I just think it’s neat. That is all.
This is–almost!–the last album in this series (though not the last album released). It’s taken me so long to get through this listen-along that the Bosstones have released another album in the interim (When God Was Great). Also because of how long I’ve been doing this, it no longer feels like a cohesive project, though of course you can read all the rest of them easily enough. But it was fun to have something specific to get me listening to these albums again, and recounting memories.
The Magic of Youth came out in 2011, a year that seems impossibly long ago (surely the album’s only been out for like 3-4 years, not 10?). It’s their second post-hiatus album release, after Pin Points & Gin Joints.
I have delayed hitting play while I wrote my little introduction, because the album starts with a bang and I know I won’t have much time to futz around. It starts with bass and distorted guitar. Even the horns sound kinda angry. This song gives me chills, I don’t know why. “Do everything that we want to do/Try everything there is to try/There’s nothing out there stopping me or you/Do everything before we die.”
It’s kind of got “fuck it,” vibes, and “Let’s do this” vibes. A reminder that the biggest thing stopping you in any endeavor might just be yourself (especially, she added editorially, if you’re white and straight and middle/upper class). There’s a little swoopy part in the middle that’s like a tiny dance break (I always see Ben in my head when this part of the song goes by) before it kicks back in again. This song is a great album opener. And set opener, I love hearing the Bosstones play this live.
“Like a Shotgun” is, I think, either about Dicky falling in love or about becoming a father, which I think he did around this time. There’s some shades of “That Bug Bit Me” in this, where it feels like he’s talking metaphorically and literally at the same time. I like to sing along with this song, and it’s great live, just carries you along, but I don’t feel a huge personal connection to the lyrics.
Both of these songs (and more and more with the Bosstones, throughout their history) have a lot of sonic layering going on. It’s more complex now than it was early in their careers when they just cranked the distortion on the guitars and Dicky’s voice up to 11. But “Shotgun,” especially, manages to approximate the overwhelming noise that is being at a concert, with the horns and the amps and the PA system and the noise of the crowd all mixing together to make this wall that feels almost physical at times.
“Disappearing,” by contrast, has these quiet moments where there’s not much happening other than the drums and the horns. Joe Sirois also has one of my all time favorite drum breakdowns in this song (in 2012, I think, I went to the Throwdown, and I was really excited to hear Sirois do this solo live but instead they had the Dropkick Murphys’ drummer Matt on stage to share the solo with him, which was cool but also disappointing). I think it’s a snare drum that’s tuned really tight so it sounds more hollow than snappy? Look I don’t know, I’m not a drummer. But it is neat. That’s all.
“Sunday Afternoons on Wisdom Ave” is a more fun, sorta lighthearted song about a chunk of Dicky’s childhood. The keyboards is doing a lot of the work of the ska rhythm here, harmonizing with the guitars. (I realize that I’m a person who is almost always focused primarily on vocals, trying to find ways to talk about the music. There’s a lot to listen to and pay attention [HAHA I see what I did there] to on the instrumentals on this album. I apologize to anyone who’s an actual musician, reading me try to articulate what I’m hearing is probably painful. I’m also trying really hard to not mention Phil fucking Ramone).
Looking at the track list, the first five tracks on this album get played at their shows pretty regularly. I know that other Bosstones fans have kept track of setlists (there’s a spreadsheet that I could find if I went looking) and at this point have a database of ever single song and how often it’s played. I wonder if anyone’s calculated the prevalance of songs per album in live set lists (they probably have).
“They Will Need Music,” though it’s basically in the middle of the album (holy smokes we’re already in the middle of the album?) is often near the end of their set. Very end? It’s fun and triumphant. I’m just losing myself in a reverie of seeing the Bosstones in person, now. The lights and the noise and Matty picking me up so I can see and the circle pit and Lerch picking me up when I fall and other people’s sweat and confetti coming out of the ceiling…sigh. The outro on this song is JG (the keyboard player) getting to have a little solo mess around time (like, completely solo, like he’s alone on stage), kinda ragtimey, it’s fun. I think there are people who don’t like this song or are tired of it (just as there are people who don’t like “Death Valley Vipers, which, I just don’t understand), but those people are wrong.
“The Package Store Petition,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard them play this song live? It’s okay, not my favorite. One of those songs where Dicky is telling a story that’s not exactly his–he’s putting himself in this other guy’s head, I mean, and telling a story from that perspective. There’s tension in the horns, giving away that there’s some bad things going on. It’s one of those songs where the Bosstones manage to sound more threatening during the quiet parts? Oh, now that I hear Dicky sing “It’s hell they’ll caaaaaatch,” I think I have heard this song live. That’s bringing back some memories.
Have I seen the Bosstones live so often that now I can transplant any of their songs into a live situation? Some people know exactly how many times they’ve seen the Bosstones, I used to but I lost count sometime in 2004 around show 26 (I could probably go back and count, I keep ticket stubs and things). I know that I’m well above 50. At this point, it’s just as much about seeing people in the crowd as it is about seeing the Bosstones. I never really had friends to go to shows with in high school and college–eventually I made some, but my mental default to going to shows is still that I go by myself. Bosstones shows are really the only time when I go to a show to see more than just the band–I get to hang out with Bill and Steve and Matty and Lerch and Will and Xtine and Jonathan and Skippy and Flynn and Audrey and Chris and Boston and Caitlin and Nick and Phyro and and and and. It’s good to see people you know in the pit. It’s good to make plans to get beers before or (and?) after.
“The Horseshoe and the Rabbit’s Foot.” The horns in the intro to this song always make me want to dance like Molly Ringwold in The Breakfast Club. (LOL, the dog just groaned at me. I think he needs to go for a walk. Album’s almost done, dog.) (Also, look, I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a little bit to come up with things to talk about here, can I just skip to the end and babble about “Open and Honest”? Though, really, what I love about Open & Honest is that it’s full of references to their previous songs/albums which is hard to chart in a blog entry, so you might as well just go and see that I annotated it on genius dot com.
“The Magic of Youth” is a little bit like “Toxic Toast” and a little bit like “She Just Happened,” though less optimistic and nostalgic than either of those. Which is funny, because the title on its own is sweet and nostalgic–but there’s an edge to the lyrics that isn’t really there in “Toxic Toast.” There’s so many signifiers of downright poverty in the lyrics–“Do things on shoe strings to make the ends meet/Cut costs and corners in order to eat/Low income housing they couldn’t afford/Bills and collectors that they just ignored” If you’re in low income housing and you’re still dodging bills and “cutting corners” (I assume that means stealing) in order to eat….you’re in a pretty bad place. Up against the wall. In “Toxic Toast,” the characters in that song are broke as shit, and know it, and don’t care. They’re having fun. They’re young and dumb and okay with it. This song? Isn’t about that sort of being broke. This is about drugs, and doing shit you don’t want to do just to keep both ends of your body together.
I’m not sure if the couple in this song have a happy ending? The song says they stay together, “older and sickly and waiting to die.” Who knows how old “old” is, here, though. And who knows how long they could keep going with the particular hustles that are mentioned in this song, or what they started doing when those gave out.
“The Upper Hand.” I’m listening to the intro on this song and obviously I’ve heard it a bunch, but I’m realizing that I don’t actually know any of the lyrics or what this song is about. It’s managed to escape me. Onward!
“The Ballad of Candlepin Paul.” The Bosstones played this song once at a Throwdown with the real Candlepin Paul there in attendance. I think Dicky wrote this song at least partly as a joke and/or to annoy the Dropkick Murphys’ bassist and vocalist Ken Casey. But it’s also about Boston history, so who knows, maybe it’s 100% sincere (in keeping with Dicky’s general lyrical themes of contrast, and metaphors vs literals and things like that, it’s useful to view Dicky as Schroedinger’s Lyricist: He is both 100% sincere and 100% silly and full of shit, all at the same time). I admit that this is one of those songs where I kinda go, “Sooooo you had a finite amount of money and time to spend in a studio and you decided to do this with it,” not because the song is bad or anything like that, but just because….motherfuckers wrote a song about bowling. Bowling.
Okay! “Open and Honest.” Great fucking song. Is just crying out for a montagey music video. When I realized that this was the song I would be discussing last, I was actually really excited. Like what a great way to cap off my years-long series. And then, as I mentioned, the Bosstones put out a new album, so I have to review that at some point. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.
The song references all of the Bosstones’ pre-hiatus studio albums (Devil’s Night Out, More Noise & Other Disturbances, Don’t Know How to Party, Question the Answers, Let’s Face It, and Pay Attention). The references are not quite in order of album release which honestly bothers me a little bit (I bet it bothers Dicky too), but sometimes you have to make sacrifices so that things can rhyme.
- “May I say we’ve been this way now since the day we met the devil”
- “We won’t be bought and sold controlled or told he don’t know how to revel”
- “The noise you’ve been hearing, the culmination of an awful lot of people caring”
- “Let’s face what you’re afraid of”
- “You don’t know when they might throw at you a curveball or a question”
- “So let’s not mention who you paid attention to”
The last words of the song (and the album) are, “Nothing left to say, thank you.” Which I’m pretty sure is just referring to this song/album, not the band as a whole (especially since they’ve released two albums since then). But it also sorta encapsulates how I feel (not that I’m going to let that stop me from saying more) about the Bosstones: Nothing left to say, thank you.
Hello, and thank you for joining me again for part two of the listen-along to Pin Points and Gin Joints, the 2009 Mighty Mighty Bosstones album. I covered “Side A” in my last post, which ended up being way too long, so here we are with Side B.
“Wasted Summers,” is a song penned to a Boston Red Sox player who left the team to go play for the Yankees, because we’re a Boston band and honestly why would you not write a song about baseball? World needs more songs about baseball. (I know the specifics have been explained, and the player named, but I don’t follow baseball so I don’t remember who it’s about, and I’m too lazy to go look it up.)
“Sister Mary.” This song should probably be its own entire entry. It’s about the history of ska, and of the Skatalites, and of Desmond Dekker, all told in Dicky’s trademark directly oblique way. There’s so many references to early Jamaican ska in here, (and I’m probably missing a bunch because I’m by no means a scholar on Jamaican ska).
Can you remember
The school in the slums?
Can you hear the trombone
The guitar and the drums?
These lines are a reference to the Alpha Boys School, where several future members of the Skatalites went to school (and learned their instruments), along with trombonist Rico Rodriguez and a bunch of others. The headmaster of the school was Sister Mary Ignatius Davies.
Hey Sister Mary, can you teach me the song?
While they drag him out of there in scandal and shame
And Mr. Cosmic, the slide –Will you play along?
The man on the street couldn’t handle the fame.
Mr Cosmic is, I think, Don Drummond, famed trombonist and graduate of ABS. He put out an album (compilation?) called Don Cosmic. (There’s also a song called “Don Cosmic.”) “The Man on the Street” is also a Drummond song. So is “Scandal.”
Can you remember
When you left the school?
Half the world seemed wonderful
The other half seemed cruel
Pardon me sir, you were half out of your mind
The magic you’d make
And then the fame you would find
From Wikipedia: “In 1965 Drummond was convicted of the murder of his longtime girlfriend, Anita “Marguerita” Mahfood, an exotic rhumba dancer and singer, on 1 January 1965. He was ruled criminally insane and imprisoned at Bellevue Asylum, Kingston, where he remained until his
death four years later. The official cause of death was ‘natural causes.'”
On the Eastern Standard Time (“Eastern Standard Time” is a song written by Drummond, eventually recorded by the Skatalites. It’s also a band; they named themselves after the song.)
The teardrops in the rain (I’m honestly not sure about this one. There’s a Specials song from 1998 called “My Tears Come Falling Down Like Rain,” about Drummond; and there’s a NY Ska-Jazz Ensemble song called “Teardrops from My Eyes,” but my google skills are failing me in terms of finding what Drummond-specific song this may be a reference to.)
Sweet Anita Margarita (Anita Mahfood’s stagename)
She was crying out in pain
There’s also a trombone solo here, which makes sense in a song about a trombonist. I’m curious if the solo calls back to or sounds like any of Drummond’s songs, but I don’t know enough about his discography to identify.
Sister Mary cannot save you now
You might as well admit
You left your trombone all alone
And she held on to it.
This seems to indicate that Sister Mary Ignatius got Drummond’s trombone back after he went to prison/mental hospital? I’m not sure if this has basis in fact. Knowing Dicky, he wrote this song after reading a book about the whole thing, so maybe it’s cited (or hypothesized) somewhere. The biggest book about ska history that I know of, by Heather Augustyn, didn’t come out until 2010, but it’s possible that Dicky had an advance copy. (Or that he just knew! Dude’s listened to ska for decades now.)
“It Will Be.” I always get this song in my head now when I’m anticipating going to a Bosstones show, even though that’s not what the song’s about at all. “It will be! Wait and see! It’ll be when you least expect it, Wait and see it’ll be electric.” It’s more just about good things coming to find you when you least expect them, which is the opposite of a Bosstones show (I always know when those are coming).
There’s a little bit of a “When I’m 64”-ish theme going on here? “Will you still need me, will you still feed me…” “So patiently you’ll have to wait and see/And the waiting will be well worth it I’m sure.” Maybe a little “Innocent Man” by Billy Joel–he’s talking to someone who’s been crushed, all but trampled, all hope gone, but here’s Dicky, see, and he says, “I can go but I know I’ll wait around,” because he knows this thing they have (or might be starting to have) could be electric.
It occurs to me that even though I’m reading these lyrics and thinking about an “Innocent Man” sort of situation, that’s not necessarily true, I don’t think. Dicky could be talking to a friend who’s going through a breakup. Like, yeah, this sucks right now, and I’m not the one who can save you from it (I’m not the one you’ll fall in love with), but I want you to know that this bright future is out there for you. That you’ll find and love somebody electric.
Good grief this is long I’M SORRY IT’S JUST THAT ALL THESE SONGS ARE GREAT.
Also I really should stop for lunch? I’m super hungry. When I first started this series it was “Hit play and then type as much as you can while the album is running,” so it didn’t take that much longer than the run time of the album to write an entry, but now I’m all pausing and going to double check things on the internet and it’s taking a really long time. Like I thought I would be able to write the last two entries today but I haven’t gotten much done at work and I have a whole homework project I need to do and everything is just a lot right now?
“Death Valley Vipers.” This song is weirdly divisive among Bosstones fans. I know some who say they skip it when it comes up on their player, and would be fine if they never heard it live again. But I like it. It’s a tribute to a specific Army unit stationed in Afghanistan, I think, some far remote outpost in a really dangerous area of the country. “Death Valley Vipers/Proud daughters and sons/Direct descendants of survivors/Marching orders from no one.” My reaction to this song is always really visual. Like I see a whole music video in my head. Maybe it’s because of the mention of Death Valley, but I imagine a 1950s Buick breaking down in the American desert, the couple in it alone and stranded, taking pot shots at a cactus to keep themselves occupied. There’s a motorcycle gang that comes along at some point, and there’s a moment when you think the couple might get attacked, but then they join the biker gang. And it turns out that this gang, which is full of the ghosts of people who have died in the desert–Central American immigrants, Native American warriors, Okies, people killed by Vegas gangsters, people killed in car crashes, etc–roam around on vintage Kawasaki dirt bikes, protecting people who are still alive, adopting those that have died in their territory.
“The Bricklayer’s Story” is a solid song in the Bosstones’ tradition of writing songs about Boston, or people from Boston, or just working class folks. You get the feeling that these are all people that Dicky has met in a bar at some time or other. (Dicky could almost be an ethnographer who works out of dive bars.) A tribute to a working class guy who worked hard his whole life. A tribute to people who work hard, who do things for others, even if it comes at a price to themselves (there’s a whole verse dedicated to cataloging the injuries that the bricklayer incurred over his life). This song stands beside “Temporary Trip,” “A Jackknife to a Swan,” maybe even “Hugo’s Wife.” Love songs to ordinary people.
“Pretty Sad Excuse” is the last song. Like several other final songs on Bosstones albums, especially post-hiatus albums, it sounds like two songs mashed together. It’s longer than is usual. The first half is sweet and sad, and the tempo is slow. If you’re at a show, it gives everyone a chance to rest and breathe, establish a slow little circle pit, give hugs to the people you’ve never met before but are now friends with.
I feel so disappointing more times than I don’t
I feel like such a let down and I’m nervous that I won’t
Deliver when I’m called upon to step up when I’m needed
I feel like such a failure when I’m sure that I’ve succeeded
I call myself an outcast, more than likely I am not
An outsider on the inside and I hope I don’t get caught
I feel like an impostor who should not be on the roster
Someone understands this and of course I’ve almost lost her
If I cherish or I value something then it’s safe to say
I will dismantle or destroy it and I’ve always been that way…
“Half the time I’m petrified, and I’m terrified the rest. If I’m not being selfish than I’m probably depressed.” If that’s not a relatable sentiment I don’t know what the fuck is. This song is about being successful when you’re not sure if you deserve it; maybe you’ve just fooled everybody. What creative person hasn’t dealt with imposter syndrome at one time or another? What person, period?
A pretty sad excuse that is fostering a sad existence
The thought of altering myself just meets my own resistance
A pretty sad excuse that is fostering a sad existence
Half the time I’m petrified and I’m terrified the rest
If I’m not being selfish than I’m probably depressed.
Okay okay but you gotta wait for it (wait for it!) because the second time they sing the chorus and Dicky repeats the line, “Half the time I’m petrified and I’m terrified the rest” twice, you gotta GET READY and SPREAD OUT and BE PREPARED because the guitarist is about to hit the distortion pedal and the horns are about to kick in and down in the crowd, Lerch and Matty Ciq and Steve and Jeff and Aaron are about to CRASH and then there will be a CIRCLE PIT and it will be so so fast and so so fun because this is the last song so we’ve got to say goodbye with a vengeance, you know, we may never get to dance like this again. Don’t worry, they’ll pick you up if you fall, they’ll grab your glasses if you lose em (and if you’re lucky they won’t even have been stomped on yet), and they will hug you when the song finally ends, and you will be sweaty and gross, aching in a way that you only do when you’ve been crashing against other people in a mosh pit for three hours, and it will be beautiful and wonderful and you’ll never want it to end.
I 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!
July, 2017. I’m at Denver Comic Con, in a room full of rows of chairs, and a projector on a cart set at an angle to find the screen in the corner. I find a seat on the aisle (I always find a seat on the aisle), as near to the front as I can get. We’re in a mid-sized breakout room for this panel, which is called “Marvel: Then and Now,” and it’s crowded enough that people are filling the seats, standing along the back wall, shuffling bags and cosplay weapons to try to make space for someone next to them.
The panel has three generations of Marvel writers and artists: Two old guys (like, in their late 80s, they rolled into the panel on mobility scooters) who were at Marvel in the 1950s, a white English man who started at Marvel in the late 80s, and a black woman who works there now and whose titles include Black Panther, Iron Man, and World of Wakanda.
The first question that the moderator asks is about how Marvel has changed since each panelist got into the business. One of the old guys said (and in spite of the quotation marks, I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t want to get political” (so don’t then) “but” (uh oh) “I started at Marvel during World War II, and the nation was one. And I think we need to make America great again.” (please be being ironic right now) “We need to just give him a chance” (oh dear) “He’s going to take down the Mexican mafias just like he made it safe for a black woman and her kid safe to walk down the street in New York” (stop talking) “and why can’t we be as one” (seriously though stop talking). He goes on citing “fake news” and random crime stories for several minutes. I’m not sure why the moderator didn’t interrupt or redirect; he certainly should have. The few people of color who were in the audience get up and walk out. I noticed some white people too. After a weirdly agonizing minute, as my ingrained training about being “civil” (or at least “not rude”) battles with my desire to not look like I was endorsing this shit by continuing to sit here and listen to it, I get up and walk out too. I feel like everyone is staring at me, even though I’m sure nobody was. Someone sitting on the floor probably crept into my seat and that was that.
Of course, the minute I got out into the hallway, I realized, well shit, now I don’t get to hear Alitha Martinez talk about her career, the things she’s done and what she enjoys about drawing for Marvel. Ain’t that always the way: old white dude takes up too much space, too much oxygen, pushing out other voices or making them impossible to hear. I find her booth later in Artist Alley, and buy whatever I can. She’s really nice, there with her teenage son, who’s helping her sell art and books when he isn’t off doing his teenage son thing.
Artist Alley. Remember Artist Alley? And how close everybody had to stand to each other in order to move around at all?
September, 2019. I’ve been awake since 2:30am, and only had four hours of sleep total anyway. Showered and walked to the train. Didn’t manage to fall asleep on the train. Got to the airline gate with enough time to spare to buy a bagel and cream cheese at a Smashburger, the only food place that’s open on the concourse. They don’t spread the cream cheese on the bagel even though they have a full kitchen. Just drop a couple of individual servings in the bag.
I doze on the plane, at least for a little while. I was the sort of tired where everything around you and inside you starts to feel fuzzy and unreal. Being locked in a dark tube as it hurtles through the air doesn’t help with this impression. After we land, I take the train into town and and find the hostel I’m staying in. Check in time isn’t until like 4pm, but they let me store my stuff in the luggage room so I can head right back out and take the train to Douglas Park, where Riot Fest is happening.
I have almost always gone to concerts, music festivals, things like that, by myself. It’s not weird to me. And I like being able to choose my own schedule, decide which acts I want to see, and not have to discuss it with anyone else. I like being able to pull up a patch of grass and read a book when I need some downtime. Chicago in September is sunny, and warm, but not unbearably hot. The Sears Tower (or whatever it’s called now) looms in the distance like a giant, hibernating Transformer. Riot Fest rents out lockers so I don’t even need to keep my backpack with me most of the time. The lines to the port-a-potties, though on the long side, move quickly. Same for the water bottle refilling stations. People are handing out free individual packets of Pedialyte to keep everyone moving and hydrated. I am not filled with the amplified excitement that I used to get when I was younger and looking at the lineup for Warped Tour, and I’m not interested in getting myself clobbered in the mosh pit anymore, but I am perfectly content, standing in the shade to see H2O over here, dancing in the sun to The Selecter over there, buying ice cream that is way too expensive, checking the Riot Fest subreddit and meeting up with a random guy who happily gives me a pair of foam ear plugs. There are a whole lot more Latinx people here than I remember seeing in the scene in Denver, and I remember how multiracial punk is, or could be, or should be, or has been.
I see Anti-Flag, who are still singing about how dying for your government is shit after all these years, calling for a circle pit “everywhere” (please no). I randomly see a band named the Thin Lips, they were good. Wander around the merch tents, the usual collection of tie dye and Bob Marley posters and skate decks and anarchist bookstore tents. I sit under a tree and watch Hot Water Music from a distance. I have a locker that I can lock and unlock, so every now and then I take out my homework and work on it in the grass while I wait for Andrew WK or the Village People to take the stage. .
There’s old punks, with grey hairs and battered Vans. Young punks, with shellacked hair and pristine Docs. It’s like Warped Tour, but more low-key, and with more older punks. There’s a breeze, trying to clear out the humidity and the smoke from various types of stimulating leafs. The grounds crew tried to fill in the soft spots in the ground with wood chips to prevent mud pits, and it’s…slightly effectual.
The last day, Sunday afternoon/evening, is the reason why I really came to Chicago for this. Against Me!, Patti Smith, and Bikini Kill play one after the other on the same stage. Sometime over the summer, I jokingly tweeted at Laura Jane Grace that I needed her to make sure that her and Smith’s and BK’s sets didn’t overlap because I needed to see all three of them. I know that LJG doesn’t have any control over stage order at a huge fest like Riot Fest, but I got my wish, and I decide it’s because of her. I head over to the stage almost an hour early, and get as close as I can. In the manner of fests, there are two big stages next to each other and they alternate which one is in set up mode and which one has a band playing on it, so even though I’m only seeing three more bands, I’m going to be in this spot for about six hours. I have already peed and also monitored my fluid intake so I won’t have to go to the bathroom. I have clif bars in my backpack. I have a book to read. I am not front and center, but I’m close enough to see the band members’ faces, far enough away to not have to worry about the pit, and near to the big screens on either side of the stage that I can look at those if I need to (and when I take pictures on my phone, I mostly take pictures of the screen, because as dusk falls my already-crappy phone camera gets even crappier). I’m surrounded by other women, and we are all so so ready.
The bands are great. How do I describe how great they are? What are the words I can use to convey how happy I am? Laura Jane Grace laughs her way through her set and Patti Smith rules the fucking stage. Bikini Kill is still making their own clothing and digging through thrift store discount bins for stuff to wear on stage. And to see Bikini Kill, who (along with their friends and the rest of the riot grrrl community) started their own revolution, who stand for so much and who put their voices in the mouths of so many girls and queer kids, to see them play for thousands and thousand of punks, to see them close out Riot Fest, to hear Kathleen Hanna talk on stage about the same things I’ve heard her talk about in 500-capacity theater venues…that was something. That was great.
Dare you to do what you want
Dare you to be who you will
Dare you to cry right out loud
“You get so emotional, baby”
Double dare ya,
double dare ya,
double dare ya
-Bikini Kill, “Double Dare Ya”
February 2020. Some friends of mine, who I used to dogsit for until they moved to California, ask if I want to dogsit for them in California. Instead of giving me money, they’re giving me a free trip to California, and use of their car. They live outside of San Francisco, at the tail end of one of the BART lines, in what seems to be a working class neighborhood that can’t decide if it’s sliding downward or sliding upward. Hazel (the dog) and I go to a different park every day, this one a big off-leash park on the coast where she can sniff at and play with other dogs, that one a walk through some redwoods up a big hill (though never quite high enough for a big vista). The air is sunny and crisp, and I find a little park on the coast a mile from their house, where I can go running every morning and appreciate doing a cardio workout at low altitude. I carry a jacket with me but hardly ever wear it. I go see Hamilton (yes, again) in San Francisco. I know the soundtrack by heart but every time I go to see it live, there’s too much to see and it’s overwhelming and my brain forgets to remember what happened. So, I go see it whenever I’m in a city that’s not NYC with tickets that are vaguely affordable and buy a beer in the lobby that costs like $15 fucking dollars holy shit. I’ve never seen Hamilton in the city where I live–just when I’m traveling. I find Chinatown by accident while I’m trying to find the City Lights Bookstore. I think to myself, I could live here, I just need to figure out how to quadruple my income. I understand why people want to live here. The air is just fucking fantastic, and since I barely need to leave the house once a day, I don’t care about the traffic. I write. I go on walks with the dog. I sleep as late as she’ll let me in the mornings. I cook messy things in the kitchen (everything I cook is messy to some degree). I have takeout burgers and takeout Korean food and a random gyro because that’s all I can find right before Hamilton. I see the ocean. I watch classic movies like Silence of the Lambs and Swing Time, and have a long conversation with a friend about genderqueerness and -phobia and Silence of the Lambs. It’s like a staycation, but since it’s not my own house I’m not distracted by all the projects and cleaning that I’m not doing. It’s just me, and my brain, and the dog. I’ve been casting my mind back to it the last six months, those last feelings of freedom, before I knew what was coming. Appreciating the sun and the sky with no impending sense that it might be gone soon.
Oh hey, remember how like two years ago I was listening to the Bosstones’ discography and writing about it? The band put out a new album. Like a year ago. Let us get started with this ultra-timely review/listening party.
While We’re At It was released in June of 2018. Officially added to the band’s membership in the liner notes is John Goetchius, on keys, and Leon Silva, on saxophone. (Silva has also played with Justin Timberlake and I’m pretty sure I saw him in Bruno Mars’ backup band during a Superbowl Halftime show.)
Disclaimer that I’m going to be hitting pause a lot because I haven’t listened to this album as much as others and still need to refer to lyrics. (I’m sure you will both notice and care about this.) Also I saw a review of this album that referred to Dicky Barrett’s lyrics in general as “cynically positive” which is actually a pretty great descriptor.
1. “Green Bay, Wisconsin.” I love this song. So so much. There is so much in here that this no-coast ska-loving girl can relate to. “She drew Walt Jabsco with a Sharpie fine point marker.” Check. All over my school notebooks and on a few tshirts. I didn’t have a Fred Perry parka or a Vespa, but driving all night to get to a show (rather than a motor scooter rally)? Check. Drove from Denver to Reno. Denver to Oklahoma City. Denver to Florida. Denver to Chicago. Denver to Bozeman. And more. All for shows. “She had to let the living part of life begin.” I remember being in high school with the very explicit feeling that I was waiting for life to begin. Like high school was just a thing I had to get through to get to the next thing, and I couldn’t wait to get it done (and then of course, life snuck up on and slipped past me, as it’s wont to do). “Moving on forward, she rallied and she ran/Romped the moon stomp she did the running man/Skanking and a-ranking full stop and full force/One step way beyond with no apologies regrets shame or remorse.” There’s something in here that’s like a fan letter to fans, a love letter to people who love ska. Something for people who couldn’t make ska (or motor scooters) their life, couldn’t do it for a living, but still centered it and loved it and marked their lives by it. Also, I enjoy the hell out of Joe Gittleman’s bass on this song.
2. “The Constant.” I have heard that this song is better live than on the album, but I haven’t heard it live yet (soon! December! Soon!). I admit this doesn’t stand out as one of my favorites on the album, but it is for a lot of the 737. If I was still working in coffee shops, spending a bunch of my time bored and frustrated with hurting feet, I would probably relate to this song a lot more, but as it is I see it as a song that’s about a lot of true things that don’t (mercifully) apply to me, not at the moment. Also I just noticed that Jimmy Kimmel has a writing credit on this with Dicky instead of any of the usual Bosstones.
3. “Wonderful Day for the Race.” The band released this song as a single before they released the whole album, so I had a lot of early love for it, love that has not abated with many repeated listens. It’s an optimistic song for a not-so-optimistic time. I love the fake out ending. I love running to this song, it’s got a great tempo that more or less matches my running cadence (“Graffiti Worth Reading,” off the album Pinpoints and Gin Joints, also matches my cadence. And because the first lyric is “The end is near,” I try to put it toward the end of the playlist). Dicky has written a lot of songs over the years about people. He’s a storyteller, and I think he finds people interesting. He’s one of the few songwriters I can think of off hand who writes songs about people that he’s not romantically interested in (though he writes those too). Boston politicans, his mom, old guys in bars with stories, homeless people. Dicky seems like a guy who cares about people. He doesn’t make a thing of it, he just does it. “Every day until it’s done, I’m talking about the human one.” Yep.
Also the song is ending! Oh wait no it’s not! One more chorus!
4. “Unified.” A sweet, sorta rootsy ska song. When I look at the lyrics as a whole, I admit I’m not sure I know what this song is about. Sometimes I feel like it’s about social and political movements, about gaining ground in a culture war that wants to grind you down, in which case I’m not super fond of the lines “We are with you not against you/We only hope you have the common sense to/Realize we’re on your side,” because I see sentiments like that get thrown around on Twitter all the time when somebody, say, calls out the racism or ableism inherent in some otherwise-well-meaning white person’s unintentionally fucked up comment. (“Could you guys all stop yelling at me? I’m on your side!”) Such sentiments are natural and understandable but also not helpful. But there’s also nothing in the lyrics that point to a political movement, except for words like “unified.” Similarly, it could be about Hillary Clinton, except I don’t have much to back up that theory except the timing of the release of the album and it’s juxtaposition next to “Wonderful Day for the Race” in the track listing.
It could be about another band making it big and finding out that that’s not everything they hoped for? Dicky has written about the dangers and mixed rewards of “making it big” before (“Failure has far too many fathers/Succeed and you’re an orphan till you die”). There is some in here that sounds like that: “Make a killing if you’re willing to do what it takes and then/If you’re willing then have at it/Have a field day if you haven’t had it/And have the wisdom and the wherewithal too call if you should break again…It’s not something you signed on for/What you were built for or designed for…”
Chris Rhodes’ trombone in this song is so sweet and warm in this song, too. And there’s little rolls that Joe Sirois plays on his drums.
In the cover art for this album, there’s hints that this is the last in a trilogy, which Dicky has also basically said in interviews. It’s the third album they released after reuniting. Am I going somewhere with this thought? I don’t know if I’m going anywhere with this thought.
5. “Divide.” Gee, I wonder what made them decide to put this after the song called “Unified.” This is probably also why I think of “Unified” as more political than it maybe is, because this one has some fairly obvious allusions to US politics. “Unpredictable/Unstable and erratic/As loose as any cannon/And that’s being diplomatic” is probably about one specific guy. “Divide/Let them think they have a choice/Tell them that their rights are equal/Tell them that they have a voice” could be about right-wing propagandists and media outlets that make profit by enraging their audience/readers. They make money by dividing people. I don’t really know. It’s a short little song, not very specific.
6. “Closer to Nowhere.” I love the groove in this song. I can totally dance to this. I’m not sure what it’s about, except that it starts with somebody trying to tempt Dicky into a card trick. The second verse is him getting sold New Age hokum (he mentions a God’s eye, bonsai, rosary beads, Buddha, dreamcatcher, sacred bell, Hindu tapestry…and that’s not even the end of the New Agey decor list). This song contains the excellent line, “I flipped through a copy of Eat Pray Love/I didn’t judge, you know I don’t sometimes,” which I find hilarious. I don’t personally find Dicky judgmental but maybe that’s because I usually agree with him. I have heard some people put forward the opinion that they think the Bosstones should stop talking about politics at their shows which, if you know literally anything about the Bosstones (personally or musically) is a hilarious thing to say.
The last verse of this song mentions a couple things that I have no context for (Barney Blackstone and Monday Moonbeam), and I admit I have very little context for understanding the chorus or the title and how it fits in with the stuff going on in the chorus (anyone want to enlighten me?) but I still enjoy the hell out of the song.
7. “Walked Like a Ghost.” I don’t know what to say about this song. It’s one of those happy-sounding ska songs that’s actually about something unutterably sad. The Sarah, Lily, and Grace that are mentioned are the Badger sisters (ages 9, 7, and 7) who died in a house fire on Christmas Day, in 2011. Their grandparents were also killed. Their mom and their mom’s boyfriend survived; the girls’ father (who the song is about) lived in Manhattan. He died in 2017. “He walked like a ghost/Up until the day he was/When something like this happens/I guess that’s what someone does.”
8. “The West Ends.” More ska! More lyrics that I love from Dicky! More songs about gentrification and Boston changing and how much that sucks! (See also: “I Want My City Back,” on the album Jackknife to a Swan.) Also about what people say about other people, when they’re moving in on their space and tearing it down and making it so that they can’t afford to live there anymore.
I realize that a lot of what I’m writing in this entry is about what the song’s about, instead of what I associate with the songs. A big part of that is just how new the album is; it hasn’t had time to work its way into the fabric of my life that way that, say, Let’s Face It has. But this song does bring to mind walking around Boston with the Skippy and Christine and Adam and Flynn and Steve looking for hot chocolate or cannolis, or dim sum, or pizza. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to the West End. “This one’s a bullfinch, I love every brick/The streets are so narrow and the accents are thick.” They spell it bullfinch in the published lyrics, though it’s clearly a reference to Charles Bulfinch, an 18th-century architect responsible for many prominent buildings in and around Boston (and also, apparently, DC). His son wrote Bulfinch’s Mythology. According to wikipedia, “Bulfinch was responsible for the design of the Boston Common, the remodeling and enlargement of Faneuil Hall (1805), and the construction of India Wharf. In these Boston years, he also designed the Massachusetts State Prison (1803); Boylston Market (1810); University Hall for Harvard University (1813–1814); the Meeting House in Lancaster, Massachusetts (1815–17); and the Bulfinch Building, home of the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital (1818), its completion overseen by Alexander Parris, who was working in Bulfinch’s office at the time the architect was summoned to Washington.” So basically, he’s responsible for so much of what makes Boston, Boston, at least up until somebody built the Citgo sign and the Prudential Tower.
9. “Here We Are.” First thing I notice in this song, besides the lyrics (I always notice lyrics first) is how much I love Joe Sirois’ drumming? He has this really characteristic fill that he does, that lets me know that that’s Joe, and I don’t know how to describe it, but I always like hearing it. I also really love Chris Rhodes’…rap? toast? toward the end. “The lugs are loose on every wheel/On every level, it’s unreal/Lost appetite and lost appeal/Fed up with the set up, where’s the reveal?/…Whose premise whose plan whose bad idea?/That’s not important, get us out of here.” (I also really love the saxophone going under that verse.)
10. “The Mad Dash.” So many of Dicky’s lyrics think me make of social media even though, as far as I know, Dicky is largely not on social media (I think most of the Bosstones’ social media accounts are run by Joe G for some reason. I don’t remember why I think this so I could be completely wrong). This song also seems more about capitalizing on tragedy or politics than it is about social media, but I dunno, whenever he writes about false urgency and divisiveness, I always think of Twitter. I spend too much time on Twitter.
11. “Absolutely Wrong.” Can we also take a moment here to appreciate John Goetchius and his keyboards? They’re lovely. They’re often kind of in the background, but if you turn your ear attention toward them, he’s doing such interesting stuff back there. Also if you go see them live and they play “Toxic Toast” he does an absolutely baller piano intro to that song. Also the Peanuts theme song. He can play that. I realize that a lot of piano players can play that (I’m sure my brother could), but still, I enjoy the hell out of it. I’m glad they found him and got him to join the band/play Throwdown.
This space that I’m writing in suddenly smells like french fries. I want french fries. Where are the french fries.
12. “In Honor Of.” I admit I have no idea who this song is about. I think I’ve seen it mentioned in interviews, but I can’t remember at the moment and don’t feel like going to look it up. It starts out slow and kinda simple-sounding, but in the last minute and a half it ramps up and I think it’ll launch us into the last two songs of the album…but then it sorta slows down again and starts repeating the chorus which is maybe not my favorite thing (I kind of hate using chorus repeats to fade out of a song).
13. “Hugo’s Wife.” This song is, I think, about some relatives of Joe G’s who were on the Hollywood black list in the 1950s. Subtle thing that reminds me that it’s Joe’s relatives: often on songs that are about a band member, that band member’s instrument will be more prominent, like how Joe’s bass brings the song in here, and/or that bandmember will share a songwriting credit (like how “Break So Easily,” on Let’s Face It, has Dennis Brockenborough as the second writer because it’s about an experience he had). It’s interesting to me that even though it was Joe’s grandfather, Hugo Butler, who was blacklisted, the song is called and about Hugo’s wife (who is unnamed. I looked it up, though, her name was Jean. Jean Rouverol). “So you held your head high/You kept it down to get through it/They wanted to control you, but they couldn’t/You just wouldn’t let them do it/No they couldn’t and you knew it/Not on your watch, not in this life/No, not Hugo’s wife.”
The chorus reminds me a little bit of a story that a friend of mine told me when I was a kid. She’s maybe ten or fifteen years older than me, so I was a kid, but she was an adult, one who was already a veteran of progressive politics and civil disobedience. A friend of hers was being interrogated by the police (I forget why now), and being threatened with arrest. The cop was waving a warrant in front of her face, threatening her, saying he had the power to put her away. “This?” she said, touching the warrant. “This is not power. This is paper.” It makes me think about the definition of power: who has it, who thinks they have it, and why. When power is an illusion, and why. Who truly has power, and who just holds it, by virtue of the fact that we, the people, who outnumber them, have decided to let them hold it for a limited period of time.
13. “After the Music is Over.” Going out on a high note. I also love this song! Shocking, I know. Like a lot of Bosstones finale songs, it starts out in one style (kinda swingy/jazzy) and then goes into a different style (the Boston Herald calls it “military march,” which I don’t hear, but then, I don’t listen to a lot of military marches) and then straight into ska. The first part even has Dicky sounding artificially far away, like he’s got an old school microphone. Having the final song on an album sound either completely different from the other songs on the album, or a song that sounds like 4 songs pushed together, is something the Bosstones have been regularly doing at least since Jackknife. It’s also thematically not so far from “They Will Need Music,” another album-ending Bosstones song.
“Fight on with your heart head and fists,” a line sung by Joe G, has been called out by people in the 737 as sounding very Avoid One Thing-ish. (AOT is Joe’s other band, a pop punk band.)
Even though I have yet to hear this song live, I can see it in my head, I can see the band on the stage at the House of Blues Boston, I can hear the crowd singing along, I can see the confetti raining down, maybe other band members from opening bands crowding onstage too…and then the ska starts, and Ben is dancing, and so are all the rest of us, and people are bumping into each other in the pit, making the most of this song because it’s the last one, it’s going to end the set, and Dicky is saying goodbye to everybody, people who have left for the night or left this life forever. And I’m hugging my friends and I’m covered in sweat that isn’t mine and a bunch of us are drunk but all of us are happy.
The triumphal return, both of my Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ listening series, and of the Bosstones themselves. The album was released in 2007, and coincided with the return of the Bosstones from a three-year hiatus and of the Hometown Throwdown (which was suspended during said hiatus). I associate this album with a lot of happiness.
First up is “This List,” one of three original songs on the album (the rest are b-sides), which is about the current wars that the US was (and still is, sigh) fighting at the time. Bush #2 was still president, and if I recall correctly, it was also around the time of the troop surge and the re-taking of Fallujah and the whole war feeling like a mire we would never get out of. (This is also roughly around the time that the band the Street Dogs started to gain national punk prominence, in no small part to the leadership of Mike McColgan and his vocal support for vets and against the war). Dicky Barrett talks directly to GWB in this song, and it does feel more immediate than a lot of other anti-war songs I know. Maybe because it’s so specific and because it was a war I was so aware of and living adjacent to and watching and following. I mean, it’s one thing to hear the Clash sing about the Falkland Islands. It’s another to hear the Bosstones sing a song to the current president about the current war and telling him to go to hell.
Next up is “The Meaning,” a b-side from Pay Attention, and is up there as one of my favorite Bosstones songs overall (b-side or not). It’s got the sort of rapid-patter rhyming from Dicky that I love, and also it’s about the creative process, which I can relate to a good bit. Also, I love the line, “You don’t have to know the meaning, just know that there is meaning in what is being said to you.” I suspect Dicky meant it towards the fans (like me) who tend to ask him to explain this song or that song, but it also reminds me something that my mom—whether she knew it or not—was pretty good at when I was a teenager. I did a lot of shit as a teenager that my parents didn’t understand, chose career paths (or resisted career paths) they I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand. But my mom was better than my dad at recognizing when something was important to me, and that mattered more to her than her need to understand just what the hell I was doing. It was important to me, and that was good enough.
Also I love the guitar noise in this song. I guess it’s the wah pedal? Whow-whow.
“What’s in you, out of you, remember we love you, we’ve gotta go but you should know that we’ll be thinking of you.”
Third song! “Don’t Worry Desmond Dekker”! Instant fucking classic. Always makes me think of Boston and the Hometown Throwdown. Also one of the three new songs. Has the power to make me cry when I hear it live. “And I, I can hear laughter. It stays with me after all this time. And I, I’ve still got your records, the Clash and the Selecter. Don’t worry, Desmond Dekker’s doing fine.” (“Except he’s not,” as Joe Sirois says, “Because he’s dead.”) It’s about time and friendship and the good and bad ways relationships evolve. Hey there, 737, I’m thinking about you and the Buckminster Hotel and I’m going to get to see you all in a little over a month and it’ll be great. I know I’m not the biggest party animal but I fucking love you guys and want to give you hugs.
“From the dirt up to the sky, and we climbed up to the sky, and carried on the only way we can. Laugh on and live, learn how to forgive, what we have could be as good as what we get. If you’ve forgot, now I’ve still got what you gave to me way back when we first met.”
I’ve still got what the Bosstones gave me. Laughter and new friends and more music than I could listen to in my lifetime. Validation as an imperfect person trying to muddle her way through the world. Trips to Boston and walks in the snow and the best goddamn hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life.
“To California” is a b-side that I’m pretty sure was never released before Medium Rare came out (unlike “The Meaning,” which is on the vinyl release of Pay Attention). According to Wikipedia it was recorded during the Jackknife to a Swan sessions in 2002. It’s the story of a guy who decides—impulsively?—to move to California to uh…make money, I guess. “Just like a modern 49er.” He only makes it as far as Atlantic City, though, so he is not successful at his goals. And then he stows away on a train. I love how the horns and the guitar work together in this song. I feel like there should be more songs about people make impulsive, complicated decisions with poor planning and low success rates.
“The One With the Woes All Over It.” Full of “whoa whoa whoas” in the chorus because what’s better than acoustic puns? About what happens when it all ends, and why it ends, and what happened to lead up to it. This isn’t a song that I relate hugely to my own life (it’s another of Dicky’s super-specific songs that’s clearly about one person’s experience), but I enjoy it all the same.
“So Many Ways.” God, I love this song. It was released as the b-side for a single back in the day (by which I mean, 1997 or thereabouts). The guitar is so good. Dicky’s vocals are so good. The lyrics are so good. This is one of those songs that finds its way into a lot of little cracks in my life. It’s not like, ohmygod, I can relate this song to this one big experience I’ve had. Instead, I relate this song to hundreds of little moments and choices that happen all the time. It’s always just below the surface. “There’s so many ways to do this, so many ways I must pick one.” Like you’ve got all these paths in front of you, and several of them might be successful, but when you pick one, the others disappear. “So many ways, I need someone to tell me what it would take to do this. And it’s out there, hell it must be, help me I no longer trust me.”
I no longer trust me. For a guy that I think of as confident, who has clearly made at least a few good decisions in his life and been a success, Dicky talks a lot about not trusting himself. He sings a lot about his own faults. I could probably learn something about giving voice to those doubts without (seemingly) letting them eat my life.
“A Reason to Toast” is another song from the Jackknife era. There’s definitely at least two versions of this song floating around. It’s a song about…toasting. Like what you do at Thanksgiving or at a wedding. And wherever else people raise glasses? You can write about literally anything in this world, kids. Anything can be a song. (That’s its own kind of creative confidence, really, to write a song about celebrating, and channeling those thoughts of celebration into…toasts.) Why are all of you writing songs about girls and loss of girls and how much you love girls and you never want to leave girls when you could be writing about raising glasses in a toast.
“Who’s Foolin’ Who.” This song was on a comp in the late ’90s that I had. Give me a minute and I’ll think of it. It was all ska. It also had the Pilfers on it, which is how I got into the Pilfers, and a Smooths song, which is how I got into the Smooths. “Sure the whole world might be fooled, make sure no one’s foolin’ you.” Fun, bouncy, but slightly nostalgic horns. Dammit what’s the compilation. I could look it up but I don’t want to. It was volumes 3&4 of a comp, the first of which also had the Bosstones on it but came out in like 1990. MASHIN UP THE NATION. Damn straight. That’s it. Such a good comp. If you ever see that floating around on ebay, grab it. I can’t imagine it’s still in print.
“Katie.” About…Dicky’s ex-wife? Ex-girlfriend? Ex-friend? About walking away from someone who has hurt you, someone who sucks up all your energy and just isn’t worth it anymore. Fits thematically with “Over the Eggshells” on Pay Attention (though I don’t actually recall when this song was written/recorded) (edit: I just checked Wikipedia and apparently it was recorded during the Jackknife sessions). About wrapping yourself up in some armor, pulling away from someone that’s hurt you, turning your back, and walking away. A song about self-care, oddly. I take reminders from wherever I can about how it’s actually okay to protect myself.
“This Time of Year.” If anything can get me thinking of a flashing wall of Santas, a stage covered in Christmas lights, pinning myself to the rail in front of the stage, standing in the cold outside for hours…it’s this song. It’s about how December isn’t just about Christmas and holidays and presents and whatever. December is Throwdown time. I can see the stage at the HOB in my head. I’ve got a smile on my face. I’m going to see my friends soon. “This time of year, it gets me and it never lets me act like I don’t care. This time’s my favorite time of year because all of us are here together.” I’ve been saving up for Throwdown since January. And it’s almost here. All of us will be here together. The Bosstones will play this song. And many other songs. And I’ll see my friends. And there will be beer and pizza and friends.
“Chocolate Pudding” is not, as appearances would lead you to believe, a cover song. The Bosstones wrote it, and it’s one of the few songs not sung by Dicky (on lead vocals here is Tim Burton, one of the sax players). Pre-hiatus, this was one of the rarest songs to hear them play live, though I’ve heard it enough post-hiatus that I think some of the shine has worn off. Also, kids, you can write songs about anything. Including chocolate pudding.
Years ago, I made my sister a mix tape of songs that I did not hate (she likes Destiny’s Child and Miley Cyrus and Brittany Spears and car rides with the two of us were not the easiest, from a radio standpoint), and I put this song on it. My sister will now just randomly start singing this song. I am so proud to have gotten my sister to like a Bosstones song (at the time that I made the mix she was really into those snack pack pudding cups). And now we have some common ground. Not over eating pudding (I don’t like pudding that much), but over listening to songs about it.
“Is It?” I love this song. It’s another b-side from the Let’s Face It era. I got it on a CD single, either “Rascal King” or “The Impression That I Get.” It’s about getting all that you wanted…and having that not be everything you hoped for. Joe Sirois has some awesome drum playing in this song. I’m not a drummer, so I don’t even know what the fuck he’s doing or if it’s good compared to other drummers, but I like everything he’s doing here.
Now that I think about it, and now that I’m trying to write about them, I’m realizing that lots of these b-sides have a weird personal feeling to them. I only ever listened to them in my car, usually by myself (my friends did not share my taste in music). The Bosstones didn’t play them live back then. They’re not songs that I ever shared with anyone, not the way that I share the experience of hearing “Devil’s Night Out” live with 2,000 other people, or the way that so many of us Bosstones fans can relate to hearing “Impression” on the radio or on MTV and having that change our lives. A lot of these songs–like “Is It,” like “Storm Hit” (which is not on this album but is an amazing song), like “The Meaning”—feel like they’re just between me and the Bosstones. The fact that a lot of them are demos, a little more raw, a little less layered from a production standpoint, helps with that feeling.
“Thank You For the Records.” A slow song, or at least one that starts slow, as final Bosstones tracks seem to do these last few albums. I don’t know who Dicky is singing “to” in this song—who he’s thanking—but when I sing along, I’m thanking him. I’m thanking the Bosstones.
Thank you for the records.
Thank you for the shows.
Thank you for the music.
Thank you for the friends.
Thank you for the standard you set, how you seem to treat each other and how I know you treat us fans.
Thank you for introducing me to this world of ska and punk and all of the beautiful people who are also here.
Thank you for your generosity.
Thank you for your humor.
Thank you for taking every possible opportunity to take a shit on Spin Magazine.
Thank you for all the wisdom and the common sense.
Thank you for the Hometown Throwdown.
Thank you for the records.
Aaaaaand we’re back. First up in my brain is, why didn’t I write about Where’d You Go? five years ago (jesus, five years ago, that’s completely weird somehow) when I wrote about the Bosstones’ other EP, Ska-Core, the Devil, and More. Who knows. Maybe because Ska-Core has such a funny origin story about how I first started listening to it and what an unknowledgeable person I was then.
Interestingly, Wikipedia’s entry on the WYG EP contains contradictory information: the body of the entry says it was released in 1991, the sidebar says it was released in 1992, just before More Noise. I’m currently listening to the album on my phone and I’m nowhere near my CDs or vinyl to fact check this, also, I’m lazy. I do remember that the moment when, as a 16-year-old-or-about-there kid, listening to the CD as I walked to school (I remember the exact spot on the sidewalk), I heard the lyrics in the third verse (“I opened a fridge I opened a beer I played a tape I couldn’t hear..”). Like, heard them and understood the words without having to consult a lyrics booklet or the internet. (Looking up Bosstones lyrics was one of the first things I used the internet for. Seriously.)
Next up, “Sweet Emotion.” Pre-Bosstones, I think I mostly knew this song from those long commercials they used to show on daytime TV about buying CD sets of “hits from the 70s and 80s” or whatever they were. My parents didn’t listen to Aerosmith (and it took me awhile before I caught on to the fact that part of the reason the Bosstones chose Aerosmith to cover was probably the fact that both bands are from Boston). Man, the guitar and base sound so thick in this song. Is that even an adjective I can use? Also I like the horns taking on the harmonic part of the chorus and Dicky just chopping all the words into tiny little vocal pieces.
“Enter Sandman.” Nate Albert told a story in an interview once about getting to play this onstage with James Hetfield, in Denver, apparently (way way way before my time). This is also the first song I learned to play on guitar. It is really easy to sound like a badass on this song. (Thanks, Metallica, for writing a deceptively simple song that’s more entertaining to play than “This Land is Your Land,” another early song I learned.) Other song that is fun and deceptively easy: “Rainbow Connection” by the Muppets. Fuck you, Muppets are awesome.
Take my hand, we’re off to never-never land.
Yeah I just enjoy the hell out of the guitars in this song. Nate Albert, I miss your guitars. Also, oh yeah, fucking Barry Manilow quotes in the middle of a punk band covering a metal song because that’s how they roll.
“Do Something Crazy,” not a cover, but now going much faster than it did on Devil’s Night Out. When in doubt, do everything again, only faster.
And lastly, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” a Van Halen cover. Now that I think about it, the Bosstones have made covers a pretty regular part of their output. They just put out a cover of “What the World Needs Now is Love” by Burt Bacharach last month. But anyway, I have this thing in my personal history where the Bosstones have gotten me into a ton of music, either because they toured with the band or because they mention them in interviews or because they cover their songs. This song was one of several elements that got me curious about the British 2-Tone band The Specials, because the Bosstones (I’m pretty sure it’s the saxophone player Tim) quote the song “Nite Klub” in the bridge. Ahh, says sixteen year old me, I see we are covering a Van Halen song and quoting a Specials song. Obviously I will go buy the Specials LP and never listen to Van Halen again.
Short entry because it’s an EP and that’s how I roll. I missed the 19th Hometown Throwdown last month and am still a little sad.
This is the final installment of my four-part series on a concert festival I went to when I was twenty. For the first entry, along with a more detailed explanation of why I’m posting such a thing, go here.
I Ran All The Way Home (Doo wah doo wah doo)
The conversation the next morning consisted almost entirely of groans of exhaustion and pain. We were all sunburned (I think Dan, Joe, and me took prizes for the worst), and Andy had sprained his ankle somehow, and the everyone was sore from eight hours of dancing and standing on concrete. We all wanted to go home and talked Dan out of bungee jumping, but had to stop for souvenirs at the World’s Largest Souvenir Shop, and eat breakfast (steak for breakfast! Okay then, Vegas) so it was past 10:00am by the time we got going.
Conversation faded in and out, mostly restricted to what needed to be talked about. We would stop for gas and get out and talk a bit and get revived, but as soon as we got back in the car the conversation would fade away. We were all tired and kind of cranky, too tired even for post-ska exuberance. But it was stored away, we’d take it out and think about it and then put it away.
“We should do this again next year, only spend more time in Vegas.”
“Catch 22 needs to play next year.”
“And the Mad Caddies. And Less Than Jake.”
“And the Pietasters.”
“And the Smooths. Well, if they got back together.”
“Or did a reunion show like Attaboy Skip this year.” (If there’s any former members of the Smooths reading this, one more tour, please, just one.)
We got through Utah without incident, hitting 128mph in Andy’s car and passing a van that had “Ska Summit 2003” written on the back window in soap. As soon as the sun sank behind Utah, I fell asleep.
One Week Later
April 6, 2003
I finally got a decent night’s sleep on about Thursday (we’d driven back to Denver on Sunday). I’m writing this sitting at Action Shot’s band practice. Life is back to its regular routine. I told everyone my Ska Summit stories, but left out the total exhaustion part because that’s not what sticks in your head. The image that comes to mind is the Toasters onstage, Bucket (guitar player/lead singer) bobbing back and forth on the balls of his feet like he does, his eyes shut against the bright stage lights; Jack Ruby (other lead vocals) rolling around onstage and throwing things at Sledge. Sledge looking angry and then, at the last minute, breaking into a grin. Dave Waldo, the keys player, hoisting his keyboard onto his shoulder like a boombox. The saxophone player and the trombone player dancing, holding their horns away from their bodies; the people around me gently bumping shoulders as we danced.