The Boss Hoss of Skacore

Mighty Mighty Bosstones vocalist Dicky Barrett has just one thing to say to all those music critics who once wrote off his Boston-based ska-punk band as a novelty act destined for obscurity: "Thank you."

"Seriously. I always felt it was a good thing when we got that kind of response from critics," Barrett confesses during a phone interview from New York City, his words offered in the gravelly Beantown brogue that has become his trademark. "Look, we were never making music for those guys to take seriously. We were making music for our fans, stuff that they could have fun listening to."

That's a remarkably healthy perspective, but then again recent events have made forgiveness easy for Barrett. The Bosstones are undeniably on a roll: In the past two years the group has signed a major-label deal with Mercury Records, launched their own label, Big Rig Records, been featured in the hit film Clueless, hosted MTV's 120 Minutes, and snagged the coveted opening slot on last year's Lollapalooza tour. Pretty impressive for a bunch of guys who, five years ago, were best known as the goofy, plaid-clad stars of a Converse sneaker commercial.

In fact the Bosstones were anything but an overnight success. "No one was really interested when we made our first album," Barrett recalls with a hearty laugh. "We thought it was the biggest deal in the world, you know, actually releasing a disc. But for all practical purposes, we were living the same lifestyle as before A just constant touring and trying to build up a following that way." Part of the band's problem, Barrett reflects, was that the Bosstones weren't playing music that fit into any prefab category: "We were into this totally new thing, skacore, so nobody knew what to do with us except our fans."

Ska has its roots in Jamaica, where in the early Sixties it was the rhythmic precursor to reggae, with its upstroked guitar riffs and rapid syncopation accented by flourishes of skittering saxophone and wailing trombone lifted from the Fifties R&B records that filtered down to Jamaica from New Orleans. Most of reggae's acknowledged rulers -- including Toots Hibbert, Lee Perry, and Bob Marley, as well as producers Leslie Kong and Clancy Eccles -- emerged from the ska movement. A hopped-up version of the music surfaced during the late Seventies via such racially mixed British acts as the Specials, the Selecter, and the English Beat. But while these groups borrowed from both pop and accessible punk, the new generation of ska bands A most of them based in the U.S. A has embraced hardcore punk's breakneck beats and angry, politically charged lyrics.

Since forming in 1990, the Bosstones have been recognized as the undisputed pioneers of the skacore movement, and their success has paralleled the music's swelling popularity. Younger skacore bands such as Springheel Jack, Dance Hall Crashers, and the Stubborn All-Stars have used the Bosstones' oeuvre (which includes five full-length albums) as their own inspirational springboard. Most fans, however, have come to know the band through its heated live performances -- chaotic affairs at which rude boys, alternateens, jocks, skinheads, and assorted skankers somehow manage to coexist. "The beauty of our shows," Barrett observes, "is that all these different worlds collide, yet no one gets hurt. When you come to see the Bosstones, nobody's gonna hit you with, 'Hey, you don't look right.'"

The band's emphasis on tolerance, combined with a biracial composition, makes it something of an anomaly in its hometown of Boston, where blacks and Irish have a long and lamentable history of rancor. The Boston-based Anti-Racists Action Group, a nonprofit organization established to stem the tide of hate groups, sets up a booth up at all Bosstones shows. Along similar lines, the band released Safe and Sound: -- Benefit for Boston's Women -- a compilation of songs by that city's rockers, including Morphine, Letters to Cleo, and the Bosstones themselves -- on its Big Rig label. Proceeds from sales will benefit a Boston group established to safeguard women's health clinics from violent anti-abortionists.

This socially conscious outlook, along with a reputation as on-stage madmen, helped the Bosstones land a Lollapalooza spot. "A picnic of a summer" is how Barrett describes the annual blowout. "Especially compared to the standard Bosstones tour, which is pure craziness. For Lollapalooza we'd play one 45-minute set in the middle of the afternoon and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. There were these big dressing rooms, and they'd get us anything we needed. Plus we got to hang out with all these cool bands -- Beck and Jesus Lizard and the guys from Pavement." (Gentleman that he is, Barrett withholds any direct comment on Hole singer/songwriter Courtney Love -- Lollapalooza's crowned tantrum queen -- other than to note that they did not spend much "quality time" backstage.)

"Because we had all that time to write music," Barrett continues, "we've got like twenty new songs for the next album and three of them are actually good. So we've decided to try something new for this record: We're going to take our time and do it right." As might be expected, the Bosstones' creative process is something of a loose science. Guitarist Nate Albert and bassist Joe Gittleman are the primary songwriters. "They write the tunes, but the way the music comes out totally depends on what sounds good to us when we play," Barrett notes. "We can play a particular tune soft or hard, and within that song we may decide to rock one part or play it more ska. That's the magic, if you want to say there's any magic in our music."

On the group's most recent release, Question the Answers, the fare runs from spastic power pop ("Pictures to Prove It") to grinding speedcore ("Toxic Toast"). Barrett is the designated wordsmith. "I'm constantly writing what I consider to be poetry," he says. "Which means I have all these notebooks full of really twisted shit. I should really be writing children's books, because I tend to over-rhyme and I oversimplify all these weighty issues to the point that I feel like they can mean something to a guy in a barroom."

A prime example of which is "We Should Talk," a trenchant ripper from Question the Answers that is dedicated to daytime talk shows. In it, Barrett growls: "Up on stage all in a row/At each others' throats all through the show/The mood is tense, the tension's thicker/We watch, they fight, just who here's sicker?/We're not so bad, I guess, after all/Their problems make ours seem so small."

"At the time I was writing that song I was so involved in those talk shows that I guess it's kind of confessional," Barrett admits. "But when they gave [former Partridge Family bassist] Danny Bonaduce his own show, I realized it was time to move on."

The band's next album, tentatively scheduled for a spring release, will offer the same topical mix as their previous offerings. "We're still in our search to find out exactly what it is we're trying to invent," Barrett states, "so we tend to consider new records as further entries in the ska-punk journal we've been writing since [1990's] Devil's Night Out. But if you like ska and you like hardcore, you'll like the new album just fine."

Barrett says the Bosstones are pleased to be back on the road and performing in the usual intimate clubs rather than in Lollapalooza's outdoor mega-sheds and amphitheaters. "Much as we enjoyed Lollapalooza, and as much as our own shows are a drag to organize, [club shows are] really what we love. When we can bring a bunch of totally different people together and just lose it collectively, we're in our element."

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones perform tonight, Thursday, February 22, with opening band Dance Hall Crashers at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 525-9333. Showtime is 7:00 p.m. Admission is $10.


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