The girls in the front row at the Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are gazing up at Brian Fallon, singing every word back at him. They were queuing outside in the heat by lunchtime to get these spots, and nothing will budge them. They look to be in their mid-teens — they have the wristbands to signify to the bar staff that they should not be sold alcohol — and they are truly, madly, deeply in love. The pretty girl with the red vest and the brunette bob in the very center is acting out the lyrics, using only her facial muscles. You can all but hear her thoughts: Oh, Brian! If you were mine your heart would be made whole!
The object of her affections stands and sweats, tattoos down his arms and up his neck. He is shortish and slightly stocky, a scrubby ginger beard covering his prominent chin. But the Gaslight Anthem’s looks are not what have attracted the front-row girls. They are here for the bruised romanticism of Fallon’s lyrics, for the wounded lover they imagine him to be.
And as the Gaslight Anthem, unusually for a straightahead rock band, get bigger and bigger and bigger — their fourth album, Handwritten, entered the UK charts at No 2 and the US charts at No 3 — so Fallon finds the expectations and demands of their fans more and more difficult to meet. As guitarist Alex Rosamilia explains in the cool of their tour bus earlier that day: “We come from that school where we don’t believe we’re different from you and it’s insulting to me on some kind of weird level that musicians are put on a pedestal.”
“You were born with that talent,” Fallon expands. “The best thing you could ever say to your credit is you refined it a little. Fans look up to us and that’s creepy. It’s kind of this huge thing of idolizing and hero worship and — people say — religious experience. But they crucified Jesus! They shot John Lennon! I’m not looking for that kind of thing, I’m not into this.” He laughs, to show he is not comparing himself to Jesus, and blows cigarette smoke out of the bus window.
The we’re-the-same-as-you attitude comes from Gaslight’s roots in the New Jersey punk scene, among bands such as Hot Water Music and Bouncing Souls. All four members, bar bassist Alex Levine — Fallon’s brother-in-law, who was signed up because he was reliable and was taught to play his instrument by Fallon — had bounced around groups, and forming Gaslight in 2006 was more or less their last shot.
From the start, though, Fallon had a goal. “I had a five-year plan,” he says, “to get to 500-seat venues and tour by ourselves and fill a room everywhere we go. I figured we could make a living off that. As long as you buy nothing stupid, you’ll be OK.”
Talk to Fallon’s bandmates, or to other musicians who know him, and almost the first thing that gets mentioned is how driven he is. “Brian always had pretty grand expectations of what we could do,” says Benny Horowitz, Gaslight’s drummer and commercial conscience. “I’m a realist and kind of a curmudgeon, and in retrospect I think it’s been good in both ways: we didn’t go too far, too fast, which I can give myself some credit for, and at the same time if I was running the band we wouldn’t have gone as far as we have. I’m grateful Brian had that headspace. I would have let my punk rock and white-guilt scruples hold us back too much.”