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.

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.