Back on the very first post that graced this space I talked about The Hold Steady. Specifically I talked about the transformative effect attending one of their shows had on me, as well as their mythology. Ever since I pulled Almost Killed Me out of the samples bin back in my undergrad days (seriously kids, work at a radio station and access good music), I’ve felt this band was shooting high, and trying to achieve the heights of rock and roll while still being the best bar band in the country. I think there was a point when The Hold Steady reach those heights, and that point is at the end of their 2008 LP Stay Positive. So when it was recently suggested to me to stay positive, my first reaction was to reach for and listen to that album. That’s how my brain works. This is a disease.
“Slapped Actress” is the final track on Stay Positive, and it could be argued that with it, ends a certain phase of the band, partially due to the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay in 2010. But I digress. In 2008, lead singer Craig Finn did an interview over at Uncut, where he discussed (amongst other things) how “Slapped Actress” fits into the themes of the album, based off a screening of John Cassavetes Opening Night:
I’m not someone who’s emotionally moved by much film, but I got this Cassavetes box set and I was surprised by the impact his films had on me. With Opening Night, I was very drawn to this idea of the ageing actress. I mean, if you’re trading on your beauty, the ageing process is really your enemy. And Opening Night has that as a really tragic thing, her simply getting older.
I was also really taken by the scene where Cassavetes wants to slap Gena Rowlands, and he says, ‘If I don’t really slap you, it won’t look real for the performance.’ And she says ‘It’s a play, why would you have to actually slap me, that’s the whole point.’ That kinda connected with the way I think people are preoccupied with my relationship with the characters I write about. I’ve always said no one really cares whether Quentin Tarantino kills people or does karate but for a songwriter there’s this question of a perceived honesty, that your songs are the story of your life.
This is as good an explanation for the use of Opening Night in the song. But I think there’s a deeper theme running through the album that pushes not only the song to bigger heights, but the engaged listener as well. Stay Positive starts with “Constructive Summer” a song about creating and building, and becoming something bigger. “Slapped Actress”, with its infectious monster riff, lively and melodic piano, snarling insistence that “we make our own movies” and repeating “woah-oh” sing-along vocals is the answer to the unasked question in the opener: “How?” As it does this, it creates a rhyming couplet with “Constructive Summer” that communicates a sense of closure, achievement and progress to the themes set at the start.
From the aforementioned guitar riff to the amazing piano, from the Catholic imagery to the allusions to Opening Night, this song hits a number of accessible beats and progressions that upon hearing them for the first time, I was surprised but also expecting to happen. The upward reach of this song made perfect sense with each previous mention of death, construction, parties, image creation, and not to mention the understanding of the straightforward rock sound of the band. You know they’re trying to knock it out of the park almost every track, because that’s what The Hold Steady does.
When I first listened to this album, I was on a long drive to a friend’s house, and I was loving every minute of the experience. As the song progressed, I wanted to see performance compared to Catholic Mass, and there it was. Then I wanted it to be about a movie, and it became that. Then, I wanted this song to break the walls of narration, and it does as the narrator sings that “our hands will hold steady”. Then I wanted my frustration, agreement, and excitement with the core concepts of creating an identity or creating art or both, to burst out in a chorus of voices of like-minded people transcending the normal height, and reaching that place of rock and roll where Joe Strummer is a saint. And then it does exactly that, echoing into the night.
I stepped out of my car when I arrived at my destination as if I had just been to a show of theirs, and not been simply listening in my car. Every time I play that song, I get chills with an aching desire to listen to it again and again. Even now, with its even more personally relevant message of aging’s diminishing returns, the song holds its power. “Slapped Actress” is The Hold Steady doing what rock and roll was meant to do, and can do better than almost any other medium: convey complex emotions in a handful of minutes, make them bigger, and transcend them.