Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Pin Points & Gin Joints (Part 1)

pinpointsI don’t even know when I left off with my Bosstones listen-along. It’s been at least a year? Or two? I was going through my list of possible blog posts, though, and realized that I only had two Bosstones albums left (at least, until they put out another one). So here we are.

Also I started writing this and then it turned into something over 4,000 words long, so today, we listen to Side A (which is technically incorrect because the LP version of this album is a double LP, so we’re really kind of listening to the entire first record but you know what, Side A sounds better).

Pin Points & Gin Joints was released in 2009, the Bosstones’ first full length album since Jackknife in 2002 (they went on hiatus in 2003, and didn’t do anything until the 2007 Throwdown). I think that Medium Rare came out before Pin Points, but that only had 3 original/new songs on it and was mostly b-sides (which are great! B-Sides are great. Bosstones b-sides even more so than most songs. But b-sides != new music).

In looking at the Wikipedia entry for this album, Joe Gittleman (the bassist and one of the primary songwriters) said, “We really want to make a fun, upbeat record with a lot of cool ska stuff. Songs I look forward to playing at shows.” Mission accomplished, sir, because I enjoy hearing just about every one of these songs at shows.

The first song up is “Graffiti Worth Reading,” which I’m pretty sure I heard one way or another before the song actually came out–released on the internet? At a show? It’s super fun, upbeat, great to sing along to. It’s about people who tag walls and the people who read them. Chris Rhodes, who plays trombone, has some fun as fuck background vocals on this. The lyrics go fast but are relatively simple and happen on the beat, so it’s easy to sing along.

“Nah nah nah nah” is number two. That might not be the right number of Nah’s. Shrug. Also upbeat, also dancey, except it’s about coming to terms with the decisions your deadbeat dad he made when you were just a child. “I’d rather you hadn’t than had/If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t be mad/At what I’d been handed/Despite it, I’ve landed/On both feet, so don’t worry, Dad.” Dicky has this habit sometimes of inverting syntax to keep his rhymes intact, which is kind of all over the place here (and in “Graffiti”).

Thinking about the title of the album–a gin joint, most of us either know or infer, is American slang for a bar. Where the Bosstones have played a lot of shows and spent a lot of time. It’s also in one of the most famous movie lines in history: “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine,” from Casablanca. Ska in general has a fascination with gangsters and spies, with the tension between fashionable elegance and brutal crime. Early ska is full of James Bond covers and songs about gangsters and speakeasies. Street gangs and getting in fights. The Bosstones cover these themes too, though of course they do it in their own ultra-specific way: they wear suits onstage (like a lot of other ska bands), but the gangsters they sing about are, like, James Michael Curley and Sammy Gravano. So citing “gin joints” here is working on multiple levels.

Then there’s pin points, like how many angels (or devils, in the case of the Bosstones) dance on the head of a pin. Like just how many guys can you fit on a fucking stage. Or maybe pin points like pointallism, the drawing technique (Dicky is also an artist and has designed most, if not all, of the Bosstones’ album art). Pin points are also legal citations that direct a reader to a specific paragraph of a judgment or report, which I did not know until I started looking into the etymology of “pin points,” but now that I see it I don’t think it’s an accident. There’s a lot of introspection in this album, a lot of Dicky thinking about specific moments in his life and how they influenced where he ended up, for good and for bad. In fact we go straight from “Nah Nah Nah Nah Nah,” where he’s thinking about his dad’s abandonment of him and how that affected him growing up, to “The Route that I Took,” which is about his early history as a punk and as a musician and has some of my favorite lyrics on the entire album.

Without really knowing I took all the wrong routes
The misguided monster in the Doc Marten boots
In the wrong directions against all of the grains
Got off at all the wrong stops, back on to all the wrong trains…

I can just continue quoting the song here, that’s cool, right?

Without suggesting to you the routes I took were never wrong,
I took a look and still I took and somehow I stayed strong,
And I just stayed on the course with very few deviations,
One of two situations, some other odd altercations.

And when my days were too dark, well I had something to sell,
I am the carnival barker with some stories to tell.
There’ll be apologies made at every fork and each bend
And I’m so glad that I stayed and I will stay till the end

There’s also the absolutely glorious line, “While I made up my mind, I had some choices to make/Should I leave hell far behind me just for heaven’s sake?” And, “Without a drop of the sense that god had gave to a stone/But in my own self defense, I was not all alone.”

I love the way Dicky is able to do this. He takes idioms and sayings–got off at all the wrong stops, leave hell far behind, for heaven’s sake–and uses them in a way that is both true and accurate and yet also sort of literal in a way that idioms generally aren’t used. I’m also a sucker for multiple rhymes in the same line, like “I stayed on the course with very few deviations/One or two situations, some other odd altercations.”

I also love the story of the song. It’s very specifically Dicky, and I can’t relate to it on a literal level–I’ve been blessedly sheltered from drug use, and drug abuse, my entire life, and a lot of this song is about being around people using drugs (something he’s also written about in other songs). I also wasn’t nearly the agent of chaos that it sounds like he was in his youth. But there’s an overarching theme of being in the shit, and going through some shit, whether it’s of your own making or just bad luck. And not knowing if you want to hang around or not (either in the environment you’re in or, like, at all), but doing your best to get through it, any way you can. And then looking back and going, well, if I had to do it again, I would sure not choose to do it that way, but ultimately I have no regrets about what I did, or where I ended up. That’s not a song that many 25-year-old punks ever have the chance–or the wherewithal–to write.

(On another note, here and there there are old punks writing songs about being an old punk, which, as an old not-quite-a-punk-anymore, I appreciate. As I grow older, it makes me sad that songs that I stitched onto my heart when I was 17 don’t always sound like they’re about me anymore, now that I’m 38.)

“I am the carnival barker with some stories to tell”–a reference to both Dicky’s role as a lead singer, one with a very distinctive voice, and his role in the band as primary lyricist. He’s also the ringleader on stage, the guy who’s most likely to engage with the crowd and talk to folks. Historically, a carnival barker is the guy who stands outside the circus tent and invites people inside to see the best show of their life. They’re hucksters, fast talkers. salesmen. The label does fit him, in a way. And not just because he wears loud plaid suits and wields a microphone.

I like “You Left Right,” aside from the wordplay in the title (and the missing comma) because it articulates the confusion that often comes in the wake of a breakup (or at least, that comes in the wake of mine), when the anger mixes with still feeling protective or tender over this person that you cared for, because emotions have the turning capacity of ocean liners.

Sitting in the car with the engine off
And I’ve got no where to go
I need to be somewhere away from here to think
….I sift and sort and come up short
So far past my last resort.

After that, we take a break from the introspection for “Too Many Stars,” an anti-war song. The album came out in 2009, but this song may have been written or conceived around the Iraq Troop surge of 2007? Or just a reaction to being eight years into seemingly endless wars that fought on two fronts. And how we make these decisions to rain fire down on people thousands of miles away. I do find it interesting that this sounds like any number of anti-war/anti-imperial songs that were written during the Bush presidency, but was most likely written (and was definitely released) during Obama’s first term.

Way too many stars falling from the skies
An open invitation sent to open up their eyes
A monumental diplomatic moment that was missed
Too many make their living off it hand right over fist.

(Once I was at a Bosstones show and I was on the rail, at the front of the crowd, and I accidentally made eye contact with Dicky as we both sang the lines, “A monumental diplomatic moment that was missed/Too many make their living off it hand right over fist” and for some reason that moment is now burned into my skull as a cool thing that happened at a show.)

Next up is “Your Life,” which is my favorite favorite favorite (yes, I know. All the Bosstones songs are my favorite. They’re like puppies that way. All the best.) For some reason I keep inserting this song into my queue when I’m listening to the Bosstones’ newest album While We’re At It, right after the song “Unified.” It fits, for some reason. Either a similar tempo or a similar key or something that I can’t articulate because I’m not a musician, but my brain clicks into it. It also has a lot of the wordplay and idioms that I mentioned above that I just completely love.

You were warned from the day you were born,
You were to young so you blew it off.
You were told you were gold but as you got older,
You discovered that you were to soft.

“You were told you were gold and then discovered that you were too soft,” oh my god.

This is another one of those songs where, even though my life has been drastically different from Dicky’s, and even though I don’t know what events he was thinking of when he wrote this song, there’s also ways in which we’re the same. Maybe all humans. I hit the rocks so, so hard as a teenager and young adult, as my idealism and naivety crashed into the reality of how the world actually is. This song is about that, in a way that articulates the experience in a way that I would have said it, if I was as good with words and rhymes as Dicky is.

The last three verses of something are something that, every time I sing along to it, I feel like I’m singing to my younger self. She went through so much shit, and a ton of it was due to not having any real mental health support even though she really needed it (and didn’t know how badly she needed it, and didn’t know that it was a thing she could or should ask for). I try to keep her safe these days, while not keeping her locked away. She earned it.

The bottom was coming up quick
I guess it just has to be hit
The secret the key and the trick
Is learning to deal with it

It’s uphill from this point on out
And the pinnacle’s up at the top
It hasn’t been reached, only practiced and preached
So at this point you might want to stop

You might but might I suggest
I suggest it’s best just to climb
Continue you’ve still got it in you
And be thankful you’ve still got the time
You’ve still got the time.

The outro of this song is the chorus over and over, but behind it, in harmony, one of the Bosstones is repeating, “You’ve still got the time” over and over. “Be thankful you’ve still got the time. You’ve still got the time.” That’s a thing I need to hear, to remind myself of, a lot.

(Also, does Dicky have a list somewhere of idioms somewhere of plates and their many metaphorical meanings? In “Desensitized,” on their 1997 album Let’s Face It, Dicky wrote, “Let’s get to the bottom/And blow off the lid/I’m trying to keep a balance/Like the plates on top of sticks…”)

Next up is “I Wrote It,” a song that I know some Bosstones fans super adore, but I confess it’s not my favorite. It’s about the narrator (I really should stop assuming that the narrator is always Dicky) writing a song in a borrowed notebook, in a bar in Boston, wearing a suit jacket that I think he bought at a thrift store. There’s no indication in the song that the lines he’s writing are great, or worthy, or that they’re any of the songs that made the Bosstones “big.” There is a drum lick in the chorus here that I love, where Sirois hits the toms with a sort of *womp womp* which is just fun. There’s also a repeated line in here that, “I wrote, I wrote it for you,” which always gets kinda emphasized when they play it live. “FOR! (womp womp) YOU! (womp womp) (horns horns horns hooooorns)

I just noticed that this song starts with Dicky finding a golf pencil in his blazer, and he ends with leaving the pencil in the empty shot glass, for someone else to find. Back to one! Full circle! Craft! Something something.

And now we are up to “Not to Me on That Night,” which I’ve just realized I’ve  been mentally squishing together with “You Left Right,” to the extent that I’m surprised that there’s three songs in between the two on the album. Dicky might very well still be sitting in his car with the engine off. But there’s also….something darker in this? Like Dicky notes that “That’s when the sanity ceased,” and then later he says, “I noticed something was wrong, and I took it seriously.” He could be talking here about discovering his partner is cheating on him, or about noticing that his partner is having serious mental illness symptoms and needs to go to a hospital. “You had nothing to say/But it took several hours to say it.” Is Dicky just mad and done and not listening anymore, or is the other person in the song honestly prevaricating? It’s hard for me to tell. And sure, I know, I am almost certainly over-interpreting.

Side B: Soon!

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