Monday, August 28, 2023

A Few Words on the Best Music-Related Book You'll Read This Year

Twenty years ago, I moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey in search of new adventures. I soon found myself playing drums in one of the countless bands trying like hell to make a name for themselves around town. Before long, I realized that most of the LA music scene wasn’t to my liking—too precious, too pretentious, too forced, too hipster-y. Worst of all, it just didn’t ROCK enough or have very much to say. Unbeknownst to me, a group of thirtysomethings calling itself The Hold Steady was cutting its teeth 3,000 miles away in New York and quickly building a devoted audience by delivering everything I had craved at the time.

Shamefully, I had remained ignorant of the band’s existence for another 18 years. One evening in 2021, a YouTube search for something new brought me to “Lanyards,” a song off the band’s then-current album, Open Door Policy. I was floored. The tune had it all—exquisite instrumentation, a solid production, and Tom Waits-level lyrical genius that took my mind on a cinematic journey. Most intriguing of all, the words were delivered by a guy who sounded like a cross between Randy Newman and Bob Mould.  

It was my favorite song of that year, and I was hungry to learn more about this band that had stopped me in my tracks.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long. Published last month by the great Akashic Books, The Gospel of The Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels is a gorgeously presented oral history that details everything from the band’s earliest days to its gradual development of an international fanbase that functions more as a tightknit family than as a mere audience. Written by the band and Michael Hann (Denim and Leather: The Rise and Fall of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal), this beautiful hardcover tome features more than 200 photos and images to help tell the tale.

And the story is a great one: The Hold Steady goes from playing clubs to sharing the stage with The Rolling Stones, addiction threatens to derail its momentum, a member gets evicted from his place during lean times, bandmates get on each other’s nerves way too often, and a hiatus helps recharge everyone’s batteries before they make a momentous comeback. Sure, these are stories that virtually every working band could share on any given day (well, except for the Stones part), but they’re rarely told with such personality, candor, and humanity.

While The Hold Steady’s members are certainly a colorful bunch, their words aren’t the ones that make The Gospel of The Hold Steady truly shine. That honor goes to the assortment of fans whose recollections and tributes comprise 20 percent of the book’s pages. From hilarious and silly to poignant and heartbreaking, these passages showcase how much this band has impacted people’s lives. They’re an extraordinary read about an extraordinary band.

Full marks to Akashic for once again delivering an exceptional music-related title. (Its 2014 book on The Jesus Lizard is a must-read.) Kudos as well to Sohrab Habibion, whose interior design work has raised the bar for books of this nature.

Just like the band that fueled its creation, The Gospel of The Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels is a treasure.

The Hold Steady

Akashic Books