Growing up in an Irish Catholic home in Boston, there was little way Mighty Mighty Bosstone singer Dicky Barrett could ignore the infamous 1940s Boston mayor James Michael Curley.
So, he wrote a hit song about him. Now there's absolutely no way he can put him out of his mind.
"If you grew up Irish Catholic, like I did, in Boston, there was always
three pictures hanging up in your father's den: the Pope, JFK and James
Michael Curley," the 30-year-old Barrett said. Photos of Curley also adorned countless Boston pubs, and it was his stature there that inspired the song's chorus ("The Rascal King behind the bars/ Or the one in front of them") -- along with the prison bars with which Curley was also familiar.
Leave it to the activist-minded ska entertainers in the Bosstones to bring you an upbeat tune about a Boston civics lesson. In years past, the band has lent its support to the Anti-Racist Action Group and sponsored the Safe and Sound album to raise money and awareness for women's healthcare.
Now comes their latest single, "Rascal King," inspired by the legend of Mayor Curley.
"He was really good for the people," said Barrett, a Curley-phile who
managed to squeeze the titles of three Curley-based tomes into his song's
chorus (Rascal King, The Last Hurrah and I'd Do It
Again). "He wasn't exactly honest. He's part of the rich, Boston
political landscape that we have here. All of his crooked politicking was
for the poor people. He was actually elected while spending time in jail
for tax evasion, I believe. He was in jail and in office at the same time... Only in Boston."
And while he said Curley's story is one for the history books, Barrett didn't expect the song based on him to be "so damn catchy." However, the success of the Bosstones' other recent single, "The Impression That I Get," must have been more predictable.
After several months on the air, that song, which showcases the band's rock leanings as much as their ska heritage, continues to sit just two notches below "The Rascal King" in the top 20 of Billboard's modern rock chart.
Looking at the Bosstones' history, it's hard to imagine Barrett's claim in
"Impression" that "I've just never been tested" in a musical context.
Indeed 12 years ago, the band was just another group among thousands in
America. Adding to their potential for self-destruction in the midst of
struggling through recording and relentless touring was the fact that the
Bosstones were not a small little combo of a few friends, but a collection
of eight members. Moreover, the band plays a style of music that, despite
a loyal cult following, had never caught on with the general public.
And yet, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones have more than persevered. They've
made five albums, won over audiences on the talent-rich 1995 Lollapalooza summer tour, and started their own label, Big Rig. The Bosstones are arguably the most responsible of any single group for making ska music as popular as it
is in America today.
While Barrett is proud of his band's success, he also accepts it with a
grain of salt. "In the grand scheme of things, in the overall picture of
history, it's not that important. It's nice to live in a time when I'm
proving myself by music. It's not do or die. If no one ever heard the
Bosstones, I'd have kinda been bummed out but it wouldn't have made a
difference. It's a needle in the haystack or a bucket of piss in the ocean.
"It's nice that, because of the work and what other generations have gone
through, I can sit around and write songs, I can sit and spend the day
talking and doing interviews," Barrett continued.
But even though his own trials may not be as foreboding as his
predecessors', Barrett appreciates his band's ability to help those coming
after them. The Bosstones, long regarded as a premier live act, are about
to head out on the road again for two months. "We're calling it 'Boston On the Road,'" said Barrett. "It's us; Bim Ska La Bim, a ska band from Boston; the Amazing Royal Crowns, which is a rockabilly band from this area; and the Dropkick Murphy's, which are a new Hellcat (Records) band from Boston.
"We're taking our city out, and helping out some of the younger bands
around here," said Barrett, sounding, ironically, like the older kid in the
neighborhood himself. [Tues., Sept. 2, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]