Ghosts by Gaslight

Last night my brother Mark and I went to our second Gaslight Anthem concert, this one in downtown Raleigh’s tiny Lincoln Theater, a perfect venue for getting up close and personal with rock and roll.  On the way home, I remarked that I’ve noticed that The Gaslight Anthem’s songs are constantly referring to ghosts.  Mark added that they tend to write about radios a lot as well.  I’ll let Mark treat the symbolic valences of radios (maybe he could do that on his podcast, Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This?), but let me give you a few of my thoughts on the ghost imagery in the Gaslight canon.

First of all, it’s everywhere.  Here are just a few samples from last year’s album Handwritten:

  • “I danced with your ghost” (“45”)
  • “All of our heroes were failures or ghosts” (“Biloxi Parish”)
  • “I already live with too many ghosts” (“National Anthem”)

I’m sure a thorough or even a cursory listen through the catalog would turn up many more examples.

Invariably, these ghosts aren’t spirits of dead people returned to complete unfinished business.  In the Gaslight Anthem universe, which looks a lot like a Christian universe much of the time, the dead go On (to echo Albus Dumbledore).  This is very clear in the masterful requiem “The ’59 Sound” (“when we float out into the ether/into the everlasting arms”) and in “Biloxi Parish,” one of the few almost cheerful songs on the new album (“when you pass through from this world/I hope you ask to take me with you/or that I don’t have to wait too long”).

No, the ghosts in The Gaslight Anthem’s repertoire are memories–not mere memories, for as the songs heart-wrenchingly demonstrate, memories are powerful and, far too often, malevolent.  I can think of only one example in which ghost imagery is positive, and it’s “Biloxi Parish” again.  In that song, which I think is highly romantic, I don’t think the line “I will eventually haunt you” is meant to be sinister.  But that’s the exception.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the main theme of all of TGA’s music is figuring out how to go on living in the shadows of a devastating past–the shadow of a failure of a father, the shadow of a burned-out New Jersey factory, the shadows of girls named Virginia and Maria.

The ghost references go all the way back to the first album (“like I was a ghost in your dreams” in “Red in the Morning”) and are used to convey a number of different ideas.  For example, “Old Haunts” (which I always thing of as The Gaslight Anthem’s more depressing answer to Bruce Springsteen’s already-sad “Glory Days”) is about people who voluntarily become ghosts by refusing to move forward, always falling back on “if you’d have known me when.”  Even when they’re not using the word “ghost,” The Gaslight Anthem are singing about ghosts: “Keepsake,” the saddest song on the latest album, is about exorcising those angry memories–or, to use the song’s own metaphor, burying them deep at the bottom of a river.  Another theme addressed without explicitly employing the ghost imagery, though the allusion is certainly there, is the determination to avoid creating haunting memories for others.  This is why the speaker in “The Spirit of Jazz” asks so earnestly, “Was I good to you/the wife of my youth?”

If all these ghost lyrics were accompanied by minor keys and funereal tempos, they would be maudlin.  But many of The Gaslight Anthem’s most haunted songs are among their loudest, fastest, and most danceable.  Part of this, I think, is defiance: Hey ghosts, you can’t stop me from playing rock and roll.  But also, maybe–I don’t want to presume to read something that isn’t there–maybe there’s also some hope for what we’ll find after we hear our “favorite song one last time.”

One thought on “Ghosts by Gaslight

  1. I must say that I have not paid much attention to Gaslight Anthem, beyond knowing that you and Mark are true fans. But your blog makes me want to listen a little more carefully.

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