Unlike many New Yorkers I’ve always enjoyed my trips to Boston. There’s a sense of tradition that stretches back to the soulful philosophies of Thoreau and Emerson, while a stroll over to Cambridge can send your IQ soaring as you ingest the rarified air around Harvard.
And yet it’s hard not to be conscious that Boston is a city of divisions. When first playing up there in the 70’s it would not have been hard to imagine that African-Americans had not made it quite so far north such was the general pale complexion of the downtown area. In those days I had yet to become acquainted with Roxbury and its surrounding areas.
Playing in the various pubs and saloons of Somerville, Charlestown and Brighton, I was never less than aware of the huge Irish influence. The Boston Irish had come a long way from those tired and hungry who were dumped dockside after fleeing the ravages of the Potato Famine. And yet, literally and figuratively, it was still a long way from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Southie to the Harvard-Yale game.
One could be forgiven for feeling that some things never change, because as enlightened as Thoreau, Emerson and the other Transcendentalists were, it’s possible to catch whiffs of class and even race prejudice in their references to the recently arrived Irish. Indeed, it is not unlike some of our own “there goes the neighborhood” attitude to the Latino emigrants of these times.
Such thoughts were on my mind some weeks back as I stood in Kenmore Square and watched a green shirted army descend on the House of Blues to cheer on the Dropkick Murphys. I have seen many bands from Boston capture the local imagination and become major hometown favorites including J. Geils, The Cars, Aerosmith, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones among others, but I’ve never witnessed anything like the Murphs. They not only represent Boston – they own the joint.
What’s it like to play a set before them? Well, it can be a formidable sight to gaze out at 2500 avid fans chanting “Let’s go Murphys” before you’ve even played a note. Luckily, all remnants of sensitivity were long ago stripped from Black 47 in raucous nights of apprenticeship on Bainbridge Avenue; we could at this stage give a decent account of ourselves opening for Godzilla.
But the Murphys and their audiences are a phenomenon. It’s like battling Tom Brady, Jon Papelbon, The Fields of Athenry, The Sex Pistols and the ghost of every immigrant who ever raised a glass in Dorchester all packed together into one adrenalized clenched fist.
It’s the spirit of ’76 Punk throbbing like a piston through the Black Velvet Band. It’s hardcore, three chord chants from the late lamented “Rat” meets the Wolfe Tones and Paddy Reilly leaping out of the juke boxes in the pubs of Quincy and Dorchester, and to top it all it’s coming at you at one hundred and forty beats a minute.
It may be loud and obnoxious to some but that’s the point. It’s pride and prejudice brought screaming to the surface. Pride in being Irish and strong enough to finally sweep away the second class tag that the Paddies endured across the centuries up in the stately red brick environs of Boston.
With fists in the air the Murphy army sang along to the working class anthems of their homegrown heroes. And their sweaty jubilant faces proclaimed that they had the last laugh on the Transcendentalists. For if the audience was largely of Irish descent, many of WASP heritage moshed and shouted along with their Gaelic sisters and brothers.
It’s far from everyone’s cup of tea: Irish ballads infused with the raw feral power of punk and a “to hell with the begrudgers” sense of entitlement. But at the end of the night, as the sweaty green shirted army filed out onto the street, I could have sworn I saw the ghosts of some of those tired and hungry from 1847 dance along beside them.
The square had truly been circled. Let’s go Murphys!