- Back to Thunder Road: Craig Finn (far right) and the Hold Steady love their bar rock.
Two songs in and we're already at the racetrack, where she keeps on betting and keeps on winning. She, by the way, is the same trashy, troublesome girl with a taste for bad relationships and prescription pills that we met in the previous tune. Our friend here thinks he's in love with her, even though she gives him the brushoff every time things start getting heavy. Meanwhile, some horse named Chips Ahoy rides her $900 bet to a first-place finish, and the two of them -- the girl and our friend, not the girl and the horse, of course -- are going to spend the better part of next week getting high as a kite off the jackpot.
This she is a Craig Finn character, one of his Boys and Girls in America -- a record not only titled and themed after Kerouac's quip that "boys and girls in America have such a sad time together," but also populated by those very sad sacks. Finn's band, a group of Minnesota-via-Brooklyn '70s revisionists called the Hold Steady, won unanimous critical gush for bringing big guitars and tales full of beautiful losers to the fey indie-rock pony show. Finn himself will claim that the band started as a reaction "to the Rapture and the Liars," but the critical reaction to them -- the Hold Steady -- has been a hair short of rock and roll sainthood. No one's wasting time on referencing Gang of Four either; the most common name dropped is fuckin' Springsteen. The most common record? Why, Born to Run, of course. Sure, it's the kind of bandwagonesque hype that's easy to deflate, but remember the pill-popping girl? The one wagering high stakes to a soundtrack of distorted squall? She's not only the band's typical antihero; she's a totally believable reinvention of that age-old myth: sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Lets start with the drugs.
"Everyone picks up on the drug thing," Finn says, via phone from New York. Then, just like his songs, his conversation comes spooling out in rapid, easily sidetracked bursts: "I think everyone would agree that drugs are a part of American teenage life, and when I was younger, everyone did drugs -- from the athletes to the art kids and everyone . . ." And now Craig Finn is off and running, unloading a diatribe that includes, but is not limited to a) his drug résumé through college and high school, b) some middle-aged white guy who offered him crack on his last tour, c) bloggers who insist that he's fucked up all the time when he's not. And finally, it ends with his assertion that, rather than drugs, the bigger problem is "real, actual depression."
Sure, acts of depression certainly sharpen his most recent record: walking around drunk in the ass-end of the 'burbs, waiting for the bennies to kick in, going to a bar and sneaking sips from a bottle in your girl's purse. But delivered with Finn's nerdy hustle and an occasional guitarmony, the music comes across as ultimately liberating. In fact, it makes total sense that Finn's "favorite band of all time" is the Replacements, another tide-changing Twin Cities group that bridged indie and bar-room rock, another group that sent "Bastards of Young" screaming into the sunset with fists in the air.
And like his heroes, Finn spent his youth listening to classic rock (first show: Styx) and such Alternative Nation staples as the Violent Femmes. When he started his first notable band, Lifter Puller, with Hold Steady co-founder Tad Kubler, they siphoned these influences through the blurry filter of '90s college rock.
Originally intended to be, as Finn says, "a bar band in the best way. The kind of group that plays 'Happy Birthday' when someone in the bar has a birthday," the Hold Steady's kick-down-the-doors abandon and glory-days nostalgia seem brand new; every one of the group's fifth-generation Chuck Berry clichés -- self-destructive teens living fast and dying young -- has a redemptive, celebratory quality.
So, um, if all is forgiven, wanna step out back and smoke some crack?
"It's not strictly autobiographical by any means, but it's about the kinds of people I knew and hung out with," Finn admits. "That's why it seems real."
Finn's lyrics also feel authentic because he draws the details from his Twin Cities past: making bongs out of Pringles cans, dancing the Party Pit, and escaping trouble at Northtown Mall. But it wasn't until Finn and Kubler moved to New York and started the Hold Steady that Finn's hometown losers gained national attention. The Village Voice's "Pazz and Jop" poll made the Hold Steady's 2004 debut . . . Almost Killed Me a Cinderella pick, while 2005's Separation Sunday was lionized by national media.
Finn admits that being in New York helped bring the band to a national audience, but the city's most vital contribution has been felt on his songwriting. Distance from Minnesota has inspired Finn to turn nostalgic for his old 'hood. And in this sense, his most recent record could easily be renamed Boys and Girls in the Twin Cities.
"If you were to go to the Twin Cities and don't know any better, you'd see the same thing as every other Dockers-wearing white person -- the Gap and PetSmart and Home Depot," he says. "But when you say something like 15th and Franklin, someone who has been there knows exactly where you're talking about. It might be special to them. It's a much more realistic representation of actual people and actual places."
In a tune like "First Night," Finn wheels out those actual people and actual places in succession: "Charlemagne shakes in the streets. Gideon makes love to the suites/Holly's not invincible, in fact she's in the hospital/Not far from the bar where we met on that first night." And, even if every one of those characters' flaws is evident in Finn's one-liners, the way he sings -- ballsy average-guy vocals over a piano ballad -- makes you want to believe in them, if only for the moment that you're caught up. Kind of like throwing down $900 on a long shot.