What Is It About The Hold Steady?

A friend wrote me the following inquiry about my obsession with The Hold Steady:

OK, I know I’m not as hip as I used to be or at least as I thought I was back when. But I’ve been trying out The Hold Steady per your advice and the advice of many others whose musical tastes are usually spot on. And I think I’m missing something.

Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics are clever and funny, but the music itself sounds rather pedestrian and the melodies tend to blend together. I like it, but it reminds me of how I feel about Beck albums: good for a couple listens and then I will never play them again.

What am I missing? Too many people who like the same stuff I do love this band and I want to like them too. Am I lame now?

My response? First, I reminded him that I teach an improv class and I’m 43 years old. If anyone’s lame, it’s me.

He’s probably right about The Hold Steady’s music sometimes sounding pedestrian. And The Hold Steady has the same problem that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have — namely, if you don’t like the front man’s lyrics or voice, you’re not going to like the band. I think Anthony Keidis is one of the worst frontmen in rock history (that paper-thin voice, those puerile lyrics), and despite the obvious musicianship of everyone else in the band, I find them unlistenable. On the other hand, I love Craig Finn’s voice (I don’t think the man has actually sung a note on any album) and I adore his lyrics.

Here’s my suggestion to anyone wanting to “get” The Hold Steady. Download “Separation Sunday” and listen to it “front to back” (as if we can do that anymore) in one sitting. It’s a concept album, but not in the pretentious ham-fisted way that Pink Floyd’s or (gasp) Styx’s albums are concept albums. It’s what a concept album would sound like if some mad scientist combined Jane’s Addiction with Bruce Springsteen into a single band and that band made a concept album. I’ve actually compared it — out loud and in public, no less — to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (which, if anything, makes ME sound pretentious — but making myself sound pretentious isn’t all that difficult for me to do, as some of you may know).

I probably should add, in a bit of intellectual honesty, that part of the appeal of this band for me is that I look like I could be a member of it. These guys ain’t the Jonas Brothers. No Tiger Beat covers for them.

Catch The Hold Steady on the David Letterman show tonight. A few hours, in fact.

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Top Four Cool, Tragic, Weird Literary Events of 2007

1. The Success of God is Not Great

Last year, high atop his perch in Adams Morgan, Christopher Hitchens put his finger to the wind and concluded that religion wasn’t as important as people thought, certainly not as important — or even as influential — as those on either side of the political spectrum believe it is. Perhaps the Hitch was on to something, because his broadside against the Almighty, God is Not Great, shot up the bestsellers’ lists and received generally favorable reviews. But adding even more credence to Hitchens’ point was the noticeable lack of a backlash against the book. In an age when cases regarding the teaching of “Intelligent Design” are making their way into the courts, I don’t remember reading or hearing of God is Not Great being banned in ways that other books critical of religion sometimes are (something that, I suspect, probably disappointed Hitchens on some Puckish level). Perhaps Hitchens gets a pass from the religious right because, despite his atheism, he’s one of the Iraq War’s most vocal proponents.

Or perhaps it’s because Hitchens did what some rarely do: take religion’s arguments seriously, so seriously that he brought all of his rhetorical and critical faculties to the table in a book-length polemic. Whatever you may believe about religion or about Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great is an object lesson in what public discourse on the important issues of our day should resemble, but rarely does.

Verdict: Cool, with a small side order of Pleasant Surprise.

2. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke wins the National Book Award

Remember Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier? Great. Now: name the novel he followed this with. Yeah, I can’t either. But, then again, I never thought he’d have a follow-up to begin with. I remember attempting to read Cold Mountain when it came out, discovering not a novel but a lot of purple upchuck book ended by incomprehensibility and pretentiousness; I thought it was a slavish attempt at out-Faulknering Faulkner that would hardly place in, let alone win, that Bad Faulkner competition held ever year. Of course, I was wrong. It won The National Book Award in 1997. By the way, Frazier’s follow up was called Thirteen Moons. I didn’t read that one, either, and neither, apparently, did a lot of people.

This year, both The Washington Post and The New York Times short listed Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke as one of their ten best books of the year. And, like Cold Mountain, the book also ended up winning the National Book Award. So, it must be good, right?

Not so fast: at least one person had a reaction to Tree of Smoke that was similar to mine regarding Cold Mountain. Writing in the December issue of The Atlantic, B.R. Myers shellacked the novel, providing a shortlist of howlers, incomprehensibilities, and plot occurrences and characters that, despite the novel’s pretense toward realism, in no way resembled anything approximating real life. Myers’ conclusion: “Once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.” While Charles Frazier appears to have been exiled, the jury’s still out on Denis Johnson.

Verdict: Weird.

3. The Death of the Book Review/The Death of Reading

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times decided to merge its book review section with its Opinion section, setting off a firestorm of controversy in the literary world about the future of Sunday book reviews, including speculation that The Washington Post’s Book World’s day are as well numbered. Book World underwent a redesign in January of this year, one that included more art, graphics and photos, which, on the face of it, certainly must limit review space in some way (though so far no one’s done the math to determine if column inches have actually decreased). Of course, there’s no need for book reviews when no one’s reading anymore, as this highly publicized study from the National Endowment for the Arts highlighted (from the study: “on average, Americans spend only seven minutes of their daily leisure time reading”; “reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups”).

Verdict: Tragic, utterly.

4. Oprah’s Book Club’s selection of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Early last year, Oprah Winfrey selected the paperback version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for her book club.

I’ve read it. It’s just dark. And I don’t mean dark the way a Frank Miller graphic novel is dark. I mean the book is existentially and relentlessly bleak: in a lawless post-apocalyptic land, human beings reveal their true nature, which is shatteringly and irredeemably evil. How dark is it? Here’s how: I have a friend who’s a volunteer paramedic. There’s very little broken, mangled human carnage that he hasn’t seen up close, having been onsite for accidents that have happened only minutes before, accidents where people have literally died in his arms. Again, he volunteers to do this: clearly this is a not a man sensitive to loud noises or bright light. However, my friend confessed to me that, while reading The Road and a for a significant amount of time thereafter, he “wanted to keep the book in view and closed just to have reassurance that it was a mere physical object written by a man,” and not instead an idea pervasive enough to infect his and everybody else’s soul. That’s how dark.

Again, Oprah chose this book for her audience, an audience that generally turns to her for advice on decorating and weight loss advice or how to reignite a boring relationship or marriage.

Verdict: Either cool or weird. I can’t figure it out.

Perhaps even weirder or cooler? McCarthy, except for J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon the most missing man in the history of American letters, gave his very first televised interview to Oprah as well.

In 2007, truth was indeed stranger than fiction.

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A Fascinating Correction

A recent Slate article contained the following correction at the bottom of the page:

Correction, Feb. 25, 2005: This piece originally used the word “imprecations” incorrectly, to mean “suggestions.” An imprecation is a curse. Slate regrets the error.

I’ve seen newspapers and publications correct misstatements of fact, but never the misstatements themselves. First time I’ve ever seen a published article admit to a solecism.

Good God, were I to do that, I’d have about five corrections for every post [note the proper use of the subjunctive “were” in that previous sentence…]

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My Oscar Predictions

Who Gives A Fuck?

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From The Onion:

“Contemporaries Remember Hunter S. Thompson As Ravenous, Mutant 40-Eyed Lizard-Demon”

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“A Road Man for the Lords of Karma”

More HST.

Many commentators from the world of politics and journalism indicated that they were surprised but not shocked that Hunter Thompson took his own life. These commentators have been joined in their sentiment by two more rather suprising sources: Juan and Jennifer Thompson, HST’s son and daughter-in-law. In their interview with the Rocky Mountain News, both indicate that they knew it was a matter of time. Not that Thompson was in some sort of mental decline, but that he just wasn’t the type of person who would end his life in a hospital. “There was just no question that when the time came he would choose to do it himself,” said Juan Thompson. “The idea of Hunter lying in a hospital bed with tubes, gasping for breath, is so contrary to his whole life and purpose and drive.”

Interesting comments, especially considering that someone wrote to Jim Romenesko’s Media News website calling Thompson a coward for doing what he did with his family in such proximity (apparently HST shot himself while his family was visiting him; it was Juan Thompson who found HST dead in his study). But apparently his family feels the opposite.

In the same interview, Jennifer Thompson quotes HST: “He was a road man for the lords of karma,” she told the reporter. I’d heard him utter this same sentiment a few years ago when he was on “The Charlie Rose Show” doing publicity for the movie version of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. It struck me then, and it strikes me now. “You couldn’t ask him what it meant,” Juan Thompson told RMN.

When asked if HST had his usual potable, Chivas Regal, at his side when he pulled the trigger, Juan Thompson simply replied “Of course he did.”

Of course. What else would a road man have?

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Housekeeping, Mopping Up, Admin

New template. You like? Let me know.

Came across a title in the poetry section of KramerBooks/Afterwards called New British Poetry. Browsed it, expecting it to be full of the same pretentious drivel that often occurs whenever the word “new” or “young” finds itself in the title of a collection of poems. Surprisingly, this collection, chosen by Don Paterson and Charles Simic, does a damned find job. Exposed me to the work of Simon Armitage, whom I’d never heard prior to opening this collection, but who, according to the editors, is “one of the UK’s most popular poets.” Easy to understand, given stuff like this:


And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night
And slippered her the one time that she lied.
And every week he tipped up half his wage.
And what he didn’t spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.

Here’s how they rated him when they looked back:
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

I’ll probably be buying his collection from amazon.uk, since, not surprisingly, his stuff’s not available here. The good stuff never is, is it? But you can walk down to Border’s and get all the fucking Bukowski you want, eh?

If the title of Mike Dirda’s new collection — Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education — seems to you just a tad too sure of itself, you really aren’t familiar with Dirda. Pithy but elucidating one-offs that, even when read in the spare moment, allow you to put the book down knowing something you never knew before. Those who care about writers and writing should pick it up. The rest of you — well, you wouldn’t have read this far, would you?

In “The Hudson Review”: William H. Pritchard on Anthony Powell and his critics. Not bad — I mean, when is Pritchard ever less than a stellar and sensitive critic? Unfortunately, in this case, The Hitch already beat him to whatever interesting there was to say about Sir Anthony a few years ago.

Dan Jacobsen writes of Philip Larkin’s “element” in this month’s “New Criterion.” A bit too scholarly, especially when the author carts out guaranteed tenture-makers like “[Larkin’s poems ] do not merely arise from self-division but are explicitly *about* self-division.” You can almost hear Larkin yelping “what ballocks” in the background. Still, it’s worth a look.

Sorry there’s no quotes or links to make my points. Tired.

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Hunter S. Thompson — A Tempered Defense

Here’s something I posted to DC Craigslist in response to a post attacking HST…

Was Thompson a great writer? Sure…until about 1976. It’s something he actually recognized himself. The foreword Thompson wrote to The Great Shark Hunt, published that same year, is dark and foreboding; it’s clear that Thompson sees the collection as sort of his literary tombstone, and even alludes to his potentially killing himself once the foreword is completed. Clearly he realizes he’s finished as writer, that he’s basically dining out on the mythos surrounding his personal and literary persona. And the last couple decades bore this out.

But during his prime, from the early Sixties onward, he clearly captured the zeitgeist. He’s been called a counterculture hero, and he most certainly made friends on the left in his attacks on Richard Nixon, something he did with an almost joyful exuberance. But anyone who’s read his work closely should notice that the leftist counterculture doesn’t escape his wrath either. Indeed, if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about anything, it’s about the ugly, horrid wasteland America had become after the Revolutionaries and the kids from the Summer of Love and bourgeious Middle Class America had finished kicking the shit out of each other. In fact, when liberals found themselves on the business end of a Thompson piece, they weren’t spared either. I don’t think Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey ever really recovered from the unsparing vicious assaults Thompson waged against them in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. In fact, Thompson himself confessed that he was hardly a liberal in an interview he did with PJ O’Rourke for the 25h anniversary issue of “Rolling Stone.”

What I admire most about him was his personal and intellectual bravery. In writing Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, he understood what would be involved in getting this story: hanging out with the Hells Angels, and risking becoming a victim of their unprovoked and brutal assaults, some of which he witnessed at firsthand. And, as it became clear that in writing the book he would have to be honest and name names, he also must have understood that he risked a serious thumping should they eventually find him, which is precisely what they did. The attack nearly killed him, something he documents in the afterword to the book. As well, one of my favorite correspondences in all of literature, ranking right up there with the Evelyn Waugh-Nancy Mitford and Kingsley Amis-Philip Larkin correspondence, is the correspondence between Thompson and Newsweek/Washington Post owner/editor Philip Graham. Thompson, then an obscure reporter with a backwater beat as a reporter for the Brazil Herald, had the cojones to write Graham and criticize the paper’s coverage of South America in general and Brazil in particular: “Your South American ‘coverage’ is a silly joke, and about as nourishing as a month-old hamburger.” Graham, so intrigued not only by the prose style but by the temerity of this young upstart, who was clearly risking potential employment with any Post-affiliated paper by doing this, responded personally to the Thompson. The correspondence continued until, ironically enough, Graham’s suicide a few years later.

Besides being one of the first of the New Journalists, writers who abandoned any pretence of objectivity and wrote from a clearly personal point of view, Thompson forged a prose style that was completely his. Take one of his more epigrammatic sentences and place it next to the efforts of some of his contemporaries, and you’ll instantly realize how easy it is to pick his out. Forging a signature prose style that recognizable is no mean feat in the world of letters, and he did it. Not bad for a hopelessly middle class kid from Louisville who never set foot in a university.

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Hunter S. Thompson is Dead


Killed himself.

Jesus. I haven’t been this inconsolable since Kingsley Amis died.


Resquiscat im Pace, HST.


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“Isn’t God a Shit?”

Someone once dared Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston, to read the bible. This was apparently the first question out of his mouth after finishing it. Yes, Randolph, God is a shit.

Sorry I’ve been inactive. Keep this one short.

If you don’t already own Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ latest double album, “Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus,” get it. MOJO Mag voted it album of the year last year, with good reason. The song I keep playing over and over again is “There She Goes, My Beautiful World.” I liked the song almost immediately, but was even more gratified when I came across these verses mentioning a number of great poets/writers, including — you guessed it — Philip Larkin:

John Willmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox
Nabakov wrote on index cards,
at a lectem, in his socks
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box
And JohnnyThunders was half alive
when he wrote Chinese Rocks

Well, me, I’m lying here, with nothing in my ears
Me, I’m lying here, with nothing in my ears
Me, I’m lying here, for what seems years
I’m just lying on my bed with nothing in my head

Send that stuff on down to me
Send that stuff on down to me
Send that stuff on down to me
Send that stuff on down to me

There she goes, my beautiful world
There she goes, my beautiful world
There she goes, my beautiful world
There she goes again

Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles
while writing Das Kapital
And Gaugin, he buggered off, man,
and went all tropical
While Philip Larkin stuck it out
in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in
St. Vincent’s hospital

Good stuff, that…

Other news from MOJO? Burt Bacharach is coming out with a new album soon. Who’s producing it? Dr. Dre. I’d love to see Burt revisit some of his classics Gangsta style…”Why do birds…mothafuckin’ appear…every damn time yo ass is near…”

The latest issue of The American Scholar is exhibit A of everything that’s gone wrong it with ever since they forced out Joseph Epstein as editor. A big banner across the front featuring an entire section on the War in Iraq. Can’t I get that over at Foreign Affairs or The Public Interest or New Left Review? I remember when it used to deal with timeless literary essays. I’ve never regretted cancelling my subscription after the Epstein debacle.

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