Brow Beat

What Was It Like Seeing UB40 at the Same Concert as Brett Kavanaugh? We Asked Someone Who Was There.

Astro, Ali Campbell, and Mickey Virtue, looking happy.
Astro, Ali Campbell, and Mickey Virtue of UB40 attend the iHeart80s Party in 2017, 32 years after their evening with Brett Kavanaugh. Kimberly White/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

On Monday, news broke that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was involved in a bar fight after a UB40 concert in 1985, when he was a junior at Yale. Kavanaugh and his friends—including future NBA player and unlikely character witness Chris Dudley—went to a local bar called Demery’s, where they mistook another patron for UB40’s lead singer Ali Campbell. According to the police report, words were exchanged, then ice, then Dudley allegedly smashed a glass into the hapless Ali Campbell doppelgänger’s head, sending him to the hospital. (Dudley, who was arrested after the incident, denied this to police, while Kavanaugh refused to say whether or not he threw the ice.)

The incident raises many fascinating questions about the future of the Supreme Court, the elite prep-school-to-Ivy-to-power pipeline, and Kavanaugh’s misleading testimony about his drinking. But with all the hullaballoo in Washington, we risk losing sight of the most important question of all: How was the UB40 concert?

To find out more, I spoke to professor Gregory Magarian, who teaches constitutional law at Washington University in St. Louis. Although he did not know Brett Kavanaugh during his time at Yale, Magarian is eminently qualified to discuss his suitability for the Supreme Court: Not only did he clerk for John Paul Stevens, he also headed an American Bar Association reading group that helped evaluate Elena Kagan’s legal writings when she was nominated to replace Stevens. But his single most important qualification is that on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 1985, Magarian shelled out $15.50 for a ticket to the UB40 concert at New Haven’s Palace Theatre.

Magarian’s feelings about the UB40 show are well-documented, although the concert itself is not. The Friday after the show, the Yale Daily News ran a negative review by Paul Muenzen in the “After Hours” pull-out section. That particular issue is missing from Yale’s digital collection, and Muenzen, who has since become a Buddhist monk and now goes by the name Hyon Gak Sunim, did not respond to a request for comment. But it’s possible to reconstruct parts of his lost review from a letter Magarian wrote to the Yale Daily News after reading it. Muenzen apparently thought UB40 had no business singing about poverty now that they’d made it, as this quote Magarian pulled from Muenzen’s review shows:

The band … sported discriminating taste in clothing and jet set haircuts. Birmingham’s working class heroes telling us about the hard life, the rough edges. 

But Muenzen didn’t like UB40’s big pop hits either, leading Magarian to ask what was left:

I would like to know what sorts of songs he’d allow the band to play. If they’re “too successful” to be topical and their “top 40” songs are sellouts, what’s left?

In fact, I’d guess that, by this dichotomy, Muenzen is contending that UB40 has outlived its value, that ideally the group should just cease to exist. But the band I saw enchant an enthusiastic crowd with a delightful mixture of politics, great showmanship and—yes—pop, unparalleled in contemporary music, is far too accomplished and enjoyable to stop now.

I spoke to Magarian by phone on Tuesday and discussed his memories of seeing UB40 in 1985. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Matthew Dessem: The first thing I noticed is that the letter that you wrote is full of UB40 facts. Were you a fan before the show? What’s your musical background?

Gregory Magarian: I’m a lifelong music nerd, and actually, in that time, starting late in high school—this is my first month of college. My dad was a newspaper guy, so I had been writing record reviews, and maybe by that time some concert reviews for the Milwaukee Journal as a freelancer. So I was a music nerd, and I wrote some about music. And so this was my most comfortable idiom, to sort of geek out about this stuff. But I was definitely a fan of UB40 for a few years, which at that point in my life was a long time. Enjoyed their music very much.

You mentioned it was your first month—that’s such a fluid social environment. Do you remember how or when you decided to go to that concert or who you went with? Buying tickets?

Well, actually, it’s the only time in my life, other than a few times when I was on assignment for the Journal, that I ever went to a concert alone. It just, in my first month, I believe, I’d have to check the calendar, but my recollection is it was a weeknight. And I just didn’t know anybody yet who wanted to go.

Yeah, it was a Wednesday.

Yeah. So I didn’t know anybody who wanted to go. I’m sure I asked around, my roommates, and nobody was interested, so I just said the hell with it. I really loved a lot of music, but I certainly was a good-sized UB40 fan, and so, “I never got to see this band, I’ve got a chance to see them now, the hell with it, I’m just going to go.” If I remember correctly, this theater was a bit of a schlepp from my residential college, and so I probably just went on the night of the show and got a ticket at the box office.

That’s a sort of classic freshman year decision, too, “I’m going to this concert by myself!”

It totally is. That’s why I remember this reasonably well, because it was one of those moments where it’s like, “Wow, I’m in college. I’m going to a concert alone. This kind of sucks, but it’s kind of cool.”

Did you have a seat or was it general admission? What was it like in the venue?

I believe I had a seat. I don’t know if that venue is still there, but it was a theater venue, it wasn’t like a club setting. Probably one of those shows where you’ve got assigned seats, and then when the music starts people were standing.

Did you run into anybody else that you knew from Yale there? I mean that wouldn’t have been many people, I guess, at that point freshman year. 

It wasn’t many people! If I did, I don’t remember. It’s not impossible that I would have, but I don’t have any recollection of seeing anybody else.

Let me remind you, you’re not under oath.

No, I mean it’s a really interesting exercise in light of—there are so many layers of irony to this, one of them being that I’m a constitutional law professor, and I clerked on the Supreme Court, so the fact that I’m getting calls about Brett Kavanaugh to talk about something I wrote in the Yale Daily News about UB40 is sublimely weird. And the other thing about this is that it’s an exercise in the incompleteness of memory, which is obviously a really important theme in this whole story as well. But you’re quite right, I really didn’t know that many people. And so it would have been unlikely that I would have run into anyone I knew.

Did you know Brett Kavanaugh, by chance?

I don’t remember him at all. But I remember that when I became aware of him in public life, the name seemed familiar. I overlapped with him for two years, but based on everything that we are learning about him, there’s almost no conceivable social circle where I would have run into him, unless maybe there’s a little bit of time when I did some debating at the Yale Political Union, he might have been involved in that, so I might have been aware of him there. But I don’t remember ever meeting him.

Did you notice anyone being disruptive at the UB40 concert?

You know, to the extent—that seems like something I might remember, and no. I just remember it as, other than being by myself, a pretty ordinary concertgoing experience.

One thing that Muenzen wrote in his review that you agreed with him about was that there were a surprising number of teenage girls there. What was the crowd like, was that a striking thing?

Honestly, I don’t have a primary memory of this. But it sounds from the context—I reread the thing I wrote—it sounds like somewhere in the review, he said, “Oh, this is a band that caters to prepubescent girls.” And I was saying, “Yeah, there were a lot of prepubescent girls there, younger girls.” And that would make sense. This was at the point when that band was at the height of its popularity and had had some big hits. So it would have been sort of an MTV-age crowd, and I was a little bit beyond that. So I don’t have any memory of that, but that obviously made an impression on me, enough to write it.

The opening band was a ska group from Los Angeles called the Untouchables. Did you know them?

The Untouchables! Oh yeah, yeah, I loved the Untouchables.

I was going to say, you were a music writer, so…

Yeah, I was. And I’m sure that that was an added inducement for me. Their first album, Wild Child, I think, would have been in ’84, ’85, they were terrific. That would have been a sweetener for me, I like them a lot too.

Reviews of other shows on that tour say that one of the problems was that there was such a difference in energy between the Untouchables and UB40, with the Untouchables being really energetic and UB40 being laid-back reggae. Was that your experience?

That sounds right. And I’ve been trying to see if I can get any kind of sense [or] impression in my head of the bands, and I don’t have much but the Untouchables—exactly what you said, the Untouchables were a ska band and UB40 were a reggae band. And I’ve continued to love both of those styles of music my whole life, and that’s entirely predictable. Some of the most frenetic concerts I’ve ever seen have been the handful of ska shows I’ve seen. This band called Fishbone that I saw a couple years later in college just went completely berserk on stage. And this was a bigger venue. So for the Untouchables it would have been a challenge in a venue that size to put the energy over. I think they did, based on what little I can remember. So UB40 would have come out, and they’re still in a big auditorium, and they’re sort of just grooving along in more of a roots/reggae vein. But from my standpoint, that’s great, ’cause I know both of those bands, I know what I’m getting with both of them. It is kind of weird for the opener to be high energy and for the headliner to be more in a mellow groove. But if you like all the music, it’s all good.

So that UB40 tour was to support Geffery Morgan, which was—their big hits were from Labour of Love, a covers album. Do you remember anything about what they played, if you thought it was a good mix of old and new?

You know, I was looking, and again, I’m getting this memory from the review, I would love to be able to get a setlist from that show. UB40 had sort of, in my sense, three distinct periods in their career. There was the sort of pre-Labour of Love era, when they were in a very dubby vein, more murky sound and more political sounds. And then their sort of pop heyday, which was Labour of Love and Geffery Morgan and a couple of the next albums, Rat in the Kitchen and UB40. And then, after that, they went off the pop deep end and really did start to suck, in kind of the way it sounds like this reviewer was saying they did. So I just think he was premature. But for me, in retrospect, this was the best possible moment to see them. Because they’d just had these two big hit albums, but they were still playing—I think I mentioned “One in Ten.” They had an EP called Little Baggariddim that had a duet with Chrissie Hynde* on “I Got You Babe,” and that was a big hit. But they had a remix of “One in Ten” on there. So I know that they would have played “One in Ten.” And I’m sure that they were still playing some of the things that had been hits off their earlier albums. So it would have been that mix, I’m sure of that.

Do you have any memory of the mood of the show?

My main recollection is I’m sure I was pretty far back, because I wouldn’t have gotten an expensive ticket, and I’m sure I got my ticket on the day of the show. I would have experienced it as, it’s a big venue—a theater, an auditorium show is always a little bit distant. And I don’t have any specific memory of how the audience reacted—that reference to prepubescent girls is the most interesting thing, because even in my subsequent experience, I see a lot of shows, but not a lot of shows with teenagers. I took my daughter to a Taylor Swift show a few years ago, and that was different, that was really interesting. So it sounds like my experience of this was probably, “Wow, some screaming teeny-boppers! And obviously, there are a bunch of college students around here and I don’t know them.” I was probably a little bit focused on the singularity of the experience, of being at the show by myself. On one hand, I would have been just completely focused on the music, and on the other hand it might have felt slightly awkward, socially, and I might have cocooned a bit mentally. I’m not looking for people I know because I don’t know anybody, because I couldn’t find anyone to go to the show with me. So I’m probably not focused on, “Gee, I wonder how many fellow Yale students are here.”

And also you’d done that professionally or semiprofessionally, written about shows, right?

Yeah. So it was very easy for me just to sort of sink into the music and enjoy it for what I was expecting. And I think the show was what I was expecting. Like I said, I knew both bands and I knew what their styles were. I think I came away very satisfied.

Do you remember what you did after the show?

Probably just went back to my room. This is a funny thing to document in the context of all the things Kavanaugh’s been saying: I don’t drink. I’m very much a left-wing guy, but I basically have the personal life of a Mormon. So I wouldn’t have gone out after the show because I wouldn’t have had any place to go. The people I knew were back home, and I’m kind of a homebody anyway. So probably I would have had class work to do, that I would have put off a little bit, which would have been uncommon for me, because I was going to a show on a Wednesday night. So I would have gone home and done anything that I’d left undone to prepare for class the next day.

So you didn’t run into UB40’s lead singer out around New Haven?

I did not run into the lead singer, or his unfortunate nondoppelgänger, or Brett Kavanaugh. I mean, the bar that they went to, Demery’s had a little bit of a reputation for being sort of a, not a place where fights were breaking out every night but more of a rough place. Not a happy little cheery student bar, but a little bit more boisterous.

I did notice that Demery’s had—some bars have ads in the Yale Daily News, but they don’t. They’re in the list of campus events. And that night was Senior Night and they had free hors d’oeuvres. I guess if you didn’t drink, you might not have been there much.

No. I don’t think I ever went.

Well, it says “hors d’oeuvres,” it’s not, like, “Free Food!” it’s “hors d’oeuvres.” So I was wondering what those might have been, if you had any idea.

Oh, God, I have no idea. What’s funny, the striking thing about that is everything fits. Like the fact that they wouldn’t have had ads—again, it’s kind of, by New Haven and Yale campus standards, a little bit of a rougher place. But it’s still Yale, and so the rough place is serving hors d’oeuvres rather than, I don’t know, free nachos or something, which is kind of amusing. But no, I couldn’t be sure, but I doubt I ever set foot in Demery’s.

A list of campus events from the Yale Daily News, including hor d'ouevres at Demery's.
The big night. Yale Daily News

Is there anything else you remember about that show or that night? Or Brett Kavanaugh, for that matter?

Nothing else. I’ve been pondering it, and it’s a pleasant but distant memory.

Well, break out your old UB40 records. 

I think I may.

Correction, Oct. 2, 2018: This article originally misspelled singer Chrissie Hynde’s name.