The Gaslight Anthem's The '59 Sound, with its songs of first loves and first losses, can make an old man 23 again. And with a musical backdrop built on Springsteen-style drama-rock but also beholden to punk and soul, it can make that old guy move. At the heart of the record is "Miles Davis & the Cool," a song that's a study of several flavors of youthful desire: the burning, bursting need for another person and the need to escape so you can find your way home. Brian Fallon, songwriter and frontman for The Gaslight Anthem, breaks it all down for us.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Miles Davis is one of so many icons of cool. Why did you choose him for this song?
BRIAN FALLON: Miles Davis is the originator, the Birth of the Cool. It starts and ends there.
That back-window scene is such a classic one: from Romeo & Juliet to Tony & Maria to Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court. How did you approach that scene to give it your own twist?
I just try to personalize universal themes. I go for the classics because they work. Everyone can understand throwing rocks at a girl's window to get her attention. I will say that if you haven't done it, though, it might be tough to describe.
Escape is such an appealing theme for a songwriter to tackle. But "Miles Davis & the Cool" seems to be about both escape and coming home.
I think the beginning of escaping is always the first step toward a home. No one really wants to just escape forever. It's also symbolic of a new start, a rebirth of sorts. As silly as it sounds, you have to escape to find home sometimes.
Talk about the process of creating the music for "Miles Davis & the Cool." How do you go about giving these memorable words and images the backing they deserve?
Thank you. The music had to move forward, like a heartbeat, and then explode. Like when you get ready to ask a girl out, you have all these expectations and tension, and then the explosion of waiting on the edge of the cliff for her response. It's quite dramatic to a young man.
There are references to other artists and their songs here—Elvis Costello, a double-shot of Otis Redding, a "blue" reference for Miles Davis—and elsewhere on The '59 Sound. Please talk about that aspect of your songwriting and why those kinds of references are fun for the writer and the listener.
It's all about relating and paying tribute. You have to identify yourself in your early years, saying "this is where I come from. These are my forefathers." It's also about finding a familiar thing for people to feel what you're saying. Then they know what you mean. I got the idea from hip-hop music: They always make reference to other artists and songs. It's kind of a team colors thing. You're showing who you align yourself with and at the same time being humble to those who came before you.
Why "Jackson!" to punctuate the "So why don't you sing to me on this long drive home" stanza?
Jackson was the name of the kid in the studio who was cleaning while we were recording. I put his name in there because I thought he was the coolest kid—very humble, great guy. We spoke about his grandmother and church. Nobody seemed to pay him any mind, so I gave him a shout-out. It also just sounds cool.
It's become cliché to describe songs as "cinematic," but too bad: That descriptor applies to much of The '59 Sound, including "Miles Davis & the Cool." So you're casting the movie of "Miles Davis & the Cool." Who plays the guy, the girl, and Miles Davis looking down on it all?
I think the guy is Paul Newman. The girl is Grace Kelly. Miles is Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs. Ha! I'd pay to see that.
OK, one more fantasy question: Now you're a radio DJ who's going to play a three-song set with "Miles Davis & the Cool" in the middle. What song do you play before it, and what song do you play after it. And why?
I'd play "Backstreets" from Bruce Springsteen to ramp up the feeling and the get the vibe right. Then I'd close it with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" from Bob Dylan to cool it down and send it off right. "This is Brian Fallon on Stay Free Radio One, tune in and turn up, leave the low lights on, turn the cool up, you hear it here, you hear it right, signing off, over and out."
The Gaslight Anthem plays Cat's Cradle Wednesday, May 6, with Pela and Good Old War. Tickets are $13 in advance and $15 at the door. The music starts at 8 p.m.