Thursday, April 1, 2010

Contenders Series #19: The Hold Steady - "Hurricane J"

So there are two new Hold Steady songs out there on the internet.  Heaven is Whenever comes out May 4, and since there will be a limited vinyl pressing of the album available for Record Store Day in mid-April, I expect a leak in a couple weeks or so.

There's not a whole lot that I can objectively say about the Hold Steady at this point.  I'm wearing a Hold Steady shirt as I type this.  They are still my favorite band in the world.  Of course I think these two songs are great.  They sound like Hold Steady songs.  I think "Hurricane J" is the better of the two, and I think that the "You're a pretty good waitress" line toward the end of this one is a classic example of the humorous yet strangely poignant lyrics that made me fall in love with the band in the first place.  That's about it.


Okay, well ... we seem to have some space left, so I'm going to talk about myself at length.  I think it's going to work like this:

(1)  Attempt to start with the observation that I've been listening to a lot of Stone Roses at work lately, get hopelessly off track before ever starting
(2)  Long tangent that has precious little to do with music, far too much to do with Jesus, and seems to work as a kind of indictment of my entire childhood (though it really isn't)
(3)  Bit about the evolution of the internet that just makes me sound old
(4)  Finally back to my original thoughts about the Stone Roses
(5)  Attempt to legitimize my Hold Steady fanaticism based on something a guy wrote about the Stone Roses

Stick with me here, people.  Ilana is in Chicago for the weekend, and I've got nothing but time.  Some of these upcoming blog posts may get kinda long.


As I've mentioned before, I may someday turn this blog into a space where I just rant about my adolescent years spent listening to Christian rock.*  It will be cheaper than therapy.  No one will read it.  It will seem like I am angry at my childhood.  I think I am, a little.  It will seem like I am angry at my parents.  I am not.  Not at all.  They are two of the greatest people who have ever lived.  I would like them to raise my kids, were this somehow logistically feasible.  I do not hold them in any way responsible for the psychic scars of my evangelical youth.**

* I will probably say quite a few negative things about my Christian rock childhood, so let's call attention to one overwhelmingly positive thing right away, before this gets too slanted in one direction:  Listening to that music is what made me into the tireless musical advocate that I am now.  Trying to convince the kids at school that Third Day and The Waiting were just as cool as anything on Z-93 showed me the value of standing up for the music that I thought was good, that my opinion was just as good as anyone else's, even if I was the only person who thought so, even if everyone else thought my favorite songs were more than a little weird.  And so now I have a music blog, with a confusing amount of italicized footnotes.  So, like I said:  chalk that one up as an overwhelming positive.  Overwhelming.

**For what it's worth (and, to be honest, it's not really relevant to anything here), I have nothing against my parents' musical tastes, either.  My dad and I have spent many, many hours in the car together, and control of the stereo has never been an issue.  He's cool with the New Pornographers and the Hold Steady, I'm cool with Steely Dan and Three Dog Night.  We both think David Bowie's "Young Americans" is an all-time great song.  I'm chalking up his love of ABBA to pride in his heritage.  He's closer to Sweden than I am.  My mom, to her credit, has stayed commendably open-minded through all the music I've brought home over the years.  I don't get the impression that she listens to any of it when I'm not around, but I certainly didn't grow up in some kind of "BURN YOUR EVIL CDs!" home.  I don't want anyone to get that impression.

The ideological problem I have with my childhood, and I think it's hard to explain, so I may take multiple shots at it, is this:

No one protected me from the Crazy.

There is a lot of Crazy in evangelical Christianity.  Again, I don't want to implicate my parents in any of this.  They are not fundamentalist, kill-the-Muslims Christians.  They are more Ned Flanders Christians.  They took that stuff about treating your neighbor as yourself to heart.  They found those verses about caring for the sick and the elderly, not the verses about stoning the gays.  If I could make every person in the world 5% more like my parents ... I would do it.

If there is any fault to be found with them, it's that they were far too trusting.  They found a wonderful, joyous, peaceful, making-the-world-a-better-place thing with Jesus, and I guess they figured that anyone else who claimed to be friends with Jesus was coming from the same place.  And so I wound up at Wednesday night Youth Groups and weekend retreats, week-long national conferences and Bible Quizzing tournaments, and I went into it all believing that, to a man, these were Good People, who believed in the same things that I did.

No one protected me from the Crazy.

No one ever pulled me aside and said, "Listen ... just because these people claim to love Jesus, and claim to teach from the Bible ... that doesn't mean that they can't, at times, be totally, 100% wrong."

There are reams of crazy to cover, and we don't have time for all of that.  This is still a music blog, and we're still talking about music.  There was plenty of music-related craziness to get us through this essay.

From a young age, I heard horror stories about satanic messages in rock music.*  All that laughable urban-legend stuff about backwards-encoded mind control brainwashing in "Stairway to Heaven"?  I listened to a lot of people who took that completely seriously.  There was music out there that would make you kill yourself, and you wouldn't even know why.  One minute, happy.  Next minute, dead by your own hand.

* And not just heavy metal, either.  I remember listening to an interview on Christian radio with a guy who tearfully claimed that the song "Black Magic Woman" by Santana completely ruined his life.  Really?  How?  That song just repeats the words "Black Magic Woman" over and over again.  What did it make you do?  Are you sure you didn't just do that yourself?

Even beyond that, though (and I actually remember this as where I started to form my first serious doubts about evangelical Christianity as a worldview), I listened to people who claimed that certain specific, basic rhythms, with no lyrics at all, could be tools of Satan, that certain beats (just the beats!) would lead unstoppably to lust and violence, that even if you recited Bible verses over these rhythms, you would be basically giving yourself over to the service of demons.  Speakers would conjure up images of deepest, darkest tribal ceremonies, where forces were unleashed.  Once unleashed, they owned you.

And what was I supposed to do when I heard stuff like that?  These were authority figures, youth leaders and keynote speakers.  It didn't sound right, I knew that, but the underlying theme of evangelical Christianity is "Either ALL of this is right, or NONE of it is," and I wasn't ready to throw myself headlong into atheism just because of some opinions about music.

So I tried not to dwell on it too much, but deep down, I spent a large part of my childhood scared of new music.  How could I not be?  Somewhere in the back of my head, at all times, was the nagging fear that there was music out there that could reach deep inside you, tap into drives and desires you didn't even know you had, and turn you into a different person just by listening to it.*  With that as a starting point, it's easy to justify sticking close to Christian rock and maybe some of the safer oldies on the radio.

* I guess this is the point where the charismatic Youth Leader would stop reading, look around the room, and say, "Aaron now lives in the gay part of San Francisco, with his girlfriend to whom he is not married, and listens to bands with the word PORNOGRAPHY right in their name!  And he has the audacity to tell us (pause for dramatic effect) that music didn't turn him into a different person!"  To which I say ... "Touche, Youth Leader.  Touche."

For a few years there, I was weirdly, comically afraid of any unknown music.  I was still fascinated by it, but I always assumed the worst.  For instance, I always assumed that the Grateful Dead was this super-aggressive, melt-your-face-off metal band.  They were from California!  They did DRUGS!  They had the word "Dead" RIGHT THERE IN THEIR NAME!!!*  So you can imagine my surprise when the Grateful Dead's music turned out to be a bunch of half-asleep campfire sing-alongs.

*Second time using that exact same line in the exact same context to provide the exact same emphasis.  Maybe I should go back and edit these.

And maybe "afraid" isn't the right word, because these thoughts never stopped me from actively seeking out new music.  In a pre-Napster time, this wasn't easy to do.  I remember scouring the message boards on the just-born, reading people's lists of favorite bands and albums.  There were the classic rock staples that I knew:  Beatles, Stones, Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd.  But there were some I had never heard of:  The Smiths, The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Stone Roses.  What could these bands possibly sound like, that they would inspire such cultish devotion among their followers?

So where could I hear this music?  There was no college radio station, no used-record store, no cool older kids to show me the way.  I would occasionally take the plunge and just buy one of these albums completely unheard, spending a week's lawn-mowing money at Best Buy, and just hoping that it would be good (and when it was, like Talking Heads' Remain in Light ... it was a revelation).

When I was feeling particularly ambitious, I would bike over to the La Crosse Public Library and flip through their limited CD collection.  It was mostly classical, with a weird, probably-donated scattering of rock albums (I remember there being multiple copies of Hootie and the Blowfish's Fairweather Johnson).  And buried in there one day ... The Complete Stone Roses.  I remember the excitement first.  This was one of the sacred bands!  But then the fear crept in.  "Stone?  Like the Rolling Stones?  "Sympathy for the Devil" Rolling Stones?  Their Satanic Majesties Request Rolling Stones?  1960s drug busts Rolling Stones?  Or is it Stone, like to get stoned?  And what about Roses?  Blood-red Roses?  Or maybe Guns 'n' Roses?  Those are some evil dudes."

And it turned out that the music was wonderful, yes, but more than that ... it was so inoffensive.  It was the opposite of the debauched rock and roll stereotype.  It sounded like the Byrds tried to make dance music for British people (if you're not familiar, check them out on Hype Machine).  And I felt so foolish for being scared of it.  And now, maybe a dozen years later ... I listen to it while I review documents.  It's exactly how I hoped my life would turn out!

The Stone Roses debut album was re-released recently, and it scored a perfect 10.0 on Pitchfork (they only give those scores to re-releases of albums that everyone has already agreed are classics).  I own that album, as any self-respecting music blogger does, but I recently went out and bought The Complete Stone Roses anyway, for the trip down memory lane, and also for the excellent essay in the liner notes, a completely fawning, breathless recap of the band's career.  The cynic would poke holes in some of the more overwrought statements in that essay, the unthinking devotion to anything Roses-related, but that's not why we're here.  We're here to celebrate that author's worldview.  I would like to appropriate his closing paragraph as a mission statement for this blog:
"So, when those funeral catalogues that pass for music magazines talk about Dylan at the Albert Hall, and Jimi at Monterey, and the Velvets playing the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and The Pistols at the Screen On the Green, aching to convince us that rock music last shot its bolt several hundred years ago and we should all go home and resign ourselves to historical defeat, think again. 
The Stone Roses created as much magic as any of them.  Tell your grandchildren."
THAT is exactly how I feel about the Hold Steady.  I don't need them to be ground-breaking, or important, or culturally significant, or any of that.  I don't need you to like them.  But dammit ... don't tell me I haven't been a part of something magical.

1 comment:

  1. Fun read. I obviously like the Z93 mention. I'm likely the only one.