Sequestered on the Subway


I am on a subway train in New York City listening over and over to the new Hold Steady song, “Sequestered in Memphis”, which is, apparently, the first single off of the band’s upcoming July release, Stay Positive. My iPod is welded open and I’m jamming those little earbuds as far into my ears as I can because this music can’t be loud enough.

It is early. Seven in the morning early. Lay low in the light early.

I am fairly certain I’m the only one in my car listening to this song, but most everyone is listening to something. Earbuds abound. With my morning train as proxy, music is universally embraced by the commuting public – which, considering that most of the public commutes, makes even more astonishing the fact that the global recorded music industry is now smaller than the US dry cleaning and laundry services sector. That’s pretty incredible, since most people do their own laundry. Considering where the music industry once was, it’s akin to a group of people kicking the hockey puck into their own goal, like, thirty times in a row. Hockey is on my mind this morning, because I’m a huge Penguins fan, and last night’s stellar performance aside, it’s going to be hard to beat the Red Wings. At least the Pens pummeled the Flyers.

I love this band, The Hold Steady. Lots of us love this band. Not as many as love, say, Usher, which yesterday was charting at #1 on iTunes. Or, if yesterday’s New York Times article is indicative of broader trends among women in America, as many as love the new movie version of Sex and the City. But, The Hold Steady is way cooler.

We Hold Steady fans have been pulling for this band since before the band even existed.

[Ed: Much, much more after the jump.]

From what I’ve read, we Hold Steady fans increasingly hail from many different global localities. Apparently, the United Kingdom is a particular hotbed, the truth of which was confusing to me because my English cousins-in-law haven’t exactly cottoned to the band, despite my having given them all for Christmas for the past three years running that year’s Hold Steady record, which I’ll do again in 2008, because I am not English, and thus, lack subtlety and grace.

Musically primal and driving, primitive and gorgeous, with an underlying animism animating, as the records progress, fancier and fancier arrangements, the band’s increasingly mainstream productions are proving, surprisingly, to make for better records. “More mainstream” can be good. “More popular” doesn’t have to suck. It is nice to be reminded of that.

The music part – which, for me, is Tad Kubler’s sensational sense of “guitar” – is abundant joy, with massive hooks that make for massive nights. The Telecaster is cooler looking, but a cranked Les Paul in the right hands, like Tad’s hands, is a peek into the mind of God: all of the universe, swirling in explosive harmonic complexity, crazy complicated math.

Lyrically, however, there is nothing like The Hold Steady. Craig Finn, the lyricist and frontman of the band, speaks (I would not say sings, exactly; maybe it is something in the middle) to the complicated things certain groups of people from a certain part of our country get caught up in as we grow up, grow old, and come to internalize the sad reality that eventually, we exit the building; but Finn frames it in a way that makes it Universal. Philip Fisher told me (and a bunch of other people) that this is, at least in part, what makes great art great. I think The Hold Steady is great art. And, it’s art for me, unlike a lot of other great art.

You might need a degree in Classics fully to appreciate Pound or Eliot, but you need familiarity with what it’s like to grow up between the headwaters of the Ohio and the Mississippi River fully to appreciate The Hold Steady. As for me, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and went to school in Massachusetts. Finn draws from a musical vocabulary scratched into our souls by terrestrial radio from an early age … when we were little, peering over kitchen tables in the morning while being force-fed cereal (six years old, listening to “Band on the Run” from a transistor in the window, and I can remember where I was sitting and where my mother was standing) … during late elementary school, entering testosterone-fueled adolescent anger (cranking Krokus’ “Eat The Rich” so loud it distorted as to be barely audible, playing it as many times as I played “Sequestered in Memphis” during this morning’s long commute, me harboring this **** YOU towards nothing in particular) … during high school, driving with friends with cars (everyone singing that vocal break in “The Ocean”, me singing too, while staring abstractly at a little hole in the back of the vinyl passenger headrest I made earlier that summer by biting into it one drunk night for no apparent reason) … during college, heading to New York for a Dead show with a ******** *** girl who halfway through the second set scored ***** from a random dude three rows down at the Garden which, after ******* it, rendered us too wasted to **** ** (which remains, to this day, regrettable).

Musical memories pressed by FM radio’s plastic dials into play-doh minds.

Cribbing off of that, Finn details with a savage eye the corrupt cracks and fissures of our situations: observing, chronicling, and judging, using metaphors we kinda get.

I have turned a lot of people onto this band.

My friend who wrote the definitive biography of James Smithson? I bought tickets for her and her friend for a New York show. Saw them leaving, about ¾ of the way through the set. Later, she said thanks for the tickets, it was fun, but they left early, they were really tired. She called Finn a “total geek fest”. A “total geek fest”? Coming from the person who wrote the definitive biography of James Smithson? Uh huh. OK.

My friend who is the Michael Jordan of ultimate Frisbee and if ultimate Frisbee was a major league sport, would have a seven figure Nike endorsement deal but instead, tries to make ends meet as a visual artist, gets migraines, and once in a while, gets depressed? Loves it. Addict, full-blown. Couldn’t kick if he tried. Goes to every show he can.

My friend who is an actor in a theater company with his wife, also an actor? She scored big in Denver and got him the spousal comp, which is a burden for him, but his burden pays him to be an actor for a living, and he should get over it, because on top of the employment as an actor part, his wife is really cool. He likes The Hold Steady, a lot (incidentally, it was his car I tried half-heartedly to eat, so this is perhaps not surprising). But, his wife doesn’t, really; and since, where they live, well, no one really goes there, he can kind of only half engage.

Moving away from my friends, how about former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins, whom, after meeting and then hearing lecture on how to read poetry, I emailed like a crazed stalker fan (of whose, his or The Hold Steady’s, he was likely not sure)? I sent him copies of some of the records and emailed him the lyrics for Separation Sunday. Never heard from him, even when I emailed again to make sure he got everything. Maybe Billy is just off in his own world, not paying attention to me, like in that poem he wrote where, there about dusk, the protagonist draws a bath and sits in it while listening to Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It’s in a book of his called The Trouble With Poetry; I think part of the trouble with poetry is Billy Collins is not paying attention to Craig Finn. Maybe I came off as kinda creepy. I guess I should give Billy a break.

I sent Annie Lamott a copy of Separation Sunday, because I thought she’d really like it, and she didn’t get back to me, either. She is really cool. Acerbic. I bet she does like it, but just isn’t the kind of person who feels a particular obligation to get back to people. Which is OK.

But most egregious of all, how about those two priests I’ve been trying to get to check out Separation Sunday for the past three years (street date was the day after my birthday, and that record release show at Bowery Ballroom was the best live show I’ve ever seen)? How can anyone be a priest in America in the 21st century and not know this record? Especially considering that one of the priests in question also happens to be my WIFE?

As far as the new song, as a matter of coincidence, I’ve actually been sequestered in Memphis, and on business. I was in my twenties, and completely alone. I stayed at The Drake hotel, that place where ducks walk back and forth in the lobby twice a day. One night, sequestered, I sat at the hotel bar and watched a guy with a wedding ring pick up a Pro, and then I went up to my room and wrote a song about them, fueled by a lot of gin and tonic. Which was very Hold Steady of me.

I’ve never gone to some place where she cat sits, but Finn probably hasn’t, either, and anyways, it’s a killer line. All of us have made things out to be alrite in barlight that ended up looking desperate in daylight, and we all get sick of these interviews and at least sometimes, are all pretty desperate, too. We probably wish that people cared about which bathroom we’re talking about, and no, even if they did, it can’t be important, but Finn’s blue collar, workaday attitude about telling his story again, and again, and again, and the band’s to make another record, and another one, and another one?

Well, we hope that keeps happening, and they manage to hew to the company line, and stay positive.

From what I’ve heard, last week, some among us hoovered the new Hold Steady album off the mirror of an illegal YouSendIt link (the offending link is gone now). When I heard about it, I almost got sick, but I guess I knew it was coming. Self-righteousness and sanctimony are not pleasant character traits, so I will now endeavor to tread lightly, and, with as much tact as I can muster, may I gently suggest the following:

Please consider not stealing this record.

Maybe instead, wait until July, and then buy it. Digitally. Then, gift it to 10 friends, even if every one of those friends has already bought it and gifted it to 10 of their friends, all of whom, in an ideal Hold Steady fan world, will have already had bought it.

On my subway ride, I thought about this record, due out in July, leaking in May, while “Sequestered in Memphis” played over and over. And, this is where I came down on it. Irrespective of whether or not people manage to curb their appetites, if on street date, all the people in the United States bought this album and also gifted it to 10 friends, Stay Positive would gross about $33 billion in digital sales. The band might even recoup.

In the meantime, if your Jones is getting the better of you, perhaps consider gifting the single. It’s really easy. Go to iTunes, search for “The Hold Steady”, and then click on the “See All” button in the album section. The cover is kind of green looking, with some druid crop circle of broken infinity on the front. Maybe it’s because of all that time they spent touring in England; as for the green, Finn is an Irish name … and, if you don’t mind me asking one more question, exactly which bathroom was it?

Come July, in a few short weeks, please consider purchasing the new record, even if you already stole it. If past is precedent, it might be important.

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