I didn’t know that much about it
I knew Mary Tyler Moore and I knew Profane Existence
– from “Stevie Nix” on Separation Sunday
I don’t know if The Hold Steady have casual fans.
Then again, this summer I got a text from a friend at a Morrissey concert asking me what I knew about Morrissey, so even the most famously cultish acts must have new listeners drifting through their concerts. Flow among shows and scenes is certainly a topic in plenty of Hold Steady songs, pieces of vivid, narrative-heavy rock opera about young Catholic hoodrats traveling between concerts, cities and parties past when the thrill has gone. Throughout, they keep a balance between nostalgia for the immediacy of old moments, and a wider, melancholic (but non-judgmental) perspective that the old times weren’t really the best and leave every generation with their own (literal and figurative) multitudes of casualties.
My own youth was pretty straight-laced – with a soundtrack by bands that already split or died – so I don’t directly share that nostalgia for ‘the scene’. Every once in a while, though, I get to see a band I just completely love, like when I got to catch up with The Hold Steady at their Oct 14 show at Sheffield, England’s City Hall Ballroom. Singer/songwriter Craig Finn told the crowd that the show is a place “to get together, meet old friends and maybe make new ones,” and in his lyrics and interviews you feel like he just believes the concert is a sublime event, and – onstage, flailing his arms toward the crowd – is overcome with joy that he gets to be at the center of that.
The band played a 20-song set that drew most prominently from Boys and Girls in America. Pushing 30 myself, I looked to be at the lower end of the attendee age spectrum. I stood near the front – the sing-along section, I suppose – joining with a crowd who seemed to know the notoriously wordy songs by heart (sometimes disruptively, as with the guys jumping ahead on the spoken intro to “Hornets! Hornets!” )
I’d wondered what that would be like, since I realized I’d be hooking up with their 2014 tour in the UK While The Hold Steady bills itself as a Brooklyn band – Finn’s lyrics frequently geographically fixate on the Twin Cities with extreme specificity, otherwise nondescript street and neighborhood names (Stillwater, Osseo, the Cedar-Riverside apartments, the Quarry, Hennepin, Lyndale South, Lowry East, Nicollet, …) forming such a vivid, scattershot background that the Internet has produced at least one Wiki index and two infrequently updated maps charting Hold Steady Twin Cities references (plus another national one). The lyrics to that night’s set-closer – the druggy treasure hunt “Southtown Girls” – practically form a MapQuest printout.
For me the Minneapolis-St.Paul metro is where current friends and family live and some relationships variously started, played out and concluded. So as someone for whom the place references are integral to the music’s experience, if only as a backdrop (hey! I drove past there! A lot…), I had wondered how the band plays internationally. While the Twin Cities had a few music acts that made it international – most notably Bob Dylan, the Replacements, and Prince – they arguably don’t have a stronger media image internationally (a la New York or L.A.) than Mary Tyler Moore looping on some classics channel (which of course, arguably makes the lyrics sound all the more personal). In the midst of the show, I was happy to see how obscure specifics can translate into emotion; the words mean something to you because they mean something to the musicians. As Finn said about Minneapolis at the show – “even if you’ve never heard of it, you know somewhere like it” – before singing the lines:
She said City Center used to be the center of our scene
Now city center’s over
No one really goes there
And we used to drink beneath this railroad bridge
Some nights the bus wouldn’t even stop there were just too many kids
But if I know the place, I don’t necessarily know the experience. I’ve never been – as the “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” narrator is shortly thereafter – attacked, then probed by the police for illicit substances. I’m also naïve enough to find it odd that in my current city, Nottingham, the drug culture is so blatant that dealers pass out business / loyalty cards (five stamps and your sixth “bag” is free!). For that matter, I’m not Catholic and despite how enthusiastically the band name-checks the Youth of Today and the 7 Seconds, I’ve never bothered to explore the influences which they reference with reverence.
That emotion-through-extreme-specificity style is close to the opposite of another song I’ve listened to frequently over the last few years: “Time Spent in Los Angeles” by Dawes, whose emotion I connect to through vagueness:
You’ve got that special kind of sadness
You’ve got that tragic set of charms
That only comes from time spent in Los Angeles
Songwriter Taylor Goldsmith said in an interview:
I feel like there in an ineffable quality to a person from a certain place, and when a bunch of people are in a room together you can kind of feel that connection and all the people from L.A. can kind of pick each other out, and I feel like that is the case with people from everywhere…
I’d like to think a show can something like that – bring people together in a room, where you can all imagine you’re from a certain place of mind, whichever city centre you’re recalling.