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The Hold Steady: Fact or Fiction

Music_TheHoldSteadySQBloodshed, betrayal, and redemption are recurring themes in the band's songs
here was bloodshed in the streets. Charlemagne’s in sweatpants, looking over his shoulder; skinny, scared and off his game. Holly is as beautiful as ever, but now she’s crying hysterically in the corner because we can’t get as high as we got that first night. Meanwhile, Gideon and the shadow men with the same tattoos are partying in Ybor City, Fla., of course, with a pipe made from a Pringles can.

These are the stories of The Hold Steady, the lyrically centric, classic rock-nodding storytellers. The act might just be the most post-modern rock band around, and it will be coming to the Catalyst with opener Jaill on Tuesday, Aug. 24.

Case in point: The Hold Steady features two members from early decade indie rockers Lifter Puller—vocalist, lyricist and guitarist Craig Finn, and bassist-turned-guitarist Tad Kubler—and there’s always been a rumor hovering around the group that the storylines within its lyrics follow the plot of Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49.” This turns out to be a myth, but that doesn’t mean Lifter Puller’s lyrics aren’t informed by Pynchon’s postmodern paranoia.

“I was really into Pynchon for a while, and I liked the way his writing suggests a connection that sometimes is there or not there,” explains Finn. “It’s kind of like a peek into the underworld that may or may not exist, and that’s kind of what I was trying to create with the Lifter Puller thing.” Indeed, it’s not difficult to make the jump that the look-over-your-shoulder tenor of Lifter Puller’s story occupies the same rough-and-tumble Minneapolis streets of The Hold Steady’s characters. Many of the themes are the same: drugs, turf wars, seedy nightclubs. However, for the inner lit major, there’s one key difference between the two bands; while Lifter Puller created a single storyline from a single perspective, The Hold Steady is a bit more convoluted.

“One of the things I learned from Lifter Puller, was I wanted with The Hold Steady to leave more open to interpretation,” says Finn. “I think it’s a little bit easier for people to connect if you give them more room to put their own life into it.”

But here’s the rub: if you would take this to mean that there is no central story to The Hold Steady, that Finn’s lyrics are just an unrelated collection of scenes which only happen to share the same characters, you’d be dead wrong. With the exception of the bonus track from 2008’s Stay Positive, “Ask Her For Adderall”—a song which serves as a sort of catch-up with familiar names—fans haven’t heard much about what’s going on in the lives of Finn’s characters over the band’s last couple albums. But no worries, Finn has it all in his head and promises to revisit his world when need be. But just out of curiosity, what is up with Charlemagne nowadays?

“It’s hard for me to say about that kind of thing because I kind of have this big arc that I don’t want to give away too much on, but Charlemagne’s still out there, I guess,” Finn reveals. “I sort of have this big thing in my head—I’m not sure exactly what will happen, but I’d like to kind of reserve the right.”

And this is why The Hold Steady, whether intentionally or not, is the quintessential postmodern rock band. Like someone such as Pynchon or the fiction of Jonathan Lethem, not only do Finn’s stories drip with unfettered paranoia, but they also work kind of like modern detective fiction: you can easily get caught up in false signifiers, but if you really look for it, there’s a genuine plot underneath all the intellectual rubble.

There may not be precisely a Rosetta Stone or cereal box decoder ring to figuring out this underlying story, but what Finn says next is about as close as The Hold Steady’s literary-minded fans might find. “It’s not so much just about the characters,” he explains, “but [songs are] being sung from the perspective of characters, so there’s always an unreliable narrator.” When Finn refers to something such as the night of bloodshed (a recurring scene about which he says “I think it’s just kind of a turning point.”), when that scene shows up in “Slapped Actress,” it’s probably from the point of view of a different character in “Barely Breathing.” Still, with an ever-growing amount of Internet fan speculation, and the lack of definitive clues, it’s sometimes difficult to decide what songs may include canon, or whether they’re more akin to an X-Files stand-alone episode.

“One For the Cutters” tells a story that feels like it’s based on true-life Santa Cruz events: a college freshman just out of her parents’ house gets bored with student parties, and subsequently starts hanging with townies who seem normal enough until someone gets stabbed. While it’s certainly possible that the girl in question here could be Sapphire or Jessie—young women who show up in other songs—it’s never made quite clear, and there’s not really a connection to any other storylines. Still, it certainly feels like this act inhabits the same universe.But what do we know about this universe and the characters in it?

Sometimes Holly and Charlemagne feel like people you know very well, but other times their actions are as alien as underground Minneapolis. However, a few things are clear. Charlemagne appears to be a small-time drug dealer who owes money to Gideon and his gang. “I’ll say this,” Finn says, “Gideon has a shaved head, and an ideology.” At some point Holly and Charlemagne are romantic, but she soon falls in love with Gideon and betrays Charlemagne, who ends up being ambushed by Gideon. Charlemagne apparently leaves town defeated, goes back to Ybor City to hide out, and that’s where we are left.

Of course, this synopsis doesn’t include half of Finn’s recurring themes—townies, clever kids, little lambs from dreams, Saint Theresa and the Unified Scene—and sometimes it’s difficult to see how all these pieces fit together. But ultimately, like so much other literature, the stories of Finn (who describes himself as a Catholic, but not necessarily deferent to the Vatican) ultimately boil down to a Christian allegory, with all the bloodshed, betrayal, and redemption of the Bible.

“Things like forgiveness or redemption are always situations that are pertinent, we’ll need them yesterday, today and tomorrow,” says Finn. “I find beauty especially in those kind of concepts within the church, rather than some of the small rules. But the idea that there’s acceptance is what’s exciting to me.”


The Hold Steady plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24, at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $16 in advance, $19 at the door. For more information, call 423-1338. Photo Credit: Mark Seliger

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