Fifteen years later, and I'd still fold Dropkick Murphys' album covers if they wanted me to 

The Pipes Are Calling

The Pipes Are Calling

"Hey kid, you really wanna help out? Fold these."

In retrospect it seems like a really silly thing to get excited about — folding record covers for some local band in the dingy basement of the diviest bar in town. But at the time it was like being handed the keys to the kingdom. There in the dankness of dim light and stale beer, standing on a film of debauchery that would cling to your shoes or clothes if you happened to take a digger in the pit; there beneath the city of Boston, in a graffiti-covered cave filled with the sort of stories you would never tell your grandkids, I discovered the thrill of making records. Well, folding record covers, but that's where it all starts, right? And I wasn't folding those covers for just any shitty local band, I was folding covers for the goddamn Dropkick Murphys.

Now, granted this was before they'd made an album, before they'd toured the country, before they could sell out Fenway Park and before they'd been tapped by Martin Scorsese to contribute the best part of The Departed. Hell, they didn't have a full-time bagpiper. At this point they were some dudes from Quincy still in the rec-center-and-church-hall phase of their career — my best friend would pay them a whopping 50 bucks when they played at our local Congregational church a couple of months later — and they were about a decade away from Billboard chart success and major label record deals. But they were a big fucking deal to us, and the fact that they would even take the time to acknowledge our existence — let alone allow us to construct their merch — was amazing.

The Murphys weren't just another pack of kids caught up in the post-Dookie punk fervor of the '90s. They'd been in bands, they'd seen some shit, and they weren't just wailing and gnashing their teeth. Their politics weren't just slogans copped from the bumper stickers at Harvard Square's Revolutionary Books, their stories were more than the usual "fuck your system, I hate cops" rigmarole. Even on early tracks like "Barroom Hero" and "Third Man In," typical punk belligerence is tempered with a world-weary pragmatism, a sense of loss that weaves through the overwhelming aspiration to burn everything to the ground. The Dropkicks peddled identity-politics as they should be, where personal pride doesn't become a hatred of others, and the dignity of labor and loyalty to family and friends were the highest ideals — rather than, say, Marxist fantasies of what work should be or Fascist-leaning pity parties for ethnic majorities. If you were looking for punk-rock role models, you couldn't have asked for a better bunch of dudes.

Over a decade-and-a-half removed from that dungeon of a rock club — the late, lamented Rathskeller, incubator for three generations of Boston punk and hardcore — Dropkick Murphys are among the most instantly recognizable punk bands in the world, their signature fusion of Celtic folk and street-punk fury beloved all over. And it's this massive success — typically anathema to the punk-rock ethos — that may be the greatest lesson they've got to offer: Work hard and work honestly, and you can live the life you want, without compromise, without caving to a system that's never wanted more than to chew you up and spit you out. It's the dream of every immigrant to ever reach these shores — our ancestors, our neighbors, all of them — it's the very foundation of what makes this country great, and it's a lesson that's lost in the overwhelming materialism that defines modern pop culture. In an era in which solidarity among working people is at an all-time low — when the plutocracy will go to any length to pit us against ourselves, to keep us fighting each other while they pillage our collective wealth for corporate profits — having a band that's still willing to try to "take the bastards down" is more important than ever. While much of the above-ground punk scene has lost its way, watered down with dreams of rock operas and partnerships with sparkly, sterile mall stores, and our culture as a whole has ceded the rights of self-definition and self-determination to endless focus groups and shareholder whimsy, the Dropkick Murphys have managed to stay true themselves, to their roots, to the city that forged them and their ideals.

While they might be making more than 50 bucks a show these days, and while those records we folded — the split 7-inch with The Ducky Boys, in case you were wondering — are high-priced eBay fodder now, the Murphys and their core principles are still the same. There's a will to fight that hasn't been worn down by success, there's a fire in their bellies that hasn't been extinguished by complacency and adulthood. More than 15 years have passed, and they're still the best role models a punk rocker could ever ask for — I'd totally fold records for them anytime they asked.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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