Tuned v. 1 no. 6: "Constructive Summer," The Hold Steady
In lieu of a concert review (for a killer show by THS at El Rey in LA on May 5), I thought it might be more instructive to examine "Constructive Summer," which I'd like to subtitle "It's All Over but the Rocking and the Pointing" and goes a little like this:
Sneaky, huh, how it passes up the "Lust for Life" drums it name-checks in line one, the bop-bop-bop bop-bop-de-bop-bop beat that even Colin Meloy nicked for "The Sporting Life," and that improbably Carnival Cruises stole as a theme song for awhile (Iggy at sea sort of confounds me, but what do I know about marketing), to opt for something much more straight-ahead, driving--even the piano makes a lie of its name and is all tympani. But that's the song, isn't it, cutting grammar off at the pass--"Me and my friends" indeed. No surprise later our singer didn't like schooling none, is it.
For this is a you and me song, one that throws its friendly arm over our shoulders. You have to sing along to one of our psalms for the "this summer" shouts, one of which turns out to be "get hammered," and why not, this town is dying. For maybe we're in a real place and maybe we're in Springsteenvania,* for Craig Finn, The Hold Steady's leader, certainly has an affinity for the Boss. In some ways at times THS seems to write its songs the way so many filmmakers now make movies--why write from life when you can write from the art that precedes you and moves you? Life can be a bore, but the best art--by which, of course, I mean the art you like--is even thrilling in its losses, so monumental.† "My friends that aren't dying are already dead," is just such a line, how grand our misery is, it proudly asserts.
Cause it can't be true now, can it, not with a song this zippy? It puts the vim in invigorated, the way we have to raise our hands in defiance, the way we have to rock really hard and of all ridiculous things hope. Sure the song ends dead on its last two lines "Getting older makes it harder to remember…we are our only saviors/We’re gonna build something, this summer," and you have the feeling our fine Finn-y friends sing this tune each and every Memorial Day with not much to show but a hangover back to work at the mill on Tuesday. But perhaps that's ok. It sure felt good thinking about it. And while all this hope can be fit in under a 3 minute rockin' nutshell, there might be a next song that kicks in before we know it. We can all be something bigger if it's nothing more than knowing that wherever two or three of us gather in rock's name...you know, they're called power chords for a reason.
*In particular nowhere more than "Racing in the Street," the closest Bruce has ever got to Raymond Carver goes to New Jersey, although that might be as much as close as Roy Bittan has got to Raymond Carver goes to New Jersey. You can check a video of the famous 1978 Capitol Theatre in Passaic NJ version, even. Note Bruce's version is a ballad. Perhaps that's where St. Joe Strummer comes in.
† Think of the sheer joy in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, say, before people started to like him and his moves codified, or to refer to one of Tarantino's references, the Truffaut of Shoot the Piano Player, all that joy in knowing what we know and letting you know it too. Come bathe in our collective cool.
Does everyone have a water tower in his or her past? There was one right outside the gate of our high school and I never climbed it let alone took part in the annual graffiti-ing, which was never clever, just a claim that Class of ____ was here and you damn well better remember it. (Till Class of ____+1 comes along.) Might my life be different, having looked down from such a lofty, and no doubt slightly drunken, perch, I do not know.
And that was even with hearing the call of St. Joe Strummer even then, buying London Calling at a Sam Goody's on 6th Avenue in New York, a double LP for $5.99 and liking it plenty, but of course they weren't really punk by then (just, for a moment, the world's best band? that title no one can hold for long as it's just too much to be that wise and sloppy at once to survive). And I was never punk, despite to this day thinking "Blank Generation"‡ speaks to me, but I came to The Voidoids late, and so much of that speaking is Quine's guitar, so the unspeakable. So I'm a fraud--the life of a secret punk isn't very punk at all.
That's why I need so music so much, something has to give me a way out, a way to hold steady.
‡ And how have I never seen this before on YouTube? And why the hell do they cut away from the song to interview wasted audience members? Richard Quine, how I miss you.