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The Boston Phoenix March 6 - 13, 1997

The Bosstones go for the big time on Let's Face It

by Gary Susman Link

Dicky Barrett was at the Grammys last week. Not as a performer; rather, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' singer was in the cheap seats. However, he says, "Afterwards I met Diana Ross. I couldn't believe it. And Elvis Costello. It's hard to come up with anything to say when you meet legends. So I said to Diana Ross, `You rule!' I think that came out pretty stupid. I ended up saying the same thing to Elvis Costello. `You rule!' I hope they didn't talk to each other and say, `Did you meet that idiot over there who told me I rule?' `Oh, he said the same thing to me!' That would be embarrassing."

Ross. Costello. Barrett. The self-depreciating Bosstones frontman may not be a legend yet, at least not outside Boston. Yet the band's record label, Mercury, joins industry observers in asserting that the veteran ska/metal/punk band may finally join their idols as a platinum-selling act with the release of their fifth LP, Let's Face It (Big Rig/Mercury).

After years of hard touring and on-the-verge status, Barrett is leery of such predictions. "We've been around so long, it's the next thing to think. Any satisfaction I've gotten from the band I obtained in the first five days after forming it. Persistence and hard work have given us anything we have. If we're crossing a finish line, if we're heading into the endzone right now, I feel like we ran it, like it wasn't some kind of fluke play. It was hard work. There's a sports metaphor for you, if anybody wants to call me a jock."

Does he call himself a jock? "If I'm in a room full of intellectuals I do. If I'm in a room full of jocks I'm an intellectual. I just like to rub people the wrong way."

Barrett knows of the Bambino-like curse that has afflicted so many Boston bands trying to make the leap to national status, only to have their label pull the rug out from under them. "That's just because there are so many bands in Boston, and so many bands get a chance. I'm making up these statistics, but for every seven bands in Boston that get a chance, there are three in Cleveland. It's not a fair system. It always comes down to the thing I hate the most about the way people view music -- that it's always got to be a competition. It's ultimately apples and onions. Or is that oranges? Oranges and onions, whatever."

To be sure, Mercury has been behind the Bosstones for four years and four releases, in addition to distributing the band's own Big Rig imprint of vinyl collectibles. Barrett sees the lack of label support many bands suffer as part of the larger problem of letting the marketplace determine an artist's worth. "All bands should get a chance, and the money that labels put in could be equally distributed and everybody gets a chance. Kind of like the way in places like Sweden they deal with arts with a grant, and everybody gets a chance to develop. Some guy might be really good at playing the flute, and some other guy's art might be shoving a melon up his ass, and they both get an equal chance. That's not a bad idea. But now I'm starting to sound like a communist."

Barrett's political outspokenness, which is apparent on Let's Face It, doesn't keep him from admitting that he could be wrong. "Politics interest me, but I would fuck it up. I would be the worst politician. I'd have all the right intentions but then find out, gee, you can't do that. I'd get some votes, though. I'd be good at that."

The Bosstones don't think of themselves as activists, though they performed at the Safe and Sound benefits in the wake of the Brookline abortion-clinic shootings, and they put the resulting album out on Big Rig. "My fear of getting involved in things is that we'd take away from the cause, or that people would accuse us of doing it for the publicity. We try to keep it low-key. It was really nice that Kay [Hanley, Letters to Cleo's singer] involved us in Safe and Sound and that we could donate our resources to that. Things that we think are important. We're not going to start recycling the whale fur anytime real soon. I'd like to make a lot of money and be able to help a lot of people."

Still, the lyrics on Let's Face It continue in the more topical direction indicated on 1994's Question the Answers. "Royal Oil" subtly warns of the dangers of drugs. The title track condemns all manner of bigotry. "Another Drinking Song" is anything but; despite the band's hard-partying reputation, the song is surprisingly ambivalent about booze. Even the single, "The Impression That I Get," begins on an unusually rueful, contemplative note: "Have you ever been close to tragedy, close to folks who have?/Have you ever felt a pain so powerful, so heavy you collapse?"

"I always thought that I was saying something in the other ones," insists Barrett. "I think people are listening to this one more. I think a lot of people assumed what was on the other records was, `Oh, don't spill the beer on my plaid suit.' There are drinking songs, but I think it's the same kind of mix I've always tried to achieve. I don't think I'm Jello Biafra or Michael Stipe. I don't think I have any of the answers. I know a lot of the questions."

Barrett's interest in politics even extends to lionizing James Michael Curley, Boston's most notorious politician, in "The Rascal King." He explains, "When you grow up in Boston or close to it, like I did, and your pops is Irish Catholic, you see three pictures. One is the pope, one is JFK, and one is James Michael Curley. I like the whole mythology of him and how it could only happen in Boston. I'm a fan of that bastard."

On the other hand, the song "1-2-8" is not as Hub-centric as the title suggests. Asked whether it's a reference to the highway encircling Boston, Barrett replies, "Oh my God! Uh, yeah! Yes, it is! It is now! I can't believe that it never crossed my mind. When I was writing it, it was eight years into the Bosstones, there's eight of us. I wanted a counting song. But Route 128 is awesome. I've spent so much time on that motherfucker. Thanks."

Can it be that the Bosstones are maturing? Muses Barrett, "You can fight growing up, and you can say, `I want to be an immature clown my whole life,' but it's tough. I tried. I don't think I'm the most adult person in the world. I'm definitely smarter than I was five years ago. But the strange thing is, I'm dumber than I was 10 years ago. Ten years ago, I thought I knew everything. Five years ago, I was sure I knew nothing. Now, I think I kind of know some things."

Is Let's Face It the sign of an evolving sophistication? "As much as any of them. It's the next step in a journey we started years ago. It would suck to be doing something for 10 years and not improve when you have the opportunity."

Indeed, Barrett smoothes out his whiskey voice and almost croons on the first few numbers. But gradually the band kick in. Nate Albert's guitar starts crunching, bassist Joe Gittleman and drummer Joe Sirois start stomping, saxists Kevin Lenear and Tim Burton and trombonist Dennis Brockenborough punch up their horns, and Barrett's gut-busting gravelly tone returns (matched on stage, no doubt, by increasingly frenetic leaping from dancing Bosstone Ben Carr). By the end of the album, the Bosstones sound like the bouncing thrashers of old.

One reason Let's Face It may sell well is that the nation's fondness for ska-influenced bands (No Doubt, Sublime, Goldfinger) has finally caught up with the Bosstones. Barrett winces, "The words `ska' and `trend' together turn my stomach because I love ska music. I want everyone to hear it. I don't want it to be considered a trend, like bellbottoms or cigar smoking. It's hard to think of your passion in the same category as everybody picking up a snowboard."

Yet in a recent Billboard interview Barrett jokingly took credit for the so-called ska trend. "Yeah," he laughs. "I am the fucking puppeteer. I am the great fucking Jim Henson. All of the ska musicians you hear are merely my Muppets. I am moving Gwen's head right now [No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani]." He also claims, "All the plaid you see anywhere is because of me," even though the Bosstones rarely wear their trademark tartans anymore.

There was certainly a lot of plaid worn by the characters in the hit film Clueless, whose Bosstones cameo also helped the band gain wider exposure without hurting their credibility in the clubs. "Clueless wasn't bad," shrugs Barrett. "These things are always potential killers. You make one stupid movie and you end up like Otis Day, where you're forever that, or just lame. Although Clueless didn't really appeal to me, a lot of people liked it, and we didn't come off as too stupid. I did my best during my Clueless scene to show complete indifference. It was obvious that it was spoiled Hollywood extras standing in front of us. We tried to make it look like they were coming to our show, not like we were there to entertain them, which is tricky. I dread feeling used. There but for the grace of Amy Heckerling go I."

Now that platinum success finally seems within his grasp, to what does Barrett attribute the Bosstones' longevity? "The lack of anything better to do? Afraid to join the real world? I don't know. Great friends. We love being around each other. We have fun doing it. It always seems to continue to escalate."