The 1998 John Shea film Southie, about a “South Boston Irish bad boy” who gets caught between two warring Irish Mafia clans, bore the tagline “The Toughest Neighborhood in America”.
With a tag like that, one might think that South Boston, a neighborhood whose tough past has also been put to film in Good Will Hunting, is the kind of big city hardscrabble neighborhood that we often associate with L.A.‘s Compton or New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. But reality is often different from Hollywood, and South “the toughest neighborhood in America” Boston is certainly a prime example.
South Boston is easily one of Boston’s most politicized neighborhoods, a heavily Irish, largely conservative, largely Catholic neighborhood encompassing Boston’s alphabet city; a range of streets from A through P south and east of downtown. And while the neighborhood’s guarded working-class image may still apply to the blocks closest to I-93, at around F Street there’s a significant shift to large, well-kept, often historic row houses. And as the street numbers ascend, the homes only get more lavish, to the near-palatial brownstones that perch at P Street and beyond.
But experts in urban development are likely to say that gentrification causes as many problems as it fixes, and the same is true in South Boston. An image, now over twenty-five years old, that still remains firmly implanted in the minds of Bostonians is the decision by Judge Arthur Garrity in 1975 to desegregate Boston’s public schools by instituting district-to-district busing. And in South Boston, the city’s most conservative enclave, the black students coming from across the highway in Roxbury were greeted not with open arms but with airborne rocks and bricks. The image continues to be so powerful that many suspect David E. Kelley based his FOX series “Boston Public” on South Boston High School because of its history of strife.
And Southie’s Irish old guard had an infamous run-in with the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston in 1993, when the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, who organize the area’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, refused to allow GLIB (as they were called) to march in the parade. The case caused such a stir that it made headlines far beyond Dorchester Avenue, and was ultimately decided in the Supreme Court, who said that privately sponsored parades are free to include or exclude messages as they wish. It was a victory for Southie’s old guard, but further drove a wedge between South Boston and much of the rest of the city.
There are two very distinct, very separate sides to Boston, and the two rarely meet. One is the city’s working class neighborhoods, such as the heavily Irish South Boston and Dorchester, as well as other south side neighborhoods like Mattapan, Roxbury, Roslindale, and Hyde Park. The city’s other side is defined largely by its educational institutions and cosmopolitan city center, and chic outlying neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain, Allston, or the heavily gay South End. Boston’s population of 250,000 or so college students has always had a part both in its largely progressive politics and ideals, but also in the way the city has run. But despite that most of the colleges and universities are nothing new, they’ve always been uneasy bedfellows with many of the city’s older, conservative neighborhoods.
Enter the Dropkick Murphys. They’re a rag-tag group of seven Irishmen, including Al Barr (lead vocals), Ken Casey (lead vocals, bass), Matt Kelly (drums, bodhran, vocals), James Lynch (guitar, vocals), Marc Orrell (guitar, accordion, vocals), Ryan Foltz (mandolin, tin whistle, dulcimer), and Spicy McHaggis (bagpipes, “excessive smoking and underage drinking”). And the size of the troupe isn’t the only unusual part of the lineup, as band members range in age from 18-year-old Marc Orrell to 34-year-old Al Barr.
In Boston’s political climate, it would take a certain chemistry to be able to bridge the gap between new and old or liberal and conservative, and while it may not be entirely possible, the Dropkick Murphys have come pretty close. Taking a huge cue from the Pogues, the Murphys take traditional Celtic music, run it by the old school punk of the Clash, and then update it for the modern punk scene with a huge dose of adrenaline. Think the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (another Boston band) with bagpipes instead of horns, and you’re starting to get the idea. But the end result is a sound that appeals to a lot of Boston’s die-hard Irishmen (and women) in the pubs along Broadway in South Boston much in the same way as it appeals to the party-hardy college students across the interstate.
In a recent interview with The Improper Bostonian‘s Paul Robicheau, Murphys’ bassist, vocalist, and producer Ken Casey agreed that his band’s appeal is stretching into places he didn’t expect. “What I take the most pride in with the band is to see the different faces and different ages,” says Casey, “Maybe it’s the fathers of kids who are fans of punk rock, people who taught their kids about the original versions of the traditional Irish songs we do, or people who are a little older and identify more with some of the blue-collar lyrical topics than your average 15-year-old.”
So while it’s probably true that the Murphys’ brand of punk rock plays better on the collegiate side of the highway, the appeal is considerably broad. And on the band’s third full-length studio album Sing Loud, Sing Proud!, the Murphys toss out two flat-out traditional numbers, “The Rocky Road to Dublin” and “The Wild Rover” (the latter features ex-Pogue Shane McGowan on vocals). It’s these punk rock-ified updates of the traditional Irish songs that serve as a real connection to the Irish culture that spawned the Dropkick Murphys, and help serve as a cultural bridge to an audience who might not otherwise be listening to local punk rock. And the disc’s opener, the send up “For Boston”, is from the same mold as it sports an anthemic sing-along vocal that cheers praise for the band’s hometown.
The Dropkick Murphys’ lyrical fodder is, as Ken Casey noted earlier, steeped in a blue-collar mentality. On Sing Loud, Sing Proud!, there are songs of hope, anger, and frustration, but the overall concept is—as corny as it sounds—of unity, which is fitting given their place in Boston’s political landscape. For example, in “The Fortunes of War” they sing: “Each town has its cliques / Those who don’t get along and then / There’s towns I know where certain kids just don’t belong”. And while they’re singing about the 1997 murder of Brian Deneke, a punk from Amarillo, Texas, they could just as easily be singing about the rift that exists in their own city.
Like on most of the disc’s cuts, the lyrics are a rambling narrative, something extremely rare in rock music in general, never mind punk rock. While the Dropkicks often reign it in on the choruses, tossing in either for a traditional Irish sing-along as the focal point or for a typical rock ‘n’ roll four-liner, their verses often read more like a book than lyrics. Take “Heroes From Our Past”, a send-up to veterans, immigrants, and the like. They sing: “Under perilous conditions with small hope of success / They left behind the lives that they once led, and by / Virtue of their fortitude and single-minded strength / They cleared the way for the people of today”. Whoa. It’s wordy, but they manage to pull it off through their amateurish, sudsy, sloppy spirit. And the adoration for the band’s Irish ancestors shown in this song and many of the others is one of the most distinct links between the band’s music and Irish-American culture.
Sing Loud, Sing Proud! isn’t all roses, though. “Caps and Bottles”, for example, opens with “When I was thirteen, I bought a scally cap looked up to the / Older guys who drank at the Rat couldn’t wait to grow up / Just to drink with the crew put my name on the map / And have a social few”. But it goes on to detail the narrator’s descent into alcoholism and diminished expectations. In the last verse, they sing “Received a few (lumps) but not near what I deserved some / Say this life’s my punishment, some say this life’s my just deserves”. And in a few cuts, the Dropkick Murphys openly address the city’s battling conservative and liberal factions. On “The New American Way” they sing: “The morals of this nation’s youth have long gone / Astray lead by tolerance, indifference, and this kinder / Gentler way that has corrupted and destroyed so many / Of our boys and girls oh lord I start to wonder will / It ever come around?” So there are two ways to read this: railing against “tolerance” is not likely to make the band many friends amongst Boston’s liberal population, but it taps into the frustrations of many of the aforementioned conservative residents of Southie and Dorchester. But all the same, the song is also a satire of inflexible social attitudes, and it’s in that context that the band probably intended it. But it does leave itself open to multiple interpretations.
But while straight-forward punk songs like the pumped-up (and rather catchy) “The Gauntlet” may be more for the kids than for Southie barflies, the traditional Irish numbers and the old pub spirit are not lost on the younger generation. In a town that owes so much of its heritage to Irish immigrants, Irish pubs abound, from South Boston staples like Amrheins to popular college haunts like Allston’s The Common Ground, and then to working-class townie bars like Lowell’s Old Court. And many of these bars are known mixing spots, where you’re as likely to spot a college student or young professional as you are a blue collar Irishman. And while it’s true that U2 is still the band of choice on the sound system, the Dropkicks (or at least some of the traditional Celtic music that they co-opt so frequently) are never far from the CD player at a good many of these venues.
And while the Dropkick Murphys may remain little more than a blip on the radar in cities outside of Boston, they’re veritable superstars here in their hometown. Taking cues from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ legendary “Hometown Throwdown” shows at the Middle East, the Dropkick Murphys have resurrected their own St. Patrick’s Day throwdown for 2002 after a five-year hiatus. The shows run from March 15-17 at the 2,000-plus capacity Avalon club, just around the corner from the late Rathskeller (or Rat), a legendary punk venue that closed its doors for good in 1998. And at press time, two of those three nights had already sold out, quite a feat for a nationally-known hit act, never mind for a local punk rock sensation. But the key to their success is the ability to bridge two of Boston’s audiences that rarely meet. By incorporating traditional Celtic influences, music that Ken Casey says he initially thought was his grandparents’ music, with rowdy, unpolished, politicized punk rock, they’ve managed to create a party that both sides of town are invited to. And it seems that both sides of town are planning on going, too.