In the summer before I turned sixteen, I worked in a grocery store as a part-time bag boy. One night I covered for a new employee, some southern man in his early twenties who had recently dropped out of college and pissed off his wealthy parents so much they forced him to get a job. "Blake," I believe was his name, abruptly abandoned his first night shift duties to go out drinking with friends. He conveniently came back just as the store was closing. The manager never knew Blake had left the premises that night, because I doubled up on assignments. As a thank you, a buzzed Blake invited me on a trip the next day with a bunch of his friends. The following morning, my mother dropped me off in front of the supermarket. As soon as our beat-up old Buick pulled out of the parking lot, I slipped into a bathroom and traded my shirt, tie, dress pants and green apron for a white T-shirt, ripped blue jeans and a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors. I quickly made my way to the back of the store and pulled up the door to the loading dock where a bunch of pickups, muscle cars and Jeeps had gathered in a caravan. Blake didn't recognize me at first, but then said, "Oh yeah, hey, can you give me a hand with that case of beer?" Without thinking, I swiped a case or two of warm Budweiser from the top of a pallet jack and jumped in the back of one of the cars.
The driver was some surfer -- also in his early twenties. His girlfriend was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen up to that point. "Virginia" - we'll call her that, since I can't actually remember her real name -- she was a soft blonde, with a huge smile, a touch of freckles, and long tan legs she perched on the dashboard so you could notice her bare feet, pink toenails and the small tattoo of a rose just above her left ankle.
"You like Tom Petty?" Virginia said to me, smiling as she slipped Damn The Torpedoes into the cassette deck. She could have said "Do you like the songs of Abe Vigoda?" and I would have replied with "Sure."
Being a young, recently relocated East coast kid, I didn't know much of Petty beyond "American Girl" at that point, but listening to Virginia belt out "Don't Do Me Like That" made me a fan for life.
I cracked open some beers at Virginia's request as we followed the caravan through some North Florida back roads en route to a private riverfront on some undeveloped property probably owned by Blake's parents. Midway through the trek, I pulled out a cassette, side six of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's Live 1975-1985, and boldly asked Virginia to play it. "You must be from New Jersey?" She says.
"New York, actually."
"Big shot," she jokes.
For the rest of the ride, Virginia alternated between the sounds of the proud son of Gainesville and the proud son of Freehold against her surfer boy's request to "just pick one." She aggravated him further with a flirtatious "No Surrender" sing-a-long aimed at winning my affections.
The scene at the river's edge was right out of Born to Run, with a little bit of Southern Accents thrown in for good measure. Beer. Barbecue. Barefoot girls tanning on the hoods of cars--watching their Romeos trying to outdo each other with who can do the craziest backflip into the water. It was an iconic American summer afternoon. The driving rhythms of classic rock, screeching electric guitars and the wailing of valiant front men filled the air. I didn't know anybody, but it didn't matter. I passed time watching Virginia kiss her beau in the water-- wishing it was me, and soaking in that feeling of freedom that only comes with teenage youth and rock 'n' roll, perhaps for the first time.
Twenty years later, I am on the Pacific Coast Highway stuck in traffic, not free in any sense of the word -- I got a mortgage, bills, Blackberry vibrating every three seconds with alternate messages from work or the wife, horns honking, car air conditioning unit is broken, I am late to pick up the kids -- I switch on NPR, in the middle of Tom Moon's story about this new band called The Gaslight Anthem. Just as a snippet of "The '59 Sound," comes on the radio, traffic lets up, and I hit the gas, Brian Fallon and Alex Rosamilia dig into their guitars and the sudden memory of this river tale rushes over me in less than thirty seconds.
Dozens and dozens of great bands have burst onto the scene between that day on the St. John's and my life now near the Pacific. The Gaslight Anthem did so with fists pumping and hearts on their sleeve, both paying homage to the rock heroes before them and working steadily to take their place among them. No easy feat, especially when you consider this fragmented music market. Tom Moon put it best when he wrote, The Gaslight Anthem, "captures the moment when the renegade in his late teen years bumps into the responsibilities of the adult world for the first time. It's sober stuff, and yet it doesn't feel that way."
That moment of collision, where freedom confronts responsibility/authority, has been the very essence of rock 'n' roll, dating back to Chuck Berry. The names of the characters, cars, and locales may change, but the anthem remains the same-- "Go forward and cut a life for yourself." And for most of us, the tension between freedom and responsibility doesn't end at 25 or 45 and judging by the recent prolific output of our aging rockers like Dylan, Petty and Springsteen-- it doesn't end at 75 either. We all measure the life we have against the life we set out for, and always keep pushing for better.
"I didn't understand his music for a long time, until I began to yearn--until I began to question the things I was making and doing in my own life," said The Daily Show's Jon Stewart of Bruce Springsteen at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors.
My hope is forty years from now, someone will say the same of Brian Fallon, the lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem. What he and his band have done is gone back in time to help move the rock genre forward. "Great Expectations," the first song off their second album, The '59 Sound, begins with the scratchy sound of a needle hitting an LP at 33 RPM. At one point, you even hear the actual sound of an "Old White Lincoln" car door closing. On just about every song of their second album, they unabashedly reference classic songs or directly name drop from a "who's who" of rock 'n' roll history-- everyone from Otis Redding to Tom Waits to Elvis Costello to the Counting Crows gets some sort of a shout out.
While the driving guitars and sonic drumming propel the songs forward into the 21st century, the romantic lyrics harkens back to a time when a guy, moved by the summer moon, would place a kiss upon a stone and toss it near a girl's window, as the lead character does in one of their songs, "Miles Davis and the Cool." These kinds of maneuvers might cause a lesser band to be laughed off the stage-- after all, young people don't throw stones near windows anymore-- they text each other. But The Gaslight Anthem delivers these sweeping nostalgic gestures with such conviction inside such tightly constructed songs. They almost always pull it off, and the more they try, the more you root for them to succeed. Their influences stretch beyond Tom Petty and the Boss, and often delve into territory more familiar to fans of The Clash and The Cure. You get the sense these guys are huge fans of all kinds of music, including gospel and jazz. Whatever their influence, they manage to make records sound completely new and completely familiar at the same time.
Their latest album is American Slang, which is equal in scope and scale to their 2008 masterwork, albeit slightly more mature musically and lyrically. American Slang is a 35-minute slice of life about what happens to us after the first traces of heartbreak and disappointment set in -- asking the questions like, will you be ok now that you're older, and not as lucky? Will be OK now that you woke up alone? But this is a story told by a Jersey punk band with a sensitive side, so their rhythms will empower you and their choruses will make you stand up and sing along.
The album begins with the fist-pumping title track where the young are spurned by the "fortunes that came for richer men," and it ends with the moving lament "We Did It When We Were Young" -- the story of two lovers whose spark has "faded like your name on those jeans I had burned." With the exception of the playful "The Diamond Church Street Choir," the romance on this record rears itself differently. In the torch song, "Bring it On," you imagine the girl from "Miles Davis and The Cool," now as a young mother moving closer into another man's arms, and the husband/father roars defiantly: "Give me the fevers that just won't break/ And give me the children you don't want to raise/And tell me about the cool he sings to you in those songs/If it's better than my love, then bring it on."
Patrick Foster of the Washington Post wrote in a very favorable review of the new album, "The Gaslight Anthem might be the first millennial band to crack the 'Dad Rock' market." As a 37-year old father of two, I was mortified to be classified in the "Dad Rock" category. In the rock 'n' roll universe, Dads were never the good guys. It's a fundamental rule of rock; Dads are always the villains (See Springsteen's "Independence Day" or Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" should you need proof.) In fact, I have wrestled for weeks, much to my wife's amusement, about whether to attend tonight's Gaslight Anthem concert at LA's Wiltern Theater-- because it would be the first time I would attend a concert where I was older than the lead singer. (Something I never thought possible.)
For my entire life, front men like the Bruce and Bono, Petty and Strummer, were the shamans leading the way, with anthems for those of us looking to catch a little wisdom as we waited for our moments to arrive. And these artists were also there to console us, when those moments didn't come. If you look around at the music industry today, there are not many of those sage front men types left. Fallon is an exception. Maybe that's why so many of us Dads want to see him in concert, although given the number of tattoos he wears on his body, we might be weary if one of our daughters brought him home on a date.
The moment when I decided to go to tonight's show came as I picked up a new pair of Chuck Taylors-- the ones that belong to my three-year-old son. I started thinking about the life he is going to live, his heroes, his loves, the fights he'll win, the losses he'll experience, the schemes he'll run on me, and whether he'll handle the journey into adulthood better than his old man. I hope so.
And maybe some day I'll tell him about Virginia, the southern muse who laid down in the backseat of '87 Mustang on the ride back from the river, telling me about her dreams of moving to New York. Or maybe I'll tell him a cautionary tale about this cool cat named Blake, who went back to college after three days as a bag boy. I never saw either of them again after that day. But as I will explain to my son, one day can be enough, because we will have shared a love of blue jeans, white T-shirts, and rock 'n' roll. And in life, sometimes that's all you need.
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