I bought my first Hold Steady record at a Borders Bookstore in Vermont. From this sentence it’s probably fair to assume two things about me: I’m over the age of thirty and I’m white.
I was a muddled fifteen-year-old at the time. I had been raised in a conservative Christian community, in a rural area of Northern New York. Living on the edge for me was listening to “secular” music or buying copies of Rolling Stone magazine at the local drug store. An avid consumer of fiction, I had recently discovered the Who’s late-sixties rock opera Tommy, and I was looking for contemporary bands that merged story-telling with rock and roll in a similar way. I got my hands on an issue of Rolling Stone that included a write up of the Hold Steady’s second album, Separation Sunday, describing it as a Catholic rock opera. I was instantly intrigued. Back then, without high-speed Internet, let alone Spotify, I probably read about more records than I actually listened to. It was always a gamble to part with sixteen bucks or so for a collection of songs you’d never heard, but when I found a copy of Separation Sunday at Borders, I decided to roll the dice.
At first I was nonplussed; the singer sounded like he was drunk and recovering from strep throat, and most of his references and rhymes went right over my sheltered head. I was still a few years away from Husker Du and the Replacements, so I had no context in which to place this Minneapolis bar-band with the gravelly throated singer, sputtering about “hoodrats” and “drinking gin from jam jars.” Still, I didn’t stop playing the record. The guitar licks were big and absorbing, the piano breaks offered moments of grace, and there was something about the record’s protagonist—a girl named Hallelujah, but the kids all called her Holly—that kept me listening.
More than fifteen years later, I’m still listening. A lot has changed. Borders is gone, but the Hold Steady are still around, albeit only occasionally. The mid 2000s turned out to be the band’s heyday. The Hold Steady released a string of critically acclaimed records, toured constantly and developed a healthy cult following. Fans learned that each new Hold Steady record was essentially a short story collection; filled with reoccurring characters, themes, and a strong sense of place. In those early records, the characters were teenage and twenty-something partygoers, searching for meaning and redemption in bars, back alleys, and on the banks of the Mississippi River. Jesus and Mother Theresa made appearances; kids had visions, bet on horses, and found dead bodies in garbage dumps. As the band grew older, the records have come less often, and instead of constant touring, the Hold Steady have opted for weeklong residencies in selected cities (pre-pandemic, of course). Craig Finn, the gravelly-throated singer, has also embarked on a solo career. He’s released four studio records since 2012, the last two especially receiving high praise. These records are more subdued than his work with the Hold Steady; he even does something on them that could reasonably be referred to as singing.
I’ve changed a lot too in that time, and it often felt like Mr. Finn was narrating my life’s trajectory. Soon after discovering Separation Sunday, I began my inevitable teenage rebellion (I’m not asserting any causation). Around the campfire, drinking and smoking replaced praying and singing worship songs. The Hold Steady provided my soundtrack throughout college, whether it was ordering another round or dealing with a close friend’s suicide attempt. As I grew older, so did the band. By the time I was forced to reconcile myself to adulthood, Finn was well into his solo career, and instead of writing songs about young people’s struggle to keep the party going, he was writing songs about slightly older people’s struggle just to get by. These songs were about failing to make the rent or pay medical bills, divorce, depression and addiction. It sometimes felt like Finn was now cataloguing a host of anxieties uniquely felt by American millennials.
Finn songs are always concerned with people and place—a drinking game involving how many proper nouns Finn drops in any given song could prove dangerous. After the 2016 presidential election, Finn’s preoccupation with the working class people of the upper Midwest took on another dimension, as it was this particular voting block that had helped hand Donald Trump the presidency, with states like Michigan and Wisconsin flipping red on the strength of rural white turnout. In interviews soon after Trump’s election, Finn conceded that some of the people in his songs probably wouldn’t have voted the way he did. The fact is most of Finn’s characters seem far beyond the reach of politics, more concerned about where to find their next drink or quick bit of cash. But maybe this is part of the point. These characters are searchers, scrounging around desperately for something to fill the holes in their lives. And often times whatever they end up finding—whether it’s drugs, religion, or another person—becomes an obsession. It’s not hard to see how this kind of desperate obsession can easily become dangerous.
In 2015 I began working on a novel loosely based on the Evangelical rural, white community I grew up in; by the time the novel was published in 2019, Trump had been president for nearly four years. I knew some of the characters that populated my novel would have voted for him, just as many of the people I had grown up with actually had. This was both a depressing and illuminating observation. Trump’s win forced some (although not nearly enough) white Americans to begin a long overdue reckoning with the inherited privileges and institutional disparities in this country. During the editing process, I made no effort to re-contextualize anything in light of Trump’s win, however. To do so would have been dishonest. The benefit of hindsight didn’t change the fact that these were the same people before and after the election—no magical switch had been flipped. As is often noted, Trump didn’t create anything new; he only capitalized on deep-seated resentments, prejudices, fears and frustrations that have been festering in this country for decades.
Craig Finn’s last two solo efforts, while not overtly political, offer some insight into a country that feels broken in some fundamental way. We All Want the Same Things was written and recorded before the 2016 election, but released only a few months after. It paints a sonic canvas of down-and-out characters struggling just to get through the day and make sense of their lives. I Need a New War, released in 2019, is arguably his darkest collection of songs. In “Grant at Galena,” a destitute and damaged guy imagines himself as Ulysses S. Grant, needing a new battle to fight to give his life meaning. “Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today,” tells the story of a woman longing for the freedom of the open road but chained to her dead-end office job and her depressed and dependent boyfriend. “Magic Marker” is about a war vet who never fully adjusted to life back in the States. It all feels pretty bleak coming from the guy who urged us all to “stay positive” back in 2008. The idea of failure keeps popping up in these songs—the many failures of individuals, but also the broader, structural failure of a country that in so many ways appears on the brink.
But still, there are glimmers of hope. The Hold Steady’s name itself has always been a kind of mantra, the band’s own thesis statement. And Finn has carried this idea into his solo work. For the characters in Finn’s songs, just getting out of bed in the morning and soldiering through another day counts as a small victory.
And really, what could be more appropriate in these times than that? Whether you are out on the front lines of this ongoing crisis, or stuck in your home, we are all finding ways to keep ourselves going, to “hold steady.” These days, I take my temperature every morning; I put on my mask and head off to my day job. I wash my hands for the twenty-fifth time before noon. I try and stay six feet apart. I try and hold steady. What keeps me going? Hope for better days ahead and a new Hold Steady record. Their latest drops in February.
Robert Haller received his MFA in fiction from the New School, and his debut novel, ANOTHER LIFE, was published by Blackstone Publishing in 2019. His short writing has appeared in LitHub, Epiphany, Joyland Magazine and elsewhere. He lives in upstate New York.