This morning, I happened to see a post from Josey, a young cousin on my dad’s side of the family in Iowa, that referenced a quote from Brian Fallon, the literate, passionate frontman for New Jersey-based roots-rockers the Gaslight Anthem. The quote was a reminder along the simple but wise lines of using all of your senses to soak up, savor, and absorb life in its totality, and not take the days for granted. It may have not been rocket science, or a reinvention of the proverbial wheel. But it rang true — taking notice and taking stock is something I’ve always tried to do — and I think the audience the sentiment was aimed at (translation: way younger than myself) maybe could use reminding. Hell, they may have read it and even looked up from their smart phones to consider the idea for a flicker or a twitter of a second.
Anyway, I had interviewed Brian Fallon for The Boston Globe some years back, when his scrappy little band’s songs and music hadn’t yet connected with the national audience they would soon reach with their sophomore breakthrough, “The ’59 Sound.” I remembered what a genuinely enjoyable and substantive conversation we had, Fallon’s frank sense of self-awareness, and the unspoiled, un-jaded perspective he projected as he contemplated, with a refreshing sincerity that didn’t seem scripted, what he wanted out of his music and his life. Fallon struck me as being a lot like the striving, hardscrabble characters and stories he sang about. Like them, he seemed marked by a few character-building life scars; a little wounded but steadfastly resilient and maybe even stronger because of them; a romantic believer in noble struggles and ridiculous longshots (not unlike himself); an average joe with a knack for writing melodies and music that was anything but; a guy whose outward, tee-shirt and-tatted, non-rock star ordinariness made him all the more believable and relatable. Both he and the people who populated his songs were folks you wanted to root for. If that’s not a winning formula for a singer-songwriter, I don’t know what is.
So seeing that posted quote about not taking anything for granted got me listening and thinking — as good music always does — about friends, family, luck and fate, and — since it was Josey and her post who had triggered my synapses — the emotionally rich but bittersweet circumstances around which I first met my cousin and her (and my) family for the first time back in 2005. It was the year after my father had died after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer — an insidiously corrosive year for me that, in hindsight, had (as with the previous two) worn me down, hollowed me out, and left me more physically rudderless and mentally unmoored than I ever thought possible or realized at the time.
Perhaps craving a welcome diversion and a necessary distraction (and maybe a way to find an elusive anchor that seemed buried deeply in some murky psychic waters, out of sight, reach, and beyond my view), my brother Chris and I decided to take some time away from life’s everyday pressures and responsibilities, and take a road trip: a journey in Chris’s able-bodied Toyota Tacoma truck from our home base in Massachusetts to our dad’s childhood hometown of Clarion, Iowa. I had never been there (Chris had), and lamented how it would have been so fulfilling to have been able to make the trip with my father (dad and I had actually planned to make the trip two years earlier to attend the local production of a comedy he had written about love, aging, and children named “Change Of Seasons,” before he became too sick to travel). But now, this venture felt like the best way possible (and really the only way) to keep that appointment somehow; a way to stay close — and get closer — to dad’s keenly felt presence, and even more keenly felt absence.
We wanted to finally meet the family members and visit the boyhood haunts we had only heard of, from both my dad (and read about through his published memoirs and stories) and our Uncle Bob and Aunt Ada, the latter of whom had visited us several magical, looked-forward-to summers in a row back in the mid-’70s (1976-78 if you wanna know). So my brother and I made the pilgrimage, cranking the contents along the way of a big plastic bag of homemade cassettes I had taped from albums over the past couple of decades, starting in college. Most were dorm room staples of the day (Both David Gilmour and Syd Barrett were well represented on my Pink Floyd two-fer, “Wish You Were Here” and “A Saucerful of Secrets”) that now served as a time capsule document of 1983-84 (my roommate, Sod, was way into Floyd). Others I had specially dubbed to accompany me on road trip drives to visit my best friend’s college in Maryland. One long weekend, I gave myself over to the thrall of The Cure’s “Hot Hot Hot” double album, which took up a lot of tape space, backed by whatever I could fit of their follow-up, “Disintegration,” as I made a ridiculously long drive to attend the college graduation of someone I barely knew beyond meeting her, and hitting it off, at her brother’s (my friend’s) wedding earlier that spring. Turns out she had invited me just to make her boyfriend, with whom she was feuding, jealous. At the end of my my four or five hour drive, I received a heatless hug and a ‘thank you for coming, you’re so sweet!’, for my efforts (which included a bouquet of flowers chilling on ice in my mini-beer cooler).
I slept alone in her dorm room with nothing in her mini-fridge to keep me company, after she had cheerfully, but matter-of-factly informed me that she would be staying with her parents in a cozy hotel and quickly departed with her family. Everybody, it seemed, was in on the ruse — “new bogus boyfriend bluff,” I believe, is the technical term for it — except me. The grand plan must have worked, and I must have done the trick because she got back together with her schmucky (I’m only guessing about character traits here) boyfriend soon after he saw her new escort for graduation weekend. Feeling a little used, I cranked the Cure even louder on the longer drive home,with a prescriptive medicinal dose of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Darklands” album and the Modern Lovers debut to really get me in a good melancholic and self-pitying frame of mind. I consoled myself by musing whether my friend’s sister’s strategic little ploy, in essence, had elevated an unwitting me to “boy toy” or “arm candy” status; that when you really thought about it, my considerable charm, charisma, and perfectly mannered attentiveness to this young woman represented what a “good boyfriend” should be. Maybe my awesomeness scared her boyfriend straight! Ego bruised but healing, I consoled myself with my flattering description of myself and threw on a tape of the Stones’ ” “Some Girls,” twisting Keith’s and Ronnie’s guitars up to an unreasonably loud level for the modest interior square footage of my rattling Renault hatchback: “Some girls take my money, some girls take my clothes, some girls get the shirt off my back and leave me with a lethal dose!” Ahh, now that’s better.
Or leave me with my tapes at least. Every time I broke out that Cure tape, it became an instant 90-minute slice of time-travel, connecting me back to my history. As I said, that’s what good music does. I’ve always been blessed with a particularly vivid memory, and the ability to retrieve not just whole events, but whole eras in time and place and — both to my benefit and detriment — relive them. I sometimes wonder how much of that has to do with keeping so many memories so close at hand, at the ready, filed and stacked in rows upon rows of LP shelves and keepsake cassette and CD cases.
And I’ve kept just about everything through the years. What can I say? I’m a dedicated collector (my wife might call it something else that begins with the “h” word); a habitual keeper of mementos and memories; and an archivist by nature. But finally, in the name of space — or the fast-diminishing lack of it — I had decided I was at long last ready to part with those tapes on the other side of our road trip. Listening to them all would be a last fling for both of us (did my wife happen to mention that I tend to anthropomorphize cherished objects?). My one caveat: no mix tapes given (I’d usually make a copy for my archives) or received (especially those!) were to be sacrificed. Lovingly assembled and painstakingly tracked and sequenced, they were time capsules with tape heads; precious and irreplaceable.
A couple of thousand miles and days, motel stops, and a Niagara Falls detour later, we reached our destination — Chris and I having marveled at how surprisingly great the LP dub of the Dire Straits’ “Love Over Gold” (backed with U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire”) sounded on that 20-year-old Maxwell XL-90. With a heavy heart, but having persuaded myself that it was the right and necessary thing to do, I trudged, bundle in tow, through the doorway of a Salvation Army store, which happened to sit right next door to another kind of cluttered shrine to ancient artifacts my dad and his younger brother had haunted during their days in Clarion: The Knotty Pine Bar and Grill.
For some strange reason, as I pulled opened the handles of the bag, I detected a slight hesitation, a vague reluctance on the part of the somewhat quizzical employees to grasp the full import of what I was giving up. Finally, after a polite explanation of my donation (but what I was really thinking was: ‘You should be grateful to be the lucky beneficiary of all of my hard-earned musical wisdom and impeccable taste!’ — But no, I did not speak this out loud) the huge Santa bag of homemade goodies was accepted by the cashier with not nearly the fanfare I thought it deserved. I doubt she thought the store could sell something that wasn’t a cheaply manufactured, officially licensed piece of crap guaranteed to wear out or malfunction within a year. (Insert resigned sigh here). I turned, somewhat self-protectively, away from the carnage and immediately retired to that waiting sanctuary of healing (the Knotty Pine) to console myself and numb the sting of irretrievable loss.
Eminently retrievable was more like it. Little did I know, but my tapes’ temporary home alongside the shelves of “World’s Number One” divorced dad mugs, Spuds Mackenzie ceramic collectibles, and bathtub-waterlogged copies of “The Thorn Birds” was mercifully short-lived. In a poetic case of perfect Kismet and crass opportunism, soon after bending his sympathetic ear with my tale of the tapes, Scotty, our cheerful Knotty Pine bartender, made a hasty, wordless exit. “Hey guys, watch the bar for me?” he asked us with one foot already out the door. Although he had taken a big gamble by leaving two Norms alone in charge of the kegs and taps of Clarion’s version of “Cheers,” I recall us being two honest, reasonably well-behaved brothers. No doubt the same small-town request had been made by a barkeep, at one time or another over the years, of Jack and Bob Perry, at some Happy Hour fifty years earlier.
A few hours and numbed memories later, Chris and I sauntered back to the Knotty Pine to unwind (believe it or not, we did leave) after a long day of doing not much of anything except driving around town, seeing pretty much exactly the same sights our dad and uncle saw growing up (including the small, white clapboard house they grew up in), and exploring endless dirt roads dotted by family farms, a few scattered livestock, and not much else. So yeah, whew! We were exhausted!
Amazingly, as I walked through the Knotty Pine’s front door, the sound of Wilco’s “Being There” album — my copy of “Being There,” no less, dubbed from my original vinyl — hit me. Or surrounded me, enveloped me, caressed me, is more like it. The sensation I felt was something akin to that moment in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” when Harvey Keitel walks in to the bar while the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” fills the room like a swirling soundtrack to his life. Something swept over me as my brain scrambled to process, and fully grasp what was happening in all its symbolic, heavily weighted significance. Then, all the wires in my head and heart connected up to each other, and I knew. After years of sitting silently waiting and waiting — mute memories that had long ago been cased up and put away in boxes — those tapes were once again providing a perfect soundtrack to a critical moment in my life.
In effect, my complete 1983-2000 cassette collection — built over eras and years of home-taping my roommate’s LPs and CDs, various radio shows and specials, to dubs of my own extensive vinyl collection — had, by default, been anointed the Knotty Pine’s unofficial house music for the forseeable future. Scotty did me the honor of even telling me so. (Ahh, this was the fanfare, the tribute to those tapes, I needed to hear). And then I saw it again: that bulging bag, heavy with all my years of handiwork and hand-written album and song titles. I calculated that, even had Scotty played only one tape a day, it would easily have taken him the better part of a year to get through the contents now sitting (contentedly? peacefully? Or was I imagining that?) on the back bar. And just think how many folks — regulars young and old, passersby — might drop into the bar and hear my music in the course of a year or more? Maybe they’d even like some of it or be curious about who was playing over the Pine’s modest sound system, maybe it would be the first time a singer or song touched them. Suddenly, the scenario made me feel tangibly connected to Clarion, its people, and ultimately, my dad and uncle.
Speaking of my dad, I felt a plaintive, resonant, minor-chord key strike loud and rattle inside me when we finally made it to the small theater where Jack’s play had been produced two years earlier. It was the visit that we, and he, never made. My senses were heightened with the prospect of completing our plan at last, and my heart was primed for racing, as it was. But then I stepped inside the lobby and saw it.
Encased inside the thick glass cabinet of the concession counter that held souvenir sweatshirts, programs, and official Iowa River Players merchandise was a single framed photograph: the very photograph I had taken in New York City of my dad the last full summer he lived, in June 2003, and sent the theater the following autumn to promote the play in his stead. In the picture (I can see that close-up photo in my mind as clearly as the computer screen in front of me) dad is gazing at the camera (me) with a slight, head-tilted squint in the late afternoon sun, leaning on his wooden cane (out of view) for support.
His mouth seems fixed in a muted half-smile of semi-formal, circumspect regard for where he is on this day, standing next to the marquee poster announcing his final play. Then and now, his dignified expression nevertheless suggested that he was either a little nervous for that evening’s performance, or bemused that he was likely living its, and his, final act.
His white-grey hair was combed meticulously the way he’d been combing it meticulously for decades (swept back from the sides and forehead), and his handsomely distinguished face, always narrow, was thinner than I’d ever seen it. He was wearing a tie and his favorite, ubiquitous royal blue blazer — no doubt dad knew what color worked well for his eyes — with his equally ubiquitous faux-leather eyeglasses case wedged in the left breast pocket. In little over a year from this moment, he would be buried in that blazer. Suddenly seeing his face again, feeling his face, gazing at me from behind that glass, hit me like a punch to the breadbasket. I felt rocked to my heels even as all the air was pulled from inside me. An involuntary, convulsive sob of recognition seized me like a reflex. It was out before I could stop it.
Believe it or not, seeing Josey’s post this morning — and then throwing on some Gaslight Anthem this afternoon — has led me on this new, scenic road trip through digressive detours and the twisting back roads of my mind. I’ve actually thought about it a lot over the years (my head is where most of what’s on this page first took shape). And of course the family I met. Josey was awkward and sweet; a big fan of Green Day and a shy teenager with braces back then. Her older brother, Quinn, was tall and trying to decide what he wanted to do after high school. Their mom and my cousin, Barb, was vivacious, spirited, and wonderful. Her husband, Kelly, was friendly and grounded and comfortable with his wife being the star of their small town. Aunt Ada was, as ever, the charming, gently ruling matriarch not above a wink and a warm cackle. She smiled and laughed a lot with us that week. Hell, we all smiled and laughed a lot, awash in a moment that felt as if it was suspended in time. Or perhaps it had really been pleasantly out of time and place, much like that little sleepy town was out of time and place, or on its own schedule.
Chris and I are a little older now (but hopefully, not too much), with young kids of our own, and Josey and her brother are all grown up now with lives of their own. Sadly, Aunt Ada has since left us. But the memories and sensations of that trip remain as real and indelible as any residual physical evidence of it (like these pictures or my Knotty Pine coin purse). Time can’t take that away. And while it’s true I no longer have the physical cassette tapes encased in their hard-shell plastic cases, their cumulative power remains resonant, perhaps even more so than had I carted that bag back to Boston and filed them away again. This way, I figure, those tapes have taken on properties purer and more powerful: they’ve banded together to become an immortal, indispensable, untouchable part of my personal cosmos of memory and experience. It’s music that drove that landmark road trip, played through it, came from it, and helped to define it. And now, having re-connected (or, maybe connected is the more accurate word) with an entire half of my family and relatives, I know there are more memories to be made, and more music to listen to as we make them.
As I hear The Gaslight Anthem (whose story follows below) I get the feeling that this band in particular — whose lifeblood lies in songs about losses and gains, hopes and dreams, and the noble struggle to connect — would understand the splendor of savoring such things.
DREAMING UP POSSIBILITY: The Gaslight Anthem Strive To Make A Sound For ’59 and Beyond
Springsteen couldn’t have written it any better. It was around 1990 and his name was Brian Fallon, a 10-year-old kid growing up in New Jersey whose parents were trying to make ends meet. Brian’s mom wrote grant proposals for the same hospital where she gave birth to him. His dad had been laid off from the Nestlè factory in Freehold. Times were tough. When Brian asked his mom for a stereo for Christmas, like all the other kids had, she said they just couldn’t afford it. But she had an idea.
“In the freezing cold winter, we got a paper route together,” Fallon, now 28, recalls. “She was doing it to pay off some of the bills and I was doing it to buy my stereo.” Rock and roll, he remembers, picked that moment to show him a way out. “I was sitting in the back of the car at 5 or 6 in the morning, and my mom would always play me music – she was a folk singer in college – and we were driving and ‘Just Like A Woman’ by Bob Dylan came on the radio. I was like, ‘Whoa, stop everything!’ I heard this song and everything kinda just came down at once – I remember the feeling, that I don’t want to be freezing cold and struggle like this. I want to do that. I thought, well, if he could do it – and he can’t even sing – I’m doing it. I got the guitar and that was it.”
After that winter, Fallon saved enough from his paper route to buy that stereo, which led to a whole lot of other music besides Dylan – Bruce Springsteen (naturally), Tom Petty, the Replacements – and eventually, the music he started making with a rock band of his own called the Gaslight Anthem. The recurring themes found in the work of those bands – struggle, stumbles, and salvation distilled into deeply personal songs about growing up – are at the core of both the Gaslight Anthem’s bracing 2007 debut, “Sink or Swim,” and its even better follow-up, “The ‘59 Sound.”
Fallon’s gruff but tender voice and heart-on-sleeve, hard-luck lyrics, pushed along by the group’s fiercely ragged power roots approach, has quickly found an audience. After a headlining club tour that brings it to the Middle East Upstairs tomorrow night, the Gaslight Anthem will head to Europe before returning to the States to join this summer’s Warped Tour. The sudden attention has left the band – which includes bassist Alex Levine, drummer Benny Horowitz, and guitarist Alex Rosamilia – a bit taken aback.
“We’ll go to play a show and say, ‘I hope we have some kids here,’ and they’ll tell us we’re sold out already. And we’ll say, ‘Are these people here for the right band’?,” recounts Fallon with a self-conscious laugh. He speaks with the same kind of mixture of sincerity, warmth, and contemplative humility – if not volume – that fuels songs like “Great Expectations” and “The ‘59 Sound”’s title track. When we talk, the band is on location at a beach near Asbury Park, shooting a promotional video. “We expected to go through some punishment for a bunch of years before anything ever happened – if anything ever did. So it’s been like, ‘Let’s not even analyze this, let’s just leave it alone and be grateful.’ “
“Here it’s funny because you don’t really grow up thinking your going to be a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist,” adds Fallon, who grew up in New Brunswick. “Everybody here does what their father does, or something close to it. You don’t see a lot of people from here saying, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be an actor.’ There’s a lot of, ‘Well, my dad works in a factory, so I guess I’m gonna probably work in a factory.’ There’s not that sense of possibility. You have to dream up your own.”
Indeed, the defiant mantra of “no retreat, no regrets,” which Fallon half sings, half shouts on “Meet Me By The River’s Edge” seems to sum up his worldview. Likewise, the bittersweet fairy tale of “Here’s Looking At You, Kid” and most of the new album’s dozen songs, are stirring sketches; sharply drawn portraits of people on the razor’s edge of hope and futility. Ultimately, where “Sink or Swim”’s rag-tag parade of dime-store prophets and dirty angels offered a glimpse of the Gaslight Anthem’s vast, precocious potential, “The ‘59 Sound” is an album of dreamed-up possibilities fully realized. And really, they’re just now getting started.
“I could care less about ever having a number one single,” Fallon says. “I would just like to be able to play and have people who grow old with you, and you stay with them through their life. We’ve got a few sentences, maybe, to say what life’s about. Hopefully, we’ll get a chapter later.”
Check out The Gaslight Anthem’s home page on the web for all sorts of goodies, including European and U.S. tour dates this year in support of their brand new “Get Hurt” album (a U.S. tour begins in February): http://www.thegaslightanthem.com/home/