One of the hallmarks of a young rock fan is that you’re a relic of a bygone era. You grow up loving The Rolling Stones and Faces, Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead, The Clash and The Ramones, but they’re from another time. That withered husk of a wraith that gets up on stage and plays “Tumbling Dice” may be called Keith Richards but that’s not the same force that recorded Exile on Main Street back in 1972. And not even that much remains of Joe Strummer or Jerry Garcia. A rock fan today is overwhelmed by nostalgia for an era they don’t remember. This is the emotional backbone of The Gaslight Anthem’s monumental album The 59 Sound, an album that eulogizes rock and roll, wrestling with the need to let go of those glorious times you weren’t there for.
“Mary, this station is playing every sad song I remember like we were alive” is how the album begins and if that lyric doesn’t encapsulate the feeling of displacement the Millennial rock fan experiences perfectly, every word that follows on the album does. References range from Dickensian allusions to Marley’s chains (complete with chains rattling behind the guitars) to 80’s Springsteen hits “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean,” always used tastefully and with the emotional strength of a well placed quote from your favorite writer. Every time Gaslight’s songwriter Brian Fallon uses one of these references, it hits like a bullseye on your heart. When the refrain of “Do you hear the 59 Sound coming through your grandfather’s radio? Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls” the implications are clear.
“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,” Brian Fallon told Rolling Stone in a recent interview, explaining another side of The 59 Sound. It’s not all commiserating over the passing of our beloved music, it’s also commiserating over the passing of our shared youths. No song demonstrates this better than the penultimate track on the album “Here’s Looking At You, Kid,” a lonesome ballad where the narrator recollects all the girls he almost dated and what he’d say to them now. As much as it is a meditation on coping with failure, it’s a haunting portrait of a man whose best efforts have added up to naught. As Fallon described in the same Rolling Stone interview, “it’s about the fear of, not necessarily dying, but just going through life and having that not mean anything.”
Right now Gaslight is touring in celebration of the 10th anniversary of this album. I was 11 when The 59 Sound came out and it didn’t first come on my radar until I heard “Here’s Looking At You Kid” on YouTube four years later. This album sat next to Born to Run as the albums that define high school for me. They were the only music that captured the desperate and bleak truths that I needed to be reminded of every day. Like how I needed Bruce Springsteen to tell me “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we’re young” I needed Gaslight Anthem to remind me it’s ok to “still love Tom Petty songs and driving old men crazy.”
The 59 Sound is available from One Side Dummy records just about everywhere music is sold.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.