On Writing: Write Your Story Like a Rock and Roll Song and Get Hurt (Featuring a review of the new Gaslight Anthem album)

May the ghosts of Monday morning hangovers and Rolling Stones songs save me if I ever stop getting excited about a new rock & roll album.

I always listen to music when I’m writing. It inspires me, focuses me and infuses everything I type. I’ve been collecting tapes, CDs and now MP3s since before I really knew what being a writer meant. I fell in love with the Ramones, the Pixies, R.E.M., Bad Religion and Husker Du before Ernest Hemingway. I’ve learned as much about storytelling from Bruce Springsteen and John Darnielle as I have from my aborted English degree and all of my writing professors. There’s a tempo and immediacy to a good rock & roll song. It comes in with a explosion of sound and percussion, holds onto you for three or four minutes and then it just lets you go like your whole life hasn’t just been changed.

I think of my life in the shorthand of rock & roll songs. It feels just like Where the Streets Have No Name or Wave of Mutilation. When I write a story, that’s what I’m trying to hit, that’s my target. I want to write stories like Tom Waits writes songs. I want a hook and a good beat, something that sounds familiar and revelatory at the same time and when you’re done, you feel something and you’re ready for the next track. 

I discovered the Gaslight Anthem the summer before my first marriage. I heard Brian Fallon on NPR and some of the songs from American Slang. I was hooked immediately by the fusion of punk rock energy and classic Jersey rock & roll songwriting. I heard Springsteen and Greg Graffin getting in a fist fight and then having a beer in those songs. I heard my life and my future and every summer I remembered and every summer I wanted to have in those songs. I got the their first two albums and listened to all three in heavy rotation through getting married that October. The marriage, like some marriages do, fell apart quickly and painfully. We had one summer together before the divorce paperwork started and the summer I got divorced the Gaslight Anthem released their fourth studio album, Handwritten. The day I got Handwritten I put it on and turned the volume up so loud my neighbors must have heard it for blocks. I needed that rock & roll album so badly then. The first single, “45”, it became an anthem for the end of a bad idea that was way too full of good intentions and resentment to ever succeed. There are a hundred rock & roll songs that picked me up, dusted me off and got me through that year, back to feeling alive again and back to writing. A lot of them were Gaslight Anthem songs.

For the last few years when I hear Brian Fallon sing I feel like he’s living in a hollowed out place inside of me. I have an emotional attachment to this music, to all music, that’s second only to the attachment I have for my writing and my family and friends. Burn down my house and take away my car and bank account but don’t fuck with my rock music. So, I was excited when Gaslight Anthem announced their 5th studio album would release the day after my 34th birthday and now I have another summer and another fifteen songs that I get to keep with me.

When I talk or think about writing I think about the hurt. You need to go to the places that are uncomfortable and real. You need to be fearless with yourself and your words. You need to keep taking chances. Complacency and repetition are the murder of creation. If you don’t feel something you’re doing it wrong. Good stories and rock & roll songs are about a punch to your gut or they’re about healing and standing tall in spite of it all. They’re a fistful of sloppy, fucked up tragic and beautiful life. 

So of course I love Get Hurt. Fallon and the band go to new, darker places. There’s a little less punk and a little more blues. There’s a little more sadness and a little less rage. I’ve listened to this album a hundred times at least in the last 6 days and I can’t pick a favorite song or a bad one. It’s not the album I would have expected but that’s the point. This is a band making the music they need and want to make. The influences that were on such proud display in previous records are more subdued here as the band continues to the evolve their own sound with Fallon’s melancholy, weary lyrics leading the charge: 

AND UNDERNEATH THE TYRANNY OF AUGUST AND
HER SONS, WHO SENT FIRE FROM THEIR FINGERTIPS
IN THE HOLY VOW OF A TEENAGE KISS. NOW WE’RE
MUCH TOO OLD FOR THIS. I DON’T FEEL THOSE KINDS
OF THINGS. SO DON’T YOU CRY FOR ME. I USED TO
FEEL EVERYTHING.

The Gaslight Anthem – Stray Pepper

Start a story with a chorus, a few lines that make the heart of it and the refrain. Fill it with the rest. It’s not hard to write one good story or one good rock & roll song. It’s harder to write five. It’s harder still to write a hundred and know which ones are the bad ones and which ones are worth recording. A good rock & roll album has it’s own chorus, it has it’s own heart. You feel it from the initial cut to the silence after the last. Get Hurt is a great rock & roll album. It’s a coterie of songs that go to the same places and tell similar stories. Fifteen songs become more than the sum of their parts. A good rock & roll album is a musical novel and this one, this novel by the Gaslight Anthem is a nerve unprotected and a summer that feels crushed by the years before it. But even in that crush, in that resilient beaten place, there’s defiance and there’s passion and there’s the beat that carries you forward and the melody that gets in your head and makes you want to sing along. That’s a novel I want to read over and over again and that’s a novel I endeavor to write. Every single time.

 

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