Episode 11: Here’s Looking At You, Kid by The Gaslight Anthem

Today we probe one of my favorite songs of all time, Here’s Looking At You Kid by Gaslight Anthem

Listen to it here!

Buy their album here!

Check out my cover here!

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to Junkman Radio. I’m your host, Greg von Teig. Today we’re going to do a thorough analysis of the song Here’s Looking At You, Kid by The Gaslight Anthem.

 

The Gaslight Anthem is my second favorite Jersey Rock band of all time. Frontman Brian Fallon may be the finest songwriter of this period in popular music, having now proven himself to excel in a variety of genres in his decade of releasing music, spanning from punk sounds on Sink or Swim to rootsy Americana on his solo album Painkillers. The song we’re looking at today tho is from Gaslight’s 2008 album The ’59 Sound.

 

I don’t want to call The ’59 Sound this generation’s Born to Run, as so many critics do, but it’s difficult not to. Brian has said he’s sick of being compared to Bruce Springsteen, but he doesn’t help his cause when he uses direct references, cites him as inspiration on every album, and makes cameos at The Boss’s concerts. And these two albums have many similarities, such as the tones of the guitars, the mixing of tracks, and lyrical motifs. Although there is clearly a big shift in the thirty years that divide them, which is why a glockenspiel from the Springsteen release would not work on The ’59 Sound, but they are emotionally twins. They both explore themes of passionate desire, desperate escapism, and futility. They are the spiritual successors to The Animals’ anthem “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and while one may have more flowery language, both pack an intense emotional punch.

 

The placement in the album of the song we’re looking at is very important. The ’59 Sound is a twelve track album and this is track eleven. The first ten songs on the album have a fairly similar vibe. They are distinct, using different perspectives and rhythms, but they do have a homogeneity in tone that, after ten tracks, begins to feel repetitive. Brian has a big finale with the song The Backseat that he wants to use, but first he needs to put in a shift to segue into it, and that segue may be the album’s greatest song, “Here’s Looking At You, Kid”.

 

The song is a series of musings on the ignorance and rejection the narrator has been subject to for a long time. Each verse tells the story of another girl who just didn’t consider him, and how he is resentful all these years later, not at any one of them specifically, but at the trend that each of them have played a part in. What is beautiful about the song is that the tone is very resigned. There are a million songs by artists with lacking lyrical talent about being turned down, the anger about the failure and the sadness about what could have been. But those are usually dramatic, a retaliation to the emotional blow of the rejection. In this song, Brian takes a different approach to denial. The wounds he sings of are too late to do anything about. It’s like he’s come to terms with it, but the listener said something that brought up all these times his heart was broken, and he’s able to stay calm but he doesn’t hide that it stings when he has to think about it. Listen to it yourself to hear what I mean.

 

[Play song]

 

At the opening of the song there are only two instruments, both guitars, with one in each channel. In the left we have a muted guitar, laying down the rhythm and emphasizing certain beats. In the right we hear finger picking providing a suggestion at the melody. It’s not a very complicated pattern, and the chords are a simple I-vi-IV-V progression, but complicated isn’t what the song needs at this early point. The sparseness of the introduction is essential in setting the mood of the song. By establishing the song as so quiet from its beginning, everything that follows feels sparse and subdued, even when the instrumentation gets very busy in the bridge.

 

The repetition of these two instruments is broken before it becomes tedious when Brian introduces a third guitar at the beginning of the chorus, this one punctuating the lyrics he thinks are most important. The tone of this guitar is interesting. It sounds like they’re using the effects akin to what Tom Petty used on Damn the Torpedoes, an influence noted earlier on the album in the chorus of “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues,” but the way the note rings sounds more like a violin than a guitar. It could be a violin being sent through the effects, were it not for the plucked notes at the end of the chorus that are clearly the tone of a guitar and not a violin. Perhaps the bowed sound is simply a product of the aggressive amount of reverb that is on the track. Reverb is one of the techniques that dominates the entire album. Its effect is diminished by the busy instrumentation on the other tracks, but with nothing but some quiet, sparse guitars and Brian’s voice, it stands out more than the songs leading up to this. This reverb was quite the departure from the rough album that predated this one, Sink or Swim, and turned many people off of the album and this song especially. Regardless, the third guitar proves to be essential. Brian can’t express the deep disappointment he has in this song, as his character doesn’t want to show it. This new guitar punctuates the lyrics as a way to add that emotion without breaking character.

 

The lyrics for this song come in a formula. The first verse addresses some past desire of Brian’s. It doesn’t seem that Brian has gotten over this desire, as he wishes to make her jealous, saying that he’d lie to her about the fame and fortune that would make her regret passing up the opportunity to be with him now. In the chorus he further muses about all the devotion he would have had for her, and then instructs the listener to tell her all these confessions if he has the chance.

 

It is in the transition to the next verse that drums and bass enter the equation. It’s a very simple marching beat on the snare with a kick drum on the two and four beats during the verse, but then shifting to a more complicated rhythm involving the hi hat in the chorus. The addition of this drum adds a little bit of intensity to the sonic atmosphere. The first verse was mournful, but the drum makes it a tad spiteful as well. In this verse the third guitar plays, but not as much as it did in the previous chorus, or it will in the next chorus. And, of course, our rhythm section of muted guitar on the left and picked guitar on the right.

 

The lyrics to this second verse follow the formula established in the first. Brian asks the listener to tell a lie, acknowledging that it is exactly that, due to spite from ignorance. But the language used in the second iteration of the chorus is much more dramatic. In the first chorus, he says that he would’ve cried out Gale’s name in the old high school halls, illustrating the youth and innocence of this older fixation. In the second he says that he spent every night of his youth on the floor, bleeding out from all these wounds. This dramatic rise in scope is a demonstration of how the stakes have changed. Although this love was also in his youth, it is clearly a fair bit later than his high school passion in the first verse, as he suggests the more serious commitment of marriage would have been proper. He further raises the stakes on what could have been gained. In the first chorus he promises affection and to be her fool, but in the second the stakes are raised again as he says he would’ve gotten her a ride out of that town she despised. But this rise in the intensity of his language is not reflected in his tone. He is just as apathetic towards “bleeding out of all these wounds” as he was towards his high school puppy love. The narrator has had to distance himself so much from this damage that the two relationships feel equal.

 

Going into the bridge, the third guitar takes a break with the voice for four bars, building tension as Brian goes into the next part. This now breaks the formula, as he sings about abstract concepts related to his mentioned experiences, but not one of them. He muses that he is at the mercy of the women he adores. It captures the essence of a certain type of romance. Not everyone becomes so vulnerable when they find interest in someone, but those who do the statements are very powerful. The words are more reinforced, both by the additional vocal track that sings the last word of each line while drowning in reverb, and by the music in the bridge. The third guitar had been working to fill silence in the verses, but now it plays the melody that Brian is singing, in unison with the voice. The rhythm instruments, however, continue the same progression they have for the entirety of the song, and they continue to into the solo played by the third guitar, a fairly unremarkable portion of the song, as it is the same melody as the verses and chorus.

 

For the third and final verse, the dynamic shifts, and it is immediately apparent. First in the music, with the drums dropping out altogether and the third guitar adding punctuation more sparsely. Then too it shows the shift in the lyrics. The first line “You remind Ana if she asks why” implies that he had done something to wrong her. It seems this time she was the rejected, as he says that a thief had stole his heart while she was making up her mind. It shows that Brian has disappointed people like they have disappointed him, that is, until the chorus. After saying that she’s quite happy in that New York scene on seventh avenue, the drums return and he elaborates that he waited for Ana a million nights without her, praying she wouldn’t cancel again tonight. We see more clearly now, Brian was as hurt by indecision as he was by rejection. He had waited and waited for her answer, not courting anyone else, but her silence eventually made him give up. Misery loves a vacuum, and the vacuum created by being given a “maybe” as an answer over and over again will quickly fill with tension and anxiety. She hurt him without any hostility, one of the most difficult types of pain.

 

The final part is another run through the chorus, with the third guitar playing a slightly different melody than usual. Brian sings “I know it’s hard to tell you this” a few times, before closing the song on the iconic Casablanca quote that he used for the title of this song, “Here’s Looking At You, Kid”. The reference will be lost on most people if they haven’t seen the iconic film. To provide a little bit of clarity, the quote comes from one of the last scenes in the film. Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick urges Ingrid Bergman’s character and love interest, Ilsa, to flee Casablanca from the approaching German army while Rick stays behind. The lovers are parting, unsure if they’ll ever meet again. Rick assures Ilsa that they will meet again, but the odds are against them and the parting is rich with ambiguity.

 

The quote addresses a question that has been looming over the entire song, though you may not think of it. Who is the listener? The song is certainly addressed to the listener, not any of the lovers, as Brian begins and ends each verse with an instruction of what to tell, call, or write Gail, Jane, or Ana if they do the same. Invoking this quote suggests that the relationship is one akin to that of Rick and Ilsa, lovers parting with a hope, perhaps bleak, that they will be reunited again. But that dynamic doesn’t quite make sense, as that would not be the time to tell her about all the lovers that never worked out. The alternative, Ilsa talking to Rick, makes more sense as these requests would be logical in case of a departure, but ultimately suffers the same problem. My interpretation has always been that the listener is a dear but platonic friend. As whatever character Brian is playing is leaving his home, he wants his friend to be ready for the questions of what happened to him. This analysis uses very little of the quote’s place in the film, as it is even flipping who is leaving and who is staying, but it also makes the most sense in the context of the song.

 

Once Brian has whispered that quote, the album brings in one more rock n roll anthem to conclude on. The song is a more appropriate way to round out the album as a whole. It summarizes the emotions of the album as a whole well, but is a quick and sharp departure from the emotions brought up by this song. It didn’t effect what went viral, tho. “Here’s Looking At You, Kid” is one of the best remembered songs from the album, on account of how well it evokes those feelings, even if not in line with the other songs. In the eight years since it was released, it has endured better than any other song from their early albums, and is probably the most polished and thought through song in The Gaslight discography.

Episode 10: Spotlight On Grin

Listen to it here!

Today we’re doing an overview of Nils Lofgren and Grin.

Here’s the script

Hello and welcome to Junkman Radio. I’m your host, Greg von Teig. Today I’d like to shine a spotlight on one of the lesser known greats of rock n roll. Beginning his career by playing guitar and piano for Crazy Horse and on Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush at the ripe age of 19, Nils Lofgren was situated in a uniquely advantageous position as he split from Young to form the group Grin. The original line up of Grin was Bob Berberich on drums and Bob Gordon on bass, with their first album also featuring Lofgren’s old friends from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. This first album, titled simply Grin, went undetected by much of the musical press, but had a lot more polish than is usually found on debut records. It featured great classic rock in a stylistic vein of Eric Clapton or The Who, with Lofgren’s own innovation being most remarkable in the tone of the instruments, but the album also balanced the rock with slower more subdued numbers. The first song on the album is a good example of each of these styles. It is called Like Rain.

[Like Rain]

Grin’s strength was always the guitar work. Lofgren plays many instruments, but his true love is for guitar. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that his soloing is exceptional, since he had studied under blues rock legend Roy Buchanan. While they feature nothing all that innovative, the execution is on point and always energizing. This can be heard very well on their second album, 1+1. This album utilized and emphasized the division between sides of the record. Lofgren had utilized this in the first album, but it became more transparent on 1+1 as he labeled one side “Rockin’ Side” and the other “Dreamy Side”. On the rockin side is a fantastic example of the intensity and urgency Lofgren is able to communicate through his music, called Moon Tears.

[Moon Tears]

But the softer side of this album has always attracted me more. It comforts me in a distinct way. Lofgren is said to be a very calm and considerate man, so it comes as no surprise that this more gentle side would be as fantastic if not more than the more rock focused works on side 1. This side also features Lofgren’s excellent accordion skills on one of my favorite of all of his tracks, Lost A Number. While never a particularly acclaimed lyricist, I find this narrative of a missed opportunity one of the most compelling in his discography, and the easy rhythm and melodies make the song comforting for when you’re feeling like our narrator.

[Lost A Number]

Grin’s great weakness was drummer Bob Berberich. Tho he was generally able to keep time and stabilize the tempo, there would be many instances when he would hit the snare just half a beat off, which throws the listener for a loop. This is most noticable in one of my favorite songs, We All Sung Together, which is a travesty.

Grin released two additional albums, adding Nils Lofgren’s brother Tom as an additional guitar, but I don’t have much to say on them. They’re not bad, they’re great, but they’re so similar to the first two that I have trouble saying anything more than what I already did.

Tho they never found much commercial success, Grin was cherished by critics and lead to Lofgren into the upper echelon of rock n roll superstars. These connections made for a very impressive rock resume. The best example I know of is when Mick Taylor left the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards tapped Lofgren and offered him an audition. Lofgren didn’t think he was cut out for the Rolling Stones life style, so he instead recommended his friend Ronnie Wood, and the rest was history.

He is most famous for replacing a guitarist in another band, tho. During the making of Born in the USA, E Street Band guitarist Steve van Zandt departed from the group. Springsteen had been running into Lofgren at various events since Bruce’s first band, Steel Mill, ran into Grin during a brief stay in San Francisco in 1970. When Lofgren was offered the position in 1985, he took it. It proved to be his most commercially successful venture, and lead him to be inducted in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

Today, it is very difficult to get Grin’s records. Lofgren’s contract with Spindizzy Records was not kind to him, and he has not been able to get the rights to reissue these albums, tho he has publicly said that he is trying. While many artists might shy away from their earlier work, Lofgren still plays the old Grin songs when he tours solo. And with good reason. They are exceptional pieces of music that should be available more widely, but can still be found in the world of the second hand market.

Stand with the ACLU by Buying Music on Bandcamp Friday

Bandcamp has been my site of choice for some time now. It’s a great way for small artists to get their start and has a huge variety in their catalog. They announced today that they would stand against the Trump Administration by donating %100 of their cut from sales on Friday, February 3 to the American Civil Liberties Union. Bandcamp’s cut varies by artist, but it can be as much as fifteen percent, so this holds much more weight than if other distributors did this. Some people may want to support artists and civil rights, but don’t know what to get, so here’s a list of great albums you can get on Bandcamp to fight for justice.

Episode 9: A Deep Dive Into Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen

Listen to it here!

Hello and welcome to Junkman Radio. I’m your host, Greg von Teig. Today, instead of doing an album review, we’ll be dissecting a song. Peaking at second place on Billboard’s singles chart – beat out of number one by Prince’s When Dove’s Cry – Dancing in the Dark is rarely regarded as Bruce Springsteen’s best song, but nearly universally his most popular. Though not the biggest hit to be written by the Boss – that title goes to Manfred Mann’s 1977 cover of Springsteen’s 1973 debut song “Blinded by the Light,” which became a Billboard number one hit – it is the biggest hit Springsteen himself recorded. It has been streamed more times on Spotify than any of his other tracks – three million more times than his second most popular, Born in the USA. Hell, the track was so successful, that even the B-side, Pink Cadillac, pierced the top 40. But what made this song such a hit? What about it hit that nerve in the popular culture that rockets a song to that level of fame? Well, to find the answer to this, we’re going to look at a few different versions, starting with the Studio

[Dancing in the Dark]

We’re going to begin by just looking at the chords of the song first – they are what will be applicable to every version you hear. If you look at the structure, it’s actually very close to the twelve bar blues. The first four bars are based on the one chord, but then bars five and six are built on the four, returning to the one for the seventh and eighth bars. To mix things up, Springsteen has added a relative minor to each chord, but it builds very little suspense.

[play clip]

After the eighth bar is a significant shift in mood, but the song continues to follow the blues formula. The ninth and tenth bars are built off the five chord, as a classic blues would. Springsteen separates this portion of the song by not using the relative minor he was using in the verse. On the eleventh bar, he changes the blues formula by going to the four chord instead of the one, and bringing back in the relative minor.

The way Springsteen builds suspense in those ninth and tenth bars is probably the most interesting and powerful thing about this song’s chord structure. The removal of the relative minor resonates with the listener, making them almost wake up from the trance they had been put in by the comparatively monotonous verse. That’s why so much merchandise referencing this song is in reference to that lyric.

But, of course, there’s more to songs than just chord progressions. Let’s look at the words. Lyrically, the song is quite melancholy. It is a portrait of a man who feels isolated, who feels he’s missing something, who has found the only way to feel is to the club. It’s like the 80s version of Saturday Night Fever. And though the upbeat production may make the tune dancable, the lyrics don’t hide their darker nature. We can hear that the narrator has a great self-esteem issue in lyrics like

“I ain’t nothing but tired/I’m just tired and bored with myself”

and

“Check myself in the mirror/gotta change my clothes my hair my face”

There are hints of a broken relationship in the mix as well. The bridge exposes this with

“Sit around getting older/there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me/shake the world off my shoulders/c’mon baby the laughs on me”

This desperation is lost on the listener, though. The chorus sings hope. “Can’t Start a fire without a spark” suggests that there is still a chance, if she will join him to go dancing in the dark. That’s all people paid attention to when it was on the radio in the 80s. They liked that hope and the dancing. Everything else in the song was forgotten – similar to the phenomenon that occurred with Born in the USA, but without the politics.

But what variation is there between versions? Let’s continue with the 1984 studio version. In this iteration, more tension is rooted in how and when the electric guitar is played. The guitar is not in the majority of the song, because the majority of the song is in the one chord. Springsteen holds back the guitar, using it only on the four and five chords. This makes the tension of those chords yet more powerful. During the four and five chords, he also suspends the iconic riff. The riff is only used when the song is at a neutral point, making the listener more comfortable as a result. Listen to the chorus into the verse to hear what I’m saying.

[play clip]

However, the song fits into this odd niche between truly big and truly small. It’s an upbeat song, but it’s not quite anthemic like some of his other works are. However, on the Tunnel of Love tour, he turned it from an upbeat dance tune to an epic with a wall of sound. Listen to this cut from a 1988 show in Los Angeles, recently released as part of Springsteen’s remastering and issuing of previously unreleased live shows.

[play cut]

He gears up the audience with his guitar riff and Weinberg’s drums, setting a much more rocking tone for the same dance tune. Once he counts off, the iconic synthesizer plays.When he begins singing, his phrasing on this version is much much better than the studio version. He places greater emphasis on individual words, so some take hold more effectively than in the studio.

Once he gets into the swing of the song, the addition of the Love Horns also has a huge impact on the tension of the song. He doesn’t use them as often as he does the electric guitar on the studio version, making their presence all the more powerful.

However, while that version brings more power through addition, the same can be achieved through subtraction. Listen to this version from the 1986 Bridge School Benefit concert, in which Bruce plays with only back up guitarist Nils Lofgren and accordionist Danny Federicci.

[play cut]

I love everything about this performance. Everything in the previous versions – the riff, the horns, the synthesizer – it’s all stripped away. In the first verse and chorus, all that you hear is Bruce’s guitar and his overwhelmingly passionate voice. He builds on this in the second verse, when Federicci begins to play. This addition fills the void that the synthesizer left, but its addition doesn’t dwarf Springsteen himself.

And as the instruments add tension, so too does Springsteen’s vocals. Though he sounds cool and collected in the first verse and chorus, by the bridge he is singing with an intensity not found elsewhere.

The other great part about this iteration is that it’s the first one in which, in my opinion, Springsteen accurately and adequately conveys the desperation and depravity in the lyrics. Hidden behind catchy synth riffs and horns in other versions, lines like “I ain’t going nowhere/I’m just living in a dump like this” and “take a look in the mirror/wanna change my clothes my hair my face” can get lost. The emphasis on the vocal performance in this cut makes the emotional impact of the song verbal in addition to musical. It’s one thing to build tensions and melodies that evoke simple emotions, but another to connect those simple emotions to specific feelings – and great music has to do both.

I think each of these cuts has its merits. The two live cuts generate emotions much better than the album version, through their two very different methods. What the album version has going for it is that it’s more dancable – but if you want to dance to this song, you should be listening to the Arthur Baker cover that Springsteen commissioned for precisely this reason, which I won’t get deeper into because I don’t have a lot to say about it. Each of these cuts seems to be better than the studio version, making me wonder what would have happened if he’d used those mentalities when recording the album, Born in the USA.

Episode Eight: Hush or Howl by Black Pistol Fire

This week we dissect Hush or Howl by Black Pistol Fire.

Listen to my review here.

You can find their whole discography for purchase here.

Like BPF on Facebook and follow them on Twitter!

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to Junkman Radio. I’m your host, Greg von Teig. Today we’ll be looking at a gem of a record, Black Pistol Fire’s 2014 release Hush or Howl.

My exposure to Black Pistol Fire was nearly accidental. In 2015, modern blues legend Gary Clark Jr was coming to House of Blues Boston for the first time since I’d turned old enough to go. I was less than enthused by his Sonny Boy Slim album, but he is such a phenomenal guitarist that I knew I needed to see him live at least once. Clark had brought with him an opening group from his home town of Austin. When my father and I arrived at the Clark show, we knew nothing of the opener, and didn’t have high hopes for them. It wasn’t long into their first number that it became clear that this duo of guitar and drums were delivering hard rock and blues with the intensity of Stevie Ray Vaughn. They were described as “an all time great arena rock band distilled into two men.” That opening set was probably the best concert I’d ever been to, until I saw them again that December.

Sadly, there is not yet a Black Pistol Fire live album. Their performances in the studio were not as on point and full on their first two albums, but their third release, Hush or Howl, did a beyond adequate job of bringing all that energy and power into the studio. Listen for yourself.

[Baby Ruthless]

Black Pistol Fire combines a few different movements to shape their sound. The most obvious similarity is to Led Zeppelin. Kevin McKeown’s riff heavy writing style and serious distortion of his guitar make that clear. But Zeppelin was always significantly more elaborate than BPF. McKeown’s energy mirrors that of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, tho in my opinion he goes far beyond it. His guitar’s tone and effects are also very reminiscent of Zeppelin. What makes BPF very much unlike Zeppelin is that it’s more directly inspired by the blues greats. Using more notes from blues scales and less rigid rhythms, BPF found its roots in Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Bo Diddly as far as writing goes.

But what stands out to most people about BPF is the size of their sound in contrast to the size of their band. A lot of artists really struggle to get the most out of their instruments, but it seems BPF has mastered it. Eric Owen’s phenomenal drumming sounds like a reincarnation of Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell – particularly in his ability to fill sonic space. McKeown’s guitar work is almost deceptive in its size. Many tracks feel like they must be overdubbed, but only two on this album are. His playing style evolves out of a John Lee Hooker style blues melding chords and picking into one flowing stream of melody with a speed that masks its simplicity.

BPF also has an excellent sense of dynamics. McKeown knows when to rest the guitar and let the silence ring. Whether the muted section is punctuated by a subtler beat by Owen or McKeown’s always enthralling voice, the quiet adds to the energy and emotional volume of the intense shredding. This is particularly well demonstrated in the fifth track, Hipster Shakes.

[Hipster Shakes]

Now, Hush or Howl is not the only album in which you can hear this. They have three others. I chose to examine this as I feel it distills what makes BPF great. The eponymous album and Big Beat ’59 are fun, but the duo had not yet become accustomed to the studio. Hush or Howl was when they really realized their own potential, and made the record the first two had tried but failed to be. They have had one release since then, Don’t Wake The Riot. I love this fourth album. It has a lot going for it, but it uses a wider variety of sounds than Hush or Howl, so while I completely endorse Don’t Wake The Riot, Hush or Howl is the album to start with in the Black Pistol Fire catalog.