Ken Casey, the singer and bassist for the Dropkick Murphys, was examining the tattoos covering much of his body one day last year when he realized that they formed a pictorial autobiography. And similar memoirs could be found in the inkings on his bandmates and friends. Here, he thought, was a different way to tell a story in song. The result was "Rose Tattoo," a highlight of the Dropkick Murphys' new album, Signed and Sealed in Blood, and also the title track of an EP featuring Bruce Springsteen singing along on a live version of the song.
"It just dawned on me one day that all the tattoos on my body are from significant moments in my life," Casey recalls, "whether it was my first tattoo at 16, when my friends and I all got the same tattoo, or the tattoos I got when people died. The rose tattoo on my own body has a saying from my grandfather, 'United we stand, divided we fall,' because he was a union organizer. When you go into a tattoo parlor, it's always in an emotional state; you never go in on a whim. So I tried to put myself in that space when I wrote the song."
The album version of the song opens with Casey's mandolin intro, which establishes the Irish folk melody. The narrator is not Casey himself but a sailor who has "laid this head in many ports" and who tells his lady that he has "your name written here in a rose tattoo." He provides a guided tour of his skin, pointing out the tattoo for "the man who raised me," the one for "our favorite game," and the one for "my family name." The tattoo that "means the most" to the narrator is the one of the woman who will "always be here with me, even if you're gone." After the first chorus, the mandolin and accordion are reinforced by bass and drums, and Casey's voice is joined by his bellowing bandmates.
It's a terrific song, but the album itself begins with a more typical Dropkick Murphys number: "The Boys Are Back," a punk-rock anthem sung by Al Barr. It starts with electric-guitar feedback set against a strumming acoustic guitar, which is soon overtaken by crunching power chords. Barr sings about pulling off Interstate 93 in South Boston after a long tour, stopping to "buy roses for my ladies from a bum at the light," before heading off to a long-anticipated homecoming celebration. On the choruses, he's joined by the whole band hollering, "The boys are back, and they're looking for trouble." The staccato guitar riffs of punk rock stoke the excitement, but it's the rare punk-rock record that adds a wailing bagpipe to the mix as this one does.
That's what makes the Dropkick Murphys, who perform at Baltimore's Shindig Festival Saturday, such an enduring band. Since they released their first album in 1998, they've been able to integrate punk rock, Irish folk music, and anthemic hooks in ways that don't dilute any of the original ingredients. This combination of the old and the new gives them two legs to stand on, enables them to sing about every stage of life. Their Boston colleagues, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who also perform at Shindig, have done something similar with punk and ska.
"Boston's an old-fashioned place that respects its roots, whether musical or otherwise," Casey claims. "It's more tolerant to that kind of experimentation. The first time we played in Boston we sucked, but people said, 'I'm going to wait for them to get good, because I like what they're going for.'
"The Mighty Mighty Bosstones gave us a helping hand when we were coming up. That's a Boston thing: helping out the guy coming up from behind you. They did that for us, and we did it for bands coming after us. Both bands have one foot in punk and another foot in something a little older and more traditional. What I love about the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and what I like about us is it's not all one thing. They can play a catchy pop or ska tune, but they can also cover the Angry Samoans. If I'm going to hear a band for 90 minutes at a show, I want to hear more than one thing."
You get a lot more than one thing on Signed and Sealed in Blood. You get angry political protests such as "Prisoner's Song," boisterous party invitations such as "Burn," drinking songs such as "End of the Night," a hilarious Christmas song, "The Season Is Upon Us," and, of course, a baseball song, "Jimmy Collins' Wake."
"We heard this riff on Tim's accordion," says Casey about bandmate Tim Brennan and the song "The Season Is Upon Us." "Everyone said, 'That sounds totally like a Christmas song.' The other guys said, 'It has to be a serious Christmas song, one that will last for 50 years.' As the guy writing the song, I said, 'That's pretty daunting.' So I decided to go in the opposite direction and write about everyone's crazy uncle who always acts up at Christmas."
The Dropkick Murphys have a history with the Boston Red Sox. In 2004, the band recorded a version of "Tessie," the 1902 show tune that became the team's theme song in 1903, when they won the World Series. The Dropkick Murphys proclaimed that it would help the Red Sox win the Series again in 2004-and though the team was down 0-3 against the Yankees, the Red Sox came back, and later went on to win it all. In 2005, the band wrote a new version of "Tessie" that described the song being sung in 1903. In 2007, another Dropkick Murphys track, "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," which they had adapted from some unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics, became the team's theme song-and they won another World Series. Now, they've recorded "Jimmy Collins' Wake" about the memorial for the player-manager of the 1903 Red Sox.
"We've only been invited to play at Fenway Park twice, in 2004 and 2007," Casey points out, "and both times the Red Sox won it all. Two-for-two is good, but if we can go three-for-three, we'll know we've got something going. We didn't want to seem like we were capitalizing on the Red Sox connection, but it has been nine years since 'Tessie' and six years since 'Shipping Up to Boston,' so it seemed like time for another baseball song.
"And it looks good for the team this year; they've got some great young talent and better pitching. I think there was some cancer in the clubhouse last year, and that takes its toll. It's a team sport after all. That's why we wanted to pay tribute to Jimmy Collins, who was a player and manager and glad to do it all for peanuts-not like these millionaires with bad attitudes. You know, I've always liked Baltimore and that stadium; they were like my second team. I'd like to see them have a little run in September-as long as they don't do it at Fenway."
The Dropkick Murphys, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Joan Jett, the Hold Steady, the Gaslight Anthem, Reverend Horton Heat, Clutch, the Glenmont Popes, the Victims of Experience, Larry and his Flask, and Bad Seed Rising perform at the Shindig Festival at Carroll Park Saturday, Sept. 14, 1-11 p.m.