The songs we never have the courage to write
- By Tom Noonan -
- May 11, 2012
When I first saw Against Me! in concert, they walked onto stage, didn’t say a word, and proceeded to tear through their stellar breakout album “New Wave” followed by a litany of perfectly transitioned fan favorites. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I left thinking, “That is how a concert should be played.” The energy, the passion, the sing along choruses that boomed with such paint-peeling ferocity that I feared for the structural integrity of the venue; Against Me! all at once embodied what I knew rock and roll should be.
The only time during their set that any of the band members came up for air was during the slow and atypically unfocused finale from “New Wave” titled “Ocean”. This song always struck me as somewhat odd and out of place, but on Wednesday, when Against Me!’s lead singer Tom Gabel came out as transgendered, the song’s contemplative lyrics, specifically the line, “If I could have chosen/I would have been a woman/My mother once told me/She would have named me Laura,” finally began to make sense.
Initially I found myself knocked completely over by the news, as it ran through the every music news outlet with seemingly no warning or precedent. As far as I knew, Gabel was happily married and had never openly discussed her identity struggles. After The Rolling Stone reported her announcement, Gabel pointed out that she had previously hinted about these struggles on songs such as “Ocean” and “Harsh Realms”.
On Wednesday, after consuming just about all the articles written on the subject, I went back and listened to a large portion of her music, both as a solo act and in her band Against Me!, and found that Gabel’s identity had always been there, hidden amid her lucid lyrics. When looking back at some of her most powerful songs like "Pints of Guinness Make You Stronger", probably the only Against Me! song that could be called a "love song", and “Thrash Unreal”, Against Me!’s catchiest and most commercially successful song, I realized that she was constantly writing from a woman's perspective.
I guess it’s just hard to swallow the fact that I, as someone who had to buy a second copy of “New Wave” because the first copy got too worn to play, completely missed the one real and revealing moment on an album that otherwise tackled issues much bigger (in size not importance; issues such as war, the pitfalls of the music industry, and globalization) than Gabel’s identity struggle. Perhaps when an artist or writer routinely tackles such public issues, it is easy to miss the more intimate moments when they reveal themselves as they truly are, but it’s never easy to accept your own willful ignorance to the true struggles of someone you feel as connected to as we do to our favorite musicians.
There is one Against Me! song that stuck with me all Wednesday as I tried to wrap my head around the entire situation; this song is “Cavalier Eternal”. The track itself plays like a break-up song, but there is one line that seems out of place and revealing. When Gabel sings, "A song and a stage is all I've ever needed for a home,” I begin to wonder what that line meant to Gabel at the time. It may be the only honest line in the song. Or maybe I just want it to be.
In the end, I hope that she continues to find herself through music, but, more than that, I hope her announcement is met with an understanding that she might never play music again. And, after already receiving public support from many bands including The Gaslight Anthem, I think it will be. Most of all, I hope her courage serves to inspire others dealing with similar identity problems.
On one of Against Me!’s earliest tracks, Gabel growls, “Last night,/A room full, drunk/Sang along to the songs I never had/The courage to write.” It looks like, after years of privately struggling, she’s finally found that courage.
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