It took a bit of persistence tracking down Galen Polivka… not his fault. The Hold Steady bassist is generally easy to spot (as you’ll read below), but his band’s been on what seems like an endless world tour: They’re heading into Texas as you read this, hit Germany by the end of the month, continue onward. Despite that On The Road status, Polivka found the time to draft the following essay in response to my queries about his job as a bartender at the East Village bar, Hi-Fi, Stereogum’s semi-official offsite headquarters (Stella, please).
Due to the unique situation and Polivka’s grit determination in delivering the goods, we were more than happy to skip the regular Q&A format in favor of the following poignantly humorous (good bartender vs. bad bartender with white belt) meditation on what it means, for one guy at least, to be a band member working as a bartender in New York City (or, you’d guess, any sizeable, kinda-sizeable, or semi-sizeable city).
Keeping with the touring theme, after Galen’s closing please find the acoustic, Craig Finn expository version of “Chips Ahoy” from the Live At Fingerprints EP. For now, though, it’s the bassist who’s doing the talking…
The kind, gentle people at Stereogum have asked me, Galen of The Hold Steady, to explain the potentially difficult conundrum of maintaining the precarious balance between being a touring musician and holding down a “real” job. Working in bars has afforded me the flexibility needed to do both. The owner of the fine establishment where I work while ever so briefly back home in New York City, the ever-benevolent Mike Stuto, is no stranger to employing musicians. Amazingly, and arguably against his better judgment, he continues to (charitably) do so.
No small amount of the staff of Hi-Fi (169 Ave. A, New York, NY – home to unquestionably the best jukebox in the free world. As I presently have no fixed address, hold onto that check for the shameless name-drop until I get back to town, Mike. Thanks.) and its previous incarnation, the indie-rock institution Brownie’s, doubtlessly worked there, at least partially, for the said flexibility to pursue other, ahem, avenues of artistic expression.
Leaving town for amount of time that I and other co-workers routinely do, would doubtlessly render some of us unemployed (or perhaps outright unemployable) in many other lines of work. One would imagine our former employer’s line of thought would be something along these lines: “You need a month off? Good luck with that music/writing/painting-thing, kid. We’ll give you a sterling reference when you come back and are looking for a new job.”
Being a musician/bartender, in the East Village no less, one certainly runs the risk of becoming a walking cliché. I try my best to be demure about my being in a band (yawn), as patrons come to my bar to drink and socialize as opposed to hearing me wax philosophically about how great my band is (even bigger yawn). An accurate figure would be difficult to gauge, but the percentage of those even vaguely interested in my musical, um, career, would certainly be a minute one. If people are interested enough to ask any questions along these lines, I am legitimately grateful that people care at all and more than happy to talk to anyone and everyone about any and all things musical/The Hold Steady. Plus, you have me trapped behind the bar and I cannot escape. Have at it.
How much can your guitar player Tad actually drink? (A: More than you.) What kind of sticks does Bobby use? (A: which is, in fact, a question – I do not know and why the hell would you care? No offense, Bob.) Q: How do you feel about the amount of good press you’ve gotten of late? (A: It really is hugely flattering. Especially when journalists kindly point out how fat, drunk and old we are – preferably all three, thanks.) I am an open book and polite enough to answer anything asked (within reason) about my non-bartending endeavors, but I steadfastly refuse to bore the uninterested to tears.
I think I can safely say that the overwhelming majority of bartenders prove themselves to be, or at least diligently attempt to be, ideal customers when finding us on the other side of the bar. We do not go out to scrutinize the minutia of how our peers go about their job. We are, mercifully, civilians now. Just get us drinks in a reasonably timely, friendly fashion, we will tip handsomely and everybody’s happy, right? Pretty straightforward equation, no?
Ninety-nine out of a hundred times this plays out nicely. I give you money; you get me drunk. At risk of redundancy, straightforward equation. Again, everyone’s happy. Not brain surgery, people.
We bartenders tend to be patient, forgiving souls, especially to those with which we share an occupation. Glasses break in ice bins that have to be emptied. Bummer. Deliveries come in the middle of happy hour when you’re by yourself. Sucks. What can you do? Some guy wants you to run him through how much every conceivable cocktail costs before finally ordering a Bud Light. Get it together, dude. Next. All perfectly acceptable scenarios for me to be ever so slightly delayed in receiving my drink. More than understandable. Feathers will not be ruffled. Management will not be summoned. The Earth will indeed continue to spin on its axis.
But where my sympathy and understanding for my fellow bartenders ends, quite abruptly, is when some dude with a white belt is chatting up some girlies about his show at the so-and-so club with that glamorous Tuesday 7:30pm slot when he should be making (my) drinks.
I concede, sir, that you are younger, better looking, and quite possibly more talented than I am. I am completely at peace with this. I also recognize the grueling, anonymous toil you have so selflessly endured for the sake of your art. These seeds you have so lovingly sown will ever so shortly bear the ripe fruit of your well deserved, not to mention long overdue, fame and fortune. You will be enthusiastically pleasured in public restrooms by adoring fans of the fairer sex for years to come.
I honestly wish you the best of luck, my friend. I really do. I’m sure your flyers are expertly designed and informative. The so-and-so club has a pretty decent PA and they even give you a few drink tickets for the effort. Maybe you can get a couple of people from work to come. That would help.
In the meantime, my bartending/rock playing brother, check this out. I have been sitting on this stool, staring at the back of your head for ten minutes now. As you flirt/promote and toss your expertly groomed asymmetrical hair I, sir, am growing ever so thirsty – parched, even. Considering I see no fat guy in a suit with a cigar awkwardly fumbling for a pen for you to sign your lucrative three-record deal, I, and a growing number of increasingly annoyed drunks, can safely assume that you have yet to quit the proverbial day job, correct?
So, peep this. I, with my vast professional experience, can walk you through this expediently, young grasshopper. Drop off those Cosmos for your new lady friends and give them their soon to be ignored flyers/coasters. Since that imminent contract has yet to materialize (much like my beverage) would you be ever so kind as haul your skinny white ass over here and pour me a fuckin’ cocktail, rock star? Thanks.
[Pic of Galen (left) from the Hold Steady's set at Irving Plaza 10/1/06.]
Is your co-worker a rock star? Email tips at stereogum dot com.