From Ben Affleck to Cheers: Writers Celebrate Boston in Pop Culture

From Ben Affleck to Cheers: Writers Celebrate Boston in Pop Culture

Bostonians are a plucky bunch: Since besting the British at Bunker Hill, they’ve honed their reputation on a brand of scrappy toughness you just don’t see anywhere else. When bombs rocked the finish line at the Boston Marathon last April, the city’s denizens rose up and rallied, stirring hearts around the nation and world with their commitment to their beloved hometown and each other. In the new anthology Our Boston, writers including  Pico Iyer and George Colt reflect on what the city means to them. Here they share their favorite songs, books and movies about Beantown.

Susan Orlean, author of  The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin

“Dirty Water,” by the Standells

“I’m probably not alone in choosing The Standells’ song, ‘Dirty Water,’ as my favorite Boston moment in pop culture. I love the gritty, growly feel of the song—which to me is truer to the spirit of Boston than the more refined, fussy Bostonian references elsewhere. Boston has its prim side, of course, but at its core, it’s a sturdy place full of sturdy people. It really hasn’t changed in the many years since the Standells sang about it, except that the water is a lot cleaner now.”

George Colt, author of  The Big House

“Boston,” by the Byrds

“Not the Byrds’ greatest work (sample chorus: ‘In Boston, Massachusetts where she lives / Got to get there for the love she gives’), but when I first heard it in 1969 as a fifteen-year-old would-be hippie, it made me see our then-seemingly-stuffy city in a new and groovy light. The song went, ‘Catch a plane and soon I will be gone/ And I’ll be in her arms before too long.’ I kept imagining front man Gene Clark, who wrote it, and the rest of the Byrds flying out from L.A. toward Logan in search of some of that Boston love. It gave me hope that I might find it there someday, too.”

David Michaelis, author of  Schulz and Peanuts

“Let Them Eat Rock,” by the Upper Crust  

“In Boston, every chowder-head is a prince of the city, and for me, nothing captures that raw, raucous, self-mocking, eternally anti-demagogue spirit better than, ‘Let Them Eat Rock,’ a 1995 album by the punk-era pop-metal Boston band, The Upper Crust. Wearing powdered wigs and brocaded topcoats and singing songs like ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Butler’ and ‘Friend Of a Friend of the Working Class,’ the band upended democracy’s ruling myths. Still, my all-time Upper Crust favorite was their punk tribute to ‘the greatest hockey player in the world, bar none,’ ‘Bobby Orr.’ It always reminded me of how my ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Shohet, a Bruins fan who very democratically graded papers on a curve, explained the system: ‘When Esposito has a good night, you have a good night.’”

Scott Stossel, author of  Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver


“While there are many worthy options—from Henry James’s ‘The Bostonians’ and Robert McCloskey’s ‘Make Way for Ducklings,’ to Edward O’Connor’s ‘Last Hurrah’ and Robert Parker’sSpenser novels, to St. ElsewhereAlly McBeal, the Dropkick Murphys’ ‘Tessie’ and, ironically, The Standells’ ‘Dirty Water’—my first choice is clear: the sitcom Cheers. How can you top a show featuring a Beacon Hill bar, a retired, alcoholic Red Sox relief pitcher, a mailman with a good Boston accent, a Bruins goalie, and cameo appearances by real-life local pols Tip O’Neill, Mike Dukakis, and Ray Flynn—not to mention local sports legends Luis Tiant, Wade Boggs, and my personal favorite, Kevin McHale? Answer: You can’t.”

Pico Iyer, author of  The Man Within My Head

Mystic River

“It’s not life-affirming, I know, but Clint Eastwood’s movie, drawn from Dennis Lehane’s unsparing novel, forces us to confront difficult realities, just as Boston so often did for me.  Mystic River became the first in a series of brilliant movies—Gone Baby Gone, The Departed, The Town—that converted the rough parts of Boston into the setting for rending Greek tragedies. Many beautiful sides of the city are often depicted, ravishingly, on film, from the Back Bay to Cambridge. But these new works have turned Boston into a kind of mythic location—and challenge—that sits inside every one of us. Lehane and Ben Affleck are my heroes for so powerfully and unsettlingly branding Boston onto the collective unconscious.”

André Aciman, author of  Call Me By Your Name

Good Will Hunting

“No film captures better the struggles that a penniless young man faces when trying to match wits with established, patrician Boston and Cambridge. He sees affluent girls at Harvard, works as a handyman at MIT, is perpetually trying to downplay his own rudderless talent, and, in between street fights and prison, struggles with the suffocating sense of being a perpetual impostor with a profound sense of his own worthlessness. He finds himself in the end, and the end is a happy one, but his odyssey is long and, to me, not unfamiliar.”

Pagan Kennedy, author of The Exes

The Bostonians, by Henry James

“In my piece that appears in Our Boston, I mentioned one artifact that helped put Boston on the map as the home-city of bluestockings, nerds and radicals: The Bostonians, by Henry James.

‘We will work at it together—we will study everything,’ Olive proposes to her best friend in the novel. She envisions an outré social experiment and hopes to form a two-person commune and dedicate herself to the works of Goethe. More than a century later, we’re still just as nerdy.”

Robert Pinsky, author of  The Sounds of Poetry

Boston Blackie

“What do Errol Morris, Daffy Duck, Jimmy Buffet, Philip Glass, and Edward Dmytryk have in common? Boston Blackie, the jewel thief with a pencil-thin mustache, turned detective. I listened to Boston Blackie’s adventures on the radio, and the curious young can Google him, or watch the great Daffy in his Boston Quackie.”

This article was updated on September 23, 2014


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