Stay Positive. The Hold Steady.
2008, Vagrant/Rough Trade. Producer: John Agnello.
IN A NUTSHELL: A rocking, energetic record that rates so highly because of Craig Finn’s lyrics and delivery. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay and guitarist Tad Kubler shine on songs that are Springsteen-y and Ramones-y, but it’s Finn’s oblique stories of small town sadness, love gone wrong, and reflections on how we treat one another that make it tick.
By 1993 I was 25 years old and still living in the small Pennsylvania town where I’d grown up. I was working at a good-paying but soul-crushing job at a local aspirin factory and feeling pretty depressed. The only reason I lived in that lousy place was that a) I’d grown up there; and b) my cool band was based nearby. But now my band had broken up; and having traveled up and down the East Coast playing music in big cities, I’d come to realize that the activities and people that cities had to offer were much more compelling to me than staying near family and friends. This was a sad thought, and so I felt depressed.
I’d always loved my hometown and its surroundings, felt pride in my culture and its idiosyncrasies, and extolled the virtues of rural life to anyone who cared to hear. But now I was thinking, “Of all the places to live in the world, what am I doing HERE?!” I wanted to make music, make jokes, make plays … I wanted to meet new people, hear new ideas … I wanted to go out for a goddamned cheeseburger at two in the morning without driving to the single, disgusting 24-hour diner within a 30 mile radius of my home.
I worked in the chemistry lab at the aspirin factory, putting to use the chem minor I’d gotten on a whim. It was one of the few pharmaceutical plants in the area, so many of the lab’s scientists commuted an hour or more from big cities like Lancaster and Harrisburg and Reading. One of these Big City scientists, Weenie Bill, aka Limulus1, owned a house outside of San Francisco that needed a tenant, and after deciding that a vacant house in sunny CA was better than finding a place in windy Chicago, I agreed to move there in the spring.
About 70% of the workers at the aspirin plant were high school graduates who worked an 8-hour shift2 standing near big medicine-making machines and helping them as they mixed, formed, pressed and finally spat out pills. (Well, tablets, technically speaking.) Others helped machines that packaged materials or labeled bottles or readied products for shipping. Some drove forklifts, carrying ingredients and other materials to be loaded into the machines.
The rest of us were college graduates (mostly) who worked in the lab (mostly) in nominal 8-hour shifts, although science experiments aren’t as reliable as all that machinery, and so the hours varied.
There was a bit of a divide between the factory machinery helpers and the laboratory experiment runners, and it essentially boiled down to this: neither group really understood what the other was doing, nor could either group appreciate the day-to-day challenges the other faced. The company endeavored to maintain a Corporate esprit-de-corps; but everyone just feigned solidarity, in the way kids at church pretend to pray so they don’t get scolded. Beneath the irritating, glossy film of compulsory harmony, a struggle of “unskilled, machine-watching louts” vs. “snobby, clean-handed nerds” prevailed.
I was friendly with a couple of the forklift drivers. As a kid I’d played little league baseball against one of them, and during breaks the three of us sometimes talked about sports, and I’d politely laugh when they made fun of my rock and roll hairdo, since it was invariably a prelude to effusive compliments on the perceived success of my band. They’d call me “rock star” or “college boy,” gentle knocks on my pursuits and my prospects. (It never occurred to me to in kind call them “bar-fly” or “dead-end.”) When I told them the band was kaput and I was moving to California in a few months, their gentle knocks turned a bit more pointed.
The ribbing remained all-in-good-fun ball-busting, of the type most men have to learn to either join in or crumple beneath3. However there was now a tinge of true ridicule for my failed band, an I-told-you-so air that mocked not only its demise, but also whatever personal beliefs and interests I’d held that had ever led me to think that playing in a rock band was a worthwhile endeavor. “I guess you won’t go on tour with Poison after all!” My impending move to California was belittled as an attempt to be a movie star, or to “[have sex with] those hot California chicks.” As faux-nasty as they got, however, the burns usually included a put-down of themselves, as well, along the lines of “You’ll be back here with the rest of us losers in no time!”
As my last day at the factory approached, I tried to say goodbye to as many people I knew as possible. I could find only one of the forklift guys when I made my rounds, the less abrasive of the two, so we chatted a little bit and he shook my hand and wished me good luck. “I hope it works out for you out there,” he said. “Good for you for getting out of this shit hole.”
“Well, I guess I have to chase my dreams,” I said.
He scoffed, quite audibly. I braced for a barbed reply, but this time it wasn’t me he was disparaging. “At least you have some dreams,” he said. Then he added, “I don’t know why I stay here.”
Small town life presents a conundrum, particularly to those folks who have generations of roots in the ground. You love it, but you loathe it. It feels like an everything that’s full of nothing. You want to escape but you don’t know how or where to go. And anyway, from a practical viewpoint, if you don’t have a skill or an education that is portable or broadly useful; if you don’t have the means to coast for a while on a little bit of savings; if all you’ve ever known outside a bus trip or two to the nearest Big City is the little place you’ve woken up in for as long as you can remember, among folks who’ve always been there … well, no matter how urgent that feeling is to “get out of this shit hole,” you probably can’t even conjure an idea of a life somewhere else that isn’t built on a foundation of fantasies including a PowerBall ticket, an unknown rich aunt, or a not-catastrophic-but-bad-enough accidental injury.
The world you see every day tells you that the dreams in your heart are no more substantial than those in your brain while you sleep. But still you hold onto them for as long as you can, no matter how frustrated or angry they make you. “I could really do something special,” your heart says. “You’re a dipshit,” says your head. These are probably universal feelings, but in a small, rural town your head has a lot more evidence on its side of the argument. Look around and you just don’t find many examples of folks who’ve actually chased dreams and caught them. You’ll have very few neighbors with kids writing for magazines in Manhattan; few relatives starting biotech companies in strip malls; few friends traveling to Italy to get an MFA in painting.
In this setting, as your own aspirations are ground down to a tiny, pointless stub, it becomes easy to reflexively respond to others’ dreams with a joke or a dig, both at the other’s dreams (“You’ll be back …”) and at your own perceived failure (“… with us losers”). If someone does set off on a chase, you might graciously wish them luck4; but a part of you hopes they come back defeated, as most of them do, to help validate your decision to leave the dreams behind and just adapt to the shit-hole. After all, the shit-hole has bars and Turkey Hill stores and all those assholes you’ve known since kindergarten who you call friends. And to be clear, it wasn’t only the machine-watchers who felt this way; the experiment-runners did, as well. They just weren’t as overt with their opinions.
The band The Hold Steady captures this conundrum of small town life in their songs and lyrics better than any rock band5 I’ve heard. But while some songs and artists may come down firmly on one side of the “escape/adapt” question or the other, The Hold Steady presents slice-of-life vignettes without judgment. And the album Stay Positive presents them brilliantly. The opening track, “Constructive Summer,” says all this better in less than three minutes than I just did in a few hundred words.
The opening guitar is a clarion call to music fans who like their rock music equal parts Punk- and Arena-. The drums join in, as does Franz Nicolay’s piano. Nicolay may be the star of the entire album, with his keyboards giving all the songs a sort of E Street Band texture that sounds terrific. I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but I recognize the sound and I like it behind Craig Finn’s voice. Of course, it’s Finn’s voice and lyrics that carry the song, right off the bat beautifully comparing his posse to a song: “Me and my friends are like/ The drums in “Lust for Life.” If you know the song, you know what he means – even though I can’t describe it. The lyrics evoke with frightening precision my small town, pre-move feelings: the imagery of drinking on water towers to escape working the mill until you die; the admonition to “Let this be my annual reminder/ That we could all be something bigger;” the knowledge that “Getting older makes it harder to remember/ We are our only saviors…” It’s a sing-along, drunk-inspiring song that sounds happy, but is actually quite sad. The listener knows right away that these guys ain’t building ANYTHING this summer, that it’s just another dream to squash before it disappoints you. The music behind the lyrics kicks ass, too, driving and fast, with really cool, squealing guitar harmonics throughout from Tad Kubler, for example at 0:26.
Way back at the beginning of this list I discussed how I found out about The Hold Steady, through a sister-in-law’s generous music dump. By 2008 I was a big fan of the band, in particular the two albums Boys and Girls in America and Separation Sunday. When their new album, Stay Positive, was announced I was ready – I think I bought it the first week it was out. I always liked the band’s guitar-based sound and Craig Finn’s shouting singing style. And I especially liked his lyrics.
I’ve been a big fan of Steely Dan for a long time, and many of Finn’s lyrics are reminiscent of that band’s oblique lyrical approach, in which the listener isn’t privy to all the details, yet is left with an unmistakable story of something that went down. “Sequestered in Memphis” has such a story.
It’s an upbeat song with dense guitars and pianos, and more cool organ from Nicolay just as Finn’s voice starts. It’s a story of … well, something happened, the authorities got involved, and now he’s telling the story to the cops. Kubler tosses in a few cool riffs, and the band imports some trumpets to bolster the sound. It’s a fun song to belt, as even Muppet band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem know!
While The Hold Steady is definitely a guitar band, the guitars are typically more riff-y and rhythmic than lead, guitar-hero style. But this song has a cool solo from Kubler at about 3:00. Finn shouts the words, as usual, but there are some nice harmonies throughout.
Another song with Steely Dan lyrics is “Slapped Actress,” a heavy, mid-tempo song that references an old 70s film, Opening Night, to reflect on … a desperate addict? Life on the road? I don’t think the specific story is what’s key – it’s more about the feelings the story gives you.
Throughout the band’s history, Finn’s lyrics have had strong references to his Catholic upbringing and faith6. The mystical sounding “Both Crosses” is such a song.
It’s a gentle, spooky song, with distant Theremin and terrific, subtle drums from Bobby Drake. Finn nearly sings on this song, with lyrics, again, that are indirect, inviting multiple listenings. I’m not well-versed in Catholic spiritual practices and terminology, but it seems to be about a girl who’s witnessed something horrible, and her faith both helps and hinders her recovery from it. I like the descending chords, around 2:08, so faint you almost miss them. It’s moody and nonchalantly intense (to coin an oxymoron), and one of my favorite songs on the album.
I also like another slow, countrified song on the album, this one, too, with spiritual undertones, “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”
Nicolay’s piano is sweet and fills in nicely. It’s lyrically straightforward this time, about the girl who got away, and whether the boy, or God, could’ve done more to help her with her problems. The centerpiece is Kubler’s solo, at about 3:00. It’s a powerful song, performed brilliantly.
However, the songs that connect most with me are the poignant descriptions of small-town life, and what it can do to people – those who’ve lived there forever, and those new to the environs. Such a song is the wonderful “One For The Cutters,” about the relationship between transient college students and the “invisible” townie lifers who share their space.
It’s a true ballad, as defined for me by Mrs. Petrey in ninth grade Language Arts. Nicolay’s harpsichord is the dominant instrument in this waltz behind Finn’s tale of a college girl “slumming” it among the townies. (The cutters of the title references the terrific film Breaking Away.) I won’t give the whole story away, but the sad finale is that the young woman who seemed to feel so at home among the townies she’d secretly befriended was actually just using them to briefly remedy her boredom.
“Joke About Jamaica” is a witty reference to a Led Zeppelin song that’s used as a jumping off point for a woman’s feelings about growing older in a small town. It captures perfectly the yin and yang of the happiness of nostalgia and the sadness of aging, particularly if you grew up as a classic rock fan.
The title track is another sing-along song with cool shouting from Finn once again. (For you Hold Steady fans, it also references the famous “Holly,” who still maintains she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get her the highest.) “Yeah Sapphire” has a great opening riff, and turns into a decent Springsteen ripoff.
When the album was released, three “bonus tracks” were included. Even though I stated in my rules that I wouldn’t use bonus tracks as a means of rating albums, I broke the rules once again. I just love the bonus song “Ask Her For Adderall,” and if I were in The Hold Steady, I’d have included it on the main album over some of the others.
There are Steely Dan lyrics. (Who’s he talking to? Who’s bringing the medicine? What happened?) There’s a rocking, straightforward punk tempo. There’s more guitar cranking. There’s another reference to Holly. All three bonus tracks are great7, but this one particularly shines.
We’ve all gotta come from somewhere, right? From the very beginning we have no say in the matter of where we live; and when we finally reach an age when we can decide, for many of us it’s long after years of indoctrination in an established community, so we really have little choice at all. Some of us may be right where we started out, happier than ever; hometown life has its charms and its benefits, after all. But for certain people, with certain dreams – or maybe especially UN-certain dreams – a hometown is a place designed to escape from. The Hold Steady understand that – and Stay Positive puts that happy sadness into song.
“Sequestered In Memphis”
“One For The Cutters”
“Lord, I’m Discouraged”
“Joke About Jamaica”
plus (included together as one “Bonus Track” on the CD)
“Ask Her For Adderall”