Brian Fallon needs to correct himself.
“The kids are real excited,” the singer-guitarist starts to say when asked how the first few shows of the Gaslight Anthem‘s current tour celebrating the 10th anniversary of The ’59 Sound have been going.
“I say kids, but they’re not kids, which I’m finding out. It’s funny, because you always assume that when you look out on an audience, especially when you do something like The ’59 Sound, you have this element of when it happened, like I’m playing a record I wrote when I was 26, so for some reason you assume that the audience is still 26. But they’re not.”
Fallon, now 38, is in the midst of the first few shows that he’s played with the Gaslight Anthem since 2015. That year, not long after recording their mixed-bag fifth album Get Hurt (Fallon has compared it unfavorably to the Replacements’ All Shook Down), the New Jersey roots-punk band announced an indefinite hiatus.
The reason for the group’s temporary reunion? The ’59 Sound, the group’s breakthrough second album. Released in August 2008, just as the global economy was collapsing in the final months of George W. Bush’s presidency, the album became a cult classic, capturing a communal loss of innocence for a generation, raised on baby-boomer nostalgia, that had suddenly found itself facing a newly uncertain, student-debt–saddled future.
“The album was sort of a funeral for those years when you’re in your teens or early twenties, the things you hold as idealistic,” Fallon says today, looking back on the record.
When the band first got back together earlier this summer, they contemplated recording new material (“when an anniversary comes up, you start to think about that naturally”), but for now they have no plans to record or tour beyond a series of anniversary shows that run through August.
Instead, on Friday, to celebrate the album’s anniversary, the Gaslight Anthem will release The ’59 Sound Sessions, a collection of demos, alternate takes and outtakes from the sessions with the album’s producer Ted Hutt.
Just a few days after performing the album in New York, Rolling Stone spoke to Brian Fallon about The ’59 Sound‘s surprising staying power.
You’ve just wrapped up the first few full-album shows. What have been your first impressions?
I’ve been noticing that some of the people in the crowd are my age and older, and I’ve been realizing that it’s not kids who are coming to see us. It’s cool to me that people have taken the record and grown up with it. That was never part of the plan when we started out. We never thought that anyone would ever take a record that we made and make it a part of their lives.
There’s so much anxiety about aging on The ’59 Sound, a deep fear about the passing of youth. Hearing the album performed today is sort of comforting – like, hey, we’re all 10 years older, and everyone turned out more or less all right.
That makes sense, and it’s something I find, as I’ve gotten older in these 10 years. It’s amazing to me, when people start their career you write about maybe a couple of topics and you find that as you grow older, a lot of those topics never resolve, because I think your job as a writer is to pose questions as you see them. I don’t know if we’re supposed to give answers to people because I don’t know if we have any. So it’s fun seeing themes in The ’59 Sound that then carried onto American Slang and Handwritten and Get Hurt, and even into my solo work. You’re searching for the same thing and maybe you’re not finding the answers you thought you would, but you’re finding different ones.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you feel like you’re still wrestling with the same things in your music that you were dealing with on The ’59 Sound.
The big thing for me is I was happy when I went back and learned these songs. I hadn’t listened to the record in many years, but when I was going back and looking at some of the lyrics, I found that I wasn’t embarrassed by what I was saying. Sure, there are maybe things that I would have written differently now, but it feels good to me, to be able to look at it and go, “OK, I can see where the 27-year-old was struggling with things that the 37-year-old is still struggling with.” It’s not embarrassing to me, 10 years later.
Are there specific songs or lyrics that are sticking out to you differently than they did 10 years ago?
I don’t know if they’re sticking out differently to me, because I’m not far enough yet away from it to forget where it came from. I remember what most of the songs are about, still. It’s different because when you’re writing it, you’re thinking about what’s happening right then, but you’re kind of looking at it in hindsight now and you remember when everything happened and it’s still translating for me, even though the situation is long past.
As you’ve said before, The ’59 Sound is such a strange premise for an album. No one could have expected a record filled with references to Charles Dickens and Sixties soul music to resonate so widely with a bunch of teenagers in the 2000s. I’ve been thinking about what it was about the album that made it so adored.
I think I can answer that because I’ve gotten feedback from the people who have embraced it. So this isn’t directly coming from me, it’s coming from them, but what they’ve said is that the real topic of the record, you hit on it when we first started talking: The record is really not about the ’59 sound; it’s not about rock & roll or anything like that. It’s about growing up and it’s about the fear of, not necessarily dying, but just going through life and having that not mean anything. And being afraid of that and wondering how to, at all costs, avoid that. That’s sort of the fear and the sense of loss.
A lot of people have said that the record was an embracing or a celebration of rock & roll, but even at 27, I knew that the old guard, the days of the rock hero, were passing. Rock & roll, Elvis Presley, that kind of thing. There’s never going to be a new Beatles because we don’t consume things in that way anymore. So the record was a farewell to that, realizing that it’s gone. And then at the same time, that was all a metaphor for youth being gone and going away and my sense of childhood innocence and going into adulthood. Now, did I know any of that in the last nine years? Absolutely not.
In 2009, right around when The ’59 Sound came out, one of my professors in college told our creative writing class that our generation had become particularly good at articulating nostalgia at a uniquely young age. I always think about that in relation to this album, which resonated with a generation of really young folks who felt a whole lot older than they were.
That’s how it felt during that time. A lot of that nostalgia in my generation came from the fact that there was no big anything for us. The biggest thing that happened in entertainment culture was Nirvana, and then four years later, the guy’s dead. We were taught to grieve before we were taught to celebrate anything. Our generation was taught that it’s all kind of gone. The thing was there, and the thing was gone. And that’s really weird. That’s really heavy.
And then there was Biggie and Tupac.
Exactly. That’s another big one, because they changed the face of music, not just hip-hop, the face of all music. When Tupac came out, my writing changed, for sure. I learned from it. It was a cultural thing. It was an identity and they created a world and then all that stuff was absolutely gone, immediately, and violently, too. There’s a meanness that’d come into the culture
We were also all brought up being told that liking older things – from the Sixties and Seventies – was cool in and of itself. It wasn’t cool for our parents to listen to 1920s vaudeville when they were growing up in the Fifties and Sixties.
Yeah, like, you know where it’s at? Bing Crosby! That’s where it’s at, man!
Was it a weird experience for your band …
[Interrupts] You can end that sentence there. Was it weird to be in your band? Yes. It was always weird. That’s the truth. Because we didn’t know man, we didn’t know. We didn’t know this was going to happen. I think we were more normal than most people in our position, rock & roll people, or whatever. We were never like Kiss. We were never like Van Halen, or even the Clash. We weren’t these larger-than-life personalities. We were just kids being like, “I think this sounds good. I like punk records and I like rock & roll records.” But it was weird.
Was it weird, specifically, that your band blew up right when the rest of the country was plunging into a huge economic recession?
Definitely. I mean, we weren’t so far away that we were … we didn’t become very successful monetarily so we didn’t have that economic disconnect. But we did have the feeling that hey, we’re succeeding and our friends are having trouble getting jobs, and that’s weird. You would come home and your friends would tell you these things, like, “I can’t get a job, and I got out of college and I spent all this money and I got student loans, but how are you doing?” And I remember being like, “Oh, yeah, we’re doing cool. No big deal.” Because you didn’t want to say, “Everything is awesome. We’re getting written about in magazines.” It was weird. It was super weird. Then there was also the culture of it not being cool to be successful, which comes from the punk thing.
It’s interesting that your record, which mythologizes this time of middle-class prosperity and muscle-car Americana in the late Fifties, became so popular when it did.
Yeah, that was part of it. That was the thing. That was the shine on the whole thing. That was the thing that made it sparkle, is that we were looking for a definitive answer for what does it mean to be an American.
People don’t remember that during the Fifties and Sixties there was a Cold War, and kids were getting under their desks during school because they thought they were going to get bombed. So it wasn’t really that ideal at all. My parents remind me of that. “You think it was this way, and it wasn’t all Leave It to Beaver.” But for some reason, that’s what humans do: We romanticize the past because of our discontent with the current.
I love the image of your parents going, “Hey Brian, you know the ’59 sound wasn’t really all that great, don’t you?”
Seriously, though! It was a dark thing. But the thing is is that you can be dark and realize that things are bleak and remain optimistic. I think that’s the overarching point of the record. There’s always sort of an optimism in the darkness of the way that I write. There generally is some form of hope for the future because I do not believe all hope is lost for humanity. I just don’t.
Do you feel like you learned anything going through all the old outtakes and demos for The ’59 Sound? Were there songs and versions that you had forgotten about?
I didn’t really go back through all that stuff. What I did was I put it out there so people could see the mistakes and where it started. The ’59 Sound is now a record that people love and it’s sort of got a history and it’s a celebratory situation, but it didn’t start there. It started rough and it started with some of the songs not being so good. Some of those songs I think are terrible, the demo versions. Hopefully, there’s some writer out there right now and they’re sitting at their desk and they’re getting ready to write their own ‘59 Sound and they hear what we did and they go “Oh, this is awful. Mine isn’t so bad, and look what it could be if I just worked on it.” Some of that stuff I think is downright terrible. I’m not looking to, like, listen to it.
I’ll admit that the line “standing in the Jersey rain” on “The Patient Ferris Wheel” sounds a whole lot better than “standing in the Cleveland rain.”
I think I was writing it in Cleveland. That shows you that sometimes you don’t write the immediate. Sometimes it’s OK to change what you’re saying, because I was literally in the Cleveland rain, and that doesn’t sound that great. Also, it doesn’t represent anything. Cleveland rain? What tie do I have to Cleveland? I have a lot of ties to New Jersey.
Growing up, did you feel like an old soul?
I did when I was younger. I don’t now. Which is funny, because I felt very old when I was young and now I feel much, much younger than I did back then. There’s a much greater sense of wonder now, as I get older.
You practically just recited the chorus to Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”
That’s the best. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” I love those lines. That describes everything perfectly. It’s so funny when he’s talking about “I aimed my hand at the mongrel dogs who teach/Fearing not that I’d become my enemy in the instant that I preach.” Like, that’s so accurate and so poignant to what I went through. I remember listening to that song maybe last year or something like that, and thinking, “This is perfect.”
I bet a lot of people feel that way, now, about many of the lines on The ’59 Sound. Some of them make so much more sense than they did 10 years ago: “My, how the years and our youth passed on.”
Yeah, for me, too. That’s what I’m saying, is that I feel very fortunate that for some reason, the pen stroke did that. I can’t take any credit for it. Some of those lines just came down. I didn’t know that then. I definitely didn’t have the foresight, then, to know that. I really didn’t know the stuff that I was saying, but now I’m like, “Alright, that makes a lot of sense.”