19 min read

Backwards and Forwards in Time with The Gaslight Anthem!

Backwards and Forwards in Time with The Gaslight Anthem!

There’s much talk, these days, of a “pop-punk revival.” Being middle-aged, and not terribly fond of the art made by the scene’s elder statesman, I won’t presume to judge the merits of most of the artists placed under the current umbrella. But I will point out that, almost twenty years ago, as the first pop-punk revival was still in its deathless malaise, there was a second revival of sorts, one that existed concurrently, yet outside of the stadium fare being produced by Good Charlotte, My Chemical Romance, and Fall Out Boy etc. Not overly popular, at least in comparison to aforementioned bands or the indie dross of the time, and maybe not as punk as your average spikey jacket wearer would like, the mini-pop-punk revival of the aughts can arguably be seen as a reaction to the previous decade’s perceived perversion of the Bay Area utopian project that had begun with Billie Joe harmlessly fake accenting the panties off of librarians and had since become… Well, not really all that worse. Maybe a bit bloated and corny, but it’s not like Pennywise or NOFX were anything to write home about. And the spirits broken by time spent either attending or playing Warped Tour cannot be confined to just one epoch. But a young pop punk in 2002, wearing a Ted Leo shirt and sporting their brand new first, second, and third stick ‘n’ poke, could be forgiven for failing to see an aesthetic or moral throughline between Filth’s “The List” and Simple Plan’s No Pads, No Helmets… Just Balls. And it’s not like there was a long line of critics predicting that Paramore and Fall Out Boy would be the 21st Century’s Blur and Oasis respectively (but with more than three good songs each).

Anyway, if mainstream pop-punk wasn’t uniformly terrible, it was certainly popular. Which was, in the times before it became mandatory to subscribe to the notion that millions of corn-syrup-addled sea monkeys (who historically believe in both the immutability of national borders and the existence of winged angels that are emotionally invested in college football) are incapable of being wrong about literally anything, just as bad. So, either inspired by a self-sabotaging prejudice of small differences, or out of a legitimate and considered distrust of market driven over-culture, (or a combination of both), the early aughts saw a creative resurgence of bands that adhered to the as-of-yet-still-somewhat-un-commodified ideas of “DIY” and “community” while also hewing close to the decades-old template set by Singles Going Steady.

Or maybe I was just super stoked on Marked Men and the early Don Giovani Records stuff and I’m inventing a whole thing in my mind. Wikipedia claims that the “underground revival” didn’t start till 2012. But all the flyers on my Instagram feed say “ask a punk” not “ask an online encyclopedia,” so it’s hard to know what to think. Time, as they say, is a well ironed “Defend Pop Punk” hoodie.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that my memories are not all lies, there was an aughts pop-punk revival within the aughts pop-punk revival. And it was hella sick. The Marked Men! The Measure (SA)! The Ergs! Riverboat Gamblers! Mean Jeans (suggested by Ian from Riverboat Gamblers)! For Science! The Soviettes! That 39 song J Church comp! The Epitaph Suicide Girls album! JK! Epitaph didn’t put out any good pop punk albums that decade! The Ikara Cult album was pretty sweet tho! Anyway! The Hex Dispensers! Jay Reatard! Maybe! If we consider The Adverts (whose Crossing The Red Sea With is the looming shadow over Reatard’s Blood Visions) to be pop punk! The Arrivals! Chris O’Coin from Suburbanite just reminded me of American Steel, who I always confused with American Standard and otherwise ignored because of their terrible logo! But this stuff is pretty good! Also, Fat Wreck Chords, while largely spending the aughts churning out pisspoor facsimiles of either Against Me! or Lagwagon did put out some OK stuff, including that Tilt Best Of… from 2001! Smalltown (suggested by Alan from Neutrals)! The Bananas! The Epoxies (both suggested by Mike from Riverboat Gamblers)! High Tension Wires (Mike from Riverboat Gamblers + members of The Reds and Marked Men. Suggested by Mike from Riverboat Gamblers)! Last release by The Grumpies OK, maybe that’s all I can think of! Ummmm… The Shitty Limits? Sure, why not!

Not all these bands would consider themselves “pop-punk.” Some absolutely exist just as comfortably within the realms of garage or new wave. But I go by the general rule of “would MRR Radio DJs call them ‘pop-punk’ either as a descriptor or insult?” Like all this hobbyist bullshit we have all based our entire personalities upon, defining what makes a band pop-punk is only easy if you play (or are) dumb. There are as many exceptions as there are rules and, especially in the case of pop-punk, both words in the designation itself are doing some pretty heavy lifting. Pop-punk is rarely “pop” in the sense of the word as aspirational shorthand for “popular,” and if it’s ever “pop” in the sense of being some sort of crossover from punk music to the melodies preferred by teenagers for whom performative questioning of authority is less central to their identity, it’s a crossover to melodies favored by teens who died or got old in, roughly, 1965. As to the “punk”-ness of the majority of “pop-punk” bands, opinions often vary.

Anyway. There were others. Tons. Either as a pop punk renaissance or just a pop punk continuation that I was paying attention to again (and btw the ommission of countless Jeff Rosenstock/Weston self-consciously nerdy type stuff is not meant as a jab... it's just a world I never got into so I have no idea what was good or bad). And it was cool. And, often, besides cool, it was very, very sincere.

One of the first I heard of the rock band, The Gaslight Anthem, was from an employee at Generation Records. He described Gaslight Anthem, who had formed in New Brunswick in 2006 and were already putting out a second album SideOneDummy (the LA punk label slash taste makers slash Sailor Jerry appreciators), as “like Against Me! and The Marked Men, but not as good. But still pretty good.” Bands that are like other bands, but not as good, are usually my favorite kind of band. I like Screeching Weasel more than I like The Ramones, Pegboy more than Naked Raygun, and I like The Cult more than I like… whoever it is better than The Cult that The Cult sound like. Spiritually and aesthetically speaking, I try to get free as often as possible. So, my friend at Generation was really selling it. Plus my bandmate in Freshkills at the time, Jimmy Paradise, thought Gaslight Anthem was the cat’s meow. And even though he sometimes talked me into buying alt country albums from ex hardcore dudes, he had also played Against Me! enough times in the van that I eventually stopped thinking that the singing was an extended joke at my expense and started to instead think that it was God’s own truth, asking me for spare change to buy vegan chow for God’s own emaciated oogle dog. I trusted Jimmy Paradise completely and will never, ever pass up a chance for a record store employee to feel anything at all about me. So I bought the CD of The '59 Sound, the second album by The Gaslight Anthem.

Oh yeah, The Gaslight Anthem are not a pop punk band. Nobody who knows anything would say that they are. But, also, Gaslight Anthem are definitely a pop punk band. How much time do you have?

Pop-punk fans, 2008

These days, we take for granted that there has always been a hyper-sincere strain of pop-punk that is sung in a rough style meant to convey a certain clear-eyed sorrow. Before there was a Jawbreaker Revival, there was Jawbreaker. But this offshoot of pop-punk that was veered from the adenoidal misogyny of popular bands like Blink-182 in favor of a gruffer Crimpshrine-esque, but palatable, Chesterfield King scratch (that was ostensibly not misogynist but… you know how that goes) had a number of origins. In the late ‘90s, between the popularity of all of Green Day’s halfwit progeny and Ben Weasel’s post-My Brain Hurts descent into embittered madness, I’d lost my taste for pop-punk entirely. But I still occasionally heard songs by bands like Lawrence Arms, The Grabass Charlestons, and Dillinger Four who were presumably inspired by the gruffly emotive Lemmy-with-pop-sensibilities-and-Big-Feelings chug-a-lug of bands like Pegboy, Avail, and Leatherface and then added the also burly, early ‘90s pop-punk sounds of a band like the meat-and-potatoes-and-Buzzcocks-esque Didjits (and countless other Pacific Northwest pop-punkers typified by the Empty Records catalog), and combined this borderline-melodic-hardcore toughness with beer tear poetry and a Midwest “I have a road map” lyrical concern (that The Hold Steady would diminish with Beat Poetry and Jesus half a decade later). I should note that I’m half-guessing about the actual inspiration of these bands. But I don’t want to take up another page linking to Lazy Cowgirls or Gaunt or trying to figure out where This Bike is a Pipe Bomb fits in all this, or if Dillinger Four are “Region Rock” or not. Just rest assured that most of it was fine and, aside from D4, very little of it was great. If, at the turn of the century, you lived in a punk house in New Brunswick or Gainsville with fifteen other people and your head hair was as thin as your beard was magnificent, you may disagree with this assessment. I cede to your judgement.) (Readers curious about all this are directed to either the current No Idea or Red Scare or Dirtnap or Asian Man Records Bandcamp pages or the Generation Records used CDs bin, circa 2002-2012.)

In 2008, when Gaslight Anthem’s breakout album appeared, I had come back to pop-punk, but only after a number of adjacent digressions. Before the New Rock Revolution of The Strokes et al was even codified by the English press, I’d invested in an AC/DC pin and dabbled in the cocaine-cowboy d-beat posturing of bands like Zeke and Nashville Pussy. I’d respected alt-country whiskey throats like Lucero from (very) afar. My bandmate, Jimmy Paradise, did get me heavily into both Against Me! and Riverboat Gamblers, two bands I still love dearly. But Against Me! (like fellow scene creamers, Blood Brothers) had a meta-hardcore lyrical obssession with the band’s own place within the punk social “scene,” and how that scene’s “kids” related to them, that couldn’t have had less to do with my own life. And Austin’s Riverboat Gamblers, while always adept at playing dumb (especially in their early days as devotees of the stressfully sensual kick-out-the-jams-anyone-fuckers, The Candy Snatchers), were always too smart and funny to properly soundtrack the lifestyle of self-agrandizingly tortured manhood I embraced at the time(s).

It’s not the usual insult to say that pop-punk is the comfort food of counterculture rock subgenres. I’m not talking about the mass produced empty calories celebrated in so many pop-punk songs because pop-punk was never half as trashy as it fancied itself, but I am talking about roadside diners, Denny’s back when it ruled, and a nicely made WaWa sandwich. Frilless and delicious, pop-punk, at its best, is the Strawberry Fribble of music. While America’s greatest living art form devoted largely to adolescent bodily functions has never placed a premium on being a “challenging” art (masturbation was kept as a lyrical concern so the rhythm section would never be tempted to jerk off with unnecessary time signatures), to dismiss the comparison as faint praise is to diminish a national pride of line cooks.

The near insufferable genius of Gaslight Anthem, besides the sheer absurdity of the gestures that they get away with, lies in how this band of New Jersey greaser socs manage to crack the pop-punk code, and then apply it to a universe where punk started with Nicks + Petty’s “Stop Draggin My Heart Around” and ended with Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down.” Gaslight Anthem, knowingly or not, took pop-punk’s comfort food and slathered it in the most lump free and built for speed mashed potatoes ever whipped by one of Bob’s Biggest Boys. They took comfort food and made it effervescent; practically ethereal. The only thing better than actual sustenance is the dream of it. And all of Gaslight Anthem’s gestures towards historical and emotional heft; the boardwalks, the backseats, the Betty Page tattoos crying themselves to sleep at home… all were dreams. Dream lipstick traces on dream cigarettes. It's not mere hagiography of the 1950s or whatever leftover imagery was bought off the Bon Jovi estate, it’s Fallon's insistence that all his obsessions belong in the canon of historical Americana iconography. The high top sneaker and the sailor tattoos are given equal weight. Time as a linear concept doesn’t actually matter. What the other peddlers in Glory Days paraphernalia deem important doesn’t matter. What matters is what gave Brian Fallon an emotional boner at 17. Brian Fallon’s sense of memorabilia is epic, like those roadside dinosaurs. And if Gaslight Anthem fancied themselves as rockers in some serious authorial way, more than a milkshake bop delivery service in the Classic Ramones sense, they were only correct in being wrong; indulging in the great Americana Tradition of lying to themselves. Instead, while being as true blue romantic as The Buzzcocks and as rock-steady streamlined as those aforementioned glue sniffing classicists from Queens, Gaslight Anthem imagined a new traditional pop-punk; a nostalgia free of fixed historical roots (regardless its insistence otherwise), the Misfits songbook taken to its logical conclusion. Monsters are irrelevant. It’s only monster posters on bedroom walls that matter. The album’s title might refer specifically to Sun Studios, but its “Mystery Train” real gone gettin’ is produced and mixed by Ted Hutt to sound as full bodied as Elvis in his ‘68 Comeback jumper and to go down as easy as two Punk Rock Bowling attendees in a loving, respecful, reciprocal and consensual relationship. Conversely, while the songs themselves are more built from the template of Marc Cohn’s spectrasonic reverie to going back to Memphis, Gaslight Anthem play them with the vigour of Chuck Berry doing the same. Brian Fallon has a gift for details. The scenery practically collapses into an avalanche of emotional touchstones. So there’s plenty of “there” there. But there sure as shit ain’t any “now.” Or "ever." In Gaslight Anthem’s cosmology, there never was. Pedants might insist that ‘59 Sound is not a punk album but, in their aping of a sonic oldies aesthetic that never actually existed until they recreated it, Gaslight Anthem amounted to the punks their long gone daddies always said they would.

The ‘59 Sound begins with the sound of an olde timey vinyl record crackling. Singer Brian Fallon’s affection for hideous car culture is deeply felt enough to make a Robert Moses smile in Hell. In this way, The ‘59 Sound is faciley conservative. But ‘59 Sound avoids the barely veiled toxicity of Lana Del Rey’s manifest destiny slash-fiction by being wide-eyed in its eliding of empire and counter-empire. Gaslight Anthem doesn't do ironic subversions/co-signings of American tropes. They sincerely just believe that Miles Davis and Audry Hepburn and Otis Redding and Kerouac are as blissfully American as apple pie and that goddamn ferris wheel they can’t seem to ever stop humping around on. Maybe, between the recording of ‘59 Sound and now, a member of Gaslight Anthem has seen Blue Velvet, but in 2008 the only thing Lynchian about the band’s worldview was the Wild At Heart haircut the subject of the album’s title track probably died in. Guiless ain't the same as innocent ain't the same as dumb. But if Brian Fallon thought From Out of The Past was a documentary, like Another State of Mind, I wouldn’t be least bit surprised. In fact I'd be delighted.

None of this weird praise should be taken as me saying that Gaslight Anthem were, in fact, dumb. Or remotely bad. Hell no. I think ‘59 Sound is brilliant and, even while occasionally rolling my cynic eyes, I've recently discovered that I can, like a Tik Tok-er summoning tears, physically recall the rare thrill that leaps in my heart when the “young boys/young girls” part of the album's title track kicks in. (also, for the record, according to this interview, Lynch's Mulholland Drive is Brian Fallon's favorite movie. So, so much for the above theory.) (also, in 2018, SideOneDummy released an album of early versions of the songs on '59 Sound. Rougher, raspier, and faster, The '59 Sound Sessions is incontrovertably an all caps POP-PUNK album, albeit in the vein of Marked Men. It's real swell, if not sublime. If it was what had been the released version, it's unlikely Gaslight Anthem would have gotten huge or reviewed by Pitchfork. But the troo indie pop-punkers undoubtedly would have revered the album to the moon and back. Rutgers would probably have a building named after it by now.)

I should hate this shit. And god knows I hate everything like it. I can barely stand every  non-Gaslight song that led to The Gaslight Anthem’s The 59 Sound, and I like every non-Gaslight song that came out of it even less.

I’ve worked service industry jobs, ranging from menial to hipster time killer, since I was fifteen and my mom made me walk down the hill from our post-Dad-Leaving New Ashford estate and get a gig washing dishes at The Springs Restaurant on Route 7. Despite fancying and over-fancying myself a working man, listening to Bruce Springsteen after a shift always struck me as akin to problem drinkers playing Tom Waits in a bar. Why not, instead of living so much on the nose, consider taking it down a notch instead? I went through an appropriately protracted Replacements phase as a teenager, but I left that barstool romanticism around the same time my half-pack-a-day affectation became a pack-a-day habit. As much as I enjoyed using my new, well below drinking age, teeth to pull the plastic bottle stopper off of handles of Georgi while mooning over best friends’ exes, I had an inkling, early on, that my human heart might require songs either more or less emotionally complex than what Paul Westerberg was bringing to the bartop. Not that I was averse to romanticising responsibility away. It just felt like what The Replacements and Bruce Springsteen were mythologizing was the day-to-day runaraound that my dad had, even when he thought of himself as a young Regular American heterosexual (who just happened to enjoy jazz and Sondheim), had left Lock Haven, Pennsylvania to avoid. Seemed perfectly plausible that I’d be a lyrical aside in "Here Comes A Regular" soon enough. So why did all my friends, still sticky from applying the glue and glitter to their Kill Rock Stars mixtapes, seem like they were in such a hurry to be twenty-six year old losers? I was as eager as any of them to have my selfishness and sloth rewritten (and sung) as world weary drama, but the last thing I wanted was a job. So I left beer/shot balladeering behind and looked to singers who were either too dumb or too pretty to ever own something so prosaic as a car. I could have tried to split the difference and doubled down on Pogues cosplay, but I’d been to Boston enough to know racism and sports was too high a price to pay, just to have throwing up on oneself justified as part of the mosaic of a peoples’ collective soul. And I could have given in entirely, learned how to drive, and fully embraced my casual Social Distortion fandom. But I’ve never looked right in a tank top. So, sure, I wanted songs in my head that ideally communicated through my eyes that I was a man with a past, one for whom the very concept of drama itself was to blame for the myriad ways I could let a girl or employer down. But it seemed that the lies I needed to tell myself had to be communicated in either the largely nuance-free, sporty arena of emotional/tough guy hardcore or the folkloric hoo-haw of Bad Seed goth. So, for me, at the dawn of my twenties, it was “goodbye, voice cracking crybabies,” and “hello, brutes and vampires!”

It might be more correct to blame the “drinking beer under the moonlight” nostalgia-for-last-week hooey of The (fine but not my thing) Menzingers, the (pretty useless) Beach Slang, and their ilk on Jawbreaker, but it was Gaslight Anthem’s success that made pop punk sentimentality seem economically viable and worthy of coverage in non-Razorcake publications. Not exactly a Hague-level offense but then, if America’s history of extraditing its own war criminals is any indication, few things are. But still, even while acknowledging the potency of Dillinger Four and such, it took a band as slick and sincere as Gaslight Anthem to make a Springsteen-core album that could make me a believer again, even briefly.

Because, despite my being a sworn enemy of barstool sincerity, unless delivered by a Chicago tough guy with a limited vocabulary or an Australian expat reciting Flannery O’Connor from a bathroom floor in Berlin, I fell for The ‘59 Sound hard. I took the CD with me to Arizona and wrote my first book of essays with it on constant repeat. I can't pinpoint exactly why Gaslight Anthem clicked for me, in a way nothing so brashly, man-boyishly, emotive had in years. Or how a band that directly referenced a Tom Robbins book ended up in my purchase pile in the first place. But the heart is a wacky hunter, kooky above all things. And every song on The '59 Sound felt like a lost radio hit from a universal concept of youth. Radio songs worth hours of idle chitchat with an otherworldly Casey Kasem spirit. Brian Fallon’s charisma, the kind James Deans and Luke Perrys alike are bottle fed at birth, made me sweat through my white t-shirt. I loved the band’s reverence for every trick in the Motown songwriting book; multiple bridges in every song (with the “we used to hang” breakdown appearing only once but doing the work of another band’s entire catalog) and each segue as powerful or more so then the ostensible chorus of any given song. And I loved the band’s drummer, Benny Horowitz, who should get some sort of Wagner Award for Appropriately Dramatic use of Crash Cymbal. I listened to the album every day, multiple times. For six months.

And then I stopped.

And then I hated it.

Like a lot of art that’s easy to love, I overindulged and then what had clicked on clicked off just as suddenly and, as though embarrassed by my own enthusiasm, I turned on it. The '59 Sound was easy indeed. Cheap even. A collection of gestures and cliches that had suckered me in, made me go from a sharp and cynical CBGBs type to a fallen woman seduced by fake punks who dressed like 19th Century Bowery B’hoys. I blushed at the very thought of Brian Fallon rasping his cheap seat sublimities and I blushed at the memory of how those goddamn songs, those…power ballads, had made me feel. I was no better than a Hold Steady fan, a Bon Jovi fan, an Arcade Fire fan. Christ, I was basically a Jesse Malin fan. Shuddering had nothing on where I was at, hipster-regret-ically speaking, when I thought of my lapse into feeling.

And that’s how it was for about a decade. I tucked in my shirt, mussed up my slicked back hair, rededicated myself to speed-aided dissociation and Nick Cave cosplay. Spent some time on twitter, had myself an angry good time, and whenever the chorus of “Old White Lincoln” got stuck in my head (every other month or so), I’d air guitar the opening riff of Inside Out’s “Burning Fight” (up to the moment of the shouted “RIGHT!”), until my head and heart were clear of Gaslight Anthem’s worldly pollution.

But now, for no conscious reason, I have revisited Gaslight Anthem. And now, like the medium font bands on a Riot Fest lineup, I’m back, baby, and ready to pretend 2008 never ended. For reasons unknown and inscrutable, the comforts I had tired of now feel like family. What I’d previously found precious, I find to be profound. What I’d written off as trope, I now feel as totem. With no other cause than a sublimated urge out of nowhere (or possibly the death of my mother, whose Bisbe, Arizona house was where I listened to The ‘59 Sound most), I started listening the record again. All the way through, and constantly.

Well. Shit. I guess the album’s appeal isn’t quite as esoteric as I supposed when I first came back to it.

Some people look to doom metal and some look to A Crow Looked At Me. Some people prefer Pantera’s “Cemetery Gates'' or Boyz ll Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday” (or "End of The Road"). Some prefer silence or hard drugs. All good options. Apparently, for me, it’s The ‘59 Sound. The album still fails to provide the lies I need, but apparently there are other forms of sustenance.

I was telling my girl, Zohra, about the record. I played her the video for the album’s title track, which I’d never seen. It’s a pretty corny song, I told her. Kind of a Hold Steady type band but less clever and therefore more my speed, I told her. In the video, all the band members are cavorting upstairs from a wake for some ex-Flogging Molly roadie or another, and all of Brian Fallon’s eyebrows are conveying angelic grief. Zohra said “well..this is better than Hold Steady.” Then Zohra said, not unkindly, “I’m surprised you like this.” And I was embarrassed, in the way it goes when your partner doesn’t think your favorite comedian is funny or that “what if we all see different reds” is a terribly smart philosophical question. I was about to turn it off. And then the “And I know 'cause we were kids and we used to hang/And I know 'cause we were kids and we used to hang” pre-chorus kicked in and I started crying. And then Zohra was crying, her face against mine. And the bridge of “young boys, young girls...ain’t supposed to die on a Saturday night” happened and we were both just sobbing to beat the band. Holding each other on our bed, crying like babies. Uncontrollably. Our cats were very distressed. When the song ended, I wiped my tears and apologized. I said again, sniffling, that the song was corny and Zohra said, with a fair amount of heat, “It is NOT corny. It’s how people feel. It’s how you and I feel. It is not corny.”

I’m laughing, telling this story. Laughing, embarrassed, physically anticipating that bridge kick in again, the whole song coming on again, just laughing; a flush rising inside me not unlike “chains I’ve been hearing now for most of my life”, I guess! A full on feelings revival, I guess! I’m belly full of amused, embarrassed, heart clenched feeling. I bet this is what it's like to be haunted by Marilyn Monroe or to be married to Norman Mailer or to own a car. It's coming out of my eyes. I'm positively rattling with the stuff.

Thanks for reading!