The Anniversary

Almost Killed Me Turns 20


The little guy up there with the glasses wasn’t really singing, and he wasn’t really playing guitar, either. The guitar was there, dangling across his chest, and he sometimes swiped at it, but those moments seemed random and unplanned. The guy’s arms flew everywhere, sometimes towards the guitar but usually not. They jutted out, pointed, clapped, stabbed at the air — a tourettic preacher’s rap hands. The little guy did not seem to be making any of the music. Instead, the music came from the guys behind him — big, mean, surly riffs that made me want to pick up a trash barrel and throw it. (I restrained myself. The Ottobar was right down the block from my house, and I was there three or four nights a week. I was not trying to get banned.) But the little guy was in a wild, impressive rant mode — all worked up, face red and contorted.

It was hard to hear what he was ranting, sometimes, over those club speakers and with those big riffs behind him. This wasn’t helped by the guy’s habit of ranting away from the mic entirely, like Darby Crash in The Decline Of Western Civilization. But when I could hear what he was saying, I almost exploded with delight. The line that stuck with me the most: “He said, ‘Hey, my name’s Corey! I’m really into hardcore! People call me Hard [extended pause] Corey!'” I quoted that line so many times. I thought it was the best shit I’d ever heard, and I wouldn’t get to hear it again for months.

This was, if I’m not mistaken, Hold Steady show number six. The guys in the Hold Steady were all past 30, working day jobs in New York and not really trying to tour the world’s dive bars too often. They hadn’t released any music yet, but a few people were excited to see them because of the singer and guitarist’s old band. In any case, the Hold Steady were in Baltimore all the time. They were tight with the Oranges Band, a local grown-punk group who were on Lookout! Records whose singer used to be in Spoon. The Hold Steady and the Oranges played together all the time, taking turns opening for each other while jetting between Baltimore and NYC. Palomar, another Brooklyn group, would sometimes jump on those bills, too. If I remember right, the Hold Steady played their second show in Baltimore, too, but I didn’t go to that one. I forget why.

I was one of the people who was excited to see the Hold Steady because of the singer and guitarist’s old group. Lifter Puller. Incredible band. Still don’t get the respect that they deserve. Suburban Minnesota native Craig Finn started Lifter Puller after graduating from Boston College and moving back to Minneapolis. Tad Kubler, now a fully certified guitar hero, was their bassist. Finn’s writing style in Lifter Puller was what it’s always been — fully imagined and elegantly worded exclamations about living that dangerous dirtbag life — but the music was skronkier and mathier. They were a post-hardcore band, more or less, and they mostly played with post-hardcore bands. Their third album, 2000’s Fiestas + Fiascos, is a berserk masterpiece of a concept LP that unites a colorful cast of losers into a loose, shaggy narrative. They broke up around the same time it came out.

When Lifter Puller ended, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler moved to New York, got real jobs, and stopped playing music for a few years. In their absence, the legend of Lifter Puller grew. I didn’t know about the band when they still existed, but when I moved into my first post-college apartment, a couple of my roommates were big fans. Those were some great roommates; shout out to Janet and Jeremy, wherever you are. (I might’ve missed the Hold Steady’s second show because I was babysitting their kid, now that I think about it.) Back then, word of mouth was mostly a physical-media concern. Those guys always had their Soft Rock and Fiestas + Fiascos CDs in the kitchen, so I borrowed them and started listening.

I heard about Lifter Puller other places, too. Slug from Atmosphere shouted them out on record sometimes. Rjyan Kidwell, the local IDM superstar known as Cex, was a big fan. Rjyan once told me that he and Craig Finn were starting a group that would be “like the Postal Service for tough people.” Rjyan played me some of the tracks they made, too, but they never came out. I wonder if they ever will.

Point is: I was primed. When I saw the words “ex-Lifter Puller” on an Ottobar schedule, I knew that I needed to see that. (Probably would’ve been there for the Oranges anyway.) Craig Finn and Tad Kubler had gotten together with some friends in New York, and they’d started making music again. According to legend, they were watching The Last Waltz, and Finn wondered aloud why there weren’t any bands like this anymore, so they set out to make one. It was good to see them back in a bar band, baby.

The Hold Steady had nothing to do with the cool indie rock bands pouring out of New York. They weren’t fucking around with the retro-’80s keyboards that were running things in Brooklyn. These guys had survived the ’80s already, and they didn’t recall them quite so fondly. Instead, the Hold Steady were into heavy classic rock riffs, ragged guitar leads, the Meat Loaf to the Billy Joel. That stuff was not cool at the time, but nobody was going to treat the Hold Steady guys like they were cool anyway.

Man, I was excited for Almost Killed Me. The Hold Steady had two songs, “The Swish” and I forget what else, that you could download from their website, and I played those two songs a lot. I’d see the band whenever they came down to Baltimore, and they would always party hard at the bar after their set. Friendly as hell, too. When Almost Killed Me finally came out, I couldn’t find it anywhere. (Saturday marks 20 years since that release date, which is why you’re reading this article.) The Hold Steady were on Frenchkiss Records, the label run by Syd Butler from Les Savy Fav. (Frenchkiss put out Fiestas + Fiascos, too.) Frenchkiss was a long ways away from making Passion Pit/Local Natives money. The Hold Steady were on there with the Apes and Ex Models. Distribution wasn’t great. The local stores were pretty good about getting indie rock records soon after release, but nobody had Almost Killed Me. I finally found a CD when I was visiting friends in Portland, and I couldn’t believe my luck.

I also couldn’t believe how good it was. I still can’t believe how good it is. At this point, the Hold Steady are an indie rock brand name. They can still put out records and play wild, cathartic weekend residencies wherever and whenever they want. They’ve gone through cycles of being cool or not cool, and I honestly don’t know which they are now. I also don’t care, and neither, probably, do they. The Hold Steady have a rabid fanbase that will happily drop $50 on a ticket, and plenty of those folks don’t necessarily have any connection to punk or angular early-’00s indie rock. (I once heard someone describe Hold Steady fans as something like: “Think leather jacket people, but not like punk leather jacket. Like, it might be brown.”)

The Hold Steady have a few albums that are widely celebrated as classics, masterpieces, and people don’t always put Almost Killed Me among that number. I’m not here to tell you that Almost Killed Me is the best Hold Steady record, but I am here to tell you that it absolutely fucking rules. If you love the Hold Steady, then everything you love about them is right there on Almost Killed Me. The band might not have been fully fully formed. Mustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay wasn’t a member of the band yet, though he did play on “Certain Songs.” (When I first saw Franz up there with the Hold Steady, I was like: “Who’s this guy?” I didn’t want anything about them to change.) But the Hold Steady were already capable of making a record that blew my young mind. Listening back today, I was right to be amazed. Almost Killed Me could almost kill you.

People jumped on the Springsteen thing right away. As far back as Lifter Puller, the great critic Frank Kogan compared Craig Finn to Bruce Springsteen in the Village Voice — not because of the music but because of the starry-eyed-loser specificity of Finn’s lyrics. With Almost Killed Me, the Hold Steady leaned right into that, bringing in Franz Nicolay’s World/Inferno Friendship Society bandmate Peter Hess to rip a Clarence Clemons-ass sax solo on “Hostile, Mass.” The Hold Steady wanted you to hear them as a bar band. They sang about it: “Half the crowd is calling out for ‘Born To Run’! The other half is calling out for ‘Born To Lose’! Baby, we were born to choose! We got the last-call bar band really, really, really big decision blues!”

Later on, Craig Finn told me that he thought the Springsteen thing, the bar-band thing, was getting overstated. Those guys loved rap, too, and they were tight with the Minneapolis underground scene. Finn wondered why nobody ever compared him to a rapper or even picked up on the influence. People didn’t pick up on the hardcore overtones, either, no matter how many times Finn sang about skinhead brawls or Youth Of Today: “People in the band have seen Black Flag. I think there’s this idea that we don’t know about that or something… To my ears, it’s in there somehow.” But you know how rock critics are. We see a narrative, and we grab it. The Hold Steady’s narrative was irresistible: Scene vets who burned out, dropped out, and then returned, revitalized by the power of, like, REO Speedwagon.

The Hold Steady actually leaned into the classic-rock thing more on later records, especially as their whole operation became more professional. It’s there on Almost Killed Me, but the record is rougher and noisier than I remembered. The sound is dry and heavy, like a Steve Albini record, and some of the old-school riffs aren’t that far removed from what you might hear from bands like Rye Coalition — the version of noise-rock where someone might fuck around and cover AC/DC. On the 2004 indie landscape, the Hold Steady stuck out, but they also made sense. And what really made sense was Craig Finn.

People compared Craig Finn to John Darnielle all the time. Finn and Darnielle are cool with it, too. They’re friends, and they posed for a New Yorker spread together a few years later. Just last year, the Hold Steady and the Mountain Goats were still playing shows together. Back when people started making the comparisons, Finn and Darnielle were both great, distinctive ranters who told witty, erudite, maybe even literary short stories about people in squalid and desperate circumstances. Their methods were different, but they could both write like a motherfucker. Almost Killed Me was the Fiestas + Fiascos follow-up that I didn’t think I’d get. Once again, Finn was sketching out sketchy scenes in loving and idiosyncratic detail. Once again, he was telling the saddest stories in the funniest ways.

I could quote Craig Finn’s Almost Killed Me lyrics all day. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, at least for one paragraph. “He had no shoes and no pants, and they dressed him in a shirt with a collar! And they called him Porky Pig! And the two of you went up to his room! But later on, you wouldn’t admit you did!” “The hard drugs are for the bartenders and the kitchen workers and the bartenders’ friends!” “Went through a skater phase! Went through a raver phase! I went through a razorblade phase! I guess I went through a hundred dollars a day!” “Girl, I’ve seen your friend, she looks nothing like Jada Pinkett! I think you got something in those cigarettes!” “Shoes and socks, baby, socks and shoes! We spent the night last night in Newport News! This chick, she looked just like Elisabeth Shue! We got bruised!” Fucking hell. Unreal.

You knew all these people. I mean, I was out partying in Baltimore, so I knew these people for real. But you didn’t have to be living that life to know these people. You could pick up everything that you knew just from hearing the lyrics. You heard Craig Finn ranting about these guys trying to get people to call them by invented nicknames, and you knew who the guys were. You knew how their apartments smelled. You knew what kind of facial hair they were experimenting with that month, and you knew you’d have to cut off the conversation before they asked you for money. Craig Finn wasn’t necessarily one of these people, but he knew them and loved them, whether or not they were real. There’s so much joy in Almost Killed Me, so much affection.

Almost Killed Me opens with a murmuring, sinister riff and with Craig Finn painting a blurry picture of the 20th century: “We got shiftless in the ’50s, holding hands and going steady, twisting into dark parts of large Midwestern cities.” Then the big riff comes in, and Finn gives you all the origin story that you need: “I got bored when I didn’t have a band! And so I started a band, man!” Every line has that level of fired-up eloquence, and some of those quotes became part of the Hold Steady’s iconography. Hallelujah and Charlemagne, two characters who came to loom large over the band’s discography, made their first appearances. Motifs, emerged too. Places like Hostile, Massachusetts and Ybor City. “Everyone’s a critic, and most people are DJs.” “Certain songs, they get so scratched into our souls.”

That last line came from “Certain Songs,” the prettiest song on Almost Killed Me, and it became one of the certain songs that gets so scratched into my soul. There’s another line from that one that gets me every single time: “A thousand kids will fall in love in all these clubs tonight! A thousand other kids will end up gushing blood tonight! Two thousand kids won’t get all that much sleep tonight! Two thousand kids, they still feel pretty sweet tonight!” Finn wasn’t one of his own characters, but he understood and respected their boredom and desperation. He saw beauty in the fuckup life, as well as ugliness. It was moving. That’s why Finn was up there, turning purple, yelling the way that he did. He couldn’t hold it back. He had too much love to give. Twenty years later, I still love him for it.

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