caught the video for “Jolene” on MTV2. I had only been to one or two shows before this one, and was hardly the loyal ska scenester.
Forming in 1991 in the New Haven area, Spring Heeled Jack USA (not to be confused with British electronic band Spring Heel Jack, the reason the New Haven outfit appended USA to their name) was started by singer and guitarist Ron Ragona, and drummer Dave Karcich. The band released a demo entitled “CT Ska” in 1993, and in 1996 released Static World View on Moon Ska Records, the label owned by the Robert “Bucket” Hingley of The Toasters. By the release of SWV, the band completed their most recognizable line up of Ron Ragona (now vocalist for Boston rock/punk band Lost City Angels), guitarist Mike Pellegrino (now guitarist for Cenzo featuring Vinny Nobile of Bim Skala Bim and Pilfers fame), bassist Rick Omonte (does booking for a nightclub, BAR, in New Haven), sax player Pete “RePete” Wasilewski (now the sax player known as “JR” for Less Than Jake, appearing on their album “Anthem”), trombone player Chris Rhodes (who had a stint with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, appearing on their last release “Jackknife to a Swan,” and can currently be seen playing with The Toasters), and Tyler Jones (who had a shorter stint with Reel Big Fish, appearing on their album “Cheer Up,” and rumor has it he can be sighted in and around New Haven, possibly starting fights at BAR). RePete has been seen at Krauser’s in Hamden, and according to rumors, still lives at his mother’s house in Wallingford. I’ve personally had the pleasure of talking to Chris Rhodes at Lost City Angels’ shows and various other ska shows at the Webster in Hartford when I could distract him from his PSP long enough for a conversation.
The band was signed to Ignition Records, a subsidiary of major label Tommy Boy Records, and in 1998 released their most popular album, Songs From Suburbia, featuring the single “Jolene.” The band started to receive recognition from dates on the 1998 Warped Tour and various minor TV promotions. All was going well until Tommy Boy Records decided to disband Ignition Records, effectively dropping Spring Heeled Jack USA. During my senior year of high school, I had the luck of tuning into “One Step Beyond,” a Long Island ska-themed radio show, the night they were interviewing Ron and other members of Spring Heeled Jack USA. What little of the interview I caught was in regards to their unsuccessful talks with record labels. Ron claimed that labels were uninterested in signing a band with a horn section, even though, as he said, they were moving in the direction of playing more pop/rock (though I find it hard to believe they would ever be able to separate themselves from their ska influences). Things proceeded in this direction, and SHJ announced that they were going on hiatus, playing their final show in May of 2001 at Toad’s Place in New Haven. The possibility of reunion shows and reforming were lost when in April of 2002, Dave Karcich died of a sudden brain aneurysm. That December, a tribute show (that I will never forgive myself for missing), was held at Toad’s Place, featuring various guest drummers playing in Karcich’s place, as well as Pilfers, Avoid One Thing (the band Karcich was playing with at the time of his death), Lost City Angels, and Big Mistake (whose “Pop Song (Green)” SHJ covered on Songs From Suburbia). The legendary show raised over $8,000 for a scholarship in Karcich’s name.
The question remains, why is Spring Heeled Jack such a big deal? What did they do that was so special? Their discography only contains a modest two releases in addition to a demo tape, though it should be noted that they have appeared on countless compilations, local and otherwise. Of their two music videos, only one received significant airtime, and only on MTV2 (when it still featured music videos). The fact of that matter is, as far as we are concerned, they did make it. They were from our humble state of Connecticut, and they made it. Ask a hardcore fan how they feel about Hatebreed, a band from Connecticut that tours nationally, moved up the ranks from Victory Records to Universal Records, and held CD release parties at the El N Gee in New London right up until the day it closed. Ask any student at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, CT about their connection to alumnus Rivers Cuomo. It’s more than a claim to fame; it’s pride. For every member of a local ska band, Spring Heeled Jack USA is proof that it can be done. For every scenester, it is evidence of staying power, and consistency in the scene that they believe in. I had a conversation with another scene elder who claimed that the scene died when SHJUSA and Johnny Too Bad and Strikeouts broke up, and I proudly commented that the scene had not died. One could argue it had taken a hit, but is as strong as ever, and that the bands he thought he lost were proof that we are in a battle worth fighting. Spring Heeled Jack USA appears in countless local MySpace profiles as band influences and fan tastes, regardless of whether or not they were able to enjoy the band when they were active. Current local favorites, Stealing From Peter, have been known to pull out a cover of “Jolene,” a rare treat these days. SFP even had the opportunity for Mike Pellegrino, writer of the song, to join them on stage for a performance of it this past March at the Webster Underground. I had the personal pleasure of playing bass for them that night, and I assure you I was smiling for weeks after. I also had the pleasure of watching Mike absolutely raid the CT Ska merchandise table when he played in Windsor with Cenzo. It is safe to say the scene still means something to him, as he talked about how happy he was that it was still thriving. The Connecticut ska scene still has a part in Mike’s heart, and I think it is safe to say that he knows that Spring Heeled Jack USA has a special part in the heart of the Connecticut ska scene.