I just think it’s neat. That is all.
This is–almost!–the last album in this series (though not the last album released). It’s taken me so long to get through this listen-along that the Bosstones have released another album in the interim (When God Was Great). Also because of how long I’ve been doing this, it no longer feels like a cohesive project, though of course you can read all the rest of them easily enough. But it was fun to have something specific to get me listening to these albums again, and recounting memories.
The Magic of Youth came out in 2011, a year that seems impossibly long ago (surely the album’s only been out for like 3-4 years, not 10?). It’s their second post-hiatus album release, after Pin Points & Gin Joints.
I have delayed hitting play while I wrote my little introduction, because the album starts with a bang and I know I won’t have much time to futz around. It starts with bass and distorted guitar. Even the horns sound kinda angry. This song gives me chills, I don’t know why. “Do everything that we want to do/Try everything there is to try/There’s nothing out there stopping me or you/Do everything before we die.”
It’s kind of got “fuck it,” vibes, and “Let’s do this” vibes. A reminder that the biggest thing stopping you in any endeavor might just be yourself (especially, she added editorially, if you’re white and straight and middle/upper class). There’s a little swoopy part in the middle that’s like a tiny dance break (I always see Ben in my head when this part of the song goes by) before it kicks back in again. This song is a great album opener. And set opener, I love hearing the Bosstones play this live.
“Like a Shotgun” is, I think, either about Dicky falling in love or about becoming a father, which I think he did around this time. There’s some shades of “That Bug Bit Me” in this, where it feels like he’s talking metaphorically and literally at the same time. I like to sing along with this song, and it’s great live, just carries you along, but I don’t feel a huge personal connection to the lyrics.
Both of these songs (and more and more with the Bosstones, throughout their history) have a lot of sonic layering going on. It’s more complex now than it was early in their careers when they just cranked the distortion on the guitars and Dicky’s voice up to 11. But “Shotgun,” especially, manages to approximate the overwhelming noise that is being at a concert, with the horns and the amps and the PA system and the noise of the crowd all mixing together to make this wall that feels almost physical at times.
“Disappearing,” by contrast, has these quiet moments where there’s not much happening other than the drums and the horns. Joe Sirois also has one of my all time favorite drum breakdowns in this song (in 2012, I think, I went to the Throwdown, and I was really excited to hear Sirois do this solo live but instead they had the Dropkick Murphys’ drummer Matt on stage to share the solo with him, which was cool but also disappointing). I think it’s a snare drum that’s tuned really tight so it sounds more hollow than snappy? Look I don’t know, I’m not a drummer. But it is neat. That’s all.
“Sunday Afternoons on Wisdom Ave” is a more fun, sorta lighthearted song about a chunk of Dicky’s childhood. The keyboards is doing a lot of the work of the ska rhythm here, harmonizing with the guitars. (I realize that I’m a person who is almost always focused primarily on vocals, trying to find ways to talk about the music. There’s a lot to listen to and pay attention [HAHA I see what I did there] to on the instrumentals on this album. I apologize to anyone who’s an actual musician, reading me try to articulate what I’m hearing is probably painful. I’m also trying really hard to not mention Phil fucking Ramone).
Looking at the track list, the first five tracks on this album get played at their shows pretty regularly. I know that other Bosstones fans have kept track of setlists (there’s a spreadsheet that I could find if I went looking) and at this point have a database of ever single song and how often it’s played. I wonder if anyone’s calculated the prevalance of songs per album in live set lists (they probably have).
“They Will Need Music,” though it’s basically in the middle of the album (holy smokes we’re already in the middle of the album?) is often near the end of their set. Very end? It’s fun and triumphant. I’m just losing myself in a reverie of seeing the Bosstones in person, now. The lights and the noise and Matty picking me up so I can see and the circle pit and Lerch picking me up when I fall and other people’s sweat and confetti coming out of the ceiling…sigh. The outro on this song is JG (the keyboard player) getting to have a little solo mess around time (like, completely solo, like he’s alone on stage), kinda ragtimey, it’s fun. I think there are people who don’t like this song or are tired of it (just as there are people who don’t like “Death Valley Vipers, which, I just don’t understand), but those people are wrong.
“The Package Store Petition,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard them play this song live? It’s okay, not my favorite. One of those songs where Dicky is telling a story that’s not exactly his–he’s putting himself in this other guy’s head, I mean, and telling a story from that perspective. There’s tension in the horns, giving away that there’s some bad things going on. It’s one of those songs where the Bosstones manage to sound more threatening during the quiet parts? Oh, now that I hear Dicky sing “It’s hell they’ll caaaaaatch,” I think I have heard this song live. That’s bringing back some memories.
Have I seen the Bosstones live so often that now I can transplant any of their songs into a live situation? Some people know exactly how many times they’ve seen the Bosstones, I used to but I lost count sometime in 2004 around show 26 (I could probably go back and count, I keep ticket stubs and things). I know that I’m well above 50. At this point, it’s just as much about seeing people in the crowd as it is about seeing the Bosstones. I never really had friends to go to shows with in high school and college–eventually I made some, but my mental default to going to shows is still that I go by myself. Bosstones shows are really the only time when I go to a show to see more than just the band–I get to hang out with Bill and Steve and Matty and Lerch and Will and Xtine and Jonathan and Skippy and Flynn and Audrey and Chris and Boston and Caitlin and Nick and Phyro and and and and. It’s good to see people you know in the pit. It’s good to make plans to get beers before or (and?) after.
“The Horseshoe and the Rabbit’s Foot.” The horns in the intro to this song always make me want to dance like Molly Ringwold in The Breakfast Club. (LOL, the dog just groaned at me. I think he needs to go for a walk. Album’s almost done, dog.) (Also, look, I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a little bit to come up with things to talk about here, can I just skip to the end and babble about “Open and Honest”? Though, really, what I love about Open & Honest is that it’s full of references to their previous songs/albums which is hard to chart in a blog entry, so you might as well just go and see that I annotated it on genius dot com.
“The Magic of Youth” is a little bit like “Toxic Toast” and a little bit like “She Just Happened,” though less optimistic and nostalgic than either of those. Which is funny, because the title on its own is sweet and nostalgic–but there’s an edge to the lyrics that isn’t really there in “Toxic Toast.” There’s so many signifiers of downright poverty in the lyrics–“Do things on shoe strings to make the ends meet/Cut costs and corners in order to eat/Low income housing they couldn’t afford/Bills and collectors that they just ignored” If you’re in low income housing and you’re still dodging bills and “cutting corners” (I assume that means stealing) in order to eat….you’re in a pretty bad place. Up against the wall. In “Toxic Toast,” the characters in that song are broke as shit, and know it, and don’t care. They’re having fun. They’re young and dumb and okay with it. This song? Isn’t about that sort of being broke. This is about drugs, and doing shit you don’t want to do just to keep both ends of your body together.
I’m not sure if the couple in this song have a happy ending? The song says they stay together, “older and sickly and waiting to die.” Who knows how old “old” is, here, though. And who knows how long they could keep going with the particular hustles that are mentioned in this song, or what they started doing when those gave out.
“The Upper Hand.” I’m listening to the intro on this song and obviously I’ve heard it a bunch, but I’m realizing that I don’t actually know any of the lyrics or what this song is about. It’s managed to escape me. Onward!
“The Ballad of Candlepin Paul.” The Bosstones played this song once at a Throwdown with the real Candlepin Paul there in attendance. I think Dicky wrote this song at least partly as a joke and/or to annoy the Dropkick Murphys’ bassist and vocalist Ken Casey. But it’s also about Boston history, so who knows, maybe it’s 100% sincere (in keeping with Dicky’s general lyrical themes of contrast, and metaphors vs literals and things like that, it’s useful to view Dicky as Schroedinger’s Lyricist: He is both 100% sincere and 100% silly and full of shit, all at the same time). I admit that this is one of those songs where I kinda go, “Sooooo you had a finite amount of money and time to spend in a studio and you decided to do this with it,” not because the song is bad or anything like that, but just because….motherfuckers wrote a song about bowling. Bowling.
Okay! “Open and Honest.” Great fucking song. Is just crying out for a montagey music video. When I realized that this was the song I would be discussing last, I was actually really excited. Like what a great way to cap off my years-long series. And then, as I mentioned, the Bosstones put out a new album, so I have to review that at some point. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.
The song references all of the Bosstones’ pre-hiatus studio albums (Devil’s Night Out, More Noise & Other Disturbances, Don’t Know How to Party, Question the Answers, Let’s Face It, and Pay Attention). The references are not quite in order of album release which honestly bothers me a little bit (I bet it bothers Dicky too), but sometimes you have to make sacrifices so that things can rhyme.
- “May I say we’ve been this way now since the day we met the devil”
- “We won’t be bought and sold controlled or told he don’t know how to revel”
- “The noise you’ve been hearing, the culmination of an awful lot of people caring”
- “Let’s face what you’re afraid of”
- “You don’t know when they might throw at you a curveball or a question”
- “So let’s not mention who you paid attention to”
The last words of the song (and the album) are, “Nothing left to say, thank you.” Which I’m pretty sure is just referring to this song/album, not the band as a whole (especially since they’ve released two albums since then). But it also sorta encapsulates how I feel (not that I’m going to let that stop me from saying more) about the Bosstones: Nothing left to say, thank you.
The library stopped being a library.
They let me back in to work in the building, three days a week. I emptied the book drops. I checked in material.
I watered my coworker’s plant, still hanging on after two months with no water.
I edited all the process documentation. I edited it again.
I took everything off the hold shelf, that had been sitting there for three months, unable to be picked up. Empty shelves. No patrons. No services.
I took all the forms that we have patrons fill out and filed them in a filing cabinet. I organized folders by month. I labeled the drawers.
I threw away old documentation. Out of date forms. Empty three-ring binders. I found circulation policies from 2007 and thought about sending them to the archives collection.
I ran documents through the shredder.
I noticed that my coworker, who quit two months before we went into lockdown, had left behind a really cool supply organizer on her desk. I stole it and put it on mine.
I reorganized our network drive, and the hard drive.
We were a one-way library. Books come in….they don’t go back out.
Outside the library, our campus had become something of a park, a picnic ground for neighbors in the area. They couldn’t go to the actual parks–the city had closed them. They couldn’t stay in their houses forever. So, they came to the college I work at, sat under a cottonwood for awhile, let their kids toddle in the grass.
I piled up boxes of mail, waiting for our ILL staff to come back to work, along the wall. I organized them by date, in crates. It took about two weeks to fill up a crate. I ended up filling 6 of them, before my coworker started coming to the office, started unpacking and processing everything.
I took our larger-than-lifesized cardboard figure of Legolas the Wood Elf and made a mask for him out of paper towels. I moved him to different places around the office so he could surprise the cleaning crew.
One of the staff computers near me had its monitor on, and it was being used by someone working remotely. I could see them highlighting and annotating old digital versions of the school newspaper to make them accessible to screen readers.
I was often the only one in the building. Most of the lights were off. I listened to podcasts. Wiped my desk down with disinfectant even though nobody else was going to touch it.
I stayed away from windows. Every now and then, someone would walk by, cup their hands to their face and peer through the glass, trying to figure out if we were open.
My coworker who organizes building stuff showed up eventually. He started taking away furniture, piling it in study rooms, blocking off the entire lower level. Stickers appeared on the floor, directing people to this side of an aisle or that one. We threw dropcloths over bookcases to keep people from browsing. Plastic wrapping appeared over the drinking fountains. I put a sign on the dishwasher letting people know they had to hand wash their dishes or bring their own dishes in with them. We ran out of coffee but there was nobody to order any more, and anyway, we weren’t accepting deliveries. At the request of the custodial staff, we placed our trash cans outside of offices, to reduce the number of areas they’d have to walk through.
We put up a curtain around the front desk. No lending books, not right now. Not even when we let people back into the building. The library is closed.
I signed into staff meetings on my phone so that I could walk around and show everyone else, who hadn’t been in the library in over six months, what the building looked like now.
Quiet, quiet, quiet. I had no patrons. I had no requests to fill. No printers to fill with paper. No questions about restrooms or room assignments.
I was getting caught up on so much that I’d been planning to do for years. It was terrible.
I took inventory of all of the chargers and headphones and projectors and everything else we check out to patrons. I wondered if we’d ever check them out again.
Eventually, I started meeting patrons by appointment. They could put items on hold and set up a time and I would bring the items out to their car. Since no one else was working in circulation, I could organize the hold shelf however I wanted. I gave patrons weeks and weeks to pick up their items before cycling them back to the shelf.
When does a library become a library again? We’re lending books now. Students are in and out of the building. We’re even having classes in the building. Holds get picked up. But there’s still no research center, no computer lab, no writing center. No questions about restrooms or school assignments. No group study rooms. It doesn’t feel like a library. I’m still behind a curtain. Still behind glass.
I’ve started to picture the library as a great, slumbering beast. Unlike most beasts, though, it was a lot easier to send it to sleep than it is to wake it up. One of the podcasts that I listen to adapted its sign off by saying, “We are produced on Radio Row, which is currently scattered across the North American continent but will always be centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.” The library is currently scattered across the North American continent (or at least…the greater metro area), and what lives here is a skeleton that puts books in the mail and electronic files in email boxes. It lives on Zoom and in the chat room.
And it slumbers, which it can do because campus is quiet and empty, waiting for thousands of students to be safe enough to come poke it with a stick until it wakes up entirely.
I’m sure there were things I planned to do this weekend, like go to the grocery or buy gas or just go outside and look at the sun or something. Instead, I watched three epic (and epically long) classic movies between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening: Gone With the Wind and The Godfather (Parts I & II).
One so loud, the other relatively quiet. One with a protagonist so all over the place, so outward and emotional; the other so restrained, hiding everything behind his eyes because revealing too much of yourself is a death sentence. Both movies about inheritance, really. In Gone With the Wind it’s about land, in the Godfather it’s about family. Both are about kids trying to live up to their dad’s legacy.
We don’t see as much of Gerald O’Hara as we do of Vito Corleone–and most of what we see is past his prime, the decline of his life. In Part 1 of The Godfather, Vito is on the far side of his life, but still at the peak of his power. We know that Gerald is an immigrant from Ireland. This isn’t in the movie, I don’t think, but I asked my parents (who’ve read the book) and they said that he won the land that became Tara gambling. He built up this whole estate. He takes risks, loves horses, is kinda carefree. Gerald has basically won the American Dream. He has a big estate. He enslaves people. He’s respected by his neighbors (well, other than the ones he enslaved) and has beautiful daughters all ready for marrying off. He’s been accepted by other men of his age and station. But he loses it all because the core of the American Dream is rotten. It relies on the exploitation and abuse of people. And he doesn’t prepare Scarlett to live in a world that’s different than the one he created for them.
Vito Corleone is more reserved and calculating than Gerald O’Hara. He builds his empire slowly, step by step–not all at once in a fantastic, and fantastically risky, game of cards. In Part II, his story exudes warmth, with lots of camera shots of sunsets and growing babies. It takes place in a tenement neighborhood in 1920s New York City, but there’s nothing filthy or smelly about his story. Vito has also won the American Dream, sort of, but it’s hollow. Not because the American Dream (in the world of The Godfather) is hollow, but because Vito’s methods, the power behind his business, is bloody. The violence at the core of his life means he can never make the transition to being a straight businessman. That, and the fact that America isn’t ready to accept Italian Americans as “Americans” in the same way that Gerald’s neighbors were apparently ready to accept him. After a time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Corleones run into anti-Italian racism, sure, but there’s also plenty of people who know exactly what their business entails and are repelled. If Vito’s timeline is about winning the American dream, about creating and protecting his family, Michael’s timeline–with Tahoe in the winter, with 3-piece suits, with Cuban revolutions and gunshots and proper offices and hard edges and hotels– is about losing all of that.
Neither Michael nor Scarlett can truly live up to their parents’ legacy, can carry their parents’ dreams into the future, even though they are their parents’ best heirs. (Interestingly, both of these movies were made at a time when middle class parents could reasonably expect that their children would live better lives than they did. Perhaps part of the reason why I relate to both Scarlett and Michael is because I’m one of the first generation of Americans in 100 years that can expect to live more insecure, less prosperous lives than our parents did, and so I relate to the futility of their situation.) Scarlett’s first downfall is external, because her whole world catches on fire around her, and her own individual power can’t withstand that. Later on, she’s the manufacturer of her own doom and misery in a much more direct (and inevitable, and sad) way. The seeds of Michael’s failure can be found inside him, in his core where there’s something rotten. If his father hadn’t been shot, if he’d gone on to marry Kate and graduate Dartmouth and go into politics or become a college professor, maybe that core would have remained hidden for longer. But his family was threatened, and once Michael decided to keep it safe, he could never come off the battlements.
Both movies are about the transitions of those characters, the derailing of their lives into something else, and how they both surrender it (to a certain extent) and own it (in another sense). The transition moment in The Godfather is fast. I used to think it was when Michael was eating dinner with Sollazzo and McCluskey–that moment before he shoots them, when the camera does a slow push in on his face, and he’s not blinking and you can see everything coming forward for him, out of his eyes. And Sonny thinks it’s because McCluskey broke Mike’s jaw. But re-watching this weekend, I realized it was earlier than that. After the Don was shot, Michael spends one evening back at the family house, watching Sonny declare war and rage against the other four Families, watching Tom Hagen try to talk him down, watching nobody know what to do. Then he goes to the hospital to visit the Don and realizes that his dad’s about to be killed. Assassinated in the hospital. And he bends over his father and whispers (I think, I should have written it down), “It’s me, it’s Michael. I’m with you now.” He doesn’t say. “I’m here.” He says I’m with you. That’s the moment when Michael changes his entire life, steps in to save his family. The Don’s in danger. Fredo’s not up to it. Sonny’s not up to it. It’s up to him.
Scarlett’s journey is longer, which is something I really respected about the character’s portrayal in Gone With the Wind. She changes over the course of the movie, but also keeps the core of who she is. She doesn’t change enough to save herself by the end. At the beginning, she’s manipulative, doing things for approval, or because it’ll attract a man, and not out of loyalty or duty or friendship. She’s sort of kind of always…empty? When she gets back to Tara, after Atlanta burns, she becomes determined to save it, because it’s her home, it’s Tara. I don’t know if she truly felt bound to Tara before the war, maybe because (as a woman), she would have been expecting to leave her childhood home and join her husband’s plantation–not inherit her father’s. Tara is where she finds her core, and she realizes that it’s the most important thing in her world. She discovers that she’ll kill for it. That she’ll make other people hate and resent her and that’s fine as long as she gets to keep it. Where she starts telling people to do things because they need to be done, not because having power pleases her. Where she starts working herself as hard as she works everyone else. She and Michael both find out what they’re capable of, when their family legacies are threatened.
We think of Scarlett’s transition as the moment when she pulls the carrot or turnip or whatever out of the ground. “I will never be hungry again!” And that’s the turning point, the moment, maybe. But after that–when she sticks to it, when she starts working, when she finds the steel in her spine–that’s a whole process. And she owns it. The war changes her involuntarily, but this is the moment when she chooses to change herself. She could have stayed the same, and in the process, lost everything. Instead she chose to change, in that moment, and while it didn’t fix everything for her–far from it–it gave her enough to get through that particular time.
These movies are obviously about a lot of other things. I haven’t talked about Michael’s abuse of his wife, or the racism and historical revisionism in Gone With the Wind. We haven’t talked about iconic movie lines or Rhett Butler. I haven’t really talked about the books at all, or how both of these movies are better than they have any right to be. Gone With the Wind was made by a director who had never been to the South (and didn’t go to the South until after the movie was completed and he attended the premiere in Atlanta). The Godfather is a story of an immigrant family made by a guy from Michigan. And yet both movies manage to capture something both universally human, and something particular to the times and people whose stories they tell. They’re both movies about bad people that the audience ends up loving and rooting for. But now I’m sitting here thinking about Scarlett O’Hara and Michael Corleone crossing space and time and fictional realities to sit down and have dinner together, and wondering what they would say to each other–if they would know how alike they are.
Hello, and thank you for joining me again for part two of the listen-along to Pin Points and Gin Joints, the 2009 Mighty Mighty Bosstones album. I covered “Side A” in my last post, which ended up being way too long, so here we are with Side B.
“Wasted Summers,” is a song penned to a Boston Red Sox player who left the team to go play for the Yankees, because we’re a Boston band and honestly why would you not write a song about baseball? World needs more songs about baseball. (I know the specifics have been explained, and the player named, but I don’t follow baseball so I don’t remember who it’s about, and I’m too lazy to go look it up.)
“Sister Mary.” This song should probably be its own entire entry. It’s about the history of ska, and of the Skatalites, and of Desmond Dekker, all told in Dicky’s trademark directly oblique way. There’s so many references to early Jamaican ska in here, (and I’m probably missing a bunch because I’m by no means a scholar on Jamaican ska).
Can you remember
The school in the slums?
Can you hear the trombone
The guitar and the drums?
These lines are a reference to the Alpha Boys School, where several future members of the Skatalites went to school (and learned their instruments), along with trombonist Rico Rodriguez and a bunch of others. The headmaster of the school was Sister Mary Ignatius Davies.
Hey Sister Mary, can you teach me the song?
While they drag him out of there in scandal and shame
And Mr. Cosmic, the slide –Will you play along?
The man on the street couldn’t handle the fame.
Mr Cosmic is, I think, Don Drummond, famed trombonist and graduate of ABS. He put out an album (compilation?) called Don Cosmic. (There’s also a song called “Don Cosmic.”) “The Man on the Street” is also a Drummond song. So is “Scandal.”
Can you remember
When you left the school?
Half the world seemed wonderful
The other half seemed cruel
Pardon me sir, you were half out of your mind
The magic you’d make
And then the fame you would find
From Wikipedia: “In 1965 Drummond was convicted of the murder of his longtime girlfriend, Anita “Marguerita” Mahfood, an exotic rhumba dancer and singer, on 1 January 1965. He was ruled criminally insane and imprisoned at Bellevue Asylum, Kingston, where he remained until his
death four years later. The official cause of death was ‘natural causes.'”
On the Eastern Standard Time (“Eastern Standard Time” is a song written by Drummond, eventually recorded by the Skatalites. It’s also a band; they named themselves after the song.)
The teardrops in the rain (I’m honestly not sure about this one. There’s a Specials song from 1998 called “My Tears Come Falling Down Like Rain,” about Drummond; and there’s a NY Ska-Jazz Ensemble song called “Teardrops from My Eyes,” but my google skills are failing me in terms of finding what Drummond-specific song this may be a reference to.)
Sweet Anita Margarita (Anita Mahfood’s stagename)
She was crying out in pain
There’s also a trombone solo here, which makes sense in a song about a trombonist. I’m curious if the solo calls back to or sounds like any of Drummond’s songs, but I don’t know enough about his discography to identify.
Sister Mary cannot save you now
You might as well admit
You left your trombone all alone
And she held on to it.
This seems to indicate that Sister Mary Ignatius got Drummond’s trombone back after he went to prison/mental hospital? I’m not sure if this has basis in fact. Knowing Dicky, he wrote this song after reading a book about the whole thing, so maybe it’s cited (or hypothesized) somewhere. The biggest book about ska history that I know of, by Heather Augustyn, didn’t come out until 2010, but it’s possible that Dicky had an advance copy. (Or that he just knew! Dude’s listened to ska for decades now.)
“It Will Be.” I always get this song in my head now when I’m anticipating going to a Bosstones show, even though that’s not what the song’s about at all. “It will be! Wait and see! It’ll be when you least expect it, Wait and see it’ll be electric.” It’s more just about good things coming to find you when you least expect them, which is the opposite of a Bosstones show (I always know when those are coming).
There’s a little bit of a “When I’m 64”-ish theme going on here? “Will you still need me, will you still feed me…” “So patiently you’ll have to wait and see/And the waiting will be well worth it I’m sure.” Maybe a little “Innocent Man” by Billy Joel–he’s talking to someone who’s been crushed, all but trampled, all hope gone, but here’s Dicky, see, and he says, “I can go but I know I’ll wait around,” because he knows this thing they have (or might be starting to have) could be electric.
It occurs to me that even though I’m reading these lyrics and thinking about an “Innocent Man” sort of situation, that’s not necessarily true, I don’t think. Dicky could be talking to a friend who’s going through a breakup. Like, yeah, this sucks right now, and I’m not the one who can save you from it (I’m not the one you’ll fall in love with), but I want you to know that this bright future is out there for you. That you’ll find and love somebody electric.
Good grief this is long I’M SORRY IT’S JUST THAT ALL THESE SONGS ARE GREAT.
Also I really should stop for lunch? I’m super hungry. When I first started this series it was “Hit play and then type as much as you can while the album is running,” so it didn’t take that much longer than the run time of the album to write an entry, but now I’m all pausing and going to double check things on the internet and it’s taking a really long time. Like I thought I would be able to write the last two entries today but I haven’t gotten much done at work and I have a whole homework project I need to do and everything is just a lot right now?
“Death Valley Vipers.” This song is weirdly divisive among Bosstones fans. I know some who say they skip it when it comes up on their player, and would be fine if they never heard it live again. But I like it. It’s a tribute to a specific Army unit stationed in Afghanistan, I think, some far remote outpost in a really dangerous area of the country. “Death Valley Vipers/Proud daughters and sons/Direct descendants of survivors/Marching orders from no one.” My reaction to this song is always really visual. Like I see a whole music video in my head. Maybe it’s because of the mention of Death Valley, but I imagine a 1950s Buick breaking down in the American desert, the couple in it alone and stranded, taking pot shots at a cactus to keep themselves occupied. There’s a motorcycle gang that comes along at some point, and there’s a moment when you think the couple might get attacked, but then they join the biker gang. And it turns out that this gang, which is full of the ghosts of people who have died in the desert–Central American immigrants, Native American warriors, Okies, people killed by Vegas gangsters, people killed in car crashes, etc–roam around on vintage Kawasaki dirt bikes, protecting people who are still alive, adopting those that have died in their territory.
“The Bricklayer’s Story” is a solid song in the Bosstones’ tradition of writing songs about Boston, or people from Boston, or just working class folks. You get the feeling that these are all people that Dicky has met in a bar at some time or other. (Dicky could almost be an ethnographer who works out of dive bars.) A tribute to a working class guy who worked hard his whole life. A tribute to people who work hard, who do things for others, even if it comes at a price to themselves (there’s a whole verse dedicated to cataloging the injuries that the bricklayer incurred over his life). This song stands beside “Temporary Trip,” “A Jackknife to a Swan,” maybe even “Hugo’s Wife.” Love songs to ordinary people.
“Pretty Sad Excuse” is the last song. Like several other final songs on Bosstones albums, especially post-hiatus albums, it sounds like two songs mashed together. It’s longer than is usual. The first half is sweet and sad, and the tempo is slow. If you’re at a show, it gives everyone a chance to rest and breathe, establish a slow little circle pit, give hugs to the people you’ve never met before but are now friends with.
I feel so disappointing more times than I don’t
I feel like such a let down and I’m nervous that I won’t
Deliver when I’m called upon to step up when I’m needed
I feel like such a failure when I’m sure that I’ve succeeded
I call myself an outcast, more than likely I am not
An outsider on the inside and I hope I don’t get caught
I feel like an impostor who should not be on the roster
Someone understands this and of course I’ve almost lost her
If I cherish or I value something then it’s safe to say
I will dismantle or destroy it and I’ve always been that way…
“Half the time I’m petrified, and I’m terrified the rest. If I’m not being selfish than I’m probably depressed.” If that’s not a relatable sentiment I don’t know what the fuck is. This song is about being successful when you’re not sure if you deserve it; maybe you’ve just fooled everybody. What creative person hasn’t dealt with imposter syndrome at one time or another? What person, period?
A pretty sad excuse that is fostering a sad existence
The thought of altering myself just meets my own resistance
A pretty sad excuse that is fostering a sad existence
Half the time I’m petrified and I’m terrified the rest
If I’m not being selfish than I’m probably depressed.
Okay okay but you gotta wait for it (wait for it!) because the second time they sing the chorus and Dicky repeats the line, “Half the time I’m petrified and I’m terrified the rest” twice, you gotta GET READY and SPREAD OUT and BE PREPARED because the guitarist is about to hit the distortion pedal and the horns are about to kick in and down in the crowd, Lerch and Matty Ciq and Steve and Jeff and Aaron are about to CRASH and then there will be a CIRCLE PIT and it will be so so fast and so so fun because this is the last song so we’ve got to say goodbye with a vengeance, you know, we may never get to dance like this again. Don’t worry, they’ll pick you up if you fall, they’ll grab your glasses if you lose em (and if you’re lucky they won’t even have been stomped on yet), and they will hug you when the song finally ends, and you will be sweaty and gross, aching in a way that you only do when you’ve been crashing against other people in a mosh pit for three hours, and it will be beautiful and wonderful and you’ll never want it to end.
I don’t even know when I left off with my Bosstones listen-along. It’s been at least a year? Or two? I was going through my list of possible blog posts, though, and realized that I only had two Bosstones albums left (at least, until they put out another one). So here we are.
Also I started writing this and then it turned into something over 4,000 words long, so today, we listen to Side A (which is technically incorrect because the LP version of this album is a double LP, so we’re really kind of listening to the entire first record but you know what, Side A sounds better).
Pin Points & Gin Joints was released in 2009, the Bosstones’ first full length album since Jackknife in 2002 (they went on hiatus in 2003, and didn’t do anything until the 2007 Throwdown). I think that Medium Rare came out before Pin Points, but that only had 3 original/new songs on it and was mostly b-sides (which are great! B-Sides are great. Bosstones b-sides even more so than most songs. But b-sides != new music).
In looking at the Wikipedia entry for this album, Joe Gittleman (the bassist and one of the primary songwriters) said, “We really want to make a fun, upbeat record with a lot of cool ska stuff. Songs I look forward to playing at shows.” Mission accomplished, sir, because I enjoy hearing just about every one of these songs at shows.
The first song up is “Graffiti Worth Reading,” which I’m pretty sure I heard one way or another before the song actually came out–released on the internet? At a show? It’s super fun, upbeat, great to sing along to. It’s about people who tag walls and the people who read them. Chris Rhodes, who plays trombone, has some fun as fuck background vocals on this. The lyrics go fast but are relatively simple and happen on the beat, so it’s easy to sing along.
“Nah nah nah nah” is number two. That might not be the right number of Nah’s. Shrug. Also upbeat, also dancey, except it’s about coming to terms with the decisions your deadbeat dad he made when you were just a child. “I’d rather you hadn’t than had/If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t be mad/At what I’d been handed/Despite it, I’ve landed/On both feet, so don’t worry, Dad.” Dicky has this habit sometimes of inverting syntax to keep his rhymes intact, which is kind of all over the place here (and in “Graffiti”).
Thinking about the title of the album–a gin joint, most of us either know or infer, is American slang for a bar. Where the Bosstones have played a lot of shows and spent a lot of time. It’s also in one of the most famous movie lines in history: “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine,” from Casablanca. Ska in general has a fascination with gangsters and spies, with the tension between fashionable elegance and brutal crime. Early ska is full of James Bond covers and songs about gangsters and speakeasies. Street gangs and getting in fights. The Bosstones cover these themes too, though of course they do it in their own ultra-specific way: they wear suits onstage (like a lot of other ska bands), but the gangsters they sing about are, like, James Michael Curley and Sammy Gravano. So citing “gin joints” here is working on multiple levels.
Then there’s pin points, like how many angels (or devils, in the case of the Bosstones) dance on the head of a pin. Like just how many guys can you fit on a fucking stage. Or maybe pin points like pointallism, the drawing technique (Dicky is also an artist and has designed most, if not all, of the Bosstones’ album art). Pin points are also legal citations that direct a reader to a specific paragraph of a judgment or report, which I did not know until I started looking into the etymology of “pin points,” but now that I see it I don’t think it’s an accident. There’s a lot of introspection in this album, a lot of Dicky thinking about specific moments in his life and how they influenced where he ended up, for good and for bad. In fact we go straight from “Nah Nah Nah Nah Nah,” where he’s thinking about his dad’s abandonment of him and how that affected him growing up, to “The Route that I Took,” which is about his early history as a punk and as a musician and has some of my favorite lyrics on the entire album.
Without really knowing I took all the wrong routes
The misguided monster in the Doc Marten boots
In the wrong directions against all of the grains
Got off at all the wrong stops, back on to all the wrong trains…
I can just continue quoting the song here, that’s cool, right?
Without suggesting to you the routes I took were never wrong,
I took a look and still I took and somehow I stayed strong,
And I just stayed on the course with very few deviations,
One of two situations, some other odd altercations.
And when my days were too dark, well I had something to sell,
I am the carnival barker with some stories to tell.
There’ll be apologies made at every fork and each bend
And I’m so glad that I stayed and I will stay till the end
There’s also the absolutely glorious line, “While I made up my mind, I had some choices to make/Should I leave hell far behind me just for heaven’s sake?” And, “Without a drop of the sense that god had gave to a stone/But in my own self defense, I was not all alone.”
I love the way Dicky is able to do this. He takes idioms and sayings–got off at all the wrong stops, leave hell far behind, for heaven’s sake–and uses them in a way that is both true and accurate and yet also sort of literal in a way that idioms generally aren’t used. I’m also a sucker for multiple rhymes in the same line, like “I stayed on the course with very few deviations/One or two situations, some other odd altercations.”
I also love the story of the song. It’s very specifically Dicky, and I can’t relate to it on a literal level–I’ve been blessedly sheltered from drug use, and drug abuse, my entire life, and a lot of this song is about being around people using drugs (something he’s also written about in other songs). I also wasn’t nearly the agent of chaos that it sounds like he was in his youth. But there’s an overarching theme of being in the shit, and going through some shit, whether it’s of your own making or just bad luck. And not knowing if you want to hang around or not (either in the environment you’re in or, like, at all), but doing your best to get through it, any way you can. And then looking back and going, well, if I had to do it again, I would sure not choose to do it that way, but ultimately I have no regrets about what I did, or where I ended up. That’s not a song that many 25-year-old punks ever have the chance–or the wherewithal–to write.
(On another note, here and there there are old punks writing songs about being an old punk, which, as an old not-quite-a-punk-anymore, I appreciate. As I grow older, it makes me sad that songs that I stitched onto my heart when I was 17 don’t always sound like they’re about me anymore, now that I’m 38.)
“I am the carnival barker with some stories to tell”–a reference to both Dicky’s role as a lead singer, one with a very distinctive voice, and his role in the band as primary lyricist. He’s also the ringleader on stage, the guy who’s most likely to engage with the crowd and talk to folks. Historically, a carnival barker is the guy who stands outside the circus tent and invites people inside to see the best show of their life. They’re hucksters, fast talkers. salesmen. The label does fit him, in a way. And not just because he wears loud plaid suits and wields a microphone.
I like “You Left Right,” aside from the wordplay in the title (and the missing comma) because it articulates the confusion that often comes in the wake of a breakup (or at least, that comes in the wake of mine), when the anger mixes with still feeling protective or tender over this person that you cared for, because emotions have the turning capacity of ocean liners.
Sitting in the car with the engine off
And I’ve got no where to go
I need to be somewhere away from here to think
….I sift and sort and come up short
So far past my last resort.
After that, we take a break from the introspection for “Too Many Stars,” an anti-war song. The album came out in 2009, but this song may have been written or conceived around the Iraq Troop surge of 2007? Or just a reaction to being eight years into seemingly endless wars that fought on two fronts. And how we make these decisions to rain fire down on people thousands of miles away. I do find it interesting that this sounds like any number of anti-war/anti-imperial songs that were written during the Bush presidency, but was most likely written (and was definitely released) during Obama’s first term.
Way too many stars falling from the skies
An open invitation sent to open up their eyes
A monumental diplomatic moment that was missed
Too many make their living off it hand right over fist.
(Once I was at a Bosstones show and I was on the rail, at the front of the crowd, and I accidentally made eye contact with Dicky as we both sang the lines, “A monumental diplomatic moment that was missed/Too many make their living off it hand right over fist” and for some reason that moment is now burned into my skull as a cool thing that happened at a show.)
Next up is “Your Life,” which is my favorite favorite favorite (yes, I know. All the Bosstones songs are my favorite. They’re like puppies that way. All the best.) For some reason I keep inserting this song into my queue when I’m listening to the Bosstones’ newest album While We’re At It, right after the song “Unified.” It fits, for some reason. Either a similar tempo or a similar key or something that I can’t articulate because I’m not a musician, but my brain clicks into it. It also has a lot of the wordplay and idioms that I mentioned above that I just completely love.
You were warned from the day you were born,
You were to young so you blew it off.
You were told you were gold but as you got older,
You discovered that you were to soft.
“You were told you were gold and then discovered that you were too soft,” oh my god.
This is another one of those songs where, even though my life has been drastically different from Dicky’s, and even though I don’t know what events he was thinking of when he wrote this song, there’s also ways in which we’re the same. Maybe all humans. I hit the rocks so, so hard as a teenager and young adult, as my idealism and naivety crashed into the reality of how the world actually is. This song is about that, in a way that articulates the experience in a way that I would have said it, if I was as good with words and rhymes as Dicky is.
The last three verses of something are something that, every time I sing along to it, I feel like I’m singing to my younger self. She went through so much shit, and a ton of it was due to not having any real mental health support even though she really needed it (and didn’t know how badly she needed it, and didn’t know that it was a thing she could or should ask for). I try to keep her safe these days, while not keeping her locked away. She earned it.
The bottom was coming up quick
I guess it just has to be hit
The secret the key and the trick
Is learning to deal with it
It’s uphill from this point on out
And the pinnacle’s up at the top
It hasn’t been reached, only practiced and preached
So at this point you might want to stop
You might but might I suggest
I suggest it’s best just to climb
Continue you’ve still got it in you
And be thankful you’ve still got the time
You’ve still got the time.
The outro of this song is the chorus over and over, but behind it, in harmony, one of the Bosstones is repeating, “You’ve still got the time” over and over. “Be thankful you’ve still got the time. You’ve still got the time.” That’s a thing I need to hear, to remind myself of, a lot.
(Also, does Dicky have a list somewhere of idioms somewhere of plates and their many metaphorical meanings? In “Desensitized,” on their 1997 album Let’s Face It, Dicky wrote, “Let’s get to the bottom/And blow off the lid/I’m trying to keep a balance/Like the plates on top of sticks…”)
Next up is “I Wrote It,” a song that I know some Bosstones fans super adore, but I confess it’s not my favorite. It’s about the narrator (I really should stop assuming that the narrator is always Dicky) writing a song in a borrowed notebook, in a bar in Boston, wearing a suit jacket that I think he bought at a thrift store. There’s no indication in the song that the lines he’s writing are great, or worthy, or that they’re any of the songs that made the Bosstones “big.” There is a drum lick in the chorus here that I love, where Sirois hits the toms with a sort of *womp womp* which is just fun. There’s also a repeated line in here that, “I wrote, I wrote it for you,” which always gets kinda emphasized when they play it live. “FOR! (womp womp) YOU! (womp womp) (horns horns horns hooooorns)”
I just noticed that this song starts with Dicky finding a golf pencil in his blazer, and he ends with leaving the pencil in the empty shot glass, for someone else to find. Back to one! Full circle! Craft! Something something.
And now we are up to “Not to Me on That Night,” which I’ve just realized I’ve been mentally squishing together with “You Left Right,” to the extent that I’m surprised that there’s three songs in between the two on the album. Dicky might very well still be sitting in his car with the engine off. But there’s also….something darker in this? Like Dicky notes that “That’s when the sanity ceased,” and then later he says, “I noticed something was wrong, and I took it seriously.” He could be talking here about discovering his partner is cheating on him, or about noticing that his partner is having serious mental illness symptoms and needs to go to a hospital. “You had nothing to say/But it took several hours to say it.” Is Dicky just mad and done and not listening anymore, or is the other person in the song honestly prevaricating? It’s hard for me to tell. And sure, I know, I am almost certainly over-interpreting.
Side B: Soon!
(Okay, but seriously, me making a timely post within two weeks of the actual time? I am fucking on it, you guys.)
Thank you, to all the vigilant/anxious/conscientious people in 2020 who worked really hard to make wearing a mask and not leaving home the norm in 2020. It helped. I’m a person who wants to be vigilant and do the right thing, but ultimately I’m also lazy, and keeping my attention on something in a consistent way for weeks and weeks and weeks and months is impossible for me to do if I’m not around other people who are also doing it. (I don’t know if this is typical? If people in low-compliance areas would wear masks if it was more the norm? In some ways I notice myself being really susceptible to just rolling along with what everyone else is doing; in some ways I’m super ornery.) Surrounded by different people (or surrounded by no people), I know I would have continued to wear a mask, but I’m not sure if I would have stayed out of restaurants. I maybe would have forgotten about staying away from people at the grocery. I might have given up on social distancing at work. I would have just made doctors’ appointments and dental appointments and kept going to starbucks. I admit I did keep going to get my hair cut, partly because I couldn’t stand it and partly because my stylist owns her own business, but that was one of the only “That’s a really stupid thing you’re doing” things I did all year, and on balance…well, at least I didn’t have to pay a price for it.
Throughout this whole thing, I’ve underestimated the danger and the longevity of it. I started getting anxious about my work needing to shut down only a day or two before it actually did. I didn’t really think, in April and May, that we’d be settling in for doing the whole year like this, even though people said we would. I am still only half-believing the people who are saying that we need to be prepared for this to be our life for another six months. By this time I know to trust other people and not my instincts, and that my disbelief/disunderstanding is probably more self-preservation than anything else.
Thanks to the people who tweeted about non-instacart grocery ordering apps. Thanks to the people who tweeted about mental health and the agony of combining grief with waiting. Thanks to the people who normalized Saying No To Everything. Thanks to the people who gave me words with which to say, “No, I’m not doing that right now/this year/etc.” Thanks to the people who figured out how to have writer’s conferences online. And movie parties online. Thanks to the people who made me feel guilty for even considering doing a thing, which then steered me away from doing that thing. Thank you to the people who know that human life matters, and that all the lives we lost this year mattered, and that they all left holes behind. Thank you for making pushing back against boomer parents who still want to go to restaurants and to church a thing that we can do with love and humor and compassion.
Thank you to the pets, the dogs and the cats and bunnies and bearded dragons and iguanas and chickens and whatever, who made staying home a tolerable project. Thank you to the lady who let me keep coming over to watch her dog and hang out with him even though she probably didn’t need to. Thanks to the dogs for giving me a reason to leave the house, walk around, and look at the sky. Thanks for keeping me company on zoom meetings. And for interrupting zoom meetings. Thank you for the snuggles, for collapsing across my lap so thoroughly and heavily that my legs fell asleep.
If you still exist in the world and are reading this, thank you. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’ve survived this long. Thank you for helping all the people that you helped. I’m glad you kept on as best you could. I hope you have something good to look forward to in 2021.
Thank you to all the activists who took to the streets in 2020, risking literal life and limb to do so. Thank you for telling your stories. Thank you for telling me what were the good orgs to donate money to. I hope in 2021 we can make progress on defunding police and treasuring black life, and not have to take to the streets and protest every time the police kill a black person.
And to thousands of firefighters, across a dozen states, who left their families (in the middle of a pandemic) to fight the worst wildfires ever (during a pandemic). Thank you for working to keep the homes of total strangers safe. I’m really sorry that the season was so long, and hard, and relentless. I hope you’ve had a few good nights’ sleep since October.
Thank you to the people who gave me stories to read, listen to, play, or watch in 2020. Thank you to everyone who figured out how to find the bandwidth to do creative things in 2020. Thank you especially to the people who made things lighthearted and compassionate, things that seemed as far away from 2020 as possible.
Thanks to the kids, the little ones. I know that in a lot of ways you don’t even know how fucking weird this year was. Thank you for being adaptable, for being bouncy and bubbly and bringing us all up with you. I know that I spent a lot of the year wishing that everything would be less noisy, but the truth is, if you were less noisy, I would be a whole lot sadder. Thank you for continuing to find fun and excitement even within all of this nonsense of a year. I hope I was able to support you in a way that was helpful.
Here’s to 2021 being better in any number of ways than 2020.
Awhile ago, I started watching Doctor Who (the new series) from the beginning. Again. I do this every few years, especially when a new season starts and it’s been a minute since I’ve seen it and I worry that I’ve forgotten details. When Jodie Whitaker’s turn as the Doctor began, BBC America aired almost the entire back catalog of Doctor Who episodes from 2005-2019, and I used up most of the space on my roommate’s DVR to record them, and I’ve been working my way through them ever since.
A lot of Doctor Who fandom (me included) gets wrapped up in discourse about the Doctor. This is the obvious thing to do, it being his show and all. It’s easy to have conversations about the Doctor, away from the screen. But when I’m actually watching, I’m completely taken in by the Companions. In the original series (at least into the 1970s; I haven’t seen any stuff from the 1980s yet), the Companions were often just assistants, people for the Doctor to talk to. And they were inconsistent, changing around based on whatever the plot needed that week. But today, it may be the Doctor drives the story, but the Companions are often the heart of it. They’re our human way in. Donna, reacting to the plight of the Ood, or stopping the Doctor from killing the spider-lady thing at the beginning of the fourth season. Rose, wanting to like the new Doctor after he regenerates, but not sure she can trust him, not sure if he’s the same. Rose’s reaction to the Tenth Doctor helps us, the audience, get used to this new person too. Her journey into loving and trusting him is the same as ours.
I love Rose Tyler. People talk about “Their Doctor” (mine is Ten), but Rose is “my companion,” if one can have such a thing. I love her passion, how she jumps right into the Doctor’s mission and his lifestyle. Her smile. Billie Piper has one of the all-time great smiles. If Rose had the opportunity, she would absolutely be a superhero. Put on a cape and fight the baddies. She’s an adrenaline junkie. She loves dropping in at the last moment, saving the day, making a difference in people’s lives, and then traveling away again. The chemistry between The Doctor and Rose has led to a generally-accepted theory in fandom that they had a physical relationship (I think Steven Moffat has made clear that he’s always believed this to be true), but I don’t know that Rose finds The Doctor sexy. I think adventure is the sexiest thing in the world to her. When the Doctor sends her home at the end of the first series, stranding her, she was upset at the loss of the Doctor, but what really drove her crazy was the idea of being trapped on Earth, of having to live a “normal” life. Working at a shop and eating fish and chips forever. Knowing the whole exciting universe was out there, and she couldn’t get to any of it.
And I love how honest she is about all this. She constantly and repeatedly trashes the idea of a normal life to her mom and (ex?)boyfriend Mickey, the ones she leaves behind over and over. She disparages the lives they lead (and which they prefer compared to the dangerous nonsense that she gets up to). She leaves them behind. She asks them to do things for her, often pretty big things, but doesn’t do much for them in return. They give her these looks of loneliness and disappointment and resentment that she barely notices while she’s asking them for help, to upend and/or risk their lives, and they always come through for her, but (like The Doctor in some ways) she’s always on her way somewhere else. Rose might be the only Companion who sort of has her own set of Companions, people who always stand willing to help her.
By the second series, Rose is the Doctor’s equal in some ways. She can’t fly the TARDIS without risking her life, but they work in tandem, they’re in sync, they can work together without consulting each other. The Doctor trusts Rose. It’s the closest, most intense relationship of her life, forged in fire and gravity wells and ghostly aliens and werewolves. Rose and the Doctor are the same: they never give up. The episode “The Satan Pit” really shows this. They both have solid reasons to think the other is dead, or at least lost forever. And they can’t get to the TARDIS. But they trust each other, and keep trying, and they win (and live to fight another day). When the Doctor gets sucked into a child’s drawing, Rose keeps working, keeps going after a solution. She can’t do as much as a Time Lord, but she can do a damn sight more than an average human. She stares death in the face and says, not today.
Donna runs a close second to Rose. Sometimes I love her more. She doesn’t have a specific agenda, really, as long as she can get out of her rut of a life and away from her terrible mother. When she finds her way to the TARDIS, it’s all she ever wanted, and everything else is a bonus. If Rose is attracted to the adventure part of the Doctor’s life, Donna connects to the people. She’s the most human human. Even in her very first episode, “The Runaway Bride,” where she is mostly a person that the story happens to, rather than a person making choices, she connects to the Doctor and decides that her job is to help him. After discovering that she’s been poisoned, that her fiance secretly hates her and is in league with an alien that wants to conquer Earth, after she’s been kidnapped by the TARDIS and spends most of the episode screaming at the Doctor (Donna’s tendency to get angry and snarky when she’s really terrified is one of my favorite things about her), at the very end, when the Doctor is fully prepared to drown the Racnoss as well as himself, and in spite of every mind-blowing and unbelievable thing that’s happened to her that day, Donna shouts, “Doctor! You can stop now!”…and he does. On her very first episode, Donna saves the Doctor.
In her third episode, Donna travels to Pompeii, and though she knows that there’s no stopping the volcano, she convinces the Doctor save just these ones, this one family, like a kid on the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean. In her fourth episode, she meets the Ood, and their plight–and their song–are enough to make her want to go home, back to Earth, where she can feel less horror at the way the universe hurts things. The more Rose sees of the universe, the more active and smiling she is. The more Donna sees of it, the more she learns how much it hurts, its power to make her sad. For Donna, more than for Rose and Martha, the universe is equal parts beautiful and terrible. She makes the choice to keep going out to see it, even though she knows what’s in store for her. Rose was not moved to tears by the experience of meeting of Madame de Pompadour. I think that Donna would have been. And she knew–and so did the Doctor–that her tears and her compassion were good for the Doctor. They kept him human. As human as a Time Lord could be.
Of the first three companions–Rose, Martha, and Donna–Martha’s probably my least favorite. Which is not her fault. It’s clear that she’s crushing on the Doctor, and I love how determined she is, ultimately, to save the Doctor and save the Earth. But she’s in love with the Doctor, and I’m profoundly uninterested in any Doctor-involved love stories. (I also really don’t like that they eventually made her a soldier in U.N.I.T. She was studying to be a doctor. Let her go on and be that doctor. She’d be a good one.)
The first three primary companions of the reboot–Rose, Martha, and Donna–all have their own reasons for following The Doctor onto the TARDIS. Rose loves the adventure. Martha loves The Doctor. Donna understands that The Doctor needs her (or needs someone, at any rate) to remind him of his own humanity. (And then there’s Wilf. Lovely Wilf. And Jack Harkness.) Each Companion has her own internal hole she’s trying to fill (and, thanks to Murray Gold, also her own music theme). They all bring out different qualities in The Doctor. They’re not just there to hang around next to him. They have their own skills, talents, choices to make. They don’t follow him onto the TARDIS just because it’s fun and exciting, or because the Doctor needs somebody to talk to to keep the show from being boring. They have an independence and a completeness that later Companions (coughcoughAmy and Claracough) don’t have.
Other thing I love about the first three Companions: they’re not jealous. Rose is, a little bit, when she first meets Sarah Jane, and I don’t think Martha ever gets into a situation where she has to think about anyone as being in competition with her for the Doctor (well, there was the episodes where the Doctor hid himself inside a human life), but when Donna meets Martha, she just…she’s so warm. And open. And making fun of the Doctor. She likes Martha the minute she meets her. And Rose. They can all relate to each other in a way that nobody else on the planet can. They gang up (in a good natured way) against the Doctor, instead of competing for the Doctor’s attention or affection. And that’s not something that you see among female characters very often. (One of the reasons why I hate the “TARDIS is actually the Doctor’s wife/sentient space ship” story is because then there’s this whole rigamarole with the TARDIS deciding it doesn’t like Clara and causing trouble until they eventually make friends and I hate it because the TARDIS isn’t like that, and there’s no reason for women/apparently woman-identified disembodied spaceships to compete over the attention of a Time Lord like they’re fucking toddlers or puppies and argh either the TARDIS is fine with human women, it’s not like Clara is the first one she’s met, or there’s something wrong with Clara, and since there’s nothing wrong with Clara I just assume this is another one of those times where Steven Moffat doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing with his women characters and throw the whole thing out the window) (and yes I know there’s the whole “she’s a temporal anomaly” thing but don’t get me fucking started on the whole reason why Clara is a temporal anomaly in the first fucking place).
The loyalty that the Companions show to the Doctor, their willingness to help him, their reasons for traveling with him, their joy at discovering this whole entire universe–it’s one of the things that makes their various endings–especially Rose, stuck in the alternate Earth, and Donna, with her memory erased–especially sad. Not just they can’t travel with (or remember) the Doctor, but that they can’t talk to anyone else about it either. I used to have a whole story worked out for how the Doctor could go back and get Donna and reunite with her and her head wouldn’t explode, though unfortunately I don’t remember how I worked out the kinks anymore. Rose at least got a Doctor Clone, but Donna? Donna had to go back to Chiswick, be a temp. She didn’t even know that all her dreams had come true. And I find that just so unbearably sad.
Pithy conclusion? I’m not sure if I have one. If you write “assistant” characters, make sure to give them their own heft and weight and choices in the story. Also, as you walk through life, if you do it with the adventurousness of Rose Tyler, and the loyalty and faith of Martha Jones, and the compassion of Donna Noble…well. You won’t be doing half bad for a human who can’t regenerate.
I signed up on a mailing list from storyaday.org to get a writing prompt every day for the month of September. Yesterday was the first day I actually tried one of the prompts (I set a timer for fifteen minutes, which is why it just kind of stops), which came from excellent writer and human Mary Robinette Kowal. I liked how it turned out, so here it is. The first sentence in quotes is Mary Robinette’s:
“Of the things that could go wrong while crocheting, opening a portal had seemed like a low probability.”
Especially since she had just learned to crochet this morning and was, if she was honest, still unclear on the distinction between crocheting and knitting (why do you need multiple ways to make cloth out of string and sticks?). An hour of laborious work had given her a pitiful start on the potholder she was supposedly making, but then, spooling off the yarn she had strung together, a sparkly little void opened, dripping off her crochet needles like extra-dimensional drops of water. They held together into a little window that was about as big across as the palm of her hand.
Well, she thought. That’s interesting. She poked her fingers through the window. It was raining, over there in Wherever. As she pulled her hand back through and marveled at the water on her fingers, she smelled damp grass and decaying leaves. Rain. She leaned down to try and see into Wherever, but the window was too small to get a good look. Just a closeup of tree bark. Of course her first interdimensional window through time and/or space would faceplant her into a tree.
If I keep crocheting, she thought, maybe the portal will get bigger, and I’ll be able to see more.
If the portal gets bigger, she replied to herself, what if it starts sucking this world into it, like a hole in the side of an airplane? What if I fall into it and it turns out the portal is 30 feet up in the air?
Do you even know how to close it? another part of her asked. Open it further or close it completely. You can’t leave an interdimensional portal through time and/or space open in your living room. Not even a small one. “What’s this?” “Oh, nothing, just my portal.” “Really? Where does it go?” “I dunno, it just opened up one day and then I did literally nothing about it and went back to watching The Good Place for the fourth time.” “Ah ha. I see. Yes, I can see why you would make such a discovery here, in your living room, and then do nothing.”
She stopped the internal hypothetical conversation because it was starting to sound too much like an XKCD comic strip.
So she kept crocheting. In another hour, she had a wobbly doorway about the size of her cat (now there was a whole other set of worries: a cat that travels through time and/or space by disappearing through a portal to chase birds). Big enough that it was less like looking through the peephole of a door and more like looking through a small basement window. Still, there was the tree, which looked like a pine or a fir or something carniverous (no, not that word, the other one. Conifer-us) and she could see the horizon and a hill nearby, and hear the patter of the rain coming down through the leaves, and knew she could go through the portal without falling to her death.
How many possible deaths do you cross off the list, she wondered, before you had an acceptably low number of possible deaths, such that stepping through an unknown magical portal into an unknown land didn’t seem like a suicidally mad thing to do?
On the other hand, and again, the other part of herself told herself, are you really going to just…not go through? How long does the list of possible ways to die have to get before you decline to enter the magical portal in your living room?
I should call NASA, she thought. I bet they would know how to explore it. Or at least do a risk assessment.
NASA can’t even explore the Moon. You’d be better off calling Bezos or Musk or some other mad billionaire.
So they can make money off of it and then toss in a car for shits and giggles? No thank you.
Well, before you go in, just remember to text somebody about where you’re going and when you expect to be back, so they can report you missing and/or avenge your death if you don’t return. Basic safety.
July, 2017. I’m at Denver Comic Con, in a room full of rows of chairs, and a projector on a cart set at an angle to find the screen in the corner. I find a seat on the aisle (I always find a seat on the aisle), as near to the front as I can get. We’re in a mid-sized breakout room for this panel, which is called “Marvel: Then and Now,” and it’s crowded enough that people are filling the seats, standing along the back wall, shuffling bags and cosplay weapons to try to make space for someone next to them.
The panel has three generations of Marvel writers and artists: Two old guys (like, in their late 80s, they rolled into the panel on mobility scooters) who were at Marvel in the 1950s, a white English man who started at Marvel in the late 80s, and a black woman who works there now and whose titles include Black Panther, Iron Man, and World of Wakanda.
The first question that the moderator asks is about how Marvel has changed since each panelist got into the business. One of the old guys said (and in spite of the quotation marks, I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t want to get political” (so don’t then) “but” (uh oh) “I started at Marvel during World War II, and the nation was one. And I think we need to make America great again.” (please be being ironic right now) “We need to just give him a chance” (oh dear) “He’s going to take down the Mexican mafias just like he made it safe for a black woman and her kid safe to walk down the street in New York” (stop talking) “and why can’t we be as one” (seriously though stop talking). He goes on citing “fake news” and random crime stories for several minutes. I’m not sure why the moderator didn’t interrupt or redirect; he certainly should have. The few people of color who were in the audience get up and walk out. I noticed some white people too. After a weirdly agonizing minute, as my ingrained training about being “civil” (or at least “not rude”) battles with my desire to not look like I was endorsing this shit by continuing to sit here and listen to it, I get up and walk out too. I feel like everyone is staring at me, even though I’m sure nobody was. Someone sitting on the floor probably crept into my seat and that was that.
Of course, the minute I got out into the hallway, I realized, well shit, now I don’t get to hear Alitha Martinez talk about her career, the things she’s done and what she enjoys about drawing for Marvel. Ain’t that always the way: old white dude takes up too much space, too much oxygen, pushing out other voices or making them impossible to hear. I find her booth later in Artist Alley, and buy whatever I can. She’s really nice, there with her teenage son, who’s helping her sell art and books when he isn’t off doing his teenage son thing.
Artist Alley. Remember Artist Alley? And how close everybody had to stand to each other in order to move around at all?
September, 2019. I’ve been awake since 2:30am, and only had four hours of sleep total anyway. Showered and walked to the train. Didn’t manage to fall asleep on the train. Got to the airline gate with enough time to spare to buy a bagel and cream cheese at a Smashburger, the only food place that’s open on the concourse. They don’t spread the cream cheese on the bagel even though they have a full kitchen. Just drop a couple of individual servings in the bag.
I doze on the plane, at least for a little while. I was the sort of tired where everything around you and inside you starts to feel fuzzy and unreal. Being locked in a dark tube as it hurtles through the air doesn’t help with this impression. After we land, I take the train into town and and find the hostel I’m staying in. Check in time isn’t until like 4pm, but they let me store my stuff in the luggage room so I can head right back out and take the train to Douglas Park, where Riot Fest is happening.
I have almost always gone to concerts, music festivals, things like that, by myself. It’s not weird to me. And I like being able to choose my own schedule, decide which acts I want to see, and not have to discuss it with anyone else. I like being able to pull up a patch of grass and read a book when I need some downtime. Chicago in September is sunny, and warm, but not unbearably hot. The Sears Tower (or whatever it’s called now) looms in the distance like a giant, hibernating Transformer. Riot Fest rents out lockers so I don’t even need to keep my backpack with me most of the time. The lines to the port-a-potties, though on the long side, move quickly. Same for the water bottle refilling stations. People are handing out free individual packets of Pedialyte to keep everyone moving and hydrated. I am not filled with the amplified excitement that I used to get when I was younger and looking at the lineup for Warped Tour, and I’m not interested in getting myself clobbered in the mosh pit anymore, but I am perfectly content, standing in the shade to see H2O over here, dancing in the sun to The Selecter over there, buying ice cream that is way too expensive, checking the Riot Fest subreddit and meeting up with a random guy who happily gives me a pair of foam ear plugs. There are a whole lot more Latinx people here than I remember seeing in the scene in Denver, and I remember how multiracial punk is, or could be, or should be, or has been.
I see Anti-Flag, who are still singing about how dying for your government is shit after all these years, calling for a circle pit “everywhere” (please no). I randomly see a band named the Thin Lips, they were good. Wander around the merch tents, the usual collection of tie dye and Bob Marley posters and skate decks and anarchist bookstore tents. I sit under a tree and watch Hot Water Music from a distance. I have a locker that I can lock and unlock, so every now and then I take out my homework and work on it in the grass while I wait for Andrew WK or the Village People to take the stage. .
There’s old punks, with grey hairs and battered Vans. Young punks, with shellacked hair and pristine Docs. It’s like Warped Tour, but more low-key, and with more older punks. There’s a breeze, trying to clear out the humidity and the smoke from various types of stimulating leafs. The grounds crew tried to fill in the soft spots in the ground with wood chips to prevent mud pits, and it’s…slightly effectual.
The last day, Sunday afternoon/evening, is the reason why I really came to Chicago for this. Against Me!, Patti Smith, and Bikini Kill play one after the other on the same stage. Sometime over the summer, I jokingly tweeted at Laura Jane Grace that I needed her to make sure that her and Smith’s and BK’s sets didn’t overlap because I needed to see all three of them. I know that LJG doesn’t have any control over stage order at a huge fest like Riot Fest, but I got my wish, and I decide it’s because of her. I head over to the stage almost an hour early, and get as close as I can. In the manner of fests, there are two big stages next to each other and they alternate which one is in set up mode and which one has a band playing on it, so even though I’m only seeing three more bands, I’m going to be in this spot for about six hours. I have already peed and also monitored my fluid intake so I won’t have to go to the bathroom. I have clif bars in my backpack. I have a book to read. I am not front and center, but I’m close enough to see the band members’ faces, far enough away to not have to worry about the pit, and near to the big screens on either side of the stage that I can look at those if I need to (and when I take pictures on my phone, I mostly take pictures of the screen, because as dusk falls my already-crappy phone camera gets even crappier). I’m surrounded by other women, and we are all so so ready.
The bands are great. How do I describe how great they are? What are the words I can use to convey how happy I am? Laura Jane Grace laughs her way through her set and Patti Smith rules the fucking stage. Bikini Kill is still making their own clothing and digging through thrift store discount bins for stuff to wear on stage. And to see Bikini Kill, who (along with their friends and the rest of the riot grrrl community) started their own revolution, who stand for so much and who put their voices in the mouths of so many girls and queer kids, to see them play for thousands and thousand of punks, to see them close out Riot Fest, to hear Kathleen Hanna talk on stage about the same things I’ve heard her talk about in 500-capacity theater venues…that was something. That was great.
Dare you to do what you want
Dare you to be who you will
Dare you to cry right out loud
“You get so emotional, baby”
Double dare ya,
double dare ya,
double dare ya
-Bikini Kill, “Double Dare Ya”
February 2020. Some friends of mine, who I used to dogsit for until they moved to California, ask if I want to dogsit for them in California. Instead of giving me money, they’re giving me a free trip to California, and use of their car. They live outside of San Francisco, at the tail end of one of the BART lines, in what seems to be a working class neighborhood that can’t decide if it’s sliding downward or sliding upward. Hazel (the dog) and I go to a different park every day, this one a big off-leash park on the coast where she can sniff at and play with other dogs, that one a walk through some redwoods up a big hill (though never quite high enough for a big vista). The air is sunny and crisp, and I find a little park on the coast a mile from their house, where I can go running every morning and appreciate doing a cardio workout at low altitude. I carry a jacket with me but hardly ever wear it. I go see Hamilton (yes, again) in San Francisco. I know the soundtrack by heart but every time I go to see it live, there’s too much to see and it’s overwhelming and my brain forgets to remember what happened. So, I go see it whenever I’m in a city that’s not NYC with tickets that are vaguely affordable and buy a beer in the lobby that costs like $15 fucking dollars holy shit. I’ve never seen Hamilton in the city where I live–just when I’m traveling. I find Chinatown by accident while I’m trying to find the City Lights Bookstore. I think to myself, I could live here, I just need to figure out how to quadruple my income. I understand why people want to live here. The air is just fucking fantastic, and since I barely need to leave the house once a day, I don’t care about the traffic. I write. I go on walks with the dog. I sleep as late as she’ll let me in the mornings. I cook messy things in the kitchen (everything I cook is messy to some degree). I have takeout burgers and takeout Korean food and a random gyro because that’s all I can find right before Hamilton. I see the ocean. I watch classic movies like Silence of the Lambs and Swing Time, and have a long conversation with a friend about genderqueerness and -phobia and Silence of the Lambs. It’s like a staycation, but since it’s not my own house I’m not distracted by all the projects and cleaning that I’m not doing. It’s just me, and my brain, and the dog. I’ve been casting my mind back to it the last six months, those last feelings of freedom, before I knew what was coming. Appreciating the sun and the sky with no impending sense that it might be gone soon.