The bagpipe eulogy was out of tune, rejected by the Catholic Church, and exactly what the dearly departed hoped for.
In his last letter home Sgt. Andrew Farrar asked his family to replace Amazing Grace with something more fitting at his funeral if he didn’t survive his tour of duty in Iraq. When that bitter day unfortunately arrived along with a folded flag, his wife Melissa passed that last wish along to publicists and managers until her husband’s favourite band felt compelled to grant it in person. The Dropkick Murphys huddled closely with the family and friends of one of their most devoted fans on that morning in the winter of 2005, as the casket sunk and piper Josh ‘Scruffy’ Wallace’s strained notes stretched through the icy air.
“Unfortunately bagpipes are a very fickle instrument and tend to, if it’s too humid or too hot or too cold, go out of tune very easily,” singer Al Barr says of the Murphy’s sombrest performance, which inspired the song ‘Last Letter Home,’ on their 2005 disc The Warrior’s Code. “The priest wouldn’t let us play the song in the church, so we played ‘Fields of Athenry,’ as they lowered him into the ground.
But I don’t think anybody was sitting there judging Scruffy’s playing, everybody was just caught up in the moment. That’s something you really don’t forget, when you see two young children that have lost their father and you know they’re never going to see him again.”
For The Murphys, songs act like stitches in such instances- agonizing, scarring, but nonetheless binding.
“Music’s… part of the fabric of my life,” Barr says. “So I know there’s songs that I can’t hear because they take me back to something or someone, a bad circumstance that I don’t care to go through in my head… but then there’s stuff that got me through. When I was a kid it was whatever was on (the radio)… I went from listening to classic rock to punk in the eighth grade. For some reason punk held something
for me that classic rock didn’t.”
That hardening hard core fixation is captured in one of the Boston Celtic troupe’s newer true to life songs, “Sunday Hardcore Matinee.” The lyrics detail some of Barr’s earliest mosh pit tumbles, long before he and the rest of the Murphys gained acclaim for fusing punk and folk’s most bristling leanings, or grew famous for scoring Martin Scorsese gangster flicks.
“My childhood definitely inspired that song, it’s definitely autobiographical,” Barr says. “That’s a really happy song for me, a surge of energy. I get excited by that song because it takes me back to when I discovered punk rock, and the release that it gave me when I went to a show (as) a kid.”
But despite its factual origins, ‘Matinee,’ is quite removed from the meticulously realistic ‘Last Letter Home,’ because this latter tune is told through the eyes of a fictional character’s descendent. In fact, every song on their newest album, Going Out In Style, carries a portion of that fable- the saga of Cornelius Larkin, a brawler, warrior and Irish immigrant who dies and looks back on it all. Along the way guests like Fat Mike and Bruce Springsteen chime in.
The latter blue collar rock veteran’s working class convictions have been carried on by The Murphy’s recent dedication of their song “Take‘Em Down,” to Wisconsin union workers forced to fight restrictions on their collective bargaining rights.
Many men long after Cornelius’ time might find it strange to see punk songs, with all their anarchist roots, become the soundtrack for working class social activists. But Barr scoffs at that thought.
“Back in the day, when I was walking around with a coloured Mohawk, the kind of guys working on the docks might’ve been the ones putting the run to me, trying to kick my ass. But that kind of thing was years ago man,” he says of how the genre’s rawness now speaks to moshers, soldiers and teamsters alike. “It’s like when you listen to old folk music, even going back to Woody (Guthrie, who’s lyrics were the bedrock for The Murphy’s seminal hit ‘Shipping Up to Boston’). It’s pretty much rebel music that people would sing about on the spot. It’s by the people for the people.”