the sing-along songs will be our scriptures

About… four years ago I got hooked on Regina Spektor and her entire songography was on repeat on my Zune for months. Now it’s the Hold Steady, and I’ve actually become unable to listen to anything else without wishing it was Craig Finn’s Jersey vibe and half-spoken lyrics against that 80s real-band-playing-real-instruments track. They’ve drawn comparisons to Springsteen and REM, the Tragically Hip and Sonic Youth, Ted Leo and even Billy Joel. They are all these things and more, people!

Here’s their one single, though I don’t even know if it got radio play; the opening track from “Boys and Girls in America,” Stuck Between Stations. Take it as a taster; if you like it, just keep rocking the fuck on with the rest of their discography.

There are four albums so far, and while individually they’re amazing, and while individual tracks on each album can also be isolated as a-fucking-mazing, there’s an even better story happening across the four albums, starring the same set of characters (Hallelujah [call her Holly] the teenage burnout, Charlemagne, the struggling drug dealer/pimp, and Gideon, the gang member — and a whole cast of other supporting characters who get drunk at music festivals, get fucked against dumpsters behind townie bars, get in knife fights, fall in love, party till it almost kills them, and wake up in Ybor City looking for a change).

The aesthetic is set up on the first record, “Almost Killed Me,” with a growling lyric-rich Craig Finn and some old-school hair band/punk guitar licks.

Then “Separation Sunday” really got the narrative ball rolling; it’s entirely a concept album based around Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon, slightly rawer than the other records and still totally lyric-based and groovy.

“Boys and Girls in America” is totally the most accessible record, and where lots of fans (including me!) got started. Three years ago or so, and came to town and played me “Citrus” and “Party Pit,” and I fell into this band crush headlong. Later when I went back to hear the two earlier albums I started reading the narrative and character development (as well as musical development and shifting styles), but for the first few months all I listened to was BaGiA. It’s where the single (above) is from, and it busted the Hold Steady into mainstream reviewers’ consciousness. Read a review from Pitchfork Media, here.

The newest record, “Stay Positive,” just came out a couple months ago, and while being an album totally addressed to summer ’08, is also a bookend to “Almost Killed Me,” which started with the song “Positive Jam” as a band intro. “Stay Positive,” after four records of some killer highs and some crushing lows, reminds us, “it’s one thing to start with a positive jam; it’s another thing to see it all through.” I can not stop listening to “Stay Positive,” occasionally clicking back to tracks on the earlier albums just to remember how they pay off in the most recent record.

Download the .rar file here.

Got samples from all four albums. To wit:

From “Almost Killed Me”:

  • “Barfruit Blues,” where we meet Hallelujah, Charlemagne, and Gideon at their lowest
  • “Killer Parties,” about the Twin City set looking for the best parties and then suffering the consequences. Also waking up in Ybor City.
  • “Knuckles,” a great song about bad-rep boys and liars.
  • “Certain Songs,” just, everything they stand for and everything we remember from college jukeboxes and bar band bars. Certain songs, they get so scratched into our souls. This is a big favorite among the fans, and one of the sweetest, most melodic songs in the set, after “Citrus” off BaGinA.

From “Separation Sunday,” the first five tracks off the album. Like the first chapter of a book, and meant to be read all in a row.

From “Boys and Girls in America”:

  • “Stuck Between Stations,” the aforementioned single and the tale of being a target demographic for about fifteen minutes.
  • “First Night,” a beautiful and nostalgic look back at the glory days of Holly and Charlemagne and that first night when it all went down.
  • “Party Pit,” just fucking AWESOME and fun and a sing-along song. Gonna walk around and drink some more.
  • “You Can Make Him Like You,” a predecessor to other songs about party girls trying to tough it out among the dealers, see also “Two Handed Handshake.”
  • “Massive Nights,” another sing-along-song and the updated check in to “Killer Parties,” waking up in Ybor City yet again.
  • “Citrus,” a ballad unlike anything else they do. Lost in fog and love and faithless fear; I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.
  • “Chillout Tent,” a three minute play about kids at a music festival in Western Mass.

From “Stay Positive”:

  • “Constructive Summer”: This record brings us out of the gutter and back to a place where we can stay positive: let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.
  • Sequestered in Memphis”: another party travelogue song, a run-in with the law and hooking up with some chick at some place where she cat sits, and everything is fried.
  • “One for the Cutters,” friggin’ GENIUS. Here’s a bright college girl at Oberlin (or somewhere Oberlin-like) who, when there weren’t any parties, sometimes partied with the townies, and gets into some townie shit. It’s a cute little town, boutiques and cafes, her friends all seem nice, she was getting good grades, but when she came home for Christmas, she just seemed distant and different.
  • “Yeah Sapphire,” or why this album is the one with the sing-along songs. Rock on.
  • “Both Crosses,” because this band is considered one of the great Catholic guilt records, riffing on that original Catholic-girl chaser, Billy Joel.
  • “Magazines,” a really incisive appreciation of what happens to insecure underage party girls with body image and daddy isues.
  • AND… the secret hidden tracks:

  • “Ask Her For Adderall,” my current anthem about when you just can’t do people anymore and you’re on that slippery slope, and Holly/Hallelujah finally in a place to judge another burnout.
  • “Cheyenne Sunrise,” another road song, from St. Paul to Ybor City by way of Cheyenne, too small, yet escapist.
  • “Two Handed Handshake,” part three of the bonus staying-positive tracks, looking back on those boys and girls in America and figuring out why they have such a sad time together. Boys, I’m pretty sure that we can put it back together, and girls, you gotta try to be nice to one another.

Download the .rar file here, in case you missed it up top.

And, because they’re a narrative band, spend some time reading the short stories that are Craig Finn’s brilliant lyrics, here: Hold Steady lyrics.

There are a ton of songs I’ve left off, particularly from the first two records (two of my all-time favorite songs off “Almost Killed Me” aren’t in this zip file… they’re yours to find!), so you would do well to buy all four at your leisure, or whichever one jumps out at you based on these tracks I’ve uploaded.

Then. THEN. I want fiction about Holly and Charlemagne and Gideon (and his gang with the same tattoos), fiction about Hostile, Massachusetts and Ybor City, fiction about the obscure bar bands and jukebox tracks and hard drugs and townies.

And then we gotta wait two years before they put out another record, if they’re keeping with their trends. I have no expectations of getting sick of these four any time soon, but then, it’s impossible to get perspective on those things.

Anyway, stay positive, build something this summer, sing along with the sing-along songs, and hold steady.

the gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Webber

And I know there’s the thing where we joke that you think we killed your Lord (“we” being us Jews and “you” being you Christians, for the purposes of this sentence), and that’s fine when it’s for fun, but the thing is, everything I know about the New Testament and the gospels I learned from Jesus Christ Superstar (and some Godspell — my Christian friends have informed me in the past that Godspell is a more accurate/more revelatory musical theatre interpretation of the Jesus story, and that JCS leaves a lot more open to artistic interpretation. Would you say that’s true? Maybe I just have to listen to Godspell more — anyone have .mp3s for me?) — everything I know about the New Testament I learned from anecdotal evidence, popular culture, and Jesus Christ Superstar, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past few days, driving back and forth from Pasadena in dead traffic with JCS on the stereo, and I have concluded that I don’t see Judas having any other choice! Had I been in Judas’ position, in the Gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Webber, I would have done exactly the same thing.

There are so many places along the way where I could have become misinformed that I’m making it a point to learn more about the Gospels, which is where I turn to the internets for help. I’m looking for any secular type gospels — I think we in the secular world call it “historical fiction” — that describe the Jesus/Judas/Gethsemane/blood money/Caiphas/Annas betrayal. I have Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son which was, if nothing else, more straightforward than Gore Vidal’s gospel, but I would like more, particularly about Judas Iscariot. All the biographies/gospels I’ve found on Judas tend to be lifted from the Christian Inspiration area of the bookstore, rather than the fiction area or history area, which makes me nervous, and I sat for a long time in Barnes & Noble carefully dismissing any gospel that had red letters or Los or Thees or Thous or O Lord!s in them — and was left with Mailer, Vidal, and Anne Rice. Good thing Anne Rice is crazy (and good thing her big Jesus tetrology hasn’t reached the Gethsemane chapter yet) or I’d have come home with more books than three.

I’m trying to get a handle on the political environment of the day, on the conflict between the Romans and the Jews of the Middle East, Caesar feeling threatened by the rise of other powers, the desert populus of Jews just trying to survive day to day in the hot unforgiving sand, local lords and governors paying tribute to Caesar and charged with keeping their flocks in line. I mean — Caesar was a force to be reckoned with, no? I wouldn’t go up against the Roman Empire without good backup either, and even then I’d be careful where I stepped. It’s like trying to mount a revolution under an oppressive dictator. You gotta be cunning!

So — let me see if I’ve got this right? And you tell me where I’m wrong, or lead me to texts where I can expand my knowledge? This is me retelling JCS, trying to squeeze fact from interpretive dance.

Jesus and Judas start a nonprofit, basically, in Galilee, stirring up grassroots support to help the poor and suffering. Judas is eager to help his fellow suffering Jews, and hopes they can continue their work under the radar for as long as possible before Caesar comes stomping in demanding tribute.

The poor and meek and so forth really take to Jesus, and for a couple of years their nonprofit does great work around Galilee, healing the sick and feeding the poor in the desert! Then Jesus’s popularity grows to such a degree that the local leaders, folks with a real fear of Caesar and their ears to the ground, folks who have been at war before, people like Caiaphas and Annas, start getting nervous that Mr. Nazareth’s cult of personality will bring the attention and the wrath of Rome upon their little struggling neck of the desert.

Judas, meanwhile, wonders how his well-meaning and humble nonprofit somehow launched into a one-man Jesus Revue, and also worries that with all the singing and dancing Jesus is doing, and with all the crowds that have flocked to Jesus, the wrath of Rome will come to Galilee and see Jesus as a threat and take out the whole lot of ’em. Judas wonders why Jesus is spending their group’s hard-raised money on fine ointments and massage oils for him to use with his prostitute girlfriend, when insteaad they could use that money to feed and clothe the poor. Jesus replies that he will only be on this earth for a short time, and that they should all make the most out of having him here, and that he’d be more useful to the organization if he were relaxed, which Mary understands, hence all the deep-tissue massaging. Jews continue to flock from miles around, and everyone starts calling Jesus the King of the Jews for some reason.

Judas now seriously bugs out, because all he wanted to do was help his fellow Jews in Galilee, not throne a King. Caiaphas comes to Judas and says, we know this isn’t what you signed up for, we need to take care of Jesus ourselves before Rome smites us. Judas says no WAY, he’s my BEST FRIEND, I’m not turning him over to you. Meanwhile, Judas watches as Jesus gets the whole country to sing and dance his praises. Judas, for the good of the Jews, agrees that Jesus is a threat that must be stopped.

Then there’s dinner and some more singing, and then there’s the betrayal with a kiss. Judas, appropriately, can’t live with himself, can’t take the blood money, after all that, kills himself and dies a villian. Elsewhere, Pilate doesn’t want to have to make a ruling regarding Jesus’s case, because whoever chooses to punish Jesus is going to be, among many things, supremely unpopular with the groundswell of Jesus fans, and Pilate had a dream where they all hated him. So he sends Jesus to Herod, figuring it’s up to one Jew to deal with another. Herod ALSO doesn’t want to punish Jesus, and gives Jesus every opportunity to admit he’s not the King of the Jews and get out of there unscathed, but Jesus refuses to admit it. Sure, he says, “you named me that,” but he also proposes that there might be a kingdom for him somewhere. All this talk of being the son of god makes Herod think Jesus is in fact just crazy, but Herod can no more punish a crazy man than he can punish an innocent man. There’s 40 lashes, because the crowd INSISTS that Jesus be punished some way and the crowd’s getting restless. Then they send Jesus back to Pilate, because the crowd keeps insisting that JEsus be killed or else they’ll be stuck facing the wrath of Rome, and Jews don’t have capital punishment. Pilate goes ahead and nails Jesus up, hating himself for it all the while.

I feel — if Jesus was indeed a real guy who walked around Israel 2000 years ago — which is quite likely — I feel he really put his friends in a tough position, put his people in a tough position, sold out the needs of the many in exchange for his own cult of personality, got high on fame and was a threat to Judaism everywhere. And then of course, he was a threat to Judaism, because after all that, we get Christianity. Judas, on the other hand, strikes me as the type who never wanted fame, but wanted to find a way to help his people — more of a Socialist than a King.

And I lose control here. I don’t know why a new religion sprung up because of this one guy. I don’t know what we did that was so wrong. I don’t know what Jesus did that was so great.

I don’t get out much, so I read. I will tell you more after I’ve finished Mailer. Any clarifications or pointing out where I’m completely all wet eagerly appreciated.

my dinner with Alzheimers

At thirty-five thousand feet, there’s turbulence over the Ohio river basin. I took an Ativan. Beside me is a German woman in her eighties; when I boarded the plane she was sitting in my seat, 23F.

“Um, I think that’s my seat.” I waved my boarding pass over my armload of luggage and my blinged-out cane. “23F.”

“But I like to sit on this side!” she hissed.

“Yeah, but it’s my seat.”

“Scheisse!” she spat at me. She left for the other aisle, 23 ABC, with her two travelling companions. Moments later the steward comes by, ensuring that all luggage is in the overhead bins and that some objects, bulky and awkward, may shift during takeoff. “I want to sit THERE!” Scheisse grabs the steward’s arm with her crone-y bony fingers, points at me. I’m in the window seat, staring out the window, watching TSA operatives fumble with bulky and awkward luggage checked under the plane at the gate.

She’s beside me now, 23E. Her travelling companions are caretakers of a kind, German both, and according to Scheisse, criminals, crooks. They take her money. They have been travelling together for some time now. Their initial place of departure is a mystery to me, as is their final destination — this Boston to Los Angeles leg seems to be just one in a series of Golden Years adventures sponsored by depressed, depressing hospice care coordinators in an effort to get the dead and nearly to Budapest or Bucharest before returning to the hospice watch. This I’ve deduced in broken English and some German, but the sentiment in 23E is clear. She glares across the aisle at her caretakers. “They are CRIMINAL,” she says. “I will not rest until I see that they are kicked out.” Kicked out of what, I don’t know; I can’t imagine it matters, and anyway she moved over here, it seems, to be rid of her caretakers and closer to the window, to see the clouds, to see the sunlight. Something we have in common, Scheisse and me. Even on Ativan I need a fixed point in turbulence, some soft fluffy clouds a couple thousand feet below that aren’t moving, that put our shudderation in context; the context of the big huge sky.

United now charges for meals; $5 for any of four Snackboxes (do they carry Skiving?), $5 also for a grilled chicken wrap. Scheisse fumbled in her purse for change, among tissues folded and refolded, snotted on and resnotted on but still useable. Sucking candies. Rubberbands. String. I wonder if she’s a Holocaust survivor; the tissues make me think so, the fury, the window. She’s got a handful of Kroners or Schillings or Zloty, a quarter and two pennies, which she scrapes clean with her fingernails (there’s red sticky stuff on them, she carefully removes it from around George’s hair and neck, from around Abe’s beard and chin, from the feathers of the bald eagle) and stares at: not enough. With the snort resignation of a horse who isn’t ready to be harnessed again, she leans over to 23 ABC, exchanges some words in German with the caretaker.

The caretaker is a woman in her fifties, maybe, sixties with a bad dye job, wearing a white knit poncho and more jewelry than she can afford. She speaks better English than Scheisse, but still mostly German, and her partner (“the boyfriend,” Scheisse tells me conspiratorially. “He is also a criminal. He is deadbeat.”) sits like a lump beside her, like a bratwurst with a mustache, and doesn’t even try at English when the stewards come talk to him.

Scheisse returns from the caretaker, back to 23E with another exasperated “Scheisse!” and then, to me, and not quietly. “She is a liar. She says she have only ten dollars and will not give me money for food. I know she have more — she have all my money she took from me.”

I bought her a sandwich, grilled chicken wrap with roasted peppers and corn. I suggested she crumble up her Ruffles potato chips in the sandwich when she complained of its lack of salt. “No salt at all!” she told the steward. “Sorry,” he said. She ordered a tonic water. Also salt free. She asked me if she should crumble her Ruffles into the tonic water. I advised her this wasn’t the best way to go. The sandwich went back into the handbag, Ruffles, airline safety card, semi-useable tissues. A pair of airplane headphones and a couple airsick bags. My survivor suspicions grow. I’ve read Maus.

She said to me: “I need to find some way to tell that these people are criminal. But I have a hard time because I have hard time with my English.”

Fascinated, I offered to help, and whipped out the laptop.

“When did you first meet– ” I pointed at 23ABC..
“Oh, long time ago. We used to be friends.”
“What happened?”
“It’s criminal. I have a room in Los Angeles, Leisure World, Laguna Beach.. And they are doing harm to people who are above 75. They try to harm them. Heard from others that the staff doesn’t listen to complaints. Turn around and blame the people who are sick and can’t tolerate the treatment they receive from their caretakers. Some of them got killed by their treatment. It’s criminal.”

My grandfather has a place at the Arbors, a retirement village in Amherst, MA, with friendly nurses, round-the-clock bingo, movies, crossword puzzles, bridge, the occasional rousing game of “I Never.” He’s 94 years old, and every night his nurse comes in to give him his diabetes finger-stick, make sure he takes his meds, and there’s always a nurse on hand in case Poppa needs a shower. They take good care of him there; they feed him three good meals and he flirts with the nurses and the cotton-tops and at the end of the day we kiss him on the head and say bye, Poppa, we love you, and we leave him there knowing he’s in good hands, five miles away from my parents and a world away from the horrors Scheisse was describing. Scheisse has tears in her eyes, and I’m still wondering what she was doing in Boston. I want to help.

“Old friends sick in LA. I didn’t know until after, because I was away.”
“Where were you?” I asked.
“I have a hard time putting these together, they say I am old, I am stupid.”

“Okay,” I said. “No problem. Let’s keep going. When did you hear that your friends were being mistreated?”
She giggled, incongruously, a full-on old German lady giggle. “Oh, gossip, word of mouth, you hear around,” she said. “When I came back from the place I had been to, I found out my old friend had been mistreated in the hospital.”

“Where were you at the time?”
“I was away. Now I find out she has been mistreated, maybe if they had cared, given her the right treatment she would be all right. Maybe she is dead already.”

“And your friend is at Leisure World?”
“Yes, they are treating her there.”

We’re on a plane flying Westward from Boston to Los Angeles. We left Boston at 6:30pm, local time, today, July 26th. 23ABC flags the steward again. Points to me. “That lady over there needs five dollars. I bought three sandwiches. I bought a sandwich for [Scheisse] and so did she.” The steward gave me five ones. Scheisse grinned at me. Victory!

I started in. “Do you remember why you were in Boston?”
“Well, I talked to a couple people, but just passing by. The most important thing is that I would like to get the information together, so that I could get it to people who can help them and do something about it.”

“So you came to Boston to talk to some people about these issues.”
“Well, I’m not dropping the subject, I just need to get the information together.”

“How did you get to Boston?” I asked.
“I did not go to Boston.”

Criminy, Klinger. “I’m just trying to put this in chronological order. Because obviously we were in Boston just a couple hours ago.”
“”If you don’t make notes about these things,” Scheisse shook her head with a rueful smile. “You don’t remember.”

“Where were you yesterday?”
“I was at Leisure World with her.”
“In Los Angeles?”
“Yes.”
“And then you got on a plane and flew to Boston.”
“No.”

Different tack.

“What did you do today?”
“I dealt with a problem and then something happened and I had to give it up.”
Took a long shot: “Is it possible that anyone gave you any medication?”
“I was looking for medication. But I couldn’t find it so I gave up.” Dead end.

“When were you last at Leisure World?”
“Oh, not long ago, two days.”
“Where were you in between?”
“I have to find my notes, to try and make sense of it.”

“How did you get to the airport today?”
She points a thumb at 23ABC. “Them.”
“Where did they bring you to the airport FROM?”
“From my place in Laguna Hills.”

The best I can manage at this juncture’s that Scheisse and her friends hopped on a plane in LA yesterday, came to Boston, turned right back around and returned to LA.

I presented it, smoothly, certain I’d nailed it. “Tell me, does this sound likely? A couple days ago you flew out of LA and came to Boston –”
“We did not go to Boston.”

“But we were just IN Boston –”
She shrugs, shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

“You were going to go on a longer trip, right?”
“I wanted to go somewhere where I could do something about the situation. But I gave it up. I cannot find the right words. I cannot find the thoughts. It’s frustrating. I can’t help them because I can’t express it. I need to think. I would like to help them. It is just killing me. You see that they are old, that they are sick, that they have money, and no family, and they let them die, they help them die and take their money. I see it could happen to me too.”

Scheisse’s name is Helene Kosalko. She is from Hungary. I have no idea why she’s on this airplane, where she’s coming from or what she’s going back to. She came to the United States to learn about new technologies for insurance companies. She doesn’t do it anymore. “It’s killing me,” she says. “That people can hurt each other. The worst is families — they should help improve the conditions, they should stick together, but instead it’s falling apart. It’s killing me.”

The sun is going down; Helene likes the glow through the window, so I’m keeping it open despite the glare on my laptop monitor. There’s a wooly blanket of clouds a couple thousand feet down; up here it’s blue skies and smooth sailing. They’re showing Miss Congeniality 2; Sahara is over. It’s 7:00 now, two more hours.

“Sometimes I am even scared to go home,” Helene says. Later, she looks out the window with a beaming smile. “And the sun is still bright!”

*

Later, 8:42 and 29 minutes left on my computer’s battery. Helene asked me what the big black thing outside the window was. I told her it was the wing. The sunset’s a gorgeous strip of orange and red bleeding down from indigo, teal, green. “Gorgeous,” Helene says. “Oh god.” She covers her face with her hands. “I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up. I have no one. No family. Even if I go to Europe, it will not be better. I’m afraid to go home. I have no key. I have no home.”

“Aren’t they taking you back to Leisure World?” I asked, gesturing toward 23ABC.

Helene sighs. “I doubt it,” she says. “I don’t believe a word they say ever again.”

I’m glad I’m taking a cab from the airport, suddenly, selfishly, glad K-Town’s nowhere near Laguna Hills. Already I’ve promised this woman I’ll investigate Leisure World and find her an ally there, a nurse, an orderly, a gentle giant who takes her by the hand and eases her passage and the movie ends over some maudlin treacle: “Time in a Bottle,” maybe.