Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tom Gabel is my generation's Bob Dylan

The phrase “so and so is this generation’s Bob Dylan” is thrown around a lot. It’s been used to describe Conor Oberst, John Mayer, Joshua Radin, Rage Against The Machine and countless others. Basically anyone who plays acoustic guitar or sings songs with a political consciousness. A Pepsi commercial from the 2009 Superbowl even compared Dylan to (of course, the same commercial equated John Belushi to Jack Black and Gumby to Shrek).

But I write here today to make the bold claim that Against Me!’s Tom Gabel is, in fact, my generation’s Bob Dylan. I make this claim based on the fact that both committed one of the worst sins a musical entity can commit: They changed.

Bob Dylan started in the music industry by playing original and standard folk and pre-war blues (see 1962’s Bob Dylan). From there, he went on to write some of the most important political songs on his generation (“Blowin’ In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Masters Of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” etc). For a few years he was king of the American folk revival.

Then, in 1965, Dylan shocked the music industry by playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. The crowd booed (though some accounts attribute this to a reaction to sound quality and set length) and many of Dylan’s fans and friends in the folk scene turned on him. Dylan went on the record Highway 51 Revisited and gained new fans, as well as older fans accepting his new style. He continued to write and record music in a variety of styles, but he never again wrote the sort of political folk songs that had gained him so many fans.

Against Me! burst onto the Gainesville, FL, scene in the late 90’s, playing impromptu shows with that were often just Tom Gabel on acoustic guitar, sometimes joined by their early drummer playing a homemade drum kit built around a pickle bucket. A typical young punk, Gabel often wrote songs about anarchism, or about the art of music and what he considered to be the problems in the music industry. A handful of EP’s were released as little more than acoustic guitar and drums (Against Me!, Crime as Forgiven by Against Me!), occasionally with bass (another self-titled release, often referred to as The Acoustic EP).

On their first two full length albums (2002’s Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose and 2003’s Against Me! as The Eternal Cowboy), the duo expanded to a full, 4-piece band, and they had begun including electric guitar along with the acoustic. Their switch to electric was not fully welcomed by their fan base, but it was not as shocking as Dylan’s switch. Many fans were more upset that for Eternal Cowboy, the band switched from small record labels like Plan-It-X and No Idea for the larger (but still independent) Fat Wreck Chords (reportedly, a fan went as far as slashing the tires on the band’s tour bus in anger over the switch). Against Me! further alienated early fans with their second Fat Wreck Chords album, 2005’s Searching For A Former Clarity. The album was polarizing to fans as it left behind all traces of the band’s earlier sound, with acoustic guitar only on the slow-strummer “Joy.” The lyrics still contain political and artistic angst, but only echoes of the band’s earlier anarchist leanings remained.

These decreasingly subtle changes would be enough to inspire anger in the fragile world of punk rock, but the true fallout came when the band signed with Sire Records, distributed by Warner Music Group, for 2007’s New Wave. The album contained very little political ideology and traded punk completely for a larger, arena-rock style. Very few of the band’s earlier fans liked it, and most turned their backs completely on the band, despite statements from the band in press that this new style had been their desire from the beginning.

When Against Me! started out, Gabel wrote semi-folkish songs with a strong political ideology. He outgrew the style and the ideology, but many of his fans refused to grow with him, much like Dylan before him. What specifically brought me to writing this, however, was a song on their newest album, White Crosses. The song, entitled “I Was A Teenage Anarchist,” is Gabel’s explanation of why he outgrew the political ideologies of the band’s earlier songs and an attempt to connect his past to his present. Upon hearing the song, I was immediately reminded of Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” from Another Side of Bob Dylan, recorded the year before the infamous Newport Folk Festitval Performance. That song has been interpreted as Dylan doing the same thing Gabel did on “Teenage Anarchist,” removing himself from the politics he outgrew while trying to connect his past to his present. The comparison between the two songs is made more poignant by the inclusion of an acoustic version of “Teenage Anarchist” on the iTunes preorder of the album.

It is worth noting that Gabel himself might see the connection between himself and Dylan. The deluxe edition of White Crosses contains a track entitled “Bob Dylan Dream,” detailing a dream Gabel had that Bob Dylan was his roommate and the two were good friends, claiming “I never mentioned my collection of his albums/I never bothered him with intrusive questions.”

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