Unsteady As She Goes - The false nostalgia of The Hold Steady's Separation Sunday
My nostalgia could score Separation Sunday, or its 1989 high school burnouts. I was nine that year, in a New York elementary school, but I’m sure I’ve since gotten some idea what the-kids-those-days jammed. Haven’t I? The Descendents, Black Flag, Minor Threat. Or Metallica and Slayer, or Skinny Puppy, or maybe Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, REM, the Pixies. Oh, but they’re from Minneapolis. Hüsker Dü, the Replacements? Prince? Or even – Soul Asylum? I’ve still never heard them, and Dave Pirner did attend my prom – could they really have been that awful?
I call this nostalgia because what else could it be? – the good taste of the present: polite, naïve. It omits the bands that’ve gone forgotten – the fine grain of a time and place. It forgets that kids listened to old music, and pop music, and bad music. In my nostalgia’s favor, I can say only that its 1989 Minneapolis could sound great; and that just because its pastiche would be partial, in both senses, doesn’t mean it would be a lie: the ability of rock to be precisely historical being awfully limited, mine would at least be more detailed than other landmarks of nostalgia rock. How far did the Strokes get with just the Velvet Underground and Television? And how much, for a second, did even they seem to sound something like New York?
The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday sounds like Minneapolis high school in 1989 – if there, that, and then sounded like, in keeping with the lyrics’ debased Catholicism, a boring fucking hell. (Can I say it didn’t?) The best précis I’ve read is the New Yorker’s: “a mathematically derived average of dozens of seventies and eighties hard-rock bands.” But this in praise; and while I hear “London Calling” here, a Big Star rip there, sax-keyboard-blooz E Street Band everywhere; while others have heard Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Molly Hatchet, Billy Joel, Thin Lizzy, the Band – while these aren’t not all hearable in there, aren’t not played with competence most perfect, to average decades of music, good, bad, and ultimately indifferent, is only to replicate structurally the classic-rock radio that is the mix’s model while erasing the particulars that first made each song popular, if not “classic.” Whither the standard deviation? Even mediocrities like Hatchet could choogle up a logical, indeed personal guitar solo a few times an album; even they hold their fascinations, among others the bizarro disjunction between the D&D album covers and the songs about Gator Country – a peculiar, particular badness. Not the Hold Steady: not a good riff, not a good fuck-up. The combo sounds less like your neighborhood bar band than like a click-tracked karaoke CD.
I like karaoke and the people I meet there, but I wouldn’t take them home with me. The music’s sterile and the people aren’t; also, they can’t sing. The music’s sterile and Craig Finn can’t sing; also, the friction between it and his adenoidal, cotton-mouthed lisp provides me, at least, no Molly Hatchet frisson. Finn on first appearance, ping-pong-panning the speakers a cappella, sounds uncannily like Tom Smith. But his band’s collage, smooth and ahistorical, is the opposite of To Live and Shave in L.A.’s, if as digital, and whereas Smith’s mannerism keeps with his medium, spittling Finn sounds only like himself. More apropos are Jon Wurster’s character Barry Dworkin and his Gas Station Dogs, Craig Finn and the Hold Steady avant la lettre.
A so-called singer and an imaginary band – the karaoke model holds, nauseous. Charitably, this is a prototype for a genuine rock-rap; but Finn can’t flow, nor is there music-word push-pull (not least because, except at the catchphrases, the song-title would-be catchphrases that substitute for choruses and become less tolerable at each hearing, “a multitude of casualties,” “your little hoodrat friend,” “Charlemagne’s got something in his sweatpants” – except at the multitudinous catchlessphrases [as intolerable as that!], and hardly then, Finn carries no tune). Listening becomes first an exercise in simultaneous attention, but then, with music so anodyne, one’s forced to the words alone. Which sometimes do sound like those to Dworkin’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Dreams’ll Come Through,” all awful rhymes and awkward syllables, unfunny jokes and unblocked clichés. “That song got scratched into her soul.” “A cool car makes a guy look that much cooler.” “I grew up in denial and went to school in Massachusetts.”
Yet the words are also the only thing major about the Hold Steady, are mostly heavily worked, take odd shapes; which makes their deeper failure the more troubling. They are, indeed, stories about 1989 high school burnouts in Minneapolis. The main character, Hallelujah (“Holly”), at least, is Catholic. The narration moves between first and third person; there’s a lot of quotation and a little omniscience. The technique is, essentially, one of literary fiction, albeit rhymed and lineated; at least, I don’t get any of the pleasures I do from rock lyrics, I don’t hear anything as rock-funny, rock-immediate, or rock-religious as, say, Mudhoney’s tossed-off “Save me, Lord, and fuck the race / Sliding in ’n’ out of grace.”
It’s bad fiction, too. The story is as trite as “girl goes through troubles; ends up older and wiser,” where the girl’s a holy whore with a heart of gold. The plotting complicates things with Catholic imagery, specific detail, the works. But Finn never hesitates to betray his characters, his milieu, his fiction, for a stab back at a rock lyricism. The funniest lines on the record – “She said, ‘You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young. / You’ve got passion, you think you’re sexy, and all the punks think you’re dumb’” – are abysmal given a second’s thought. “She” is a 1989 teenager. Was there one 17-year-old that year with such perspective on Rod the Mod’s historical hotness? Is there one today who remembers Vince Neil, W. Axel Rose, Sebitchian Bach as fondly? This is Finn the thirtysomething geek talking, not Holly the teen burnout. Or “She got screwed up by religion / She got screwed by soccer players” – a cheap laff, but since when do high school jocks fuck junkie punks? And note the as-glib cliché about Catholicism. The closer one listens (or reads – same thing, here), the more Finn’s writing seems less than the sum of rock lyric and lit fiction, more just received ideas and names dropped, shoehorned into parallel constructions, by turns sentimental and cynical. And as anyone who’s seen a Billy Wilder movie knows, cynicism is just negative sentimentality: disaffection and affection, the existence of both depends on their object. If it’s not plausibly 1989 Minneapolis high school, just what is Finn’s obscure object?
Finn is as old now as his characters would be in 2005; he went to high school in Minneapolis. He could, if he chose, fully speak whereof he knows. For instance, one guesses he was a hardcore kid – he name-checks “scene reports,” the skateboarders Bones Brigade (Tony Hawk, Stacy Peralta, etc.), the anarchist collective Profane Existence – and interviews confirm as much. But it’s the other references that are more telling: Jane’s Addiction, Lionel Richie, the Pogues, ZZ Top, the Dixie Dregs, the Temptations song on the Big Chill soundtrack. There are more of them, for one thing, more bar-rock and jukebox references than any other. Finn’s desire, it seems, is less for the specificity of 1989 Minnesota punk scene than for the same flattened rock history his band provides: denuded of place, time, and manner; anywhere in America, anytime. More broadly, he wants myth, and not only myth but myth about history. Can we call that, like the band’s music, nostalgic?
So Separation Sunday is nostalgic. So is, as I’ve admitted from the start, my own 1989 Minneapolis. And so who am I am to claim that my pastiche of Twin/Tone and Paisley Park, or what have you, would be truer to the past than the Hold Steady’s of classic rock, especially if, as the band says in interviews, all you do in Minneapolis high school, whether prep or punk, is drive around listening to the fucking Eagles on the fucking radio? Because I’m not talking about the truth of the past. Because I am talking about the uses made of the past, about the ends served by the past. Because I’m talking about nostalgia, and so I’m talking about fiction. My nostalgic pastiche – my fiction – would, at least, summon an experience particular to a time and place. Its acknowledgement of Minneapolis punk would go beyond namedropping. Other pastiches, by those who were there then or not, could do mine better, surely, and engage more specifically, in more detail, in greater nuance, with 1989 Minneapolis. Still, with all the hay that’s been made of late on a tiny subset of British postpunk, wouldn’t it be nice just to work through what America’s left behind, even in an Our Band Could Be Your Life broad view? When will someone do right by mid-’70s Cleveland, let alone late-’80s Minneapolis? Forget their ostensible subject, the Hold Steady don’t even manage to do right by one of the most bankrupt, fraudulent traditions we have – “classic rock.” More crucially, it’s this slippage between ostensible and actual (if incompetent), from critical nostalgia to sentimental nostalgia, that concerns me. That’s what I’m talking about.
Wire, reunited, stripping “Pink Flag” from two chords to one; Mastodon synthesizing generations of heavy; Royal Trux’s Sweet Sixteen, a classic-rock metanalysis that makes something different of the data entered – nostalgia can be critical, and positive, a homesickness that recognizes itself and strives for clarity of retrospect. But ordinary usage reserves nostalgic – a slur – for sentimental nostalgia, its astigmatism happily uncorrected. We call the latest Rolling Stones tour, wherein the new songs feign the old and the old feign themselves, a nostalgia act. For reasons different in each case, we might say the same of Oneida, Reigning Sound, Animal Collective, of the best as much as of the blahest, but we will only if we dislike the history they use or the way they use it – that is, only if we dislike their music.
The fact is, nostalgia’s a fact. We have so much history flattened at our feet that it’s impossible to encounter history wholly historically, or to avoid it altogether. The horizons of past and present necessarily merge, especially in an idiom as limited in vocabulary as rock. The problem, then, is not nostalgia but the uses to which it is put; the exemplary misuse is the erasure of history in the guise of history. Of which the exemplary recent case remains Forrest Gump, an allegory of the boomers reclaiming the history that was their birthright. Some saw its sentimentality and recoiled – but was the problem its lack of cynicism? For to say that Forrest Gump lacked cynicism is to ignore its deeper cynicism, borne out by its receipts – that this holy fool is the mirror America looks back at to see itself; that his digital playground, seamlessly flat, resembles our collective memory.
As above, one can’t say that the scattered cynicisms in Finn’s lyrics exempt them from sentimentality. Nor that that the sentimentality of the band’s version of rock exempt it from cynicism most contemptible. Generically, “classic” rock is nothing of the sort, though it makes that claim: “the greatest hits of all time” (where “time” is only a few decades long). To attain the appearance of timelessness, of classicism, the genre strip-mines the past for, at best, a few hundred songs, then overplays the specificity plumb out of them: “Freebird” becomes “Freebird!!!,” the shout for all seasons. Classic rock is the simulacrum of rock history, preferred to it because easier to sing along to. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – until you forget the history behind the hits. It’s one thing to turn on classic-rock radio in your car; quite another to structure your band around it and pass it off as 1989 Minneapolis. The latter is deeply cynical, and deeply repugnant.
To paraphrase Hoberman paraphrasing Truffaut, above a certain level of popularity, films – cultural objects, albums – become sociological events, the question of quality irrelevant. Separation Sunday is not the worst record I’ve ever heard, though, errors of youth aside, it’s certainly the worst one I’ve listened to the most. And now, a month and a bit after its release, it’s not even in the top-1,000 at Amazon, so it can’t be the worst, the most deleterious, in a popular sense. Just so, what I find most interesting about it is its location at the intersection of sociology and aesthetics. Vice excepted, the critical response I’ve found to Separation Sunday has been unanimous; the Village Voice, more than the Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, All Music (if less than Pitchfork) the vane of some breeze blowing, put the Hold Steady on its cover and declared its album perhaps best of the year. The band sells out midsize venues, playing to crowds – the children of Forrest Gump’s boomers, more or less – who presumably lived through 1989 themselves. Why do so many feel so affirmed by this record, if so false and awful?
I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you’re also approximately a boomer’s kid, and that maybe you, too, pride yourself on having years ago seen through Forrest Gump and the false nostalgia of our parents’ generation – that emperor’s naked, ain’t he? Yet we have more nostalgia acts – pernicious and not – than our parents ever did. And, on this record’s evidence, we’re even worse than they at distinguishing the two. After all, Craig Finn’s voice is no Tom Hanks’s Oscar-winning retard, the Hold Steady’s metarock is no Zemeckissed wonderland, and Separation Sunday apes Forrest Gump in insidiousness but not in accomplishment. This nostalgia is patchwork: stitching the pseudo-historical onto the pseudo-timeless, its seam splits and shows us its kitsch. Or would show us, were we looking – but we seem to have trouble seeing through the hand-me-downs, tattered and threadbare, worn by the emperor’s sons. The boomers’ self-satisfied nostalgia is myopic, and ours just might be blind.
By Sam Frank