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Boston's beloved ska punks Mighty Mighty BossToneS break up after 40 years

Dicky Barrett of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones performs during Riot Fest 2021 at Douglass Park on September 18, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)
Dicky Barrett of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones performs during Riot Fest 2021 at Douglass Park on September 18, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Jan. 27, a post went up on the Mighty Mighty BossToneS Facebook page, a benign, if sad, statement that read like a bittersweet, but vague, farewell:

The post, of course, left questions dangling in the air as to why, after all these decades the ska-rock band with a rabid fan base, especially in Boston but elsewhere, too, would finally pack it in. They’d taken time off before certainly (years sometime) — everyone had other gigs, most notably singer-songwriter Dicky Barrett as the announcer at “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” — but had a tradition of doing a string of Christmas shows in Boston, touring in the summer and, still, making new music. The band was slated to join their longtime pals, Dropkick Murphys, and many other groups at England’s Slam Dunk Festival in early June.

Rumors had begun to circulate. A member of the Boston rock community and a peer of the BossToneS posted something quasi-cryptic on Facebook late Thursday: “Just in: Boston band with coveted ‘Indie Rock Tenure’ breaks up because lead singer is an anti-vaxer. UPDATE: Late-night talk show host abruptly has new hype-man.”

Obviously, the talk show host was Kimmel and the ex “hype-man” was Barrett. On Jan. 11, the pro-vaccine Kimmel brought in staff writer Lou Wilson as the new announcer, without saying anything about why Barrett exited, only “Our beloved friend Dicky Barrett packed his tattoos up and moved to Arizona.” (Barrett is reportedly building a house in Sedona.) A media contact at ABC did not return a call inquiring about the reason for Barrett’s departure.

I reached out to Barrett via phone, text and email on Thursday, but got nothing back until mid-afternoon Friday, when he succinctly texted, “I’d rather not talk to anyone right now, Jim, thanks.” I had also emailed bassist-songwriter Joe Gittleman to no avail. The band’s manager, Darren Hill, responded to a query about the breakup with this email: “This is a difficult and private situation. I don’t think anyone wants to talk about it right now. I appreciate that you will respect that.”

Rolling Stone unwound the murky tale this way: The breakup announcement came on the heels of a revelation that a song that promoted Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 23 was apparently produced by Barrett — or, the magazine hedged, “at least someone with the same name” — according to the song’s credits. The song “Heart of Freedom,” supposedly written by Kennedy, drew from Graham Nash’s 1971 protest song “Chicago (We Can Change the World).”

Nash’s “We can change the world” is heard in “Heart of Freedom.” Rolling Stone wrote that Kennedy’s organization claims the lyrics were penned by Kennedy, thus erasing Nash’s authorship. Nash threatened legal action against Kennedy for the “unauthorized interpolation” of the song, used as a promotional video for the rally. His manager Mark Spector said a “cease and desist letter was in the works.”

So, do we add Barrett to the list of Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and the late Meat Loaf as anti-vaccine rockers with a public platform? Was it a rift among band members about Barrett’s status? About the viability of the band to continue? Full vaccination status of bands and crew are now necessities for playing many venues.

It is indeed a strange and disheartening ending for the Mighty Mighty BossToneS, which released 11 studio albums from 1993 to 2021, the latest being “When God Was Great.” They appeared in the 1995 film “Clueless” to perform their hit song “Where’d You Go?” They scored their biggest hit in 1997 with “The Impression That I Get,” and spearheaded a third-wave ska revival across the country. The BossToneS was a band whose upbeat ska-punk centered sound also had room for penetrating, sometimes political lyrics.

Before the BossToneS, Barrett sang in several hardcore punk bands. But when he saw the English Beat opening up for The Pretenders at the Orpheum Theater in 1980, Barrett — in a 2018 WBUR interview — told me what seeing the Beat that night did for him: “I said,  ‘What the hell is this?! Oh my god, this is the greatest!’ I just couldn’t believe it. [Singers] Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling! The music was incredible, they were saying [political] things and it so struck a chord with me. I had to have all things ska that existed, which brought me away from new wave or punk — although it was sort of part of it. This was the perfect marriage of the two for me.”

Most BossToneS’ songs are up-tempo and optimistic sounding. The lyrics can cut a little deeper, maybe adding some darkness. “I think from the very beginning, there were songs about us being pals and our love of Boston,” Barrett told me. “But there were also songs that dealt with issues that were not so bright and cheerful and feel-good — guns or violence and racism and the fact that it sucked to us. If there’s something we felt strongly about, we would comment on.”

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In song, Barrett often wrestled with questions of solidarity and separation. On the 2018 album “While We’re At It,” two tunes, "Unified" and "Divide," stressed the need for community. “So much has come from the strong bonds I’ve created with other people,” Barrett said. “In the beginning, ‘unity’ was a battle cry or an exciting concept. At this point, at least for me, it is time-tested. I’ve found it to be very useful, effective and a source of great comfort on so many levels.”

Those thoughts make Barrett’s apparent anti-vax stance even more puzzling and problematic. On the same album is a song called “After the Music Is Over.” Barrett sings, “How can it be insanity has now become the norm?/ Who knew we could just go from the good so quickly to bad form?/ To think you can blink or turn your back and then turn back around/ And everything is different inside out and upside down."

No one was named, but I made the assumption that Barrett was singing about America in the age of Trump.

“Confirmed,” Barrett said, “and how could it not be? You are a very perceptive person, but you really don’t have to be on that one.”

Related:

Jim Sullivan Twitter Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.

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