|Back In Plaid....|
I guess it’s appropriate, after what happened last week, that my randomizer comes up with a track from one of my favorite Boston bands playing one of their bigger hits at a legendary show. And it’s a track about one of the most notorious Boston politicians who ever lived, an example of the sort of graceful-but-tough-as-hell sensibilities we all saw on display during that horrific experience.
Let’s Face It, the album where ‘The Rascal King’ first appeared, was as big as the Bosstones would ever get. Partially bouyed by one of those periodic surges of interest in ska music that hits the cultural zeitgiest every decade or so and bolstered by the eminently hummable lead single ‘The Impression That I Get,’ the album gave the band extensive exposure on alternative rock, AOR and--to my surprise at the time--Top 40. This was just as the creep of the dance sludge that passes for Top 40 was gaining a foothold, so Dickey Barrett and his crew hit at the very last moment where pop music was open to alternative styles, and they exploited it like their life depended on it. The success of Let’s Face It prompted the Bosstones to release a video compilation, appear on Saturday Night Live and--God Help Me--the prime-time Sesame Street special Elmopalooza, where they danced with the Count.
Yes. I watched a Sesame Street television special. Deal with it.
This comes from the excellent album Live From The Middle East, a recording of their annual year-end Boston concert-cum-holiday party. The album as a whole gives you a great sense of the energy and enthusiasm that the Bosstones brought to their performances, and it’s a great little artifact of how the band was at the height of its power. It’s also a snapshot of the classic line-up before the group fractured, as slowly over the next three years members left to form other bands or, in one case, to obtain their degree from Brown University.
Apparently, the song is about James Michael Curley, a notoriously corrupt but notoriously popular Boston politician who served as mayor four times (he was once re-elected mayor while serving a prison term!) and ultimately became Governor of Massachusetts. The song is peppered with oblique and direct references to Curley’s life; Hell, the chorus begins by citing both the title of his autobiography and the Edwin O’Conner novel that was inspired by his colorful career. Curley’s impact on Boston life is still clear to this day, and the Bosstones manage to address how ambivalent his former constituents are about him. The song, after all, never comes out on one side or another about whether Curley was a crook or a hero...as Barrett puts it, ‘in the end they knew his name,’ and that might be all that matters. I wonder if a parallel could be made between Curley’s tightrope walking between rogue and saint, and the way the Bosstones briefly did the same thing, striving towards popularity while trying to stay faithful to their ska-core roots.
After a break in the mid Oughts, the Bosstones are back on tour--and you can see Dickey Barrett every night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where he plays Ed MacMahon to Jimmy’s Johnny Carson.
Here’s the video, which features footage from the film based on that Edwin O'Conner novel, The Last Hurrah.
And because I feel like it, here's Dickey dancing with the Count...