I wish I could remember more about the first Hold Steady concert I saw. I know it was in 2005 at the Duluth Pizza Lucé. I know I went alone. I’ll never forget how Lucé felt during shows back then. But beyond that I’ve got almost nothing. No memory of specific songs they played or how big they sounded in that small room or what happened in my body and brain while it was going on.
I can’t even remember why I went. I wasn’t a Hold Steady fan. For most of 2004 I’d seen music magazine stories about how supposedly great they were, and that was my reason for ignoring them. I was early-30s going on 15 in some ways. One way was that I resisted music other people liked, as I’d done since junior high, because how would anyone know how special I was if I didn’t oppose things other people supported? (Ask me how I still feel about U2, REM, Faith No More, and INXS.) Maybe I went because curiosity wore down my resistance and misjudgment. Maybe I’m remembering it wrong and I’d been listening to them for a while.
A fan site says the show was on March 12 (a Saturday). I think I remember Lucé being full but not as packed as I’d seen it for the Black-eyed Snakes, Brother Ali, Dillinger Four, or Trampled by Turtles. Not chaotic like those shows. I think it was for sure the first time I’d heard any Hold Steady songs. Did I get bored? Sometimes that happens if I don’t know the songs, even when a band is good. Could I make out any lyrics? I had to like the actual music, which sounds like classic rock, punk, power pop, and other genres the Gen X music omnivores in the band would have inhaled while growing up.
Google says the first Hold Steady album, Almost Killed Me, came out on March 16, 2004, almost exactly a year before the Pizza Lucé show. Their second album, Separation Sunday, came out two months after that show — May 3, 2005. Did I buy Almost … at the merch table, or a few days later across Superior Street at the Electric Fetus? What about the T-shirt with a Hold Steady-themed Andy Capp Hot Fries logo I used to have? (I wound up giving it to a friend because it was a little small to begin with and he stays in better shape than I do.) Did I buy it at the show?
Good grief. The 17 years forward from the show until now is the same number of years backward from the show to my junior year in high school, at Rochester John Marshall, when I turned 17. Some of my high school jock buddies and I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and other classic rock that their older brothers and sisters had passed down. Pretty much anything that was on KQ92 out of Minneapolis, which I could sometimes get on the JCPenney stereo my Mom and Dad bought me for my 17th birthday. When a substitute teacher told us she had seen Zeppelin at the Met Center in 1977 it almost vaporized our minds. “You saw Led Zeppelin? Led Zeppelin. The actual … You saw Zeppelin. Zeppelin. You … [slack-jawed loss for words].” We just could not comprehend that a real human being we knew had shared arena air full of weed smoke with the mythical beings who made “Dazed and Confused,” “The Rain Song,” “Kashmir,” and “Stairway to Heaven.”
The distance from ‘87 back to ‘77 seemed so vast. Ten years, man! When I tried to picture the sub’s Met Center experience in my mind, the images looked like color Instamatic prints and Polaroids that fill my parents’ albums of family photos from the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Soft-faded and warm in a way that can make those times seem more simple and real than the present day, whenever it is. In the ’80s I spent a lot of time looking at photos from the ’60s and wondering if the way they looked conveyed anything about how the air and everything else during that time felt. I wonder the same thing now while looking at photos from the ’80s, even though I was there. Melancholy is my favorite element of nostalgia, but not in a comfortable way.
I saw Robert Plant on his Now and Zen tour at the Met Center on May 31, 1988. A Tuesday. Being in that place for a concert was cool. The internet says he did some Zeppelin songs. I would never have remembered that. I also don’t recall anything about the event feeling mythical, but maybe it did. How could it not have? It was Robert Plant. (But there were definitely mythical moments — like “Creeping Death” — during the Metallica show on the … And Justice for All tour in the Met Center on June 10, 1989.)
Even though I don’t remember much about that Hold Steady concert I saw 17 years ago, I know exactly how it felt a couple months later to unwrap the brand-new Separation Sunday CD, flip open the case, pop out the disc, slide it into my 1997 Jeep Wrangler’s stereo, and hear the acapella opening bouncing back and forth between right and left speakers: “And she says always remember / never to trust me / ah, she said that the first night that she met me / and she said there’s gonna come a time / when I’m gonna have to go / with whoever’s gonna get me the highest.” Then the drums and the organ and the Thin Lizzy guitar.
I know exactly how the Jeep smelled. I know how the seats and the stick-shift knob felt bare-handed or while wearing choppers. If I drove it today my body would remember how to account for its motion. I recall precise details of the very cold 2002 day a guy I might have become friends with, if some things weren’t so complicated in my brain, made himself late for an important appointment by driving me to pick it up in North Branch. Ms. LaCount (my wife) and I sold it to her parents in 2013, a year before her dad died.
Perseverating over time like this is no good. I haven’t figured out how to stop doing it. It gets worse as I get older. I already felt so old when I was 34. I was immature and behind my peers. I wish I had known how young I was and how much potential existed. At 51 I still feel behind, as if since college — since the early ’90s — most of what I’ve done has amounted to hopping up and down in one place while that whole time my peers have been progressing and building things, finding and creating and making the most of opportunities, in ways I still haven’t started to figure out. They knew stuff in their early 20s that I still don’t.
I loved those first two Hold Steady records way more quickly than I usually feel that way about music. Within months songs from both albums had been scratched into my soul alongside classics by Run-D.M.C., Zeppelin, A Tribe Called Quest, Van Halen, Public Enemy, Sabbath, Billy Joel, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Beastie Boys, Metallica, and other artists who had been there since my early 20s or before. A bunch of mostly melancholy Christmas music has probably been there at least that long too. It was thrilling to feel a sense of excitement and discovery about music — especially new music — I probably hadn’t felt since Paul’s Boutique came out in July 1989.
I don’t mean to say I had stopped exploring or feeling excited about music by my early 30s. My curiosity about music and the depth of my feelings for it only ever expand. It’s just always been rare for new music to hit me deeply and embed itself almost right away. Even before I turned 30 that only rarely happened, and over the past 20 years most of the music that’s become part of my being is from during or before my youth. Stuff I couldn’t or didn’t know about, or was too dumb to take seriously when it came out — songs by the Replacements, the Clash, DJ Shadow, the Cure, the Pharcyde, Duke Ellington, Hüsker Dü, Souls of Mischief, Glen Campbell, Lemonheads, Ani DiFranco, and others artists. Some stuff during those decades has been scratched in while still new. A lot of Low. Some Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Brother Ali. “Satisfied” from Hamilton. But nothing has come close to doing it the way many songs from Separation Sunday (and Almost Killed Me) did it in 2005 and the Hold Steady’s third album, Boys and Girls in America, did it in 2006.
I spent too much time in those last two paragraphs crafting lists to represent my basic-bro tastes. Making the lists as short as they are felt tough. I’m still fretting over who’s missing, where the proportions are off, and what they do or don’t show about me. It’s all honest, but still. In my early teens I started using my relationship to music and the way it makes me feel as a substitute for actually having a sense of self. It’s kind of a psychic survival tactic that leads to inevitably awkward attempts at connecting with fellow human beings. I keep hoping I’ll grow out of it.
The older I get the more deeply some songs from Separation Sunday move me, especially “Hornets! Hornets!” “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” and “Stevie Nix,” and especially “Crucifixion Cruise” into “How a Resurrection Really Feels.” I can’t remember hearing “Resurrection …,” the last song on the album, without crying at least a little bit. No sobbing. Sometimes a slow-rolling tear or two. Usually just a sensation behind my eyes and a catch in my voice if I try to say something. Sometimes I know it’s going to happen and sometimes it surprises me. I tear up more easily the older I get, but I bet that song started making me do it way before I was prone to doing it as often as I do it now.
Hold Steady songwriter and lead singer Craig Finn wrote “How a Resurrection Really Feels.” Here are the first two verses:
Her parents named her Hallelujah / the kids just called her Holly / if she scared you then she’s sorry / she’s been stranded at these parties / and these parties they start lovely / but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody.
The priest just kinda laughed / the deacon caught a draft / when she crashed into the Easter mass / with her hair done up in broken glass / she was limpin’ left on broken heels / when she said, “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”
Did they play it during that Lucé show? They had to have done at least a couple songs from Separation Sunday. It was coming out in two months. I lack the music knowledge for describing how everything about the studio recording — the production of human voices, electric piano, drums, rhythm and lead guitar, bass, horns, and some other bits — makes the song cathartic before those lyrics start then gives them meaning that both distills and transcends the album’s story. I just know it feels that way for me. But I know a lot about the character Holly and who she’s been hanging out with and what they’ve been through. I care about her and the people she’s struggling with. I also know what’s coming musically. I’ve accumulated 17 years of feeling for the song based on how it’s felt every time I’ve heard it. I bet I’ve gone at least a year at least once between times listening to it. I wonder what the longest is? Maybe a couple years. As many as three? I think I feel sad about the reality of those gaps in a way I can’t imagine feeling about most other songs. I wouldn’t want to listen to it every day, but I could have listened to it so many more times than I have. I have missed so many opportunities.
If they did play it that first night, I wonder how I felt about it when all I had to go on were unfamiliar lyrics I maybe only partially comprehended. I guess I also had the idiosyncratic way Finn performs. Even the hardest of Hold Steady hardcores will admit his talk-singing style is not for everyone. I like it now. A lot. Did I right away? That night was my first time hearing it, because in addition to never listening to or seeing the Hold Steady, I’d completely missed out on his and guitarist Tad Kubler’s first band, Lifter Puller, when they were kind of a big deal in the mid-to-late ‘90s. I also had Kubler’s style to go on. Now, I hear it as him channeling the individual styles of many ‘70s and ‘80s rock guitarists into a unique approach that pays tribute without imitating. Would I have heard that or been able to describe it that way on that night? Is it even accurate? And I had a soul full of “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” “Radar Love,” “Lonely Boy,” “Stay” (by Jackson Brown), a lot of Journey and Billy Joel, a bunch of other songs mostly from the ‘70s. All that stuff would have influenced how I felt about the song if they played it that night.
The second time I saw the Hold Steady, at First Avenue on October 25, 2006, on the Boys and Girls in America tour, might be the most euphoric live-music experience I’ve ever had. The album had come out on October 3, and “Stuck Between Stations,” “Massive Nights,” “First Night,” and “Citrus” were already partially scratched into my soul. I drove down from Duluth with a Chevy Suburban-load of friends. The place was sold out. We got closer to the stage than I’ve ever been for a show there. When they started the show with “Stuck Between Stations” I departed from my body along with everyone else in the place then stayed that way through the encore and the late drive home and the next month. The concert was scratched in before it ended. I haven’t felt anything like it since then. Definitely haven’t come close to sharing an experience like that with a group of guys. For a while a few of our wives joked that some of us had left Duluth as good friends and come home bonded and transformed, in some sort of love with each other. They weren’t wrong.
It’ll take a lot for me to love like that again. Partially because the older I get the more my brain tells me cruel stories about myself and the more I believe them. Partially because it hurts to be heartbroken. I don’t dislike any of those guys. I wish I could take back a few things I said and did when I still spent time around some of them. I admire things about all of them, and I mostly feel warmly toward them.
I still have deep affection for a couple of them. I’m more comfortable talking about it here, or texting them photos of old pickup trucks or smartass Instagram Reels, than I am with showing it outright by doing weird stuff like calling or spending time with them. They’re among a few other guys I’ve admired and wished I knew how to stay or become real friends with in adulthood. Shit, I struggle to believe I belong among the handful of guys I actually do maintain friendships with. If I hadn’t met most of those guys when we were 18, I probably would have pre-empted, neglected, or wrecked connections with them the way I have with too many guys I’ve met since my 20s. I wish I knew how to do it differently.
I’ve been to Hold Steady shows since 2006 with some of the First Avenue crew and other guys: at the State Theater in Minneapolis in 2007 (awful sound, hadn’t connected to their new album, drank too much at Rock Bottom before and got drowsy, just wanted it to be done); at the LCO Casino in Hayward in 2010 (saw some things about myself and two or three of those First Avenue guys I should have admitted and addressed right away); at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth in 2014 (very small, remember very little); at the 7th Street Entry for an all-ages matinee show in 2019 (perfect, went with a guy who’s been a better friend to me since 1993 than I’ve been to him). There are some I wish I’d had the good sense to see.
The last time I saw them was exactly a year ago, when Ms. LaCount and I flew to New York for their annual (since 2016) Massive Nights residency, Wednesday, Dec. 1, to Saturday, Dec. 4, at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg. I went to the Wednesday show — they played Boys and Girls in America in its entirety for its 15th anniversary and opened the encore set with a cover of “A Long December” by Counting Crows. She and I went to the Thursday show together. She’d never seen them and had only ever heard what I played for her. She loves how much I love the band, but she won’t ever listen to them on her own, so I was worried she wouldn’t have a good time. While walking back to the hotel she said, “I get it now. I get why you feel what you feel. I had fun. It was cool to see how much everyone loves them, and to watch people sing along with so much joy. It just felt like a lot of joy.”
That Friday we visited Marsha P. Johnson Park close to our hotel, took a ferry down the East River from Williamsburg to DUMBO, walked to Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn Heights, then headed back up to the Brooklyn Bridge and over into Manhattan. We walked and walked, ate burgers at a cozy bar, saw Come From Away, got caught up in Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting crowds, and took a train back under the river to Brooklyn. I half-heartedly tried to get a ticket to that night’s concert. By the time Brooklyn Bowl opened its doors for the Saturday show, we’d taken an Uber to JFK then flights to MSP and DLH and already been back home in Duluth for a few hours. That part of travel — being back home after just having been somewhere so different — always feels surreal.
I decided in July or August not to attend Massive Nights this year. It started this past Wednesday, Nov. 30. It ends tonight. I have no conscious FOMO about it, but photos and videos people are posting on Facebook and Instagram have me feeling super-clear, positive details from last year — walking back to the hotel with Ms. LaCount after the Thursday show; watching people watch the band; grabbing a beer toward the end of Wednesday’s show and working my way out of the crowd to take a break from standing and scribble napkin notes for an essay; feeling stupid lucky to be where I was doing what I was doing. Every now and then since people started posting things on Wednesday night I’ve found myself low-key grasping at the experiences that made my memories. Feeling greedy for living those same things again instead of just remembering them. If I make it to my late 60s, which parts will I wish I could remember?
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