At the start of this month, I got to join a lot of people who look too much like me for the sixth annual Massive Nights. It’s a concert series put on at Brooklyn Bowl by The Hold Steady, a band that began life in the Twin Cities, but moved to Brooklyn when I was still in Philadelphia. They’ve been one of my favorite bands since BlackBerry was the height of mobile technology.
Last year’s show was held virtually, with the band performing to an empty Brooklyn Bowl and live-streaming the show to the world. They set up Zoom channels so that you could watch along with friends, and screens in the venue showed us sitting in our living rooms, enjoying a small bit of elation in a very dark time.
This year was different. Massive Nights was set to happen in person again, and one of my best friends (Tim Marcin) and I were set to be there. We’d both been vaccinated when we picked up the tickets, and I think of both of us even had our boosters by the time the show rolled around. Cases were low in New York; vaccine mandates in many indoor spaces had been in effect for months at this point, and something approaching normal life was returning. I’d been to bars, several movies, indoor dinners, and friends’ houses in autumn. It was weird and in some cases still felt very alien, but it was a sign that we might be nearing the end of all this.
The Hold Steady are known for lyrical and thematic refrains that appear across many songs, and even entire albums. Over the years, the band’s lead singer Craig Finn had taken to using some of the band’s lyrics — and even their own name — as callouts at Massive Nights. We were told to Stay Positive, and to Hold Steady, even when things seemed difficult or confusing. There’s a wistfulness in a lot of their music, but at their shows, their bar-band energy seeps into something approaching pure optimism amongst the crowd. “Me, you, everybody — we are The Hold Steady,” Finn says over power chords to end each show. The crowd sings along and leaves energized.
This year, the sixth, was no different. I was around hundreds of fans who had been there since this small tradition began. Some were in masks throughout. Others, like myself, took them down to drink a beer or three as the show progressed. It was good to be back in the bars.
I left the show looking up. We’d just had a lovely Thanksgiving, and now we were going to shows and eating out like the heady days of 2019. I knew we weren’t out of it, but I thought I saw the light.
A few days later, a friend who was also there told me that the dude running merch at the show had tested positive. I got tested, Kerry came with me. Tim got tested. All negative; a relief. But it wasn’t long after that we saw how this latest variant was about to run roughshod over the city, one of the most vaccinated in the country. In the span of a week, I knew more people than I could count on my hands that had tested positive, and many more that ran in circles I was in or used to be. Apparently James Murphy, the lead singer of LCD Soundsystem, a more popular but equally as hip band from the mid-2000s, had felt far stronger reservations about the shows he was performing around the same time as The Hold Steady’s. But they still went ahead.
This has been an extremely dark week in the city. It’s not as bad as March 2020 — as of now, this variant appears to be far less lethal, thankfully — but almost every bar and restaurant in my neighborhood has shut again. Broadway is canceling shows, and even SNL had exactly two cast members available to be part of the live show this week. Just as quickly as we got back to seeing the people we care about and doing the things we love, it feels like we’re shutting down again.
I’m writing this in the middle of the night sitting in my living room, sleeping on the couch in here because Kerry and I were directly exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID this week. We missed a flight on Saturday, and still need several tests yet to feel safe that we can leave for the holidays. I’m sleeping 15 feet from my fiancée, wearing a mask in my own apartment, trying really hard to Stay Positive. That night at that show feels like centuries ago.
I went for a walk today — double-masked, standing away from every living thing apart from our dog — and listened to Songs for Christmas. It’s a collection of five EPs that Sufjan Stevens released each holiday season from 2001 to 2006. Years ago, I’d bought my dad a copy of Michigan, one of Stevens’ most popular albums, after he and I watched him sing “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” on the Jools Holland show. He used to play it all the time, and given his penchant for Christmas music, I had a feeling he would like Stevens’ Christmas records.
I used to be terrible about buying presents: Even when I knew what I wanted to get people, I usually wouldn’t start shopping until Christmas Eve. Turns out, buying a somewhat obscure American indie folk singer’s new Christmas album the day before Christmas in the UK was a bit of a challenge. I went to the record store down the road from our house, and they didn’t have it. I went to both of the HMV stores on Oxford Street, and they were sold out. I decided to try the Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus (which has now been closed for 12 years, and I can feel my bones turning to dust). They had one copy left, for something ridiculous like £35. I didn’t hesitate.
For the next 13 Christmases, my dad would start playing Songs for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving pretty much on repeat until New Year’s. He never explicitly said it was his favorite Christmas album, but when we had Christmas in the U.S. for the first time in a long time a couple years ago, he ensured that the CDs made the trip back with him.
I think of it now through my dad. It’s inextricably linked to my memory of him, but in a positive way. I also love the songs, and always encouraged my dad’s obsessive playing of the EPs, even if my mom and sister weren’t quite so into it. But I listened to it today while walking, and it was not helping me Stay Positive.
Every year since I can remember, we’ve celebrated wigilia, a traditional Polish meal on Christmas Eve. My mom, who is entirely Polish by ancestry, would make a truly amazing feast of pierogi, placki, mushroom-barley soup (not my favorite, tbh), pork tenderloin, and several other dishes. Mercifully, we ignored the rounds of fish you’re supposed to have. The meal starts with a prayer, lead by my willing — albeit extremely Irish — father, who would say a prayer and break the opłatek, a version of the host Christians take at mass, and went around wishing with every person that they have a wonderful new year. We always brought an extra seat and place setting for the “uninvited guest,” which I think was supposed to be a metaphor for Jesus, but after my dad died, took on a different meaning. Invariably, Songs for Christmas would be playing in the background at full blast on the Bose stereo we had in the kitchen because we had no speakers in the dining room.
This is the first year that I won’t be doing wigilia with my mom and sister. Prior to this week, that was because Kerry and I were going to spend Christmas with her family, because we were with mine last year. But after all the scares, it’s possible I won’t be sharing it with anyone. That’s a dramatic (and as of now, still unlikely) outcome, but as I listened to Songs for Christmas while walking around today, it hit me square in the chest. I had to pull my mask down to catch my breath. Tears fogged up my glasses and I knew that meant the seal on my mask was broken anyway.
A friend of mine recently sent me a CDC report about this pandemic’s effect on people’s mental health. Many of us are at our breaking points after two years of this crap. And for one night on December 1, I remembered how much I had been missing. Connections to random human beings who liked the same things you did. Singing along to songs you’ve sung more times than you can count. Over-exuberantly cheersing a beer with a friend and spilling half of it on your sleeves. Eating potato dumplings with your mother and sister, exchanging presents with your future in-laws.
We are inherently social. Even for those of us who don’t like crowds, or don’t have a lot of close friends, there are still people that your life is better when they’re in it, there are still events that make your life better when you can attend them. We all have our own Massive Nights. We all have people we want to listen to our own indie folk tunes with.
I don’t know what next year will look like; I don’t even know how the rest of this one is going to play out. But even as I sit here past 3 a.m. writing, primarily for myself, listening to Sufjan and trying not to think about how depressing SNL was, I’m trying to look for positives. Things will not always be this way. Everyone I know who’s tested positive recently so far has mild symptoms. The darkness can’t last forever.
There will be a seventh Massive Nights, and I plan to be there. I hope I won’t have to wear a mask, but I probably will. But we need to get to a place where we can convene safely again, because this health crisis takes a toll beyond those infected. We need our communities.
One day soon, I will hug you when I see you, and not worry about it. I’ve just got to stay positive.
’Cause its one thing to start it with a positive jam
And its another thing to see it all through
And we couldn’t of even done this if it wasn’t for you
We gotta stay positive