On Thursday, January 27, a post was posted on the Mighty Mighty BossToneS Facebook page, a benign, yet sad statement that reads like a bittersweet but vague farewell:
The post, of course, left questions hanging in the air as to why, after all these decades, the ska-rock band with a rabid fan base, especially in Boston but elsewhere, would finally make it. They had taken their time. certainly before (years at some point): they all had other gigs, most notably singer-songwriter Dicky Barrett as announcer on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” – but had a tradition of doing a series of Christmas shows in Boston, touring in the summer, and still making new music. The band was scheduled to join their old friends, the 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 fellow BossToneS posted something almost cryptic on Facebook Thursday night: “Newcomer: Boston band with coveted ‘Indie Rock Tenure’ is breaking up because lead singer is an anti-vaccine UPDATE: The late-night talk show host suddenly has a new hype.”
Obviously, the talk show host was Kimmel and the former “hype” was Barrett. On January 11, the pro-vaccine Kimmel brought in writer Lou Wilson as the new announcer, saying nothing about why Barrett left, just “Our dear friend Dicky Barrett packed up his tattoos and moved to Arizona.” (Barrett is reportedly building a house in Sedona.) A media contact at ABC did not return a call asking about the reason for Barrett’s departure.
I reached out to Barrett by phone, text and email on Thursday, but didn’t get anything back until mid-afternoon Friday, when he texted me succinctly: “I’d rather not talk to anyone right now Jim, thanks.” I 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 you respecting that.”
Rolling Stone unrolled the murky story this way: The breakup announcement came on the heels of the revelation that a song promoting Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine rally in Washington, D.C. on January 23 was apparently produced. by Barrett: or, the magazine covered, “at least someone with the same name,” according to the song credits. The song “Heart of Freedom”, supposedly written by Kennedy, was based on Graham Nash’s 1971 protest song “Chicago (We Can Change the World)”.
Nash’s “We Can Change the World” is heard on “Heart of Freedom”. Rolling Stone wrote that Kennedy’s organization claims the lyrics were written 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 being prepared.”
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 between band members over Barrett’s status? On the feasibility of the band continuing? Full vaccination status of bands and equipment is now a must to play many venues.
Indeed, it’s a strange and discouraging ending for Mighty Mighty BossToneS, who released 11 studio albums between 1993 and 2021, the last being “When God Was Great.” They appeared in the 1995 movie “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 were a band whose upbeat, ska-punk-focused sound also had room for penetrating, sometimes political lyrics.
Prior to BossToneS, Barrett sang in various hardcore punk bands. But when he saw the English Beat opening for The Pretenders at the Orpheum Theater in 1980, Barrett, in a 2018 WBUR interview, told me what the Beat made him see that night: “I said, ‘What the hell is this? ! My God, this is the best! I just couldn’t believe it. [Singers] Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling! The music was amazing, they said [political] things and I was very moved. It had to have all the ska stuff out there, which took me away from new wave or punk, though it was part of it. This was the perfect marriage of the two for me.”
Most BossToneS songs are upbeat and upbeat sounding. The letter can be a bit deeper, perhaps adding some darkness. “I think from the beginning there were songs about us being friends and our love for Boston,” Barrett told me. “But there were also songs that dealt with topics that weren’t so bright and lighthearted and nice: guns or violence and racism and the fact that we sucked at it. If there is something we feel strongly about, we would discuss it.”
On the song, Barrett often wrestled with issues of solidarity and separation. On the 2018 album “While We’re At It,” two songs, “Unified” and “Divide,” emphasized the need for community. “A lot of it is because of the strong bonds I’ve created with other people,” Barrett said. “In the beginning, ‘unity’ was a rallying cry or an exciting concept. At this point, for me at least, it’s time tested. I have found it to be very helpful, effective and a source of great comfort on many levels.”
Those thoughts make Barrett’s apparent anti-vaccine stance all the more puzzling and problematic. On the same album there is a song called “After the Music Is Over”. Barrett sings: “How come madness has now become the norm? / Who knew we could go from good to bad so quickly? / To think you can blink or turn your back and then turn around / And everything is different from the inside out and the other way around.”
No one was named, but I assumed Barrett was singing about America in the Trump era.
“Confirmed,” Barrett said, “and how could it not be? You’re a very perceptive person, but you really don’t have to be in it.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism