Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Talkin' and smokin' with Matt again.
By Matt Ashare
DECEMBER 22, 1997: Whether he's on stage barking out the lyrics to "The Impression That I Get," or out in the crowd before or after a show signing autographs for rabid fans, Dicky Barrett is always in the eye of the ska-punk storm generated by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. And in 1997, the Bosstones generated quite a storm: the Tibetan Freedom Concert, the Warped Tour, the MTV Music Video Awards, Saturday Night Live -- those are just some of the high-profile places the big little band from Boston were seen seeding the music-business clouds for their big mainstream breakthrough.
As always, the Bosstones brought a little piece of Boston with them wherever they went -- most notably on their most recent US tour, on which they were joined by three local opening acts, the Dropkick Murphys, Bim Skala Bim, and the Amazing Royal Crowns. And then, having played more than 300 shows this year, the Bosstones came home to celebrate, with their fourth annual "Hometown Throwdown," a five-shows-in-five-days marathon from December 10 through 14 downstairs at the Middle East in Central Square. Before they hit the road again, the Bosstones will host one more area blowout: a big New Year's Eve party at the Worcester Centrum.
We caught up with rascal king Dicky Barrett last Friday afternoon, midway through the sold-out "Throwdown," and asked him to reflect on the Bosstones' year in music, the band's 10-year career as one of the hardest-working bands in Boston, the current ska revival they've helped spearhead, and the success of Let's Face It. Though his bullfrog voice was a little rough around the edges from the wear and tear of the past 12 months, Barrett's thoughts on such issues as the controversies surrounding Patriots' stage-diving and Mayor Tom Menino's proposal to ban 18-plus shows came through loud and clear, as did his pride in Boston and his band. It's been a mighty, mighty year for the Bosstones. Here's to another in '98.
Matt Ashare: Right. Last time we did this was at the Rat.
Dicky Barrett: Ah, please, don't make me cry.
MA: I know. Isn't it sad that the Rat's closed?
DB: It's very sad, very, very sad.
MA: When I heard that the Rat was closing, I thought there was a half a chance I was gonna hear that the Bosstones had bought the place and were going to reopen it.
DB: I don't think they can. I think we'd be bidding against Boston or BU. But if I ever buy an old club in this town, I'll name it the Ratskellar. There's my promise. You got it down on the record. So much has happened, Matt, since we've talked.
MA: I know. It's been a big year for you guys. I spoke to you guys before the Let's Face It came out. I know you've been busy as hell this year, but have you had a chance to sit back and reflect on what's happened with the Bosstones?
DB: We've been busy every year, you know, and I think that's why we got to be real busy this year. It was the result of being so busy in the years leading up this. And I'm still in the middle of it. Not, you know, the middle of the year, but the middle of this wave of popularity.
MA: You were prepared for this, weren't you?
DB: I think that goes along with what we've talked about in the past, about the Bosstones having been a band for so long. I mean, we knew exactly how to be a band, which made it easy when it came time to be a more popular band. A lot easier than it is for most bands. A lot of bands haven't been to school, the way we went to school for so many years. And I'm not casting any aspersions on any of those other bands; I'm simply saying that it is probably easier for us right now than for a band like Smashmouth because they have to learn what it's like to be on the road, learn what it's like to show up in clubs and have the club not give a fuck about you. We know how to deal with that stuff. We've been through it. So, we don't have those added burdens of other bands that are overnight successes.
MA: Well, you guys sort of grew up in public but on a gradual scale . . .
DB: It's a nice slow steady pace which means at the end of it, you know, I'll have more to look back on than just two years of success -- I'll have filled a good 10 or 15 years with fun.
MA: So what were the year's highlights?
DB: I really enjoyed the Warped Tour a lot. The Tibetan Freedom Festival was fun. Saturday Night Live was a good time. We just finished a video with the Count from Sesame Street. They're celebrating Sesame Street's 30th Birthday, so we did a little music video with the Count, which is going to air, I think, in February as part of an ABC special. We did "The ZigZag Dance," which was a very obscure Sesame Street track. And, the Count sings along and he's in the video. It's a very Bosstones' style kinda thing.
MA: Was the Count dressed in black?
DB: The count was dressed in velvet, as was I. It was a little embarrassing for me at first, but the Count put me at ease, and said, "No, problem. We vill both vear velvet."
MA: On to another subject. So you're up for another Boston Music Award for Best Male Vocalist.
DB: People seem to like me. They voted for me last year, and I'm in the running again this year and I think I -- you know, I mean, I can't sing, I can't sing. Maybe I can sing. I think I deliver the Bosstones' lyrics the way they should be delivered and it's either bragging or I'm being self-deprecating. I think we're getting more comfortable with it -- 15 years and the kid's finally getting comfortable.
MA: That's part of what you said about growing up together as a band -- everybody finds the right place for what they do well.
DB: We know where we sit, where we live, which Bosstone we are.
MA: Do you guys all have sort of different roles offstage as well as on?
DB: Pretty much. I think there's some guys more concerned with what takes place financially -- which is important and not a slag. I mean money is being generated by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and I'm glad that there are people with better brains for figures than me, and the trust level that exists in the band is like nowhere else. I trust my Mom, then the Bosstones. And, it's nice. We are a family. We are very much a family.
MA: What's your role? Are you basically the spokesperson? It seems that way.
DB: I'm the kindly, often hokey, somewhat asinine uncle.
MA: You treat your fans really well, at least from what I've seen. I remember when the Bosstones played a Phoenix/FNX Anniversary or Best Music Poll show at the Orpheum a few years back, and during your set you grabbed some kids, brought them out into the lobby, and gave them Bosstones T-shirts from the merchandise stand. Do you remember that?
DB: Sounds like something I would do. I've actually run outside of a club during a set. I remember in Texas on the tour we did with Drop Kick Murphys, Bim Skala Bim, and Amazing Royal Crowns this year -- which is something I'm proud of, just being able to achieve the kind of success we have and then to bring some Boston bands on the road with us. We grabbed three of the best bands that exist in Boston right now and headed out. Anyway, I think we were in Texas, and I saw some kid getting thrown out by some bouncers. The venue was a kind of entertainment-complex thing, which probably is better suited to big disco parties and stuff, and the bouncer didn't know what he was doin' and thought this kid had to go. He took the kid out the backstage door, and I went after him. It was quite a distance I had to go, but I finally caught him outside while the other guys were breaking down the song for me, and I could still hear them kinda going, "All right, we'll we're going to wait for Dicky on this one." And, the kid and the bouncer were stunned. The kid was like, "All right, I'm getting thrown out." And, I was like, "Come on, dude." And, the kid's like, "What are you doing here? You gotta a song to do."
MA: So you grabbed the kid and brought him back in?
DB: Headed back in, yeah, sure.
MA: Any other highlights from the year?
DB: Well, I met Diana Ross at the Grammys last year. The president of our label insisted that I meet her. I didn't even know what to say, and I'd just met Elvis Costello, and I was blown away by that. When I met Elvis, the only think I could really think of to say was, "You're awesome." That's the only thing that came out of my mouth. He was like, "Thank you very much, and it's nice to meet you, and good luck with your band." And I said, "You're awesome." So I wasn't going to let that happen again, and I'm on my way to meet Diana Ross. I get over to her and the guy goes, "This is Dicky Barrett. He's in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and he's interested in meeting you." And, she goes, "That's lovely. How are you?" And, then I go, "You're awesome." In the presence of such musical greatness I became a nitwit again.
MA: Any bands you were happy to get a chance to play with this year?
DB: We played with Green Day two days ago, and that was exciting. They're a great band. They wrote a lot of great songs. We actually had to go on after them in San Jose, which is really close to San Francisco and Berkeley and all that stuff. We'd need about nine or 10 more songs like "Impression That I Get" to rival what Green Day were doing. Because I honestly don't own any Green Day albums but I knew every single song. You know, I mean, every one was some sort of hit. And they were great guys, you know, and they showed us so much respect and they were like, "We've loved you guys for years, and congratulations," and we hung out all day. Nice afternoon. Nice day. That was exciting. Stuff goes on all the time now, and I'm not jaded from it. I'm still very wide-eyed and excited to be part of it. The Tibetan Freedom Fest? To be invited to something like that is amazing. I mean Eddie Vedder went on before us. Maybe I should be more punk rock and not so corny. But I can't be. I don't have it in me.
MA: I noticed that you wrote the liner notes for the Madness greatest hits album.
DB: Unbelievable. There you go. I mean, I love Madness, and it says it all in those liner notes. They were so much larger than life, so important to me when I was 18. And for them to say, this guy in the Bosstones is a big fan and his band is very decent, so let's ask him to write the liner notes. I couldn't believe it.
MA: What do you think about bands like the Specials and Skatellites coming out with new albums?
DB: I love the Specials. I think the Specials have an unbelievable live show. Specials and More Specials were very important records to me.
MA: Earlier this year when we spoke, you said something to the effect of "If you put too much brain work into the Bosstones, you run the risk of ruining the simple things that work." I know we were talking about making a Bosstones album when you said that, but I wondering, don't you think the Bosstones have been pretty smart in terms of your career?
DB: I don't think it's intentional, you know. Like we didn't decide "Let's be smart." But I think we're smart guys. We're not your stereotypical dumb musicians. And stereotypes are stereotypes anyway -- I don't really believe in them. I think that we come from families that showed us the better things in life. I wasn't privileged, but my mother had a real sense of culture and history. A lot of the Boston pride that I have came from my mother. Although we lived 30 miles into the suburbs, in Norwood, any chance we got, me and my mom would head into the city together. So my point is I don't think that we could be anything else but a little bit smarter than, you know, guys that just like noise in their heads. And, I'm sure that sounds pompous, but I can't really at this stage of the game, you know, be smashing beer bottles over my head. And I can't be doing things like, "For my next number I'm going to drink this bottle of whiskey and call it a song." I used to be very good at that -- nobody put away a decent bottle of whiskey the way I did.
MA: Another thing you said earlier this year when we were talking about Let's Face It is that "You can't record a 16-year-old kid jumping on stage, tripping over a monitor, and then diving off into the crowd."
DB: Yes. I don't really believe that you can make a great Bosstones live album. Because I think that to truly experience the Bosstones live, it requires all five senses.
MA: But at the same time, I think that playing venues as big as the Centrum you're bound to lose that intimacy of having a 16-year-old kid jump up on stage, trip over the monitor . . .
DB: We'll see.
MA: Well, you've played large arenas before. . . . On the same subject, you've probably heard all this crap about what's going on about the show at the Paradise where a couple of Patriots were stage diving . . .
DB: If you want to talk about the Patriots, I think that was an insanely irresponsible thing for them to do. It's just as dumb as me going to the Patriots game thinking I'm going get into a play. I think that they didn't know what they were doing. They were gone on booze. It was a 300-pound guy, maybe more -- I don't really know the story. I was out of town and I've talked to Art from Everclear, and I do know that Everclear are really bummed out about what happened. I certainly think the Patriots had more things to worry about than getting their stage-diving swerve on it at an Everclear show. We don't put up with that kind of stuff. Look. The shows are packed, people are having fun, but we insist on them respecting one another. I don't know if you saw our Great Woods show where people tore up the lawn. Now, I don't care about grass: it's a stupid idea that they have it there. But that somebody enjoying a Coca-Cola over on the side stood the chance of getting pelted into oblivion with a large piece of dirt was someting that bothered me. I don't want someone getting brain-damage from a sod chunk at one of our shows.
MA: How do you prevent something like that from happening?
DB: You say, "I'm sorry, you can't come on stage." Grab the guy by the back of his shirt. You tell him, please don't jump on these people. If you watch the way people jump and catch at our shows, it works. And if it's not working, I re-illustrate it. There's a window of opportunity that someone could get hurt. I feel that my job is to make that window as small as possible.
MA: Let me ask you about another thing that's come up locally: Mayor Menino has proposed getting rid of 18-plus shows.
DB: I don't like the idea. I think it's just ignorant. It's a quick, knee-jerk reaction, and it's something that won't hurt him politically really. But he hasn't investigated what goes on at the shows. It's just a whim on his part, and I think he's an okay man. But I think that's silly. How about getting in there and seeing how these shows are run and improving them and eliminating the chance for, you know, 18-year-olds drinking. Eighteen-year-old people drink all over the world, and they're fairly responsible. When it's not so damn taboo, then you don't end up with these problems. I know that's not Menino's job, but I think it's part of what this culture has done to booze and what we've done to the young people in our country. But if he's gonna run his mouth about rock and roll and 18-plus shows, then he's going to have to make it his job. Hey, why not just take everything away from the 18-year-olds -- make them stay home, specially since at home there's probably quite a bit of drinking going on.
I don't know. I had one really good thing when I was an 18-year-old. I didn't jibe in school. I wasn't an athlete. I wasn't a scholar. I had a love for rock and roll music, and there were places I could go. There was the Boston hardcore scene. I could go into town, and I wasn't drinking at those shows because that wasn't done. When I drank, it was with the sports team and the scholars in my high school, in the woods in Norwood. Rock and roll gave me something else to do, and that made a difference.
MA: One last question -- and this comes from something that Bosstones bassist Joe Gittleman said to me earlier this year-- he said, "If we reach the next level, then I hope it's as fun as the one we're on."
DB: It is? Yeah. It's at least as fun. But you know, as the levels go, they keep getting funner. If they didn't, then me or Joe would just say, "Hey, this isn't too much fun buddy. Let's try something else." But it's fun, man. It really is.
[This interview was conducted on December 12, at 3 p.m., upstairs at the Middle East, in Cambridge.]
Matt Ashare can be reached at email@example.com.
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