The unlikely liturgy of The Hold Steady | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The unlikely liturgy of The Hold Steady 

The Gospel of Craig Finn

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN GOLUB

"Our psalms are sing-along songs," exclaims Craig Finn, vocalist and songwriter for New York's The Hold Steady, to end the first verse of the first song on the band's new album Stay Positive. It's a verse that freeze-frames that moment when everything comes together—time and place, music and friends. Later, on the title track, Finn revisits the notion: "And the sing-along songs will be our scripture."

Such biblical musings never seem forced on Hold Steady records or on the stage. There's Finn out front, equal parts Elmer Gantry (if played by Danny Kaye instead of Burt Lancaster) and, as a recent Pitchfork Media review put it, a "poet lost at karaoke." The musical wall behind him gathers the buzz saw spirit of The Replacements, Soul Asylum and Hüsker Dü—the soundtrackers of Finn's Minnesota upbringing—in the mold of golden perennials like Led Zeppelin or Springsteen's E Street Band. As alliances go, that's a pretty holy one.

The whole enterprise has a revival tent feel too, with the band resurrecting classic rock riffs while Finn, in turn, does his own riffing—although his flights take on a history that's too recent and real for revision. Thus, it felt natural to talk with Finn about some of his best lines, The Hold Steady scripture that the kids sing along to.

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FROM THE BOOK OF ALMOST KILLED ME

CHAPTER 5, VERSE 1

"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")

I remember when I went to college. I went to Boston College. I'd grown up in Minneapolis, and I'd really had exposure to a lot of cool music: The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and whatnot. I was sort of surprised that these kids who were my peers were listening to Billy Joel and Meat Loaf. That said, I've kind of come to embrace sort of the schmaltziness of both of those artists, but that's the genesis of that line. I was just surprised: It seemed like something my parents would listen to. ... The idea of that song is the way classic rock lives on. I mean, kids today still listen to Zeppelin. It's just part of the experience, and that's the idea: how certain songs get scratched into your soul.

CHAPTER 8, VERSE 5

"We didn't see the Holy Ghost, but the Father and the Son they seemed like regular folks/ Jesus rolled his eyes when his dad made Jesus jokes" ("Sketchy Metal")

That's the first real outward mention of Jesus Christ on a Hold Steady record probably. You know, I think it has to do with my own understanding of Catholicism. I consider myself a Catholic, although I don't think the Pope would. [Laughs.] Putting Jesus, of Father, in a local setting—in a setting where he wouldn't normally be—is, I guess, a songwriting thing. The way that Christ relates to our everyday lives is interesting to me in general. That's what I was getting at with that one. The concepts that I'm really interested in in Catholicism are forgiveness and redemption. Those concepts are often needed. Well, I'm talking to you from Mission Street in San Francisco. If you read the Bible, these are the people Jesus went to.

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FROM THE BOOK OF SEPARATION SUNDAY

CHAPTER 5, VERSE 1

“Tramps like us ... and we like tramps” (“Charlemagne in Sweatpants”)

That’s a nod to Bruce Springsteen. We’ve been compared to him, obviously, a million times. I met Bruce Springsteen this past year. I played with him, but then another time I actually got to speak with him. Your heroes have such a potential to disappoint you. You build them up in your mind to mythic proportions. I was really pleased to be able to meet someone like Bruce who could not be more generous with his time, and just his energy that he still has for rock ’n’ roll and love for music was really inspiring.

CHAPTER 11, VERSE 2

"She was limping left on a broken heel when she said, 'Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?'" ("How a Resurrection Really Feels")

That goes right back to the redemption and forgiveness. Separation Sunday was a record that was really about coming back to something, sort of a prodigal son or prodigal daughter story, I guess. And just imagine that sort of a final scene of someone coming into the church. The idea of a foundation that you can come back to is really important to me. One of the things that attracts me about the church right now is being in a rock band and being on tour for 300 days a year or whatever and, you know, not living exactly a mainstream life, but to be able to go to church and have a foundation that makes you feel rooted somewhere.

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FROM THE BOOK OF BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA

CHAPTER 1, VERSE 3

"She said, 'You're pretty good with words, but words won't save your life'/ And they didn't, so he died" ("Stuck Between Stations")

That's John Berryman. When I wrote that song, I was thinking a lot about myself. Most of my songs aren't very biographical, but that song interested me because it was thinking about the relationship between depression and art, especially in writers. I found at one point I was writing, you know, better or getting more creative when I was down or when I was hung-over or something. And around that same time, I started taking better care of myself, started running and stuff. I was really worried because my creativity started to kind of dry up. I've sort of broken through to the other side. Now I'm living more healthy and still have a lot of creative ideas.

CHAPTER 9, VERSE 3

“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear, I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere” (“Citrus”)

“Fog and love and faithless fear” is actually a line from Almost Killed Me, from “Hostile, Mass.,” so I brought that back. It’s interesting knowing people who are recovering alcoholics or recovering from other things, and how having sort of a mantra can clear up a lot of things for people. That song is just about having a purpose. And also somewhat about embracing a struggle, the idea that things are going to be better if they’re harder.

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FROM THE BOOK OF STAY POSITIVE

CHAPTER 1, VERSE 1

"Me and my friends are like the drums on 'Lust for Life'" ("Constructive Summer")

I've always loved that record, "Lust for Life." I never really traveled very much until Boys and Girls in America came out, and I went to Europe. I was on this press tour and was in Milan, and my jet lag was kind of screwed up. So I went running, and I put that song on. I was so blown away by the moment. I think I was overwhelmed that I was in Milan, in this really nice hotel, for rock 'n' roll and just to talk to people. To come out on this beautiful Italian morning, school kids all in uniform going to school, pigeons are running out of my way. It just made me excited to be part of the whole city. That's what I'm relating to [in "Constructive Summer"]: Me and my friends are like this great rock 'n' roll moment. That's how it feels when we're together.

CHAPTER 2, VERSE 2

“In barlight, she looked alright/ In daylight, she looked desperate" (“Sequestered in Memphis”)

That’s just the quintessential next day story. But a particularly satisfying thing for me is when you can say a lot with just a little phrase. I was proud of that one because I thought it revealed a lot of the story in just two lines that are kind of catchy and rhyme or whatever. [Laughs.]

CHAPTER 10, VERSE 3

"Dancing days, houses of the holy/ Hot child in the city in the middle of the prairie" ("Joke About Jamaica")

I came up through punk and hardcore and sort of worked backwards to classic rock. But growing up Midwestern and being a teenager, you'd go to a party that was probably 20 miles away from the other party, covering large distances, and you'd cover them in your car. In the time before alternative-rock radio, even if you loved punk rock and hardcore, the only thing on was classic rock. So I developed sort of a separate appreciation for classic rock. And this line was just kind of playing around with a Neil Young song, and the Zeppelin songs, and "Hot Child in the City," which I believe is Nick Gilder. These incidental soundtracks of your youth.

CHAPTER 11, VERSE 5

"We are the actors, the cameras are rolling/ I'll be Ben Gazzara, you'll be Gena Rowlands" ("Slapped Actress")

I discovered that [John] Cassavetes box set that my roommate had, and I watched the films, and I was really, really intrigued—especially by Opening Night. It stars Gena Rowlands as an aging actress, and it really helped me focus on the ideas that I had for this record. Cassavetes' movies are really incredible, as a performer, because a lot of them are about performance. And he has a great way of showing the difference between backstage, or behind the scenes, and the stage. For Opening Night, in fact, there are a lot of scenes where you don't know whether they're rehearsing or performing a play. You don't know until they pan out and show the audience whether they're there or not.

The Hold Steady plays Cat's Cradle Tuesday, Aug. 12, at 9:30 p.m., and tickets are $15 in advanced and $17 at the door. The Loved Ones open.

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