You know how the patchouli set spent several years after the demise of Jerry Garcia and the eventual disbanding of The Grateful Dead searching for a suitable act to take the place of the acid-dropping, pot-smoking, three-hour-long experience of seeing the Dead live? Perhaps many of these folks are still stumbling around Planet There, zombie like, looking for the new Dead to give them their fix; to be honest, I don't keep up with jam bands enough to know. Last night, though, as I stood in the back of a sold-out Casbah being dutifully entertained to my core by The Hold Steady, I wondered if I might not be staring at a similar sort of replacement. No, not for the hippies and Deadheads, but for all of us who at one time or another spent a few hours in the presence of Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices. I'm not sure these two bands have a lot in common musically, but the stage presence is very similar: the energy they both give and take from the crowd, the antics of the lead singer within and between songs, not to mention the drunken poet who despite barely being able to stand upright can still manage to drop an atom bomb (or five) of ferocious rock and roll on all gathered.
I didn't know what to expect of The Hold Steady. I've been listening to them for a while now, since first hearing them profiled on NPR, and their two albums, Separation Sunday and The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, have been on frequent rotation for the last few months. I wasn't sure how their sound, which can be best described as King Missile meets Bruce Springsteen who has just come from a jam session with Slayer, would work live. I scanned the internet for a bootleg, but couldn't find anything, so I took the risk and paid the ten bucks for a ticket. Let's just say that it was ten bucks I would gladly spend again and again. Eighty minutes of songs about being high, getting high, partying to get even higher, and hanging out with high hoodrats, all of it was, well, such a high even for someone who was not high, except maybe a contact one courtesy of The Hold Steady. One of the most interesting aspects of this band, in my opinion, was the fact that despite times of not being tight as an act, and there were one or two missteps along the way, the band has such a genuine musicianship about them that these imperfect moments didn't cause a Replacements-like hissy fit and resultant song stoppage, but instead they kept it going, lead Steady Craig Finn dropping lessons about Yeats and Saint Barbara in between long drags from numerous cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon which his adoring fans kept handing to him. And like Guided By Voices, there's something to be said for a sloppy, two-fisting lead singer who surrounds himself with musicians who can really play (and these guys can), almost as if they provide a sturdy handrail for the stumbling drunk.
Perhaps a huge added benefit of The Hold Steady is their marriage of music and literary. Not only do Yeats and Blake get mentioned in one of their songs, but Finn has also written one about John Berryman, a poet from their home state of Minnesota who enjoyed and battled more than his share of spirits--both liquid and ethereal--and who ultimately jumped to his death off of a Minneapolis bridge into the Mississippi Rivier. Thanks to the music blogs, I've been able to find a copy of this song, "Back to the Station," which I've posted below the cut. But in order to make this a well-rounded musical and literary experience, I'm also providing you with a reading assignment: three of my favorite Berryman poems.
After reading these three pieces I think you'll see why The Hold Steady finds inspiration from such a troubled man. Enjoy if you can. And if The Hold Steady comes to your town, don't miss them.
+ Download "Stuck Between Stations" by The Hold Steady; note the mention of Sal Paradise in the opening verse.
Three John Berryman Poems
Reflexions on suicide, & on my father, possess me.
I drink too much. My wife threatens seperation.
She won't 'nurse' me. She feels 'inadequate'.
We don't mix together.
It's an hour later in the East.
I could call up Mother in Washington D.C.
But could she help me?
And all this postal adulation & reproach?
A basis rock-like of love & friendship
for all this world-wid madness seems to be needed.
Epictetus is in some ways my favorite philosopher.
Happy men have died earlier.
I still plan to go to Mexico this summer.
The Olmec images! Chichén Itzá!
D.H. Lawrence has a wild dream of it.
Malcolm Lowry's book when it came out I taught to my precept at Princeton.
I don't entirely resign. I may teach the Third Gospel
this afternoon. I haven't made up my mind.
It seems to me sometimes that others have easier jobs
& do them worse.
Well, we must labour & dream. Gogol was impotent,
somebody in Pittsburgh told me.
I said: At what age? They couldn't answer.
That is a damned serious matter.
Rembrandt was sober. There we differ. Sober.
Terrors came on him. To us too they come.
Of suicide I continually think.
Apparently he didn't. I'll teach Luke.
Dream Song 324 (An Elegy for W.C.W. [William Carlos Williams], the lovely man)
Henry in Ireland to Bill underground:
Rest well, who worked so hard, who made a good sound
constantly, for so many years:
your high-jinks delighted the continents & our ears:
you had so many girls your life was a triumph
and you loved your one wife.
At dawn you rose & wrote--the books poured forth--
you delivered infinite babies, in one great birth--
and your generosity
to juniors made you deeply loved, deeply:
if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you,
especially the being through.
Too many journeys lie for him ahead,
too many galleys & page-proofs to be read,
he would like to lie down
in your sweet silence, to whom was not denied
the mysterious late excellence which is the crown
of our trials & our last bride.
A spot of poontang on a five-foot piece,
Diminutive, but room enough . . like clay
To finger eager on some torrid day.
Who'd throw her black hair back, and hang, and tease.
Never, not once in all one's horny lease
To have had a demi-lay, a pretty, gay,
Snug, slim and supple-breasted girl for play.
She bats her big, warm eyes, and slides like grease.
And cuff her silly-hot again, mouth hot
And wet her small round writhing—but this screams
Suddenly awake, unreal as alkahest,
My god, this isn't what I want!—You tot
The harrow-days you hold me to, black dreams,
The dirty water to get off my chest.