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Bard of brokenness
Craig Finn ’93, of the Hold Steady, writes and sings rock-and-roll dime novels of pain and redemption at the junction of suburbia and the demimonde. He’s being described as the new Springsteen. He’s a happy man
It’s 10 o’clock on a cool, blustery monday evening in November, but the gilded Grand Ballroom of New York City’s Webster Hall theater is as warm as a locker room. The Hold Steady, a band that has risen from Brooklyn-based obscurity to national reputation in the past year, is onstage at the East Village landmark, before a crowd of 500 boisterous fans—a mix of college students and thirtysomethings, some in jeans, some in office wear.
The Hold Steady has been called the heir of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Elvis Costello, and a savior of classic rock and roll, but it’s another honorific—“best bar band in the world” (Blender, a guide to “music and everything” published by Maxim)—that comes to mind as the band members hammer through each guitar-and-keyboard-driven song as though they can’t wait to get to the next one, and the crowd presses the stage like a wave about to crest the shore.
The wave peaks during the final crashing chords of “Hornets! Hornets!” the opening song on the band’s latest album, Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss, 2005). Then songwriter and singer Craig Finn ’93 steps to the microphone and reminds the audience that tonight’s show is, for better or worse, a swan song of sorts—that for a few months at least, he and his bandmates will be laying low, spending time with their friends and young families.
The crowd tumbles back to earth and boos good-naturedly as Finn, a bespectacled 34-year-old with a widow’s peak and dressed in gray work pants and an untucked short-sleeve button-down, says a few words about the strangeness of the Hold Steady’s sudden success. (Finn onstage has been wonderfully described by Jessica Hopper, of the Minneapolis City Pages, as “looking like he just got off work 20 minutes ago, came from downtown on the bus, and took off his tie” before stepping to the microphone.) He offers thanks to the band’s drivers, sound engineers, and marketers—and to the fans. Then the band launches into the crashing opening riffs of “Cattle and the Creeping Things,” a hard-rock ode to the book of Revelation:
They got to the part with the cattle and the creeping things.
They said I’m pretty sure we’ve heard this one before.
Don’t it all end up in some revelation with four guys on horses,
And violent red visions, famine and death and pestilence and war?
The crowd roars. But before Finn begins to sing in his distinctive adenoidal voice (“more like the sketchy drunk guy yelling in your ear at a show, asking if you know where to buy drugs, than like the frontman of the band onstage,” notes Tom Breihan, of the website Pitchfork Media), he steps away from the microphone and comes to the very edge of the stage. He smiles and spreads his arms as if to hug the audience bouncing at his feet. The music drowns out his words, but even from the back of the room it’s easy to read his lips: “I love you!” clapping his right hand over his heart. “I love you all!” A forest of arms reaches toward him in reply.
If the soft-featured Finn is nobody’s picture of a rock star, neither was his comfortable middle-class upbringing the usual springboard for a rock-and-roll chronicler of loss. Born in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, down the hill from Boston College, he grew up in Edina, Minnesota, a quiet middle-class suburb southwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul that is known for fine public schools and municipal parks. His home life, he says, was “as normal as you can get”: solid Midwestern Catholic, his father a CFO, his mother a full-time homemaker. He was a solid student, too—creative, and good with words. And he was curious about music. One day in 1984, when he was 13, he asked his parents’ permission to attend a punk rock show in St. Paul. Somewhat to his surprise, they said yes. “I’m not sure they understood what it was,” he told the Village Voice, “but they knew I was a creative kid and this stuff seemed to foster creativity. Dropping your kid off at a punk rock show is a leap of faith, you know?”
Finn doesn’t remember the show itself—which featured local acts—as particularly influential. But he does remember the frisson he felt on finding himself alone and free, rubbing shoulders in the ticket line with the kind of mean-looking kids who hung out in the school parking lot during lunch period doing and saying things they ought not to have been doing or saying. Guitar lessons—“nothing formal, just ‘hear it and play it’ stuff”—began soon afterward.
In high school, Finn became an acolyte of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s lively independent-music scene, which was itself fueled by the cities’ cheap apartments and tens of thousands of college students. Some of the bands now enshrined as major innovators in rock and roll were then playing at little clubs in the Twin Cities. Finn particularly remembers local acts the Replacements (whose “jeans and T-shirts and enthusiastic attitude” Finn says the Hold Steady emulates) and Hüsker Dü (“we take a lot of our sound from them—those big washes of guitars”). Both bands followed a course Finn would later take, gaining national recognition as innovators—and exhilarating performers—on the underground music scene.
As a teenager he attended the private Breck School, known for fostering artistic types, and despite his devotion to the punk scene never felt like a pariah anywhere in his life. “A lot of rockers go through adolescence as outsiders,” he says. “That was definitely not my experience.”
Finn’s standard attire as a teen—“sweatshirts and jeans and tennis shoes”—also meant he didn’t stand out when he entered Boston College in the fall of 1989. During his freshman year, Billboard’s Top Ten singles list included Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” and Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True,” dim pop tunes that nonetheless lit up many an eighth-grade prom. By the time he graduated in 1993, with a major in communication, the charts were dominated by groups like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana—former Seattle-area garage bands that now regularly sold out 60,000-seat stadiums in minutes. Their sound was dubbed “alternative rock” by mainstream critics, who didn’t know that the hard-edged, angry, guitar-driven music had thrived in the musical underground throughout the pop-dominated 1980s. But to those who knew better—Finn among them—the only surprise was the bands’ sudden rise to stardom. “Until Nirvana, there was never any sense that an independent band could make it big,” Finn says. “Afterward, everybody thought they could.” With fame on his mind, Finn returned to Minnesota, settling in a ground-floor apartment in the artsy Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. A financial advisor job at American Express paid for food and rent, and in his free time he set out to build a Nirvana of his own.
A band called Lifter Puller took him to the brink. Finn and BC roommate Steve Barone ’93 founded the quartet (bass, drums, lead and rhythm guitars) in 1994, and critics loved their sound—a taut, metronomic, vocals-driven hybrid of early-Eighties New Wave and spoken-word performance art that one writer dubbed “math-punk.”
High praise went to Finn’s lyrics, narratives about characters in St. Paul’s underground scene: pill-popping club girls and beer-swilling toughs, mercenary bar owners and lonesome youngsters. There was Jenny, a junkie, and Juanita, a stoner, the shady hustler “Nightclub Dwight,” and mob heavy “Guy with the Eyepatch”—a Balzacian load of lower-depths lives—and they showed up on track after track of Lifter Puller’s four full-length albums. As critic Jim Walsh of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote in 1997, the year the band’s eponymous debut album was released, “The songs aren’t even songs per se. They’re rock novellas.” Here’s a vignette, in Finn’s street-jive poetic style, drawn from the song “Nice, Nice” on 2000’s Fiestas + Fiascos:
Remember Jenny back from “I Like the Lights”? She said,
“Well, I like you, Dwight, but I don’t like the pipe—
The things that you put in your pipe, like your life.”
Now Jenny missed her ride and she’s takin’ off her tights
In the back seat of some taxi.
We went from upstairs at the Nice Nice up to Franklin up by 15th
And Jenny got dressed as they circled the block.
They did the secret knock and stuck their hands through the mail slot,
And one, two, three, four, that’s the way that Jenny scores.
Lifter Puller released four albums in four years, becoming one of the more successful acts on the independent-music circuit. Then, weeks after Fiestas + Fiascos, their most acclaimed album, was released, the band broke up. Finn felt the group had reached the limits of its potential—if they weren’t on the cover of Rolling Stone yet, they never would be—and, as he put it, he “didn’t want to be that old guy in Minneapolis who used to be in Lifter Puller.” It was July; within a month, he had moved to Brooklyn, rented a place with his wife, and had begun trying to pull together a band while spending his days working as an artist liaison at an online concert-streaming start-up. Barone remained in the Twin Cities with his own act, the Hawaii Show, a kind of mock rock cabaret.
In the meantime, Fiestas + Fiascos took on a life of its own. Fueled by regular play on college radio stations, word of mouth, and the then-new Internet file-sharing phenomenon, it became a sleeper hit. When Brownie’s, a legendary club in New York’s East Village, decided to close its doors in August 2002, the owners asked Lifter Puller to reunite as the headline act for one of the club’s final shows. Fans flew in from around the country; Finn met a young man in the audience with LFTR PLLR tattooed across his knuckles, although until that night he had never seen the band live. A certain kind of fame had landed at Finn’s feet. And luckily enough, he and Lifter Puller guitarist Tad Kubler, a fellow Brooklyn immigrant, had just formed a new band: the Hold Steady.
A generally positive critical response to the band’s first album, 2004’s Almost Killed Me, was followed by acclaim for their second, Separation Sunday, released in early 2005. Pitchfork, the highly influential online digest of music reviews, described the album, in typical hyperbolic rock-review prose, as “the elegiac Biblical lost-innocence junkie odyssey that Denis Johnson [an author of bleak fictions] never wrote.”
In May 2005, the band made the cover of the Village Voice; the same month, the New Yorker stepped out of its ivory tower to heap praise on one of the band’s shows, writer Sasha Frere-Jones comparing the group to Cheap Trick and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. That year, the Hold Steady (the name comes from the opening line of one of their first songs) toured the country twice—as in Lifter Puller days—“only we stayed in hotels this time,” says Finn.
But it wasn’t just the accommodations that had changed dramatically. So had the style of music—from punk hybrid to classic-rock revival. Attempting to define the band’s “magic,” critic Jessica Hopper spoke of the tension between the “last call at the bar” quality of the music and the “elaborate lyricism” of the words. It’s a fair accounting: Though the Hold Steady sound has a bright metallic drive that encourages footstomping abandon, Finn’s dark lyrics invite soul-searching.
Which points to another quality that distinguishes Separation Sunday. It’s almost invariably described as “a Catholic rock album.” (“That’s ‘Catholic’ with an uppercase ‘C,’” an NPR music critic noted for the benefit of listeners more attuned to “catholic.”) A Village Voice review referred to the album’s “liberation theology,” and the NPR feature went on to describe the album “as 42 minutes of . . . parties and catechism classes, soccer practices, skaters, deacons, and drug dealers.” That’s not to say that Separation Sunday belongs to the weak-kneed subgenre called Christian rock, but if, in Lifter Puller days, Finn’s tragic heroes and heroines seemed human because they fell from grace, in the songs that comprise Separation Sunday they seem human because they seek to be redeemed from their fallen state. Take this sample, from the album’s last song, “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” which introduces the album’s main character, a suburbanite teenager:
Her parents named her Halleluiah;
The kids all called her Holly.
If she scared you then she’s sorry:
She’s been stranded at these parties.
These parties, they start lovely
But they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody.
The priest just kinda laughed;
The deacon caught a draft.
She crashed into the Easter Mass
With her hair done up in broken glass
She was limping left on broken heels
When she said, “Father, can I tell your congregation
How a resurrection really feels?”
Pop music listeners and critics, whatever their religious sensibilities, have embraced the album, buying more than 20,000 CDs in stores and downloading thousands more (legally and otherwise). Meanwhile, critics have named Separation Sunday to a score of “Albums of the Year” lists, including those of Rolling Stone and the New York Times. In February, the Hold Steady began a tour of the South, in March the band will travel to Australia, and a new album is in the works. Craig Finn has, in fact, become a genuine rock-and-roll star, though few people, Finn included, ever imagined he’d do so by singing about the possibility of redemption in a band more reminiscent of the music of his childhood than the punk rock he mastered as a teenager and rock band leader. “This is not how I envisioned myself 10 years ago,” he says with a chuckle.
But, he adds, being in a band has never felt so natural. While the Hold Steady was first coalescing as a band, Finn’s wife became seriously ill (she has since fully recovered), and another band member welcomed the birth of his first child. “There was just this feeling of the gravity, and the levity, of adulthood,” he recalls, which translated into “a more spiritual tone—maybe because these events in life make you realize the world is bigger than you. These events give you cause to think about faith.”
The show at Webster Hall is coming to a close. The band has played a few encores and left the stage, which is nearly dark. Then Finn and keyboardist Franz Nicolay reappear, lit by two small blue floodlights. Nicolay begins playing a slow melody, but it’s only when Finn begins to sing that the audience recognizes the tune: “Certain Songs,” from the first Hold Steady album. Finn lets each line out slowly, almost chanting the words: “I guess you’re old enough to know: / Kids out on the East Coast / Roughly twenty years old / Got coaxed out by a certain perfect ratio / Of warm beer to the summer smoke / And the Meat Loaf to the Billy Joel. / Certain songs, they get so scratched into our souls.”
“Certain songs, they get so scratched into our souls,” he sings again. The crowd cheers. Finn smiles. The floodlights click off. Show over.
A former editorial assistant with this magazine, Tim Heffernan is a writer and editor in New York City.
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