After surviving fame and a divorce, New Jersey's "true heir to Springsteen" is getting back to normal.
Photos by the author
Brian Fallon talks about his last car the same way most people talk about their high school yearbook photos. "I had to sell the Challenger, man. It just wasn't practical. Everyone knew it was my car," he winces. "Plus, I felt like a douche driving it."
Two years ago, the Gaslight Anthem frontman took New York Times writer Lizzy Goodman on a guided tour through his hometown of the Jersey Shore in his American muscle car—a black Dodge Challenger. But when Fallon picks me up at the Asbury Park train station, he's driving a much more unassuming four-door Volkswagen GTI. "It just wasn't me anymore," he says. "I want a normal person car. A normal person life."
We turn onto Cookman Avenue, a shoreline-adjacent street which Fallon once memorialized in the song "Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts." But the trip is less of a hero's parade and more like a visit to a cemetery. Fallon no longer seems to feel at home in the area, or perhaps the problem is that he feels too at home, with everyone knowing his name. He now resides 20 miles inland in Monmouth County, a place where he gets a lot fewer autograph requests.
As we sit down at a restaurant in town, there's a vague look of recognition from one of the waitresses. It's tough to mistake Fallon, with his full sleeves of tattoos and the Eric Clapton lyric, "Bell bottom blues, you made me cry" inked on his neck. The small anchor tattoo at the base of his throat looks as though it was strategically placed to accentuate the plain white v-necks he is so fond of. He has a 1950s Americana vibe to him, like a walking Norman Rockwell painting.
Part of his newfound fame can be traced back to Goodman's Times article, which was published as the Gaslight Anthem's last album Handwritten was being released. In it, Fallon was dubbed the "true heir to Springsteen," a comparison which had been made by fans before, especially since Bruce Springsteen, who is practically royalty in New Jersey, had joined the Gaslight Anthem on stage a number of times over the years, strumming along to songs like "American Slang" and "The '59 Sound." But suddenly, it was being broadcast by the paper of record. For a Jersey native from a punk background like Fallon, it was a blessing and a curse.
"One writer said to me—called me up on the phone—first thing out of his mouth was: 'Just so you know, I don't think you've ever written a song as good as "Rosalita" or "Born to Run"' and I was like, 'Yeah, me neither!'" Fallon laughs, while picking at a plate of fries. As the Gaslight Anthem rose to new levels of fame, with Handwritten's single "45" hitting number 11 on Billboard's Top Alternative Songs list, the Springsteen comparison seemed like an albatross around the neck of Fallon, one that he just couldn't shake. Last summer at an outdoor show, he got visibly frustrated with a New York audience who kept yelling out for covers and hurling chants of "Bruuuuuce!" Shortly after, he took to the band's blog to post a message to fans: "Don't come to see Bruce, he won't be there. Don't come to hear a cover, it probably won't happen. Don't come to yell at me when I'm trying to share something with the audience to reach out to them about something I feel is moving me."
"That was at the pinnacle of me not knowing what to do with my life," Fallon tells me. "'Maybe I'm not thick-skinned enough for this,' I thought." Soon after the incident, Fallon's public profile went dark. He stopped posting on the blog and deleted his Twitter account, a move which many interpreted as his desire to escape the increasingly rabid demands of his growing fanbase. In reality, it was more to escape himself.
Fallon often suffers from foot-in-mouth disease and success seems to exacerbate it. In an interview he did with Red Bull Academy Radio in 2012, for example, Fallon successfully turned the show's live studio audience against him by taking jabs at beloved legends like the Replacements and Jawbreaker, insinuating that the bands were overrated and "weren't that good." Fallon shakes his head and laughs at himself while recalling it, chalking it up to an attempt at deliberately defacing his own rising public image. "I was trying to put the brakes on the train. And I said, 'Well, I'll bet if I said some stuff to make people mad, that it would stop some of this.' And that's just not the right way to do it," he acknowledges. "But at the time, I think I said a lot of that stuff out of frustration."
So to save himself from himself, Fallon pulled the plug on all social media and vanished for most of the past year. "I'd had enough of myself," he remembers. "I was like, 'You're an idiot. You just keep running your stupid mouth and you say things that you don't mean. And you say them because you're in the moment and you're hot about something. So you know what, self? I'm cutting you off. You need to shut up.'"
It was around this time out of the public eye that Fallon began work on Get Hurt, the band's forthcoming fifth album. In the Gaslight mansion, Get Hurt is the dark basement you're sometimes afraid to go into. Its 16 songs lean more towards the somber blues than the fun rock 'n' roll side of the band's sound. It's also more personal and lacks much of the fictionalized third-person storytelling and trademark imagery the band has become known for. When I ran into Fallon this past Christmas at the Stone Pony, the Asbury Park venue Springsteen made famous in the 70s, he was in the middle of writing the record. He half-jokingly told me that he had a board in the studio with all the words he'd retired from Gaslight's lexicon written on it: "No more 'Maria,' no more songs about radios," he laughed.
If Get Hurt feels like a break-up record, it's because it is. Fallon recently divorced from his wife of ten years, Hollie. "Sometimes, I don't even know how it happened. I don't even know how it got like this," he says of the split. "All I know is that it did. And I now have to figure out: What do I do now?" One thing he didn't do was fall into the typical post-separation pitfalls of drugs, alcohol, and partying, even when they were available. Fallon, now 34, has a medicine cabinet full of unused prescription pills. This is referenced on Get Hurt's opener, "Stay Vicious": "I have pills for this/ tabs for that/ and something that used to resemble a soul." Instead of medicating, he tried forcing himself into good, productive habits.
"I got on a schedule where I got up at eight everyday, started writing at nine, went until about three and then did whatever I had to do for the day—got my errands run—and then came back at ten and wrote again," he says. "It felt great. To me, it wasn't like I was getting up everyday and going to work. It felt like I was whittling, getting that thing to a finer and finer point of what I was looking for. And I didn't exactly know what I was looking for. I've never had that before." He even recently flew to Venice, California to work with personal trainers to get himself in better shape for the band's upcoming tour—his two main vices are Coca-Cola and cigarettes, the latter of which he says he's halfway to waning off completely, even though a pack of American Spirits protrudes through his shirt's front pocket.
Talking to Fallon over lunch, I notice he smiles more than I've seen over the last year, as if Get Hurt was the exorcism of a dark spot on his soul. "Brian doesn't really talk about that stuff too much," says Gaslight drummer, Benny Horowitz. "But from my perspective, I do think there was something cathartic about making this record. I think for him, there was something extra at stake. Maybe writing it was necessary to feel better."
Particularly cathartic is the last verse on "Have Mercy," the final song on Get Hurt, which echoes out until Fallon sounds cleansed of the heartache of the past two years and finally comes to terms with the future: "Now your pretty horses run wild and free/ You can go and find a lover, baby, better than me/ I'm talking snow for days with your friends in LA/ Have mercy."
Fallon thinks his fans will grow to accept the record and understand its place in the progression of the Gaslight Anthem, especially if they've followed his side project, the Horrible Crowes. The press, on the other hand, he firmly believes will hate it. "One out of five," he says prophetically. "I would put money on it—that of every five reviews, one out of five likes it. And two out of five vehemently hate it."
But no matter how Get Hurt is received, the album is something Fallon stresses that he had to do for himself. "People don't get it when you do something just for the sake of 'I don't know why I'm doing this, I just need to do it though,'" he says. "It's like those people who go on a spiritual journey to India. I don't know why they do that. They probably don't know why they do that. But they did it. And at the end, they figure it out. So I just needed to do this, I don't know why. And the next record, I might go back to the '59, '69, '79 Sound. I might be Brian Fallon and the B Street Band, I don't know." There was no diverting around this record, he says. "You have to go through it to get to the other side, man. You really do. I had to prove to myself that I was capable of more than just this one thing."
Fallon has come to terms with the celebrity that comes with making music. "The 'woe as me' card cannot be pulled. I stepped into it. No one discovered me in the subway and was like, 'Man, you sound like Bruce Springsteen, I'mma put you on the MTV box!' I went after it. And I went after it hard." He's even accepted being compared to his idol. "During that quiet time, I came to grips with the Springsteen thing," he smirks, with a hint of embarrassment. "Like, what are you upset about? Why is that bad?" He notes that he admires The Boss not so much for his musicianship, but more for the durability and versatility of his career and his ability to cultivate an on-stage persona. "That dude's deep, seriously," he says of Springsteen. "He's got some wisdom that not a lot of people find in this world. And that is the guy who I want to be like. I'm not like him, but I want to be."
We finish our food and pay our bill. As we leave the restaurant, the waitress stops him to take a photo. He thanks her and we're on our way.
Back on the road, Fallon stops at a red light and stares straight out the windshield before meeting his blue eyes in the rear view mirror. He takes a short drag from a cigarette and then flicks the remaining half out the window of the GTI. It sparks on Cookman's asphalt behind us. He pulls his hand back into the car and drapes it over the steering wheel, his knuckle tattoos which read "Stay Free" point towards the summer sun. The first "e" is notably bare. "I'm just trying to figure it all out, man."
Dan Ozzi will sleep on the beach if he ain't got a ride. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi