Who needs to read another word about punk? But allow me this: it is the germ of rock n roll. That is, it is the three-chord four-four coiled beginning of one of the truly great things that America—amongst all of our brutal sleights of hand—has given the world. The Gaslight Anthem is more than an American band born in the world of 45s and tat sleeves and porkpie hats. They are the kind of band that writes songs upon which folks can hang their bad days and their dreams for three minutes and 30. The played Webster Hall last night, July 24th. It was the best crowd I’d been in in years and years.
They opened their set with “Mae”, a surprising and slow-burning choice, chiming U2 and pulsing Cure guitars, from their new album, Handwritten, released that day. It is a testament to their trust of their crowd that they could emerge onto the stage in the dark, star lights twinkling on the back wall, and play a dream whisper about love lost and longed for.
“While this city pumps its aching heart / For one more drop of blood,” Brian Fallon sang. “We work our fingers down to dust / And we wait for kingdom come / With the radio on.”
And then a black flag unfurled down over those starlight twinkles, “Gaslight Anthem” and some indeterminate tangle of feathers and scales, and they blew off into “The ’59 Sound”, a rave-up prayer for dead friends and the radio, then “45”, a tumbling dance for vinyl and the release of past love, then ‘Old White Lincoln,’ all pop bounce in honor of that unnamable confluence in the heart of summer nights and open car windows, Fallon singing of how “the radio spoke to a good friend of mine” and then the crowd swelling louder than him with the chorus, pushing him back in surprise, “The sky up above these indifferent stars / While you just kept coming apart / Straight in my arms,” carrying the thing themselves.
There were too many such moments in the show to count. And that brings us to The Almighty Radio. It’s referenced in six of the 26 songs played. Redemption or consolation of some form always comes along with it. It is as if the simple declarative statement of the radio’s existence imbues everything around it with some kind of magic, and central to that magic is the communal act of listening—of investing yourself in the song as a group, not a melon plugged up with ear buds. The communion of listening together, out loud, to the vibrations of the sound rippling out into the open world, that is at the core of the band’s meaning.
And the crowd buys tickets for that. I watched more people crowd surf than at any time since I left high school in ‘96. Boys from 18 to 40-something and beautiful, beautiful girls danced their asses off. Dancing to rock n roll swagger and muscled guitar! That is an endangered ritual.
In a city plagued with indifferent crowds, people at Webster Hall last Tuesday weren’t the people who read of The Next Big Thing. They weren’t there because the band is on the ascent, because Handwritten hit number one on iTunes at its release, because with this album it has gone far to synthesize its punk foundation, its emo textures, its pop lift and its soul strut and its Springsteen faith into a cohesive Gaslight whole. They danced there, even grown into a stage of life in which they have to wear long-sleeved button downs tucked into slacks for work, because they know not just the new songs but the words to the old songs, songs from a now shadowy and storied time of small-batch 7”s and this generation of bands hustling their ways up through the hash houses of America, songs that make, like everybody from the Shangri-Las to the Ramones, something deeply meaningful out of a hall full of people shouting “Oh sha-la-la” in unison, songs that find romance in dancing in the moonlight, all right, all right, all right!
Fallon described the band as “four kids from New Jersey who got in a band one day and quit our jobs and decided not to go back.” It is rock n roll lore—part of the fairy tale—and always in peril of becoming part of some kind of generic brand.
But it is a true fairy tale. The songs from those fairy tales made real have been the soundtrack of my life, and I am not alone. Radios and desperate loves and the backseats of cars are for some of us fundamental building blocks. They connect us to something larger than ourselves in ways that feel true and hot-blooded. And that is why every shitty garage band on the planet is worth more than every carefully assembled onslaught playing in the ceiling when you walk into the bank. Vision born out of shared love matters.
The fairy tale continues to breathe because, thank God, punk rock keeps giving us punks like Fallon, Rosamilia, Horowitz, and Levine—punks like, for instance, the Once-Upon-a-Time boys in Uncle Tupelo and The Replacements, punks bold enough to lash to their sleeves their love and desperation and unabashed faith in that three-chord four-four and grow into something sustaining.
On the title track off the new record, Fallon tells us he’s been crying to his favorite songs since he was young. He’s looking for somebody to heal. He sings “Let it out, let me in, take ahold of my hand / There’s nothing like another soul that’s been cut up the same / And did you wanna drive without a word in-between? / I can understand, you need a minute to breathe / And to sew up the seams / After all this defeat.”
Our lives are filled with defeat. Some parts of our best selves are locked in the lives we led before we took stupid jobs and started juggling bill payments and made lousy marriages and settled for some piece of nothing on the tube or the grocery store sound system since living is exhausting and you have to dull some of the brighter corners of yourself because without room to spread they start to burn.
Tuesday night, the Gaslight Anthem honored and destroyed some of that defeat with their defiance of it. The crowd loved them for it. They are married to them for it. Because sometimes defeat means you simply won’t bend. And the band proves that after defeat after defeat after defeat—after all those ripped seams—the light may just open up to reward your stubbornness and bravery with a band or an audience.