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