There’s this global instinct during the pandemic to dig for silver linings. Amid the muck and drudgery and tragedy and the unending boredom — there’s an overabundance of hokey stronger together bullshit.
Frankly, the pandemic fucking sucks and any so-called strength gained is a symptom, not a gift.
There are no silver linings to the pandemic — everything would be better without it — there are only ways to cope and the occasional joyous respite. Learning how to make sourdough doesn’t make the pandemic useful, it just killed time.
I guess what I’m saying is good moments, finding fun, it doesn’t erase this year. It doesn’t even chip away at it. That’s not how this thing works — the best we can hope for is to find something wholly its own, a moment of joy in and of itself, disconnected from the slow-moving horror of COVID. The trick is to feel gratitude in that moment, divorced from reality’s context. I think that’s why time has moved so strangely since March. Days have been slogs but you distract your way through enough of them and the months move in great big chunks.
OK, I know, weird start to a blog about a rock show.
But Thursday night I went to a Hold Steady show. I didn’t go go, obviously, but I paid $15 to access the first of three shows for Massive Nights, the band’s annual dayslong residency at Brooklyn Bowl, which I’ve attended every year. It was beautiful and…sweet…in a totally unexpected way, considering it was a show by America’s Greatest Bar Band.
Full (somewhat obvious) disclosure: The Hold Steady is my favourite band. It’s tough to describe their music but I’ll try: loud, clanging guitar riffs; wordy lyrics about drinking, drugs, Catholicism, love and loss, kind of anything; narrative songs; big choruses tailor-made for drunken singalongs. This is one of my favourite songs:
The Hold Steady aren’t a hugely popular band, but the people who love them really love them. Obsessed even. Let’s just say leader sing Craig Finn once sang “I always dreamed of a unified scene” and fans took it to heart — hell it’s the name of a fan group. Enterprising fans created a website that catalogues every lyric and location important to the The Hold Steady canon. I’m newer to the band than some diehards, there are fans who’ve known each other for more than a decade, their friendships and bonds steeped through the shared history of a rock group. I have neither the time nor space to fully explain THS fandom, but just trust that it is passionate and communal.
When I logged on to watch the show on Thursday evening — thirty minutes early, I cannot fathom being late to anything — I was a bit bummed. I love the annual Massive Night shows in Brooklyn. The Hold Steady are a bar band and their shows are like Drunken Rock and Roll Church: Booze, everyone singing together, confetti, repeated phrases that feel like prayers — “stay positive,” “gonna walk around and drink some more,” “boy and girls in America,” — and Finn monologues that could double as sermons. So…uh…how would that transfer to a livestream? Let’s be real: It couldn’t.
But something beautiful happened.
But something beautiful happened. No, it was not normal rock show. But instead of being a Brooklyn show, it became a worldwide gathering. This community was built for this weird moment. It was not the same, but it was sweet.
For instance, fans who showed up early fired off corny dad jokes in the stream’s chat: Thank God I made it time, traffic was a bear; Hey hold my spot while I get a beer.
the livestream for @theholdsteady show tonight has a chat and it’s amazingly pure. a mixture of people talking about their viewing set-up, random lyrics, and dad jokes like “phew traffic was a nightmare glad i made it” and “hold my spot, im gonna grab a drink”
— Tim Marcin (@TimMarcin) December 4, 2020
It was lovely and an admission that this was all weird, but exciting, or at least as exciting as anything as is possible in 2020.
Then the band came on stage. My TV rattled sound (sorry neighbors) as Finn launched into a personal favourite “Positive Jam.” The chat lit up. My friend sent an exclaimed text.
Then I noticed that fans were projected onto a screen next to the band.
Apparently, along with the stream and its chat, there was a communal Zoom room. It was, dare I say, adorable? People rocking out in office chairs. Whole families standing and dancing. Custom Hold Steady Zoom backgrounds. Cats nuzzling webcams. A baby! A close-up of a real baby rocking out.
Oh, and of course there were lots of drinks in hands.
This was community, online. Everyone was thrilled with this weird version of a show. You take what you can get. It was the authentic version of that corny shit brands pipe down your throat to sell you Deals.
At some point in the show, Finn asked the Zoom participants to hold up signs of where they were watching. As the projected image cycled through the large Zoom room, signs began popping up. Soon enough: D.C., Colorado, California, I forget where else. Then, on its own, the signs changed to messages hope, bits of lyrics, proclamations about how much a silly livestream meant. They read: “Room is empty but hearts are not,” “we love you, we needed this,” “nice to know I am not alone at a Hold Steady show.”
I’ve never been somewhere so…sincere…online.
Eventually, I joined the Zoom.
Let me slow down: I turned on my webcam and didn’t even pay attention to what I was doing on camera. If that doesn’t show trust and love within a community, holy hell, I don’t know what does.
The Zoom chat was heartbreaking and sweet. We’d all missed going to shows and being around people so badly that this half-taste was overwhelming. I found myself holding my pee like it was a real show. I couldn’t miss a thing, even to walk six feet to my bathroom. I mean, look at this chat.
Nearly two hours passed like nothing.
For the final song at every show, Finn makes a little monologue about how there is “So. Much. Joy,” when the band and the crowd get together. As that final song approached, I couldn’t help myself. I wrote “so. much. joy.” in the Zoom chat. I sincere posted, the ultimate crime for a terminally online writer like myself.
But it felt nice to be a part of something pure and happy. There was joy in it. It was not a rock concert, not really. And I would’ve vastly preferred an in-person show — sweaty, beer-soaked, screaming and spewing droplets like no tomorrow.
Again, there are no silver linings in a pandemic. This was not the real thing. But I could see into living rooms across the world, people catching a great time while they could. I could be a part of a group that felt safe and vulnerable together. It was a real moment with disconnected people feeling a bond over the internet.
The show finished with the faces of the Zoom crowd flashing in rapid succession over the stream, a strobe light of Hold Steady fans. The music kept going. The chat room sputtered. The band walked offscreen but left a single guitar wailing onstage. The lights came up and the room was empty. The guitar wailed on.
It felt good and it felt like unfinished business.