Mighty Mighty Bosstones Listening Party: While We’re At It

Cover art for Bosstones' album While We're At ItOh 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.

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

image

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.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones: More Noise & Other Disturbances

morenoise.jpgThe return of the “Bosstones Discography Stream of Consciousness” series. Today we have More Noise & Other Disturbances, the Bosstones’ second full-length album, the last one on the Taang! record label, the first one with Joe Sirois and the first one that really introduced (in unavoidably in-your-face fashion) the plaid theme that would run through the Bosstones for the next eight or so years (technically, the Where’d You Go? EP introduced it first, and their live shows introduced it before that; maybe it’s my geographic distance from the Boston scene but I tend to assume that albums have the farthest reach when it comes to these things). But anyway, chronology aside, there’s a large picture on the inside of all the boys in as many different stripes of plaid as they could possibly assemble. I believe Dicky even has a plaid cummerbund.

Also, I missed a Bosstones show just yesterday. Free, in Boston Common. Apparently 40,000 people were there. I have a certain amount of jealous hatred for all of them, not gonna lie.

Okay. Song one. “Awfully Quiet.” This is one of those songs that you think is pretty easy to get a handle on, but then when you really listen carefully to it, there’s so much going on in the background. Like the intense bass line. Like the fact that the drums and the horns are adding more to the cacophony than even the punk guitar. That, for all his vocal roughness, Dicky’s lyrics are incredibly clear (and incredibly fast). It’s not the most profound song ever, maybe, but I think it presents a compelling argument for the idea that a solid, compelling song doesn’t have to be about something deep or profound or controversial or moving.

“Where’d You Go?” opens with the sound of a Harley, which in the music video is actually a Vespa, leading to much amusement amongst the people. This is one of the earliest non-Let’s Face It Bosstones songs I ever heard, and I think, too, it was one of the first songs that I was able to decipher the lyrics to myself (for Let’s Face It I didn’t have to because the Bosstones have published their lyrics with all of their albums; by the time I got the rest of their discography I’d looked up and printed out all of their lyrics off of the Internet, and knew most of the lyrics before I ever heard any of the songs). This is a song that they still play live, almost all the time. I think it’s also one of the two that ended up on the Clueless soundtrack. It also presents an argument for a song that is solid, and compelling, but is about a very specific moment in time, about Dicky doing this one very specific thing, and not even trying to extrapolate that out to something universal. This is one of the things I like about him as a lyricist: he writes universal thematic songs, sure, but he also writes songs about specific days, or specific people. Songs that nobody else could ever, ever write, because they never had this experience he had. And it’s not like it’s a life defining experience, it’s just him waiting for someone to come home and meet him. But it’s his experience, and he turned it into a story and into a song.

“Dr. D.” Also still played a lot. Also a song about a specific person, and about gratitude, and about the things that make a person a good person. About patience and compassion and hospitality.

“It Can’t Hurt” contains the immortal lyric: “You had to do what you had to do/And you bit off more than you could chew/Open your eyes and look at where you’re at/Shut your mouth and swallow that.”

I’ve more or less stopped typing, and am just listening, because I’d forgotten how good this album is. It’s been so long since I listened to it front to back.

And now we get to “What’s At Stake,” a….funkified? But still utterly threatening-sounding cover of Minor Threat’s song. This is one of those songs where, instead of complimenting the guitars or providing a counterpoint, the horns are instead managing to pile on, to add to the anger and the power and the I’m-going-to-hit-you-in-the-face-with-music aspect of the song.

Also, the last part of the chorus to this, when I looked up the lyrics someone had posted on a Bosstones website that it was “Get yourself back up before it’s too late or your life and day will be on fake,” or something like that. Then one day it just clunked into my head: He’s saying “or a life of pain will be your fate.” The Internet doesn’t always get things right.

“Cowboy Coffee.” Another that still makes common appearance in set lists. It’s fast and ska-y, and is fun to watch Ben dance to. Cowboy Coffee is an actual thing; it refers to making coffee straight in the mug you intend to drink it from (sort of like how you make French Press coffee, but without the filter so that you don’t get grounds in your cup). I remember practicing “hurricane breakneck speed rapid fire dreams” so that I could sing along to it (it goes by fast). This whole damn album goes by fast. I mean, we’re already on track 7 of 11.

Classic Bosstones lyric:

The place is packed, I needed that.
The bottle’s cracked, I’m glad for that.
A good night’s rest? Forget about that.
I feel alive in this dive so I’ll drink to that.

Coming after the songs above, this song is kind of deceptive. You have songs like “Awfully Quiet” and “Where’d You Go,” which aren’t super profound, and then “Dr. D,” which is more obviously profound but still isn’t really. “I’ll Drink To That” sounds like it’s just about getting to a party, but really, it’s also about finding your reasons to live. It’s about making a choice. It’s about what gets you through the day. It’s about how, sometimes, even if you don’t have much of anything figured out, you can have just enough figured out to enjoy tonight, and let tomorrow be tomorrow.

“Guns and the Young.” This is probably the first song that I really ever got into that you could call a punk song, or a hard song. Understand that I came from a family of Motown, of Peter Paul & Mary, of New Orleans soul, of Billy Joel. Liking punk rock didn’t come naturally to me. And one of the early things I liked about ska was its ability to talk about deep things while still sounding happy. But this song sounds angry, as it should. The opening montage of sound clips and drums and news clips is one of the most powerful moments in the Bosstones discography to me. Another song where the horns cut like razor blades. Kids are dying, and the Bosstones are pissed. And, on a certain level, Dicky’s not just singing about gang violence and the media. He’s singing(yelling) about his own neighborhood. His own gang. His own childhood. He was 27 or 28 when the song was written and released, which–especially in the punk rock world, which has such a large number of youth–isn’t that far away from being a kid in the wrong neighborhood.

“What do you do if he’s packing? What the hell can one man do? What do you do if he’s cracking? Hope he can’t shoot straight?” Everyone’s helpless in this song, including the kid with the gun, and the Bosstones are pissed, because life doesn’t have to be this way, and they know it. Kids know when they’re being cheated.

Okay I just got distracted for ten minutes looking for video footage of “Bus No. 9,” a Nickelodeon show that Dicky Barrett was on like once in 1998. Which doesn’t seem to exist on youtube. How strange. Anyway!

“He’s Back” is one of those songs that starts out sounding like one song, and then when the intro is over, it turns out they’re playing something completely different. There’s rumor that this song is about Joe Gittleman, the bass player (untrue). As far as I know, Dicky’s never clarified who, exactly, the song is about. They also still play this song regularly. They still play a lot of this album regularly. It’s a combination of them being both solid songs, that I imagine are fun to play, and a lot of the songs are crowd favorites.

“Bad in Plaid” is a song that I don’t think they do hardly ever play. It’s just a silly, jokey song (even Dicky’s said as much). The Bosstones take a weird amount of pride in their appearance considering they sort of look like a convention of used car salesmen exploded all over them.

“They Came To Boston.” This is the song that I got onstage to at the 2000 Throwdown (and, as a kid from Denver, that was just completely and awesomely appropriate). Jump, spin, jump, spin. Only time I’ve ever crowd surfed and I got on stage for it. I should’ve stage dove off, but I chickened out.

The part where he says, “Don’t want to swear, but it seems clear that I’m going to haft….AWWWW FUCK” is a fun part of the song to sing along to in any instance of slight annoyance. Also fun horns. Also fun lyrics. ALSO FUN. THE BOSSTONES ARE FUN.

Outro of the album and I’m thinking about Throwdowns (#16 was just announced!), about friends, about Boston, about dancing your way through life.

They came to Boston.
I came to Boston.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Pay Attention

payattn.jpg Where is it we’re going?
Who was it who said it?
Which stones are worth throwing?
Who will we discredit?
A pathetic aesthetic
In a world less poetic
It’s not where you come from,
It’s going, go get it.
–“Where You Come From”

The return of the “I listen to all the Bosstones albums and type shit as they go by” series, hooray!

So, Pay Attention was the Bosstones’ first studio album that was released after Let’s Face It. It was also the last album on which Nate Albert, the Bosstones’ original guitarist, played or wrote songs (he left to go back to school and take care of an ill family member). The Bosstones, casualties of corporate mergers, were moved from their longtime home at Mercury Records to Island/Def Jam after Let’s Face It was released. Pay Attention was the only record they released on Island/Def Jam before they were dropped (or left of their own accord). It was recorded in the midst of what was, for the Bosstones, a time that was even more emotionally hectic than usual (at least, I think so, from my far-distant vantage point), and I think that because of that the album doesn’t have some of the helter-skelter spontaneity of other albums. It’s close to being overproduced to me. (I’ll be up front here and admit that my line of “overproduced” basically means “I can hear Dicky harmonizing with himself and that’s disorienting because one Dicky is enough.”) But still, it’s a good album with some really good songs on it, and sort of a turning point in the Bosstones’ history. This is also the first album for which I was a far at the time of its release. Well I guess LFTME was really the first one, but this is the one that I remember going to the record store on the Tuesday it came out and getting the album and listening to it for the first time on the way home (this was the before you could mediafire whatever you wanted the day after the band took to the studio).

That whole paragraph took me four minutes to type, and in that four minutes, the first song “Let Me Be” went by. I heard “Let Met Be” live this summer in New Hampshire, and oh man, it was intense and awesome. There’s a part at the end where the song starts to break down and layer itself on top of itself, and when that happens live, it sort of makes me brain explode. Also I like the slow, deceptively muzak-y way it starts and then ka-blam, kicks back in.

“Skeleton Song” was one of my early favorites on this album. It’s about Dicky’s encounter with some of his own character flaws that came up, at least in part, as a result of the stardom and whatever that the Bosstones found with Let’s Face It (I could find the interview in which he said this but I only have 52 minutes and I’m still a song behind in the listening). Catchy horns, humble lyrics, textbook Bosstones.

“All Things Considered” is one of a bunch of songs that Dicky writes about the people he encounters. This particular one is “an older guy that comes around from time to time, we’re sure that he fought in the war, the war in Vietnam.” This is one of the things I appreciate about the Bosstones, and about Dicky–he’s interested enough in people and their stories to write a song about encountering this crazy guy in a bar, and rolling with the guy so to speak, just being okay with hearing his stories and not worrying about whether they’re accurate. Just giving him someone to talk to. “All things considered, what he’s telling us isn’t hurting anyone.” Dicky will take the time to talk to the people that people typically don’t talk to or write songs about. It’s even in Devil’s Night Out–the first verse of the song “Howwhywuz Howwhyam” goes, “I used to talk to cab drivers, but now I just don’t bother. I’d empty out my pockets if someone asked me for a quarter. There was a time that I’d give the time to the old, the weak, and the weird. I just don’t know what this is so, but I’ve never been so scared.”

“So Sad To Say.” The hit single that wasn’t. The follow-up to “The Impression That I Get,” the plaided up music video. Never really caught on. I don’t think it’s even in the favorites of the Bosstones themselves, it’s not a regular part of their set list (though also not totally unheard of like some). I relate to this song a whole lot more now than I did when it first came out. About thinking that a relationship would last a long time, only to have it fall apart. Yeah. Been there. Am there right now, as a matter of fact.

My animosity has got the best of me
It’s been feeding off the sadness deep inside me
That’ll fade I pray
And in time it will I know
So far it’s fading slow
Just one more thing, okay?
It’s so sad to say.

“Allow Them,” incidentally, has a short clip in it of Dicky (I think it’s Dicky?) talking to a skunk through the window of the studio. Apparently they were recording on a farm that had at least one skunk wandering around.

“Failure has far too many fathers. Succeed and you’re an orphan till you die.” This whole song is about the shittiness of bureaucracy. I think it was written with the music labels in mind, and the Bosstones’ experience with the big-time music industry, but you could listen to it and think of the government, big corporations, religious institutions, anyone that wields power over individuals and makes them compromise themselves, tells them lies.

“Deception is an axe they wield/there’s wands to wave with every call they field/This just is not us at all/And if it is we’ve dropped the ball.//We know who’s not a carrier/They hide behind the barrier/But they’ll destroy themselves somehow/It’s up to us if we allow/They will destroy themselves if we allow them to.”

Well, I hope so.

Pay Attention was released in 2000. The next song, “High School Dance” was written about Columbine. I grew up in Littleton, and I tell you, I didn’t listen to this song–except for that first day, on the way home in the car the day the album was released–for probably ten years. I just recently listened to it again and realized I could get through it without crying. It’s a really atypical Bosstones song, with a slow shimmery guitar, the horns sounding sad and slow in the background. I think the reason this song gets to me is because it comes the closest, out of all the songs I’ve heard about school shootings and angry young kids, to capturing what I remember my initial reaction being, which was not sadness and terror for the kids killed, but sadness and terror for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, that they got themselves so sad and messed up that they went out and did that. I hated my high school, but even as a sad, messed up, bullied teenager, some corner of my head knew that the best revenge against this culture that I didn’t fit into was to get away from it and live well. Harris and Klebold didn’t have that corner in their brains, I guess, so for them, the best revenge was just straight up revenge. “Hello world, remember me? I’m the sad little fuck that you failed to see.”

About halfway through the song, it stops being slow and eerie, and gets louder, the horns get funky and dancy. It slows down for the verse, but speeds up again for the final chorus and outro. The song doesn’t try to get to any large truths or answer any questions about school shootings. It just stops.

As someone who is constantly walking on eggshells and watching what I say, I really love “Over the Eggshells.” “I’m over the eggshells I’ve been walking on/My eggshell walking days are done/I don’t give a fuck about the applecart/And I’ll upset everyone.” Damn straight, Dicky. Wish I could be more like that. On days when I actually am like that, this song helps reassure me that I should be like this more often, not less. It helps me not talk myself out of my anger. Sometimes anger is good. Sometimes anger is healthy. Also, I love the horns in this song, the melody under the verses, the way the horns and the guitars are sort of trading places and taking turns at sounding angry.

“She Just Happened,” a sweet little song about one of Dicky’s ex’s. It’s not a love song, but it’s a fond one. The problem with listening to this song for years is that whenever anyone says anything like, “What just happened?” your brain immediately fills in with “She just happened! She just happened to cross my mind.”

This album came out in the spring, I believe. I’m trying to remember if I owned my little Nissan Sentra by that time, or if I was still driving my mom’s Dodge Intrepid (man, what a piece of shit that was, even my dad regretted buying it). I think I was in my Nissan. I remember driving home with the windows down, it was a glorious warm sunny day, and at stop lights I would glance quickly down at the lyrics to try and learn them quickly. (Though the lyrics on the booklet aren’t in the order that the songs play, so that’s annoying.)

“Finally” and “I Know More” are two songs that are fun to sing along to for the sheer wordplay and phonemic effort that Dicky put into making sure the lyrics sounded good. Dicky seemed to write “Finally” specifically in an effort to get as many words that start with F into a song. And to say “finally” a lot. “Finally” also has one of the more fun horn bridge parts (is that what it is? I don’t even know if that’s what it is) about 45 seconds from the end of the song. “I Know More” is a really good example of why it’s hard to translate Bosstones songs into American Sign Language:
I know, more I know
Now than I knew then
I know, I know
Now, now, I know
More than I knew
Less than I thought so.

I mean, what?

For this release I was actually on the Bosstones’ street team and got mailed a ton of posters and drove around town leaving them at record stores and such. I’m sure a ton of the posters that I dropped off places (and I even tried to make displays which I’m sure looked totally shitty) got dumped in the trash the minute I left the shop. And yes, I had my Nissan at this time, I remember now. Also, I bought this record at local Denver record shop Twist and Shout the day it came out, and I got a free Pay Attention tshirt. Which I now no longer wear because I don’t wear XL shirts anymore (funny how I don’t remember being self-conscious about my body and growing tits, but I must have been because I wore enormous fucking tshirts all through middle and high school, and only started wearing shirts that fit me in the latter part of college).

“Riot on Broad Street” is the song that got my dad, begrudgingly, respecting the Bosstones. I don’t think he thought much of them until he saw the lyrics for this one. I made him a mix of Bosstones songs at his request, and this is one he mentioned liking. It’s a song, based on a true story, about a riot between a funeral procession and a fire engine about who had the right of way on Broad Street. I don’t think they’ve ever played this live, at least, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. I should check with the Tall Kid about that though.

“One Million Reasons” and “Bad News and Bad Breaks,” for some reason, always make me think of Nate and his departure. I’m pretty sure “One Million Reasons” really is about Nate, but “Bad News and Bad Breaks” might just be my own mental association. Nate leaving was rough on the band. It came close to breaking them up. He’d been with them since the beginning, had been an essential part of crafting their sound, and he was going. When they wrote/recorded this song, I don’t know if they’d found Lawrence as Nate’s replacement yet. (And oh man, did Lawrence have a hard time getting Bosstones’ fans acceptance as Nate’s replacement. There’s still people out there who think that the band suffered an irreparable blow when Nate left, and that things have just never been the same.)

Man. There’s just a ton of sad songs on this record. It’s really introspective, and doesn’t have the political songs to balance stuff out like most of the other albums. It also, I think, has longer horn lines than a lot of previous albums. It lets the horns spin out a little bit more, take up a little more space.

“Temporary Trip” is the second song on this album about a down-and-out guy that most people wouldn’t pay attention to (maybe that’s part of where the album title comes from. Pay Attention to these guys and people generally. People deserve compassion.) They do play this song semi-regularly. It’s not one of my favorites, but it’s a good, solid song.

“Where You Come From” is one of my favorite songs on the album, but then, I’m susceptible to life-lesson sort of songs. The rhyming and wordplay in this song is also just fun. When you learn to sing along to this song, you feel accomplished.

It’s not where you come from, it’s more where you’re going
And knowing the going might get strange.
The world’s greatest writers are all drunks and fighters,
Get going, that isn’t going to change.

Stop procrastinating. Get going. Do something. The world’s greatest writers are all drunks and fighters. This song also contains one of my all-time favorite Bosstones lines: “A pathetic aesthetic in a world less poetic.” Who rhymes pathetic and aesthetic? I mean, seriously?

“The Day He Didn’t Die” is the last song on the album, and one of its most heartfelt. They will sometimes play this song at Throwdown, and Dicky often has trouble getting through it. It’s about his uncle, who died the day after Christmas. It’s a tribute to him and the life he lived. I don’t think I need to say much else, it speaks for itself I think. Though I will say: one day I was driving west on County Line Road in Littleton, climbing the hill that comes right before Broadway, and the sun was setting over the mountains and it had just stopped raining. The sunbeams were shining through the clouds in a way that was just perfect for this song. I didn’t take this picture that day, but this is the closest thing I have to what the skies were doing (this was taken in NYC on my way to a Slackers show):
sunclouds.jpg

And that’s the end of the album. Not sure what I’ll review next.