–Mighty Mighty Bosstones
So I figured, in the absense of posting anything productive about my life, I’d post an album-by-album retrospective of me and my favorite band, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The idea here is that I listen to an album, typing as it plays, about what I remember about listening to that album. Since the Bosstones have had a fairly ridiculous level of influence on my life, I expect these entries to be sprawling, random, and a little scary.
And the first song is half over already. Oh dear.
So, Let’s Face It was the first Bosstones album that I heard. I was introduced to the Bosstones by my friend Anna when we were both 15. She had cable TV (I never did), and saw their video for the single “The Impression That I Get,” and brought the CD over to my house for a sleepover, telling me she thought I’d like this band (boy, was she ever right about that one).
At the time, I had not yet found a musical identity that was “mine.” Most of the music I listened to was still what my parents listened to; that is, movie soundtracks, Billy Joel, the Neville Brothers, and oldies in general. I had noticed my friends getting into music in seventh or eighth grade—Green Day, Blink 182, the Offspring, Hootie and the Blowfish, Nirvana. I tended to not like the music of my friends and contemporaries. I didn’t connect with it, it all sounded sad, or it was about romance, or breaking up, or drugs, none of which interested me. I had a Hootie and the Blowfish CD, and Weird Al’s Food album, and I think I had Des’ree’s first album on cassette. I listened to Mix 107.5, which at the time was Top 40, I think mostly because I felt like I had to, because that’s what the kids were doing. I realized it was profoundly uncool to still be listening to the Neville Brothers, and was deeply uncomfortable with my sense of myself as a late bloomer, but I really never could get into “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls.
I think I liked the Bosstones from the word go, even though I didn’t understand many of the lyrics. But they sounded upbeat and happy, and they had the horns that I so enjoyed in my mom’s old Neville Brothers and Motown records. And I could tell that they weren’t just singing about romance and breakups—“Violence, when will they learn?” is an early lyric that stood out, the anti-bigoted message of “Let’s Face It,” the anti-drug message of “Royal Oil.” I think I was also intrigued that they didn’t look like your typical mid-90s rocker. The cover art had them snappily dressed in suits, plus they were older, no longer in their mid-20s (at the time, I thought that this was their first album, so I found it interesting and cool that such old guys would put out such a record and somehow get on MTV). I used to look at the faces of the band members and try to guess who might play what—I hadn’t seen the music video for Impression at that point, and the liner notes for that album doesn’t say who’s who. (At some point, I decided that either Ben or Dennis looked like they could be the lead singer. Oh, this is also when I thought that the first half of the album and the second half—which is much more hardcore than the first—were sung by entirely separate people. That’s right, I thought Dicky Barrett was two people.)
Trivia fact: “The Rascal King” is about James Michael Curley, Boston’s first Irish mayor and benchmark for corrupt politician. Also, fair notice: Dicky Barrett knows quite a lot about Boston’s history, more than the average Bostonian. This is also one of the many songs he writes that is essentially a character study of somebody. When Dicky writes about people, this is how he does it—with attention to their story and their personality, instead of writing about how he sees them or feels about them—and I just find it to be so much fun.
“Well it’s so hard to face/that in this day and age/somebody’s race could trigger somebody’s rage”…man, that spoke to me so much when I was a kid. “Now how far have we come/how come there still are some/who won’t let some march to the beat of a different drum.” I was a misfit kid. I’d never been really popular or really confident with my peer group. My half-hearted attempts to fit in (pleas to my mother to let me buy some new clothes instead of hand-me-downs, or the aforementioned radio listening) were mostly met with ridicule by my peers. And here’s this band, cluing me in to the idea that maybe it’s not me—maybe it’s the world. Maybe it’s okay for me to be awkward and weird. Maybe other people should accept that I am that way, rather than make fun of me because I don’t quite fit in. I know the song’s about racial prejudice and homophobia, but I took it really personally.
“That Big Bit Me” somehow became the song that I ended every single mix with. I used to be really into making cassette mixes for my friends, to expose them to this new and awesome music that I was getting into. When I got to the last minute and a half, not long enough for an entire song but too long to leave blank, I’d turn on “That Bug Bit Me” and tape until the tape ran out. That was how I ended things. I honestly don’t remember how I got into that habit—I think it started out as a joke between me and my friend Kakki that got out of hand, that I turned into my own inside joke. (Yes, I have inside jokes with myself. Whether this is a cause of or a result of me not having many friends is open to debate.)
Speaking of Kakki, she was around when I was first getting into the Bosstones. She was the one who told me their style of music was called “ska” and that they were from Boston (Bosstones! Boston! A pun! Funny!). Keep in mind, this was just before the internet entered my life (actually, the Bosstones were one of the first reasons I started poking around on the internet at all), and though my parents’ musical tastes are diverse, they don’t include reggae or ska at all. When I first heard the Bosstones, I had no context whatsoever to put them in. So I took small words like “ska” and “Boston” and did with them what I could.
My mom has worked as a librarian for many years, since before I was born. Sometimes, if she was working a 4 hour shift (shifts were either 4 hours or 8), she would take me to work with her, and I’d either do homework or just read. I was a quiet, library-loving sort of kid. But after I got this album by the Bosstones (and I don’t actually remember buying Let’s Face It for myself, just listening to Anna’s copy, though I definitely did buy a copy fairly early on), I would go with her to the library and use the public internet terminals to search for information on the Bosstones or on ska. This was before Google, remember, even before any advanced searching ability. I searched the internet the same way I searched old card catalogs—with ever-narrowing category searches. First you click on Music, then you click on Punk/Ska, then you search by artist, then you go to M, and then you find all the websites about the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. There was no official site, but oodles of fan sites with FAQs and stories and old interviews that the webmaster had typed up. If you found one comprehensive site, it would lead you to others, either via the links page of the Web Ring links. So I started reading all these interviews with Dicky and the other Bosstones, or articles or whatever, and printing them off (at 10 cents a page) and keeping them in a 2 inch binder, which I still have. (One of the webpages also had all of the Bosstones’ lyrics published and a discography, which I printed off and read like they were poetry. I probably had all the Bosstones’ lyrics memorized before I even owned all the albums.)
Oh, I’m up to “Break So Easily.” I didn’t like this song for the longest time because I didn’t understand what it was about, and because it’s so jarring. Then somehow I found out that it’s about a murder that trombone player Dennis Brockenborough witnessed, and it immediately became more accessible and more awesome. And I could see how the musical style mirrored the lyric theme, and found that cool.
Anyway. So, when people would interview Dicky, he would recommend bands like the Specials, Madness, the Clash, and others. This is the thing about Dicky—he’s always been good about paying tribute to other artists. Well, all the Bosstones have. So I took the bus down to Tower Records in Cherry Creek and bought myself the Specials’ singles collection and London Calling by the Clash. My belief that the Bosstones played ska was disabused the first time I listened to the Specials. The Clash were, just plainly, awesome. Musically interesting, musically different, and they weren’t singing love songs. Neither were the Specials. When you look at my music collection today, it’s still pretty devoid of love songs. I guess I don’t have much use for them.
About halfway through Let’s Face It, the style gets much more crunchy and punky. Dicky’s voice deepens, the themes get more ominous. A guy gets killed by drunken party goers, somebody gets shot in the street, and Dicky gets beat up by a junkie. I remember not being crazy about these songs, not necessarily understanding them, but listening to them anyway. In this, I think the Bosstones did something for me that no other band could have done: I have always loved the lyrics. Loved them enough to put up with aspects of their musical style that didn’t immediately appeal to me (like Dicky’s Rottweiler growl and Nate Albert’s more hardcore guitar techniques). Many of their songs, I liked both musically and lyrically; but plenty of the songs I only liked lyrically. If Dicky hadn’t increased my tolerance for noise, I don’t know when or how I would have ever gotten into H2O or the Bouncing Souls or Operation Ivy or any number of other bands. Even these days, my taste tends towards the melodic, but it’s just another subtle way that the Bosstones influenced me and my tastes.
Okay. I’m up to “1-2-8,” the final song on this first album by the Bosstones. The first album that I owned, I mean. I got into the Bosstones all out of order, something I’ll try to portray as these episodes go. 1-2-8 is another song I didn’t understand for a long time, but I get it now that I know more about the Bosstones and about their history.
That’s the sort of weird thing, is that the Bosstones have introduced me to a phenomanally large amount of stuff—and I’ve liked almost all of it, whether it’s bands or philosophies or musical style or professionalism. The album’s over, though (Paul Kolderie just said “great”), so this entry’s over.Next time: Ska Core, the Devil, and More
Mighty Mighty Bostones. Let’s Face It. Mercury Records, 1997. B000001ERG. Status: in print.