Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Medium Rare

mediumrare

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.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Where’d You Go? EP

wheredyougoAaaaaand 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.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones: A Jackknife to a Swan

kackknifeIt snowed several inches last night, and it’s like one degree outside today, and my car’s power steering is broken, so I’m stuck in my house and thought that I’d return—long overdue—to my listening series of the Mighty mighty Bosstones’ discography. Up today (and hopefully my laptop’s battery lasts as long as the album does) is A Jackknife to a Song, put out after Pay Attention, after the Bosstones got dropped from their longtime label Mercury (which had turned into Island Records), and was instead put out by Side One Dummy Records.
I remember being nervous before this album got put out. This was still before I had any kind of regular access to high speed internet, and I’ve never really listened to much radio, so I hadn’t heard any songs (maybe one) off this album before it came out. It was the first album with Lawrence Katz on guitar instead of Nate Albert (Katz had been touring with them for a couple of years at this point, but Albert co-wrote the songs on Pay Attention and performed guitars on the album), and I was really nervous about how the sound would change. The Bosstones have gone through relatively few lineup changes since 1987, and me and pretty much every fan I was in touch with knew that the loss of Nate shook the band down to its foundations. (Literally. Nate is one of their founders.)
But I love this album. I think it sounds better and fresher and more energetic than Pay Attention, which I have always associated with the rumors of the band’s exhaustion and stress and Nate leaving. It stakes Lawrence’s territory as a songwriter, guitarist, and member of the band in his own right. It’s got the songs about people that Dicky writes that I love so much (this one being “Mr Moran,” about Sammy Gravano, which actually inspired me to go out and find a biography about the guy), random moments in Boston history (“Jackknife to a Swan”). This is also the album where Chris Rhodes replaced Dennis Brockenborough on trombone and backing vocals, and you can hear him and his energy back there. This album just plain sounds fun, (and I can attest to it being hella fun to hear just about any of these songs live).
Writing the above paragraphs took me through the first two songs, and now I’m up to “You Gotta Go,” which got me through a couple of collegiate run ins with terrible roommates and roommates’ boyfriends. Motherfuckers who ate my food and played with my keyboards and threw my shoes down the stairs and refused to flush the toilet because it wastes water and deadbeat boyfriends of roommates. I’m so glad to not have to live with any of those people anymore, and hearing Chris Rhodes yell “So pack your bags, cuz THERE’S THE DOOR!” was always cathartic.
“Everybody’s Better,” a slow ska song, is reassuring to me in the best way. This sounds dumb and silly, but it makes me feel like I’m sitting in an inner tube in a nice warm ocean being sloshed back and forth (yes I know oceans don’t slosh. Shut up.) It’s one of those songs that makes me feel okay about myself, like I’m safe with myself. I feel okay about being one tiny person in a world of 7 billion. Everybody’s better than I am, I think, everybody’s better than me. But I matter, as a matter of fact. And there’s this lovely chunky guitar, and the saxophone drifting in towards the end. You know, to be king you don’t need a castle.
“Sugar Free.” I’m gonna be honest that I don’t super understand what “Sugar Free” is supposed to be about. And it’s one of those songs that (as far as I know) Dicky has declined to explain. But there’s this great spinning sort of guitar part, and the horns coming in and weaving around it.
“I looked up to the Citgo sign, you used to be a friend of mine.” The Citgo sign, mentioned here in “I Want My City Back,” is also important to the 737 because we can see it from the Buckminster Hotel, where a huge chunk of the group stays every year because it’s walking distance to the House of Blues, where Throwdown is every year. I love this song because it’s so much about Boston, but also in the past 5 years Denver (where I’ve lived for 30 years) has changed to the point that parts of it are unrecognizable, and not in a good way. I can’t afford to live in my own city anymore, and neither can a whole bunch of other people. There’s a sadness you feel just looking around, this was once our sacred ground, but now it belongs to hipsters and artisan hot dog shops.
If I can get super symbolic for a moment, this song could also be…well, my experience with the Bosstones is the exact opposite of this song’s experience of Boston, or my current experience in Denver. “How should I feel when the place where I first learned I could feel/Is no longer where I left it when I left it not so long ago/How should I feel?…/How should I feel…?/ I don’t know.” The Bosstones, Bosstones’ shows, punk shows, ska shows…those are the places where I learned to feel. Where I learned how to transition my kid-level feelings and teenage-level confusion into adult-level perceptions and emotions. And I’m so, so lucky that they’ve been there for me all that time. I’m lucky that they share themselves to the extent that they do. I’m lucky that they’re the guys that they are, and that I’ve gotten to know them even tangentially. I’m lucky that I haven’t had to change my opinion on them or leave them behind. They’re the same to me as they’ve been since I was 15, even as they’ve grown and I’ve grown and time has passed. I’m so lucky to have found this band. Someday, I will wish for my band to come back. But not today, today I still have them, so I’m grateful for them.
Have I written before about how many landmarks and streets I know in Boston just because they’re mentioned in songs by the Bosstones and the Dropkick Murphys and the Street Dogs and other Boston bands? It’s a little bit funny. When I visited for the first time, it felt like I knew the city, even though of course I didn’t.
“Chasing the Sun Away” is another slow-ish, sweet ska song, with nice fat horns. It’s a break up song, a grief song, a song about the disparity between how you feel on the day after and what the world is actually. Why doesn’t it rain buckets when you’re sad? Why is that such a universal cognitive dissonance for people to express? Why do we all instinctively understand what it means that there’s a cloud always following Eeyore around?
This is also one of those songs that, if you played it next to just about any song from the band’s first five years, you wouldn’t believe that it’s the same band. It’s so different. And not just stylistically, but the way Dicky writes, the way they approach recording, the layering and…arrangement, I guess, is the word? They’re so much sophisticated than they used to be. Which is understandable, because they’re 30 years older than they were, but not all bands evolve to the scope that the Bosstones have.
“You Can’t Win,” I’ve always thought might be about the Bosstones’ experience on a major label (or maybe just the last couple years), but really, it could be about any experience trying to deal with a big monolithic corporate entity that you have no power against. It could be about the companies that caused the 2008 collapse, and their collusion with the government. It could be about citizens and the government generally. It’s about not having power. It’s about knowing that you don’t have power. They might let you in, but they’ll never let you win.
“Old School Off The Bright” is one of my favorite Bosstones songs. Of all time. It makes me think of Throwdown every time I hear it. Of being on the rail. Of dancing as best you can even when you’re in a crush of people. Of flashing lights and soapy snowflake machines. It’s got the fast, ever-rhyming lyrics of Dicky’s that I love so much. I love the drums and how they trade places with the horns. I love how it brings in everyone. It makes me actually want to party, and I hate going to parties. It cheers me up when I’m down. It makes me dance no matter where I am. This might be a perfect Bosstones/Throwdown song. Get the crew together, it’s the old school off the bright.
“The Punch Line” sort of thematically reminds me of “Everybody’s Better” (which in my head somehow always gets pronounced “Everybody’s Butter” because my brain apparently likes stupid and meaningless puns that are not even puns really) about not being a bully. About knowing the consequences of your actions. Of choosing right, right over wrong. Do what you know is right, don’t wait for someone to tell you what’s right.
“Go Big,” this was one of my early favorites on this album, though I don’t think of it as such anymore, not because I dislike it at all, but I think just because they don’t play it live very much so I don’t get the “yay! live music! throwdown!” high off of it that I get from songs like “Everybody’s Better” and “Old School Off the Bright.” But it contains the line “Put on your big boy pants,” which I tell myself sometimes when I’m trying to make myself do something. Also, random trumpet.
I love “Shit Outta Luck” because it’s about…traffic? Being stuck in traffic? Who writes a song about being stuck in traffic? Joe Gittleman apparently instead of Dicky. You can hear it a little (“tear it down to the ground” is something I associate with Joe), but it also contains the amazing line “a major road rager with a bone to pick” and the lovely line “it’s more fun when you don’t give a fuck,” which is something to think about when doing anything creative. Also, turns out, not the only song the Bosstones have recorded about traffic (the major other one being “Illegal Left,” about Dicky arguing with a cop about a ticket that wasn’t even being given to him). When you’re from Boston, I guess you spend a lot of time thinking about songs in cars.
“Seven Ways to Sunday” is weird, at least contextually speaking, because it’s an acoustic bluesy song, and the Bosstones are…neither of those things, even while everyone who listens to them knows that expecting the Bosstones to stay in whatever stylistic box you put them in is a fool’s errand. There’s also a lady doing guest vocals in the background, and I wish I could sing like her, but I cannot. Also a harmonica. Also no horns. I wonder if they’ve ever played this live. Steve could tell me. It also in keeping with a recent (like, since Pay Attention) tendency for them to put oddball songs at the end of their albums–“The Day He Didn’t Die” winds down Pay Attention, “Favorite Records” winds down Medium Rare.

Ska Summit, 2003 (Part 4)

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.

Ska Summit, 2003 (Part 2)

This is part two (er, obviously) of a 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.

Welcome to Sin City

Las Vegas, NV

By the time we make it to Vegas, the mountains behind us were turning purple and the sky was going dark. My first glimpse of Vegas was full-blown, lit up, neon lights going. A little overwhelming for a kid who doesn’t even like the neon sign on top of the Quest tower in Denver.

We made it to our hotel room around 9:00 and we’d been in the car for thirteen hours. We were all tired and cranky and slightly delirious; I was so hungry I was lightheaded. We didn’t think it would be worth it to try and find the ska party at Julian’s, so we met up with my friend Lori and found dinner. Then we went out wandering on the strip.

I think Las Vegas is a sort of corrupted Disneyland for adults. I mean, what kind of grown man builds a hotel shaped like a castle? (I know, I know: a rich grown man.) Vegas is some kind of weird alternate reality. Does it always have that smell?

In front of the New York New York hotel was a small group of anti-war protesters holding signs and handing out fliers. Behind me, a big beefy tourist muttered to his companions, “Oh great, more protesters. Just don’t say anything.” Then as soon as we were past them, he started talking about them, how sick he was of protesters, they don’t know anything, they’re stupid. I was so mad I could barely talk, but I managed to say, “I like how you can mock them behind their back but won’t say anything to their face.” I realize humanity will never come to a consensus on anything, and I don’t care if people disagree with me as long as they show some degree of respect for my viewpoint. But don’t talk shit about people behind their backs. All that proves is that the kids on the street corner, handing out fliers, putting their opinions on display, have more nerve than you.

Okay. Off my soapbox now.

Not much else to say about the strip, I guess. The water fountain show in front of the Bellagio was awesome. That pool, I think, has more water than the entire state of Colorado. And again, there is a hotel shaped like a castle. A castle.

Ska Summit, 2003 (Part 1)

I’ve been going through boxes of old papers (and thinking that someday maybe I’ll go through the Documents file on my computer), seeing what I can get rid of, when I came across this travel journal from 2003 written on looseleaf notepaper. Originally, I was going to just type it up and store it on my hard drive, but I decided to post it here for a couple reasons. One is that I wasn’t actually a bad writer when I was 20 (when I was typing it up I did clean up some grammar/sentence structure things, but really not that much). I’m a little disappointed that I’m not a demonstrably better writer 13 years on, actually. I feel like I should be embarrassed by my 20-year-old writer self, but skill-wise, she’s still pretty close to my 34-year-old self, I guess. The other thing is that I considered myself to be a pretty timid and non-risk-taking teenager/adolescent/young adult. I was never a sneak-out-at-night-and-go-drinking teenager. My friends and I never bombed down I-25 at 110 miles per hour with the music as loud as it could go just to see if we could (well, there was that one time…). But I was reading this and realizing, I did some potentially stupid things, I just didn’t think of them as stupid at the time. And still don’t think of them as stupid, which is maybe partly why I identify as a non-risk-taker. But impulsively driving to Vegas with five other kids and sleeping in a hotel on the strip and going to a ska show? Potentially dangerous. Potentially dumbass kid thing. It was weirdly reassuring to know that I was a dumbass when I was 20.

So, here it is. Broken up over several entries, I’m sure. Also I don’t have pictures to go with this because I didn’t have a digital camera in 2003. Use your imagination, I suppose.

 

Part One

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Colorado

Friday, March 28

6:00am


A god-awful hour for high school and college kids. We–Andy, Dan, Joe, Kyle, Nick, and me–met at King Soopers while the sun is still streaked across the sky in purple and orange. A quick run through the store to grab donuts, beef jerky, Mountain Dew, coffee, and water; another quick stop for gas, and we’re on our way.

It snowed on Thursday night and Colorado was cold and windy, the highway slushy and wet. We piled into two cars with a walkie talkie in each. Most of the first several hours were spent trash talking each other through the walkies.

The quickest road out of Colorado going west is I-70, which climbs through the foothills and goes up and over Vail Pass, and then slides down the other side, into the mesa country of western Colorado and then out into Utah. People live all along it. It’s the road skiers take to most Colorado ski resorts. Mining towns are littered all along it (or, more accurately, it was built along the old road that connected mining towns to Denver). It’s our way out of Colorado, and almost all the way through Utah, until it dead-ends at I-15 and we turn south.

We had to stop in Vail because the slush kicked up so much dirt behind the cars in front of us that Kyle’s car ran out of windshield wiper fluid. We tried to get to an exit but Kyle ended up pulling into a turnout–he couldn’t see at all and was hanging his head out the window, Ace-Ventura style.

If you’ve lived in Colorado for a long time, like I have, and spent a lot of time camping and backpacking and skiing in the mountains, like I have, the mountains develop a personality. They’re huge megalithic chunks of rock that alternate between not caring if you live or die, and actively trying to destroy you. There is no such thing as friendship with the mountains–the most you can hope for, if you know them well enough, is a sort of benevolence. Everything you need is there, if you know where to look, but the mountain won’t help you find it. It’s put it there, and that better be enough. You don’t think about jet streams and cold fronts in the nature, it’s more like nature being in a bad mood. Once I was one an eight-day backpacking trip. It rained for six of the eight days. By the fourth or fifth day, we were tired of the mountain and cursing the weather gods, because it felt like they were toying with us. That’s what the mountains do: they toy with you. It can be beautiful sunny weather at 11:00 in the morning, and by 1:00 it’s raining and you’re hiding from lightning and digging in your pack for long underwear. Beautiful and stunning landscapes hide loose rocks that can sprain your ankle (a minor injury, normally, but potentially lethal when you’re twenty miles from the nearest road and nobody knows where you are). The mountains are full of deer and elk and everybody wants to see them, while avoiding attracting the attention of a cougar or a bear, forgetting that the supposedly harmless herbivores kill more people every year. What’s beautiful is dangerous, the seemingly harmless can be deadly, and only bitter experience can teach you the difference. That’s what the mountains have taught me.

Humans’ attitudes towards the mountains vacilate between changing it, controlling it, and leaving it exactly the same. We build towns and highways, carve trails, put houses on hilltops. We chop trees and control the animal population, which can no longer control itself. But then something happens that’s out of our control, like a wildfire that destroys thousands of acres of vegetation. It’s a vicious and brutal process, but a natural one, part of the mountain reforging and renewing itself, keeping a balance. Given time, the landscape can renew itself, but humans are impatient. We don’t give the mountain any time anymore. After a forest fire we go in and plant quick-growing seeds that will take root and lessen the eroding. Back and forth, hot and cold, that’s how the mountains are. You learn to live with them because they sure as hell don’t care if they live with you. And they won’t ever be subdued.

While I stared out the window for a good four hours thinking about all this, the mountains slid past us, the highway threading between and around and through the peaks. We held our breath going through tunnels (except for the Eisenhower tunnel, which is too long) and listened to music. Traveling to a show, getting there is half the fun. You listen to music and in the back of your mind is the thought, “By this time tomorrow I’ll be hearing this music live and it will rock.” As for me, I don’t have a lot of friends who will tolerate ska, let alone seek it out. Dan and Andy are the only guys on this trip that I really know, and everyone else is friends of theirs.

When we stopped at a gas station in Grand Junction, Andy helped himself to some of Dan’s CDs in the other car. We weren’t five minutes out of the gas station when Dan came crackling over the walkie talkie. “Hey fuckers!”

“Yes, bastard?” returned Andy.

“Do you have my CDs?”

“Define ‘have’.”

“Are you holding them in your possession, asshole.”

We couldn’t answer for several seconds because we were laughing too hard. Finally Andy managed to say, “Well, maybe.”

“Fuckers.”

We turned up the music and held the walkie talkie up to the speaker.

Utah

Stupid Utah.

The first impression that I have of Utah is a big blank tan expanse of nothing. The sign that says “Now Leaving Colorful Colorado” is painfully accurate and it seems like not only have you left Colorado, but all the color as well. The sign that said “Caution: Eagles on Highway” caused some discussion. Eagles doing what? Something dangerous?

We also spent some time in Utah seeing how fast we could get Andy’s car to go. I-70 in Utah is long, flat, and empty, and there’s nothing to hit (except eagles, apparently). We got up to 122mph before fear got the better of us. Best not to die a horrific fiery death before the Ska Summit.

We stopped in a town called Green River for gas and lunch. One thing I’ve observed about people: if you’re a freak wandering around alone, no one takes any notice of you. I can wander around Denver by myself in all my punk/ska clothes and nobody cares, except sometimes to ask polite (if silly) questions. “Toasters? So you like kitchen appliances, eh?” “Avoid One what?” “H2O? I also like water.” But when you’re part of a posse of freaks, people are a lot more likely to fear and despise you–and a lot more likely to show it. In Utah, a bunch of spiky, blue- and red-haired freaks wearing trench coats and patch-covered hoodies, are trouble. The ladies at Burger King wouldn’t speak to us, the customers all stared at us, and the gas station attendant wouldn’t sell us cigarettes.

Our growing feelings of dislike toward Utah increased when Andy, Brian, and Nick were pulled over by an unmarked state trooper. He didn’t use radar, didn’t check the ownership of the vehicle, and told us there was snow and ice on the (totally dry) mountain pass, and that they might crash and “not know what happened.” (“Wow, we seem to be at the bottom of a canyon. How’d that happen?”) What’s more, Kyle, Dan, Joe, and me in the other car kept going and pulled off at the next exit, but Andy and them didn’t. We wasted an hour trying to find them. Stupid Utah.

Mighty Mighty Throwdown

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On December 26th, I woke up at 3am and caught a bus to the airport. We were leaving the city and crossing the plains (Denver’s airport is east of the city) when the sun came out for the day. It didn’t seem to rise as much as shine through a place where the night sky had been rubbed thin.

After sleep-stumbling my way through security, I caught a plane to New York City. I had a four-hour layover in the City, and then I caught a Chinatown bus to Boston.* When I realized that I was going to be in NYC, I admit I purposefully timed my bus ticket so that I could a little time in Manhattan. I haven’t been back since I moved away a year and a bit ago. So I took the train in from JFK and walked from the 49th and 8th subway station to Shake Shack (which was not as good as I remember), and from there to Penn Station, where I lingered and wrote in my journal and people-watched. I was in New York for long enough to remind myself of some of the reasons why I didn’t like it–the crowds, the smelly homeless people**, the dirt generally–but also some of the reasons I liked it, and still like it, the impossibly tall buildings, the number of stories you can tell. The feeling that anything can happen here.

By the time I got on my bus to go to Boston, the sun had fallen again (it had gone down while I was camped out in Penn Station), so we drove north through Manhattan at night. The bus was completely full, and the driver had the heat on high, and everyone was uncomfortable. The guy behind me–who seemed, like most of the bus, to be a college-age kid heading back to Boston after spending Christmas in NYC–was talking to somebody on the phone, helping them process what I think was a rough Christmas with the family, and didn’t think they were doing anything worthwhile in life. I admit I listened, because he was giving good advice. “Do you have any ideas about stuff you can create that the world needs?” he asked at one point, which I think is a good thing for anyone to think about now and again.

We went uptown on Amsterdam Avenue, past all the places I knew. The store I worked at. Stores I used to shop at and places I used to run errands. Past Roosevelt Hospital, Lincoln Center. A few blocks west of Columbus Circle, but I mentally noted it as we went by. We turned east at 106th, and then resumed our northward trek on Frederick Douglass Blvd, so we didn’t really pass the Columbia neighborhood.

When it comes down to it, I always liked New York best when I’m a little bit removed from it. On a bus going through Upper West Side, or on the Q train going over the Brooklyn Bridge, or on a boat in the Hudson River looking at the Statue of Liberty on one side of me and the skyline on the other. Anything that kept me from having to face the actuality of living there.

I’ve traveled the route from New York City to Boston and back several times, though always in the winter, always past the sad spindly deciduous trees that are waiting for spring. We passed by a Metro North train making its way to New Haven. The bus driver stopped a couple times to stretch, and finally noticed how broiling we all were, and turned the heat off with an apology (and distributed bottles of water, which was lovely, though I drank sparingly of mine because I didn’t want to have to use the bus lavatory). As we drove, I started seeing snow collecting along the edges of the road. Cold in Boston, at least in the recent past.

As I got closer, I started getting text messages from friends who were already in Boston, telling me to come to the Buckminster hotel, rather than my friend’s apartment (well, I could’ve gone to my friend’s apartment, but he wouldn’t have been there, since he was at the Buck). I finally got there around 11:00pm, EST, after sixteen hours of travel. Stashed my suitcase and my backpack in someone else’s hotel room and was greeted by smiles and hugs and beer. Hung out and talked, listened while other people talked. Eventually, the friend and me (after deciding that couches at the hotel were a terrible idea) took the T back to his apartment, where I fell asleep on a couch anyway, but a larger and more comfortable one than the hotel ones. And the next morning I got to watch Doctor Who and The Daily Show while we drink coffee. And then we went back to the Buck, back to Kenmore Square, back to the madness and the hilarity. I am not always relaxed and comfortable in big crazy groups, but I spent a fair amount of time leading up to this trip reminding myself to have low expectations, and give no fucks, and loosen up, and have fun. And knowing that even if the Buck ended up being a not fun place, the concerts I was going to go to would be.

Low expectations, keeping it simple, and playing it by ear turned out to be the key. Deciding that nobody will mess with me and my ability to enjoy the Mighty Mighty Mighty Bosstones. This, for me, is the recipe to knowing how to party.

*Turns out that traveling this way, while it takes about 16 hours, saves about $250.
**I understand that this makes me a total judgmental asshole. And not all of the homeless in NYC are smelly. But homeless people in NYC reach a level of decrepitude that I’ve never seen in any other homeless population in any other city. This probably says more about NYC than it does about the homeless.