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Did You Hear The '59 Sound? The Gaslight Anthem and a Grand Rock Tradition

Thursday, 24 May 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Illustration: Thomas Norton

“Is Brian around?” 

Bruce Springsteen has just pulled a cardboard sign from the Hyde Park crowd and flashed it around E-Street. A moment later Brian Fallon walks out from the wings, having opened the show with his band, the Gaslight Anthem. He embraces Springsteen before Max Weinberg’s kick drum counts in No Surrender.

Brian takes the second verse. Tears brim in his eyes, looking like they might burst the dam at any second. His voice breaks. He raises his hand in the air and yells the final lines: “Well, maybe we could cut someplace of our own, with these drums and these guitars.”

To some, the Gaslight Anthem always struggled to cut that place of their own. It was partly their fault, but a parcel of blame also lies with the rest of us. We couldn’t let it go. We couldn’t accept the cars, the radio waves, the New Jersey connection, the earnestness of the whole thing. We couldn’t allow the Springsteen of it all to pass uninterrogated.

But back in 2009 that run through No Surrender immediately felt like a win for the kids who care too much; those who never quite got the hang of studied indifference. Fallon’s flesh and blood reaction to singing that song is at the heart of the Gaslight Anthem’s career-defining album, ‘The ‘59 Sound’, which was a little under a year old when the Boss asked if he was around.

Eventually, of course, they checked out. Sitting here now, we know how their story ended. Gaslight’s final record, ‘Get Hurt’, was a statement of emotional exhaustion. It chronicled a dark time, and carried a huge weight of regret and frustration on narrow shoulders. For Fallon it was a necessary excoriation, but that also meant that they didn’t get to ride into the sunset. Instead, it was the equivalent of slipping through the back door and hopping the fence.

As much as the album’s sleeve tried to say otherwise, the heart just wasn’t there. It wasn’t fun anymore, and Fallon had essentially become boxed in by the facets of his writing that first drew people to the Gaslight Anthem. The wide blue yonder and clapped out Lincoln that had promised so much had blown a tire on the edge of town.

But, somewhat improbably, it’s back running again. While building his solo career - his second album, ‘Sleepwalkers’, came out earlier this year - Fallon has gently deflected The Gaslight Question. Until now. Beginning at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. this weekend Fallon, guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz are back for a 10 year victory lap, celebrating ‘The ‘59 Sound’. There are no promises, and no future beyond the last note.

Gaslight may have taken their leave for a chunk of the last decade, but this album never really went away. In 2018, ‘The ‘59 Sound’ is still nostalgic, hopelessly romantic, indebted to some hokey rock ‘n’ roll ideals and fun in a very real way. It’s still one for the out crowd, and it has become influential in its own right as a modern classic.

So much of that can be traced to Fallon as a fan. When he’s on his game, his writing about his influences is entirely celebratory. He doesn’t want to be his heroes, he wants to tell us about the songs he loves and what they mean to him. These references are like seeing someone in a bar wearing a t-shirt of a band you like: some part of you always thinks that person could be your friend.   

This is a big rock record made by people who always wanted to make a big rock record, and the reasons for setting that goal are all over it like patches on denim. In fact, they were there on the first chorus of the first song on ‘Sink or Swim’, the Gaslight Anthem’s first album: “The radio will still play loud the songs that we heard as our guards came down.”

In one line on ‘The ‘59 Sound’ Fallon moves from ‘Southern Accents’ playing on the radio to waking up in his sheets, soaking wet. “It’s a pretty good song, baby,” he winks on High Lonesome. “You know the rest.” That’s Tom Petty and Springsteen covered in under 30 words, with Elvis, Nashville and a girl named Maria already in the ledger.

Bruce is back on Meet Me by the River’s Edge, where Fallon adds his sins to Springsteen’s on its banks and creates a portmanteau  from tracks seven and eight on ‘Born in the USA’: “No surrender, my Bobby Jean…” There are the Bobs, too: Dylan lighting a cigarette on a parking meter during Old White Lincoln, Seger humming a song from 1962 on Great Expectations. And like Miles Davis, I've been swayed by the cool.

In a similar way to James Ellroy telling us who killed Kennedy in lucid detail, Fallon folds his heroes into the pages of his own notepad. It seems like this exercise is fun for him, and that it’s supposed to be fun for us too. It’s not a stretch to see ‘The ‘59 Sound’ as an attempt to make us feel like those records made Fallon feel the first time around.

The rock ‘n’ roll we have now is a copy of a copy of a copy. When Springsteen and Petty were paying tribute, it was to idols a step closer to where it all started. Their radios played Chuck Berry and the King, they watched in real time as Motown and the British Invasion reinvented the pop song. Their heads were turned by glorious gutter rebellion and street races that threatened life and limb. They played along with those images even if their own lives hadn’t always deposited them first-hand.

By the time the blueprints made their way to Fallon they not only had Springsteen and Petty’s grubby fingerprints all over them, but also Joe Strummer’s, and Joey Ramone’s, and Tom Waits’s, and Patti Smith’s, and Paul Westerberg’s...you get the picture. Ten years on, we can start to appreciate where ‘The ‘59 Sound’ places the Gaslight Anthem in that tradition.

If nothing else, the record further opened the eyes and ears of punk rock kids to heartland storytelling and the fetishisation or satirising of classically American iconography. They just had to fill in the gaps with their own experiences, and when they did they found an audience ready to listen. It wasn’t always easy (or tolerated) to join the dots between classic rock and punk, but Gaslight and several other bands did it anyway.

Two years after they threw their hat into the ring Titus Andronicus put out ‘The Monitor’, a ferocious explosion of ideas that took Springsteen on a ride through the Civil War. “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die,” Patrick Stickles sang on A More Perfect Union. Along the road in Philadelphia, meanwhile, Greg Barnett was arguing with a girl in a blue dress about which Bad Religion album was better, on the Menzingers’ Time Tables.

In 2012, though, Japandroids put out the album that is perhaps the toughest challenger to the retrofitted crown worn by ‘The ‘59 Sound’. ‘Celebration Rock’ shot for nostalgia, romance and euphoria on the way to an early grave, becoming a similarly important touchstone. And, while all this was going on, the Hold Steady propped up the bar in the background, with Craig Finn spinning yarns like a midwest hardcore Warren Zevon.

Closer to the present day, artists like Julien Baker, Big Thief, Gang of Youths, Jeff Rosenstock, Cayetana, Phoebe Bridgers, Restorations, and Worriers’ Lauren Denitzio are bridging the gap between narrative storytelling, widescreen indie and punk rock in a manner that Gaslight’s open-book approach didn’t quite allow.

‘The ‘59 Sound’ looks like a relevant waypoint for most of these bands, but with some glaring differences. It’s not as cerebral or destructive as ‘The Monitor’. It doesn’t have the sense of loss bound up in some of Japandroids’ work, and it doesn’t appear incomplete, as the Menzingers did at the time of ‘Chamberlain Waits’.

It hits like a real shot to nothing: New Jersey kids going for it because their day jobs don’t cut it. That’s the essence of the thing. These are songs about classic cars and outlaw cowboy bands, written by a romantic and a dreamer for people who feel the same. As such, they remain easy to poke fun at.

During a recent episode of Steven Hyden’s Celebration Rock podcast, where he was invited to discuss his favourite of the Boss’s records, ‘Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.’ (a surprising pick from the outside, given the debt the Gaslight Anthem owe to the dynamics of ‘The River’ and ‘Born in the USA’), Fallon said the best thing Springsteen taught him was simple: don’t be afraid to be laughed at for what you love.

‘The ‘59 Sound’ works best if we buy into that sentiment with him, because the in-jokes and nerdisms are just part of the story. To really take it to your heart is to accept that it’s on-the-nose, sentimental, messy, overblown, and all the other good stuff. You have to welcome the band’s desire to experience all these wild moments of freedom and excitement with the same enthusiasm they do. Some of the criticisms aimed at later Gaslight efforts landed with force because that fire had dimmed just a little. It’s all-or-nothing with this stuff.

“When Bruce Springsteen turned up when we were starting out, I wondered if we were selling out a place because of our music or because fans were hoping they might see him,” Fallon told the Independent’s Roisin O'Connor earlier this year. “You could hear the wind going through that hole in my chest, after that. Once I started thinking that, it was over.”

Not everyone gets to write ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ after ‘Born To Run’. That’s about as close to a truism as you’ll get in music. But then not everyone gets to write ‘Born To Run’ in the first place. Fallon would balk at the comparison, and we’ll give him that, but ‘The ‘59 Sound’ is a record that can handle being celebrated in this manner. This summer the Gaslight Anthem have earned a moment to reflect on the time four punk kids from New Jersey captured lightning in a bottle. It’s a pretty good song, baby. You know the rest.

The Gaslight Anthem Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri July 20 2018 - LONDON Eventim Apollo
Sat July 21 2018 - LONDON Eventim Apollo
Mon July 23 2018 - DUBLIN Vicar Street
Tue July 24 2018 - GLASGOW Barrowland
Wed July 25 2018 - MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Fri July 27 2018 - TILBURG 013
Sat July 28 2018 - COLOGNE Palladium
Sun July 29 2018 - COLOGNE Palladium
Thu August 09 2018 - TORONTO Ontario - Rebel
Fri August 10 2018 - TORONTO Ontario - Rebel
Sat August 11 2018 - CHICAGO IL - Riviera

Click here to compare & buy The Gaslight Anthem Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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