19. “Kinder Words” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (1994)

The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.

I’ve told this story many times already (notably here in 2013 and here in 2021), but it’s one of my life’s most notable inflection points, so let’s let 2021 Jon tell the story one more time:

If you were to ask me who the coolest guy on earth is, the picture my brain STILL conjures first is Dicky Barrett in 1997, and there’s not even a close second. The Bosstones were the musical guest on Saturday Night Live when Chris Farley hosted about two months before his death (October 1997). Dicky was up there with his raspy growl in his black suit, dark sunglasses, and, most notably, spiky black hair. Prepare for a cavalcade of outmoded technology here. I had taped that episode on VHS. I paused the tape to take Polaroid photos of Dicky in closeup. I then took those photos to Supercuts and asked the stylist there to make my hair look like his. It took me about 10 haircuts to finally get it right (Supercuts is awful), but this is how I wore my hair exclusively for the next decade-plus.

Gloriously, after years and years of searching, that clip has finally made its way online. Find it here and give it a watch. First of all, let’s all acknowledge how surreal it is watching an extremely fat and extremely hoarse Chris Farley bellow, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones!” Second, he looks just as fucking cool as I remember even if his voice sounds like he spent the previous 45 minutes gargling with leaded gasoline. Third, I mean, wouldn’t the obvious choice for this list be “The Impression That I Get?”

That song was fucking everywhere and I still think it’s basically a perfect song that deserves its place as probably the very first song anyone thinks of when they think about 3rd wave ska in the ‘90s. But as I’ve written this list, I suppose its alternate title could be “Jon Betters His Taste in Music by Trying to Catch Up to People He Admires.” Not as catchy, but devastatingly accurate.

I turned 16 in 1997. I was the first among my friends, which meant I got to drive us everywhere. If you remember what it’s like turning 16 and how exciting it is to drive, this was a benefit, not a burden. It also meant the Bosstones’ album Let’s Face It, released in March of that year, got heavy rotation on our lunch trips. My friend Brett, who, by virtue of hanging out with his older brother and his older brother’s friends, was way ahead of all of us on many fronts, but especially music.

He said, you know this isn’t their first album, right? Look who you’re talkin’ to, buddy. OF COURSE I didn’t know that! He popped in their previous album Question the Answers, whose CD I remember was bright fucking pink, and it starts quietly with a high pitched feedback howl followed at 5 seconds by drums popping like rhythmic popcorn as the howl gets louder. Build, build, build. Finally at 31 seconds, the riff – oh god that glorious DUNna…DUNna…DUNna – kicks in and we’re off to the races. At 54 seconds Dicky comes in with his muscular rasp and he’s spittin’. The horns, bubbling under the surface along with an organ until the pre-chorus when they barge in at 1:14 like they’re late to an argument they know they can win.

The great irony of this song is that lyrically it’s about the need to choose kindness over anger, selecting our words not hastily but carefully, and about turning the temperature down on our most angry and dramatic impulses. Yet stylistically those words might as well be delivered through the noted subtle medium of a firehose. Dicky’s overwhelming Boston-ness doesn’t help here as Bostonians are like the American version of Germans in that kinda no matter what they say, it feels confrontational. Jesus Christ, why are you standing so close to my face?

It won’t surprise you to learn that this song, like “Harmonic” by Unwritten Law before it, made its way to The Bi-Polar Show on KCSU by way of our very first show intro. We summarily ignored Dicky’s recommendation that “kinder words here we could pick, a kind approach might do the trick” and spent each episode of our show just busting the crap out of each other on air. When the mics were off, Kaycee and I were punk rock siblings illicitly drinking beer in the studio we had smuggled in using Kaycee’s giant old-timey suitcase full of CDs still in their jewel cases, turning the monitor way up, and rocking out while we laughed, told jokes, and had the fucking time of our lives. It all kicked off with “Kinder Words.” The battle was for show, our kinder words were for each other.

This will always be my favorite Bosstones song, but this list doesn’t all have to be read through rose-tinted glasses. Here are some demerits: 1) The Bosstones broke up because Dicky is an anti-vax goofball and produced a song for an anti-vax rally hosted by noted sentient protein shake (and current candidate for President of the United States) Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.; 2) The version of this song that appears on Live from The Middle Eastis nearly unlistenable thanks to some terrible mixing choices and those hideous backing vocals; and 3) The music video for this is among my least favorite of all-time because of all the ways I want to see Dicky Barrett, with a shaved head and looking like Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket on some fucking chain gang in the deep south is near the bottom. I’m not even going to link to that. Find it yourself if you must satisfy your morbid curiosity.

We’re not perfect, and neither are our idols. I just hope that in all of our interactions, more often than not, we choose kinder words.

Up next: She’s everywhere. Including here. We weren’t getting through this list without talking about her and you had to know that. So let’s do that because I got a blank space.

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