The Hold Steady and Gaslight Anthem: Two Gangs Fighting in the Same Springsteen Song

I sometimes say that every new band I like these days sounds like Springsteen. In no two bands is this more true that The Hold Steady and Gaslight Anthem - except that they don't sound LIKE Bruce, exactly. They just sound like something he'd sing about.

These two bands sound like opposing sides in a gang war in the middle of a Springsteen song. The Hold Steady represent the beatniks - they hang around writing poetry and getting drunk on the moon (in addition to the booze they guzzle in basements). The Gaslight Anthem represent the greasers - they work as mechanics, sing doo-woop on street corners, and, well, guzzle booze in basements. In many ways, the two gangs are the same bunch of guys, but, at least superficially, they have different goals and values. Like the Sharks and the Jets. Their songs are fueled by slightly, but significantly, different romantic ideals.

Let's start with Gaslight Anthem, the NJ-based band of blue-jean-and-white-shirt tough guys with hearts of gold. Lead singer Brian Fallon builds his lyrics almost entirely out of quotes from other songs, as well as a few references to books and movies. When I first heard them, I was charmed by all the quotes - any band that quotes Dickens and Counting Crows, without a trace of irony, in the midst of a whole sea of Springsteen and Tom Waits quotes, is all right by me. Then I started to feel annoyed (did this guy write ANY original lines?) But I came to realize that these quotes -especially the Waits and Springsteen ones - were central to the tragic romanticism of Fallon's lyrics.

Fallon wants desperately to live out those early Bruce and Tom songs. He wants to dance in seaside bars with girls named Rosie and Maria while the band sings something about goin' home and the last of the Duke Street Kings park their cars on the beach beneath the giant Exxon sign. He wants to ride the tilt-a-whirl and chase the factory girls beneath the boardwalk, then spend his nights in dingy motel rooms named after presidents with old men (and Tom Waits) watching TV in the lobby.

The tragedy that fuels this romanticism is that world no longer exists. It was already dying out in the 1970s, when Bruce and Tom were singing about it. It's gone now, and Brian Fallon refers to this frequently, lamenting that he's "the last of the juke box Romeos," and that Sandy (from Springsteen's "Fourth of July Asbury Park") is all grown up and married with kids now. When kids go out dancing today, it's not doing the "jump back, jack stop and slide to the right" to a cover of "Dancin' in the Streets" with a lonely angel who dreams of getting out of this factory town with the radio on. It's bopping around in a noisy club to repeating beats with a girl named Amber who is wasted on vodka tonics and shouting "whoooo." In other words, you don't dance with girls with the stars in their eyes - you grind with girls from Hold Steady songs.

The Hold Steady may reference Kerouac and Nelson Algren (with less obtrusive references than you get in Gaslight Anthem songs), but their characters clearly live in the early 21st century. While the Gaslight Anthem's characters drop out of high school and search for beauty in grease stains while working at the docks, The Hold Steady kids get wasted in one massive party after another while casually working their way towards a degree in elementary education. Occasionally they remind themselves that the magic of the scene is fading and getting druggy, or that they can all be something bigger, but it seems like they end up spending every weekend blowing all their money getting wasted again. They have never met a dock worker in their lives. They're not really much different from the partiers in the Gaslight Anthem songs - they're just from a different world.

Frankly, these characters would annoy the crap out of me if Craig Finn didn't write and sing about them so eloquently. While most of his characters are measuring their lives in empty bottles, he manages to make them come to life by understanding the melancholy beneath the party.

Take the opening of "Stuck Between Station," the opening song on their masterful "Boys and Girls in America" album:

There are nights when I think Sal Paradise (kerouac) was right:
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together
Sucking off each other at the demonstrations
making sure their make up's straight
crushing one another with colossal expectations
depending on discipline, sleeping late….
she liked the warm feeling, but she's tired of all the dehydration
most nights it's crystal clear, but tonight it's like we're stuck between stations
on the radio."

If you want to write a better opening song for an album, be my guest.

Play this song back to back with Gaslight Anthem's "Great Expectations" to compare/contrast, etc. If you're the kind of person who gets off on comparing and contrasting stuff, you can imagine that the singer in Gaslight Anthem's song is just the kid in the Hold Steady song twenty years later pretty easily.

Craig Finn inherited from Springsteen an uncanny ability to make songs SOUND like they have structure and rhythm when they really don't. Take "Thunder Road." I have no idea how Bruce pulled that one off - the rhyme scheme and meter change practically every couple of lines, and it somehow doesn't end up sounding like a mess. At his best, Finn can take a rambling, non-metric, non-rhyming chunk of beat poetry and make it sound like a proper, regular song.

Anyway, The Hold Steady spent a few albums writing, it seemed, about little besides kids going to parties. By their fourth album, "Stay Positive," they were looking to the future, when "the kids at the shows will have kids of their own / the singalong songs will be our scripture" (in other words, they'll be living like Gaslight Anthem characters).

There's certainly some overlap here - like the Sharks and the Jets, the opposing gangs in Springsteen songs were never as different as they thought they were. Either band could probably have written "The Backseat," "South Town Girls," "Stuck Between Stations," or "High Lonesome Sound…" And, in the Springsteen canon, either band would probably feel equally at home playing "Spirit in the Night," "Atlantic City," or "Fourth of July, Asbury Park" (which also plays like a template for almost every great Counting Crows song). Or "Incident on 57th Street." Please, Lord, let one of these bands cover "Incident on 57th Street." It would fit in with both of their bodies of work.

There's more I could say here if I wanted to make this a book-length essay. I really wanted to talk about how the brilliant Hold Steady song "Lord I'm Discouraged" sounds like the best song Axl Rose never wrote for Use Your Illusion (right down to the guitar solo), while "The Blues, Mary" (a solo acoustic song Brian Fallon used to have on his myspace that I dearly hope will make it's way to a Gaslight Anthem album) sounds like the best song Axl left off the acoustic side of "GNR LIes." But I digress.

Both bands have a new album out this spring. Neither has ever exactly suffered from the Anxiety of Influence (as Harold Bloom, everyone's favorite stuff-shirt literary critic calls this sort of thing). But artists who are this clearly influenced by another artist invariably go through an interesting process of carving out their own identity over time. I can't wait to see where each band goes next.

(original post date 3/10/10, this is back-dated so as not to crowd the index page)


Robot Devil said...

thanks man. these are pretty much my only bands. found an old Uncut quote about them: "The Gaslight Anthem, broadly speaking, share the same mythographical universe as The Hold Steady, a world in which rock’n’roll as played by the people who believe like they do can heal the most wounded and forlorn among us"

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Brilliant analysis! People have been telling me to check out The Hold Steady for awhile, but your essay has me sold... though I definitely relate more to the characters created in Gaslight Anthem songs... what can I say, I'm nostalgic like that.

Vinyl and Mono said...

Read something a while back (of course can't remember where) about these two bands + Against Me! calling them "Springsteen punk." Before that, never thought they had anything in common other than me liking them (and Springsteen). Now I'd love to hear either band cover "Backstreets."

Vinyl and Mono said...

P.S. I see you're at my ex-employer's convention next month (snark).

Adam Selzer said...

Gaslight Anthem (or possibly just Brian solo, I forget) did "Backstreets" a while back.

Vinyl and Mono said...

Thanks. Gotta check that out.

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013