On Musical Influences: An Open Letter to Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem
Music is a derivative form of art. This is not a question of taste or my subjective opinion – as has been often noted, there are only 12 notes that a man can play and so it’s possible, if not utterly unavoidable, to trace the influence of musicians on each other over the years. Contrary to conventional wisdom though, being derivative can be a good thing. Musicians are invariably asked about their influences; this is because we as fans care about tracing the connections through time and space between our favorites from today and their predecessors. We like to evaluate how they build on the sounds of yesteryear, or how pieces of musical history can be shaped together to form something new.
Nirvana is an example of using influences for evolutionary purposes. When Kurt Cobain said that his major influences included the Pixies and the Vaselines, this added a dimension to listening to Nirvana’s music as one could see how the band took the building blocks handed down by those bands and expanded on them. Meanwhile, it had the added benefit of introducing the world to little-known older bands that hadn’t gotten their proper due.
Meanwhile, the Strokes are an example of how influences can be mixed to create something entirely different. Lead singer Julian Casablancas once said, “Between the five of us there’s this weird medley of influences,” which included the Ramones, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth (of course), Guided by Voices, the Replacements and even Cyndi Lauper. Mix it all together and you get a guitar-heavy New York indie sound that is still very eclectic and unique.
The Killers are a band from the Strokes’ era that initially was compared to them and also drew from multiple influences. You can see from the Killers’ mix of influential artists how the bands would ultimately differ, even if it wasn’t apparent off of their respective debut albums. Lead singer Brandon Flowers names David Bowie as a primary influence, followed by Queen, Led Zeppelin and U2. This explains why the Killers music is all bombast and style and very little substance.
Often, musical influences are regionally driven. This is a major reason why New Jersey native Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem is most heavily influenced by New Jersey’s favorite son, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss holds a special place in the heart of many New Jersey-ians, with Fallon as devoted a fan as anyone. Fallon explains being influenced by a local hero as follows:
“That there was somebody from the same place I was from, who walked the same streets, whose mother drove him around the same towns, and went to the same parks and schools as I did – it was something I could relate to. It made me feel like if he came up the same way I did, and he got out, maybe I can get out too.”
Fallon’s unabashed loved for Springsteen is something that neither he nor the band has shied away from. The Gaslight Anthem provided support for Bruce at a live show in London’s Hyde Park. The day before, Springsteen had joined the Gaslight Anthem on stage during their set at the Glastonbury Festival, and Fallon did the same during the Boss’ set. Fallon acknowledges his debt to the New Jersey scene – after briefly moving to New York City he returned to make Red Bank his home – and he has no shame about talking about himself as the possible heir apparent to the Boss.
As for the fact that Fallon so much like his hero, that never seemed to bother him either. He is quick to acknowledge how important your influences are on your art. ““Everybody wants to create something that’s their own and be revered for it, but the problem is, it’s all been done. Unless you’re Radiohead, or Bon Iver.” He then adds, “At the end of the day, you’re the sum of your influences.” Simply put, the Gaslight Anthem is a band that falls quite easily into the first category I described in mentioning Nirvana above – they’ve taken a sound that they loved and built upon it, trying to become indie rock’s evolutionary Bruce Springsteen. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that, and admitting it is actually quite noble.
Fallon’s feelings aren’t shared by everyone in the band. Guitarist Alex Rosamilia – also from New Jersey – responded to questions about the Boss like this:
“I could pretend like he’s this amazing, big part of our life, but the connection is something the media came up with. We like Springsteen, Springsteen likes us. We’re from Jersey, he’s from Jersey, and both my singer and Bruce can sound the same, with songs that are mostly stories about nostalgia and hopeless romanticism. But suddenly the media turned into this passing of the torch, and we all became Springsteen-philes. To anyone who thinks we’re copying Bruce Springsteen, I would say, ‘F— you.’ This band has never sat down and said, ‘we want to sound like Bruce Springsteen.’ I listened to Skinny Puppy in high school.”
Rosamilia, further trying to distance the Gaslight Anthem’s music from Springsteen then added that his guitar playing “blatantly rips off The Cure.” Obviously, these two band members – who perhaps honestly derive a different amount of their influence from Springsteen – have very different attitudes towards how much they want their band associated with him.
That is, until last week at Pier 26, when something inside Fallon snapped. Initially things went well – the first night of three in New York City (at Pier 26) was a success, as was the second night (at Irving Plaza). At that second show, Fallon started an a cappella crowd sing-along of Nelly, Bone Thugs N Harmony, and Lady Gaga, which – despite it being a highly unusual choice for the band – the crowd enjoyed. The next night (in Pier 26 again) Fallon tried the same thing, but this time it was much to the crowd’s dismay. According to BrooklynVegan:
Someone in front complained about the song choice (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”) and then tons of crowd members proceeded to yell “BRUUUUUUUUUUCE.” Brian responded with something along the lines of “We’re not doing that, if you wanna hear his songs, go see him,” to which he got many cheers, but the crowd soon yelled “BRUUUUUUUUCE” again, and then he said, “forget it, we’re just gonna play Gaslight Anthem songs.”
Clearly agitated, after the show Fallon took to tumblr with a lengthy screed at his fans titled “Tonight You Have Broken My Heart”. After some very brief words about what music means to him and platitudes to a small group of his fans, he explained the need for the posting:
However, I feel it necessary to address that we are The Gaslight Anthem. We play Gaslight Anthem songs. We’re not the band you think we may be akin to. My name isn’t Bruce, It’s not Eddie, or Joe, or Paul either. If you’d like to hear their songs they are readily available and the former two tour quite often. You should go see them, they put on great shows. They play long sets over two hours sometimes. It’s truly amazing to watch them at their craft. But again, we’re not them. We have a different set of rules. We’re on a different course, because we aren’t them and can’t be them. We have to find our path, because that’s the only honest thing we can do. Which is where I find myself now, proud of what we’ve done, and where we’ve come from, but it’s time to find the next thing. Time to create a new sound, time to create the next Gaslight Anthem.
Fallon goes on at some length. He mentions the band’s hit 2008 song “The ’59 Sound”, which initiated all of the Bruce comparisons (though he doesn’t go near that point in his posting, the mention is a subtle reference), and then explains his sudden change of heart about what his music is all about, ostensibly justifying his poor and unforeseen behavior:
Bands who have long careers change. Drastically. That doesn’t mean they no longer like what they did in the past or what got them where they are. It means they have to create and be true to who they are RIGHT NOW, not be true to what people want them to be.
To say that bands don’t owe their fans anything is wrong. They owe them the truth of their art. They owe them a performance of songs they’ve written at that specific show as they are that evening. The ticket doesn’t promise what happened at a show three years ago, or five years ago, or ten years from now. Live music is beautiful that way, because it’s that night only. It’ll never be that show again.
When you go see a band it’s a gamble, like going to see a movie. You may not like it in the end. But you can’t change it. It is what it is. The only difference between bands and movies is that one show might be 90 minutes, one show might be three hours. But the ticket just says what band is playing. It doesn’t make promises of that cover they did once, or that guest they had last week, or… your favorite song.
To anyone who has ever been to a live show of any musician, it is obvious why Fallon is dead wrong. First, he is saying that the band has no obligation to play anything other than essentially their most recent album. Everything that came before is not what the band is feeling right now, and so it is irrelevant to that night’s show. Of course, this is ludicrous. For decades there has been an unspoken agreement between artists and concert-goers about the balance between new music and past hits. Fans want to hear the latter; bands want to perform the former. We agree to meet somewhere in the middle, indulging the band’s need to play most if not all of the tracks of the album they’re currently touring in exchange for a fair number of hits off of prior work. Band gets what it wants, fans get what they want, everyone goes home happy. This is what bands owe their fans – to live up to a lifetime of trust built between artists and fans. Perhaps – and even here I only say perhaps – a living legend like Sir Paul McCartney, Madonna, or (gasp!) Bruce Springsteen can deviate from this pact and still say they honored their obligation to their fans. Brian Fallon, on one thing we agree: you are no Bruce or Paul.
Second, Fallon’s comparison of seeing a band vs. seeing a movie couldn’t be a worse analogy. How can I prove this? I don’t have to – Fallon does it for me in the two sentences immediately preceding the comparison – “Live music is beautiful that way, because it’s that night only. It’ll never be that show again.” A movie is nothing like this at all! It is, by definition, an act. It is scripted, produced and canned for identical consumption by thousands, or even million of people on different dates in different places through different mediums. A movie is like a new album – you buy it (back when people bought music) based on your taste in the band and you hope that the music you hear is similar to or better than what you liked form that artist before, but your only guarantee is “what band is playing.” Moreover, eh says that with a concert, like a movie, “you can’t change it. It is what it is.” Is Fallon really suggesting that the fans have no right to interact with the band, make requests, and express dissatisfaction when the rock band they came to see plays Lady Gaga? Isn’t the whole point of playing for a live audience to get their feedback and react to their energy? Apparently for Fallon the only point of playing for a live audience is to collect ticket fees. If you, his fan, don’t like it, then tough sh*t.
At least to this point Fallon has been coherent, if completely misguided. As he goes on it becomes evident that he is far gone:
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about…
I love the movie Kill Bill. I love Uma Thurman, but no matter how hard I wish or yell at the screen, or insult, or wave my hands. She’s not coming over after the film. No matter how many times I watch it. It’s also not gonna change, it’s not gonna add a scene or delete a scene just because I want to get to my favorite part quicker. She’s not gonna make out with me because I think she’s pretty. She doesn’t owe me anything because I like her or her movies. She is not her work.
Hmm. Fallon is saying that in a live performance he is no different than an actor on a movie screen? Or is he just upset that he can’t make out with Uma Thurman? I don’t know what to make of any of this except that I am now pretty sure that (1) Fallon thinks that watching a Gaslight Anthem video on MTV is exactly the same as seeing them live at Pier 26 in NYC and (2) he is not going to make out with any of his fans.
It’s Fallon’s floor – he’s the one with the microphone, as he’s about to make clear, so I will let him finish his rant:
I’m going to go away from the press and interviews now until we finish writing our next record and find out what we will be in the next chapter of our artistic careers. I have nothing left to say until we find what that next chapter of our band is.
To our fans… please bear with us through this awkward period of finding our new legs. I’m being honest with you here because I am grateful for your loyalty to my band.
To the spiteful reviewers… just remember no one’s singing for you.
I’m asking openly and humbly that if anyone would like to come to a Gaslight Anthem show, please come because you want to see what we’re doing on that night. Don’t come to see Bruce, he won’t be there. Don’t come to hear a cover, it probably won’t happen. Don’t come to yell at me when I’m trying to share something with the audience to reach out to them about something I feel is moving me. For some reason I’m the one with microphone, which may be a mistake entirely. But if you want one and have something to say, please start a band, get in the van, sleep on floors, and work your butt off and maybe one day I’ll find your band and I’ll come see you play.
But I swear I will not yell at you or call out for you to play one of your influences songs… because I’ll be there to see you.
Do you understand your marching orders Mr. Gaslight Anthem fan? Come to a show only “because you want to see what we’re doing on that night” – though be aware that you will have no idea what that will entail. Brian Fallon owes his fans nothing. He owes the press and interviewers nothing. He owes fans who actually appreciate his connection to Bruce – probably 99% of his fans – nothing with regards to that connection, despite the fact that he himself has trumpeted the “Brian Fallon is the next Bruce Springsteen” myth louder than anyone. The man who rode Springsteen’s coattails to moderate fame – who emulated the Boss’ sound to the point that people feel compelled to yell “BRUUUUUUUUCE” at his shows – has the audacity to tell anyone who is willing to listen that being a successful band is hard work, you have to pay your dues, sleep on vans, and then maybe – maybe – someone like Brian Fallon will come to see you play.
I have a better idea for a Brian Fallon fan who wants his own microphone. Sing a song that sounds eerily similar to “’59 Sound.” Invite comparisons to Fallon by saying that he is by far your biggest influence. Cover Gaslight Anthem songs at all of your shows. Play up your New Jersey roots and your friendship with their favorite musician. Once you have that one hit song – and just about nothing else – push to have Fallon join you on stage for its performance at a major festival, then set yourself up to tour with him. Bring all those elements together by having your hero join you onstage in Asbury Park! Finally, when you have just enough mainstream success, discredit everything that Fallon has ever meant to you, make it clear that that’s not who you are anymore, and insult everyone you can on your way to oblivion. You probably won’t get to make out with Uma Thurman though, because she’ll be holding herself out for someone better than a third-rate Bruce Springsteen.
I recognize that this post is coming across as angry, which – if you read almost anything on this site – you will see is not my way. I love music. I love live shows, music history, music culture … everything that Fallon puts down here. I’m not embarrassed about how fawning many of my concert reviews are, and so I’m not going to be ashamed about coming down hard on an ungrateful artist who takes it upon himself to diminish everything that the concert-going experience means to me. If Brian Fallon can’t be bothered to put on a show that he thinks his fans will enjoy, because he doesn’t think he owes that much to them, then as far as I’m concerned he can take his guitar and go home.
P.S. The next time the Gaslight Anthem comes on tour, and Fallon “humbly” requests that people actually pay to see his band, I’d like to remind him of his tumblr post and add the following: The cost of a ticket to this show with Ticketmaster fees was $41.75. The cost to see the next Tarantino movie in a NYC theater will be approximately $13. The cost to rent Kill Bill on Amazon is $1.99. Brian Fallon’s rant? Priceless.