The Hold Steady
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Big Hassle

‘The Gospel of the Hold Steady’ Captures Their Unhinged Magic

Michael Hann’s oral history The Gospel of the Hold Steady traces the band’s image, music, and challenges in a brilliant chronicle of the promise of rock ‘n’ roll.

The Gospel of the Hold Steady: How A Resurrection Really Feelse
Michael Hann and The Hold Steady
Akashic Books

The Hold Steady‘s Craig Finn delivers a monologue to the audience at the end of every show. It’s different every time, but it always ends with him asking the crowd to join in with the last beat as the whole room declares: “We are all the Hold Steady!” One final triumphant chord later, and the night of rapid-fire short stories, beer-soaked singalongs, and confetti has ended. Like the E Street Band before them, the Hold Steady is a well-oiled machine driven by a singular vision and a sense of self: the more joy the music spreads, the more the band and crowd will synthesize into one organism.

A good rock book can show you how wrong you are about your favorite acts in ways that deepen your appreciation for their craft. Despite the name and their incredible tightness, the Hold Steady is not the singular vision it seems to be. The oral history contained within music writer Michael Hann’s The Gospel of The Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels instead reveals the band as always in flux, either scraping together songs, finances, or band members into a fragile unity. It turns out that the outfit’s shoestring, haphazard nature means that the band knows the themes of community, endurance, and redemption as profoundly as their songs suggest.

The Hold Steady are a six-piece rock ‘n’ roll outfit from Brooklyn, New York, and their songs weave together chunky rock riffs and a punk sensibility with big hooks and virtuosic storytelling. Often, the stories in The Gospel of The Hold Steady highlight the redemptive power of a good night at a show, encountering vulnerable characters who find the love or redemption they seek just as a bar is closing. Apart from several solid records, the Hold Steady are best known for their live show and dedicated fanbase, in which the band and audience bring the project to life.

The Gospel of The Hold Steady begins when vocalist Craig Finn and bassist-turned-guitarist Tad Kubler broke up Minneapolis-based group Lifter Puller and sought out new musical ground in Brooklyn. Featuring interviews from Finn and Kubler, as well as bassist Gavin Polivka, original drummer Judd Counsell, longtime drummer Bobby Drake, keyboardist Franz Nicolay, and guitarist Steve Selvidge, along with a cast of managers, label staff and producers, The Gospel of The Hold Steady weaves its way through the band’s first four revelatory albums, its wilderness period, and its eventual redemption.

Essays from music journalists punctuate the narrative of the band’s rise. Most notable is Rob Sheffield’s beautiful piece on the Hold Steady’s early days, but other narratives about the band’s power, its distinct Americanness, and its appeal to English audiences productively shift the focus away from the band’s inner circle. By juxtaposing the Hold Steady’s deliberations, revelations, and failures with gushing tributes, The Gospel of The Hold Steady’s central premise is driven home: when chaos finds a loving, receptive audience, something beautiful can happen.

Oral history is the best genre for a task like this. Biographies tend to over-inflate the writer’s presence, while autobiographies too often become one-sided settlements of beef. Oral histories give the audience the truest sense of what it’s like to be in a band: many perspectives, but like life, none of them quite match up. The Gospel of the Hold Steady is full of surprises because band members who are not always in the spotlight get to share their ruminations.

While there are obvious connections to heartland and classic rock in the Hold Steady’s sound, Polivka offers a fascinating insight into how the band’s stance of breaking down walls between band and audience was taken from the hardcore scene and was a direct rejection of the indie elitism they encountered in Brooklyn. Only by stretching out the narrative and letting the bass player riff on the band’s early days do we arrive at this refined theory of the Hold Steady.

The Gospel of the Hold Steady treats the band’s first four records fairly, but the details could always be richer. We learn where the controversial harpsichord riff in “One for the Cutters” came from, but these details are fewer and farther between than I’d prefer. Perhaps it makes sense, though; the Hold Steady has always been a big-picture, don’t-overthink-it group. Maybe a play-by-play on how someone writes a tune like “Positive Jam” is too much to ask for.

While 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever and its follow-up, 2014’s Teeth Dreams, are the band’s weakest records, they make for the most interesting reading here. This era began with Kubler’s hospitalization for pancreatitis, which meant he had to stay away from alcohol, which led to a different place for alcohol in the band. As Kubler struggled, Nicolay left, and guitarist Steve Selvidge came in to replace him. The process of finding new sonic space with an extra guitar and without a keyboard, Kubler’s recovery, and a new record deal threw the band into turmoil. 

The Gospel of The Hold Steady guides us through it masterfully: Kubler admits to the challenges of being part of the scene without the aid of alcohol; Finn describes concerns about the band’s future and his decision to make a solo record; Nicolay outlines his reasoning for departure; Selvidge describes finding a space in a flailing powerhouse; Polivka and Drake describe the feeling of being lost. These converging and diverging paths show how vexed this period was and how each band member grappled with it all.

A high point of The Gospel of The Hold Steady is found in the final 50 pages, which feature dozens of fan-written essays. Authors describe their first show, their favorite show, the time a stranger bought them a beer, the illnesses and deaths in their lives, and the breakups that were made just a little bit easier to get through with the help of the Hold Steady’s music and the band’s ethos. If the group is serious about the “We are all the Hold Steady” gambit, then this was the best way to conclude The Gospel of The Hold Steady: showing that the fragility at the center of the band is something fans feel in their own lives. They use the concept of the Hold Steady to find a sense of stability within that chaos.  

Littered with on-stage and behind-the-scenes photos of the band, detailing their greatest achievements and worst ideas (including the box truck they toured in), The Gospel of the Hold Steady synthesizes the complexity at the heart of the Hold Steady. On “Sweet Payne”, Finn sings that he “always dream[s] about a unified scene”, and the band presents themselves as the standard-bearers of that scene. This oral history shows us that, even if a scene is unified, the people within it each have their own fears, ideas, and dreams. To understand the scene is to understand the band and the fans on their terms; The Gospel of the Hold Steady does that very well, making for an enjoyable and edifying read.

RATING 8 / 10