Mighty Mighty Bosstones: A Jackknife to a Swan
It snowed several inches last night, and it’s like one degree outside today, and my car’s power steering is broken, so I’m stuck in my house and thought that I’d return—long overdue—to my listening series of the Mighty mighty Bosstones’ discography. Up today (and hopefully my laptop’s battery lasts as long as the album does) is A Jackknife to a Song, put out after Pay Attention, after the Bosstones got dropped from their longtime label Mercury (which had turned into Island Records), and was instead put out by Side One Dummy Records.
I remember being nervous before this album got put out. This was still before I had any kind of regular access to high speed internet, and I’ve never really listened to much radio, so I hadn’t heard any songs (maybe one) off this album before it came out. It was the first album with Lawrence Katz on guitar instead of Nate Albert (Katz had been touring with them for a couple of years at this point, but Albert co-wrote the songs on Pay Attention and performed guitars on the album), and I was really nervous about how the sound would change. The Bosstones have gone through relatively few lineup changes since 1987, and me and pretty much every fan I was in touch with knew that the loss of Nate shook the band down to its foundations. (Literally. Nate is one of their founders.)
But I love this album. I think it sounds better and fresher and more energetic than Pay Attention, which I have always associated with the rumors of the band’s exhaustion and stress and Nate leaving. It stakes Lawrence’s territory as a songwriter, guitarist, and member of the band in his own right. It’s got the songs about people that Dicky writes that I love so much (this one being “Mr Moran,” about Sammy Gravano, which actually inspired me to go out and find a biography about the guy), random moments in Boston history (“Jackknife to a Swan”). This is also the album where Chris Rhodes replaced Dennis Brockenborough on trombone and backing vocals, and you can hear him and his energy back there. This album just plain sounds fun, (and I can attest to it being hella fun to hear just about any of these songs live).
Writing the above paragraphs took me through the first two songs, and now I’m up to “You Gotta Go,” which got me through a couple of collegiate run ins with terrible roommates and roommates’ boyfriends. Motherfuckers who ate my food and played with my keyboards and threw my shoes down the stairs and refused to flush the toilet because it wastes water and deadbeat boyfriends of roommates. I’m so glad to not have to live with any of those people anymore, and hearing Chris Rhodes yell “So pack your bags, cuz THERE’S THE DOOR!” was always cathartic.
“Everybody’s Better,” a slow ska song, is reassuring to me in the best way. This sounds dumb and silly, but it makes me feel like I’m sitting in an inner tube in a nice warm ocean being sloshed back and forth (yes I know oceans don’t slosh. Shut up.) It’s one of those songs that makes me feel okay about myself, like I’m safe with myself. I feel okay about being one tiny person in a world of 7 billion. Everybody’s better than I am, I think, everybody’s better than me. But I matter, as a matter of fact. And there’s this lovely chunky guitar, and the saxophone drifting in towards the end. You know, to be king you don’t need a castle.
“Sugar Free.” I’m gonna be honest that I don’t super understand what “Sugar Free” is supposed to be about. And it’s one of those songs that (as far as I know) Dicky has declined to explain. But there’s this great spinning sort of guitar part, and the horns coming in and weaving around it.
“I looked up to the Citgo sign, you used to be a friend of mine.” The Citgo sign, mentioned here in “I Want My City Back,” is also important to the 737 because we can see it from the Buckminster Hotel, where a huge chunk of the group stays every year because it’s walking distance to the House of Blues, where Throwdown is every year. I love this song because it’s so much about Boston, but also in the past 5 years Denver (where I’ve lived for 30 years) has changed to the point that parts of it are unrecognizable, and not in a good way. I can’t afford to live in my own city anymore, and neither can a whole bunch of other people. There’s a sadness you feel just looking around, this was once our sacred ground, but now it belongs to hipsters and artisan hot dog shops.
If I can get super symbolic for a moment, this song could also be…well, my experience with the Bosstones is the exact opposite of this song’s experience of Boston, or my current experience in Denver. “How should I feel when the place where I first learned I could feel/Is no longer where I left it when I left it not so long ago/How should I feel?…/How should I feel…?/ I don’t know.” The Bosstones, Bosstones’ shows, punk shows, ska shows…those are the places where I learned to feel. Where I learned how to transition my kid-level feelings and teenage-level confusion into adult-level perceptions and emotions. And I’m so, so lucky that they’ve been there for me all that time. I’m lucky that they share themselves to the extent that they do. I’m lucky that they’re the guys that they are, and that I’ve gotten to know them even tangentially. I’m lucky that I haven’t had to change my opinion on them or leave them behind. They’re the same to me as they’ve been since I was 15, even as they’ve grown and I’ve grown and time has passed. I’m so lucky to have found this band. Someday, I will wish for my band to come back. But not today, today I still have them, so I’m grateful for them.
Have I written before about how many landmarks and streets I know in Boston just because they’re mentioned in songs by the Bosstones and the Dropkick Murphys and the Street Dogs and other Boston bands? It’s a little bit funny. When I visited for the first time, it felt like I knew the city, even though of course I didn’t.
“Chasing the Sun Away” is another slow-ish, sweet ska song, with nice fat horns. It’s a break up song, a grief song, a song about the disparity between how you feel on the day after and what the world is actually. Why doesn’t it rain buckets when you’re sad? Why is that such a universal cognitive dissonance for people to express? Why do we all instinctively understand what it means that there’s a cloud always following Eeyore around?
This is also one of those songs that, if you played it next to just about any song from the band’s first five years, you wouldn’t believe that it’s the same band. It’s so different. And not just stylistically, but the way Dicky writes, the way they approach recording, the layering and…arrangement, I guess, is the word? They’re so much sophisticated than they used to be. Which is understandable, because they’re 30 years older than they were, but not all bands evolve to the scope that the Bosstones have.
“You Can’t Win,” I’ve always thought might be about the Bosstones’ experience on a major label (or maybe just the last couple years), but really, it could be about any experience trying to deal with a big monolithic corporate entity that you have no power against. It could be about the companies that caused the 2008 collapse, and their collusion with the government. It could be about citizens and the government generally. It’s about not having power. It’s about knowing that you don’t have power. They might let you in, but they’ll never let you win.
“Old School Off The Bright” is one of my favorite Bosstones songs. Of all time. It makes me think of Throwdown every time I hear it. Of being on the rail. Of dancing as best you can even when you’re in a crush of people. Of flashing lights and soapy snowflake machines. It’s got the fast, ever-rhyming lyrics of Dicky’s that I love so much. I love the drums and how they trade places with the horns. I love how it brings in everyone. It makes me actually want to party, and I hate going to parties. It cheers me up when I’m down. It makes me dance no matter where I am. This might be a perfect Bosstones/Throwdown song. Get the crew together, it’s the old school off the bright.
“The Punch Line” sort of thematically reminds me of “Everybody’s Better” (which in my head somehow always gets pronounced “Everybody’s Butter” because my brain apparently likes stupid and meaningless puns that are not even puns really) about not being a bully. About knowing the consequences of your actions. Of choosing right, right over wrong. Do what you know is right, don’t wait for someone to tell you what’s right.
“Go Big,” this was one of my early favorites on this album, though I don’t think of it as such anymore, not because I dislike it at all, but I think just because they don’t play it live very much so I don’t get the “yay! live music! throwdown!” high off of it that I get from songs like “Everybody’s Better” and “Old School Off the Bright.” But it contains the line “Put on your big boy pants,” which I tell myself sometimes when I’m trying to make myself do something. Also, random trumpet.
I love “Shit Outta Luck” because it’s about…traffic? Being stuck in traffic? Who writes a song about being stuck in traffic? Joe Gittleman apparently instead of Dicky. You can hear it a little (“tear it down to the ground” is something I associate with Joe), but it also contains the amazing line “a major road rager with a bone to pick” and the lovely line “it’s more fun when you don’t give a fuck,” which is something to think about when doing anything creative. Also, turns out, not the only song the Bosstones have recorded about traffic (the major other one being “Illegal Left,” about Dicky arguing with a cop about a ticket that wasn’t even being given to him). When you’re from Boston, I guess you spend a lot of time thinking about songs in cars.
“Seven Ways to Sunday” is weird, at least contextually speaking, because it’s an acoustic bluesy song, and the Bosstones are…neither of those things, even while everyone who listens to them knows that expecting the Bosstones to stay in whatever stylistic box you put them in is a fool’s errand. There’s also a lady doing guest vocals in the background, and I wish I could sing like her, but I cannot. Also a harmonica. Also no horns. I wonder if they’ve ever played this live. Steve could tell me. It also in keeping with a recent (like, since Pay Attention) tendency for them to put oddball songs at the end of their albums–“The Day He Didn’t Die” winds down Pay Attention, “Favorite Records” winds down Medium Rare.
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