Frequency Rotation

Frequency Rotation: Franz Nicolay, “The Ballad of Hollis Wadsworth Mason, Jr.”

Each week, Frequency Rotation probes a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.

Say you want to write a song about Watchmen, Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ landmark graphic novel. Which of the book’s many superheroes would you sing about? The detached, godlike Dr. Manhattan? The morally complex (or is that totally amoral) Comedian? The grim, Nietzschean Rorscach? All of the above?

If you’re Franz Nicolay, solo artist and former keyboardist of The Hold Steady, you skip all of those obvious choices and head straight for one of Watchmen’s true underdogs: Hollis Mason, retired auto mechanic and the erstwhile masked adventurer once known as Nite Owl.

Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady, for those who might not be lucky enough to know, is arguably the best rock band in America. To paraphrase the Beastie Boys, the group’s got anthems like J.D.’s got Salinger: A mix of indie-rock quirk, punk grit, and classic-rock bombast, The Hold Steady’s music is gut-punching and cleverly conceptual all at the same time.

Nicolay may no longer be a member, but he left an indelible stamp on The Hold Steady’s four best albums—and The Hold Steady has left an indelible stamp on him. His 2009 EP, St. Sebastian of the Short Stage, shows just how much literary, speak-sing swagger Nicolay has absorbed from his former bandmate, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn. But St. Sebastian also helps establish Nicolay as an artist in his own right—especially the EP’s highlight, “The Ballad of Hollis Wadsworth Mason, Jr.”

As shown during this live radio broadcast of “Hollis Mason,” Nicolay is fond of words—so it should come as no surprise that he’s an author, too, with a chapbook of short stories titled Complicated Gardening Techniques that was published earlier this year. Accordingly, Hollis Mason, the subject of Nicolay’s song, is an author himself. In Watchmen, the retired superhero writes a tell-all memoir that details the sordid goings-on behind the masks of the Minutemen, America’s first superhero team.

But as with so many of the characters in Watchmen, great and small, Mason is a walking, talking, crimefighting contradiction. He’s kind, lighthearted, and calls himself Nite Owl. He’s a blue-collar grease monkey and former beat cop who wears skimpy shorts and dishes out vigilante justice. And he’s alarmingly well-adjusted despite all the psychopathology and latent perversion that’s apparently a prerequisite for becoming a superhero in Moore’s nightmarish America.

The Watchmen

All of this makes for a compelling, sympathetic character—one in which Nicolay finds plenty of soul to plumb. In his song, the accordion-wielding Nicolay zooms in on Mason’s upright morals and old-fashioned way of looking at the world, a point of view that’s treated with tenderness rather than cynicism: “My name is Hollis Wadsworth Mason, Jr. / Defender of what’s right / And I’ve got a way with cars / And I only work at night,” Nicolay sings. “My name is Hollis Wadsworth Mason, Jr. / Defender of what’s good / I believe there’s a simple answer / When I get under the hood.”

Here, Nicolay throws in a sly reference to Under the Hood, Mason’s unflinching autobiography—one that winds up having far-reaching implications for the world of Watchmen. Likewise, Nicolay uses small details and wordy flourishes to paint an epic portrait of Hollis Mason, a character study that ever-so-slightly expands upon Watchmen’s mythology without lapsing into cheap pastiche or fannish pandering.

Nicolay, obviously, is a true comic-book fan. Case in point: The song that immediately precedes “Hollis Mason” on the St. Sebastian EP is “New England,” a rollicking version of the Jonathan Richman classic. And it’s a collaboration with the group The Dresden Dolls—whose singer-pianist Amanda Palmer just so happens to be the betrothed of Neil Gaiman. (We’re still waiting for Nicolay’s Sandman-inspired song, though…)

Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club; plays guitar in a couple bands; and likes to tiptoe around a certain unmentionably horrible film adaption of a certain graphic novel he holds very dear to his heart.


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