"I got bored 'cause I didn't have a band / So I started a band, man / And we're gonna start it with a positive jam." -- the Hold Steady, "Positive Jam"
The whiz and screech of traffic is Dopplering in the background of our conversation, distorted into bizarre sonic shapes by the tender vicissitudes of cell-phone reception. "I parked the band's truck in my neighborhood in Brooklyn," explains Craig Finn, lead singer and lyricist for the Hold Steady, in the chatty, nasal timbre familiar to anyone who's heard his band. "'Cause it's actually pretty easy to find a spot here. It's this converted box truck, right? And I've been doing all my interviews from here and making it sorta my office. It feels super-ghetto but kinda funny. I'm sure the neighbors enjoy watching me just walk out here with a cup of coffee and get inside my truck and then come out an hour later."
"Super-ghetto but kinda funny" is as close to a succinct description of the overall Hold Steady ethos as any I've been able to come up with. The band has been hyped incessantly in the press over the past year, with critics uniformly comparing its musical style to classic '70s working-man bar rock like Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy while hastening to point out that, vocally, our man Finn ain't no Bob Seger. I would argue that too much has been made of the "fact" that Craig can't sing: At worst, his voice brings to mind a better-enunciated, stateside Shane MacGowan or a less pretentious, Minnesota-reared Jim Carroll. The important thing about Finn's singing is that he knows how to put across a lyric with absolute conviction, mining every bit of pathos and humor from his twisted but familiar narratives, managing to turn half-spoken, half-sung phrases like "I ain't never been with your little hoodrat friend" and "Charlemagne's got something in his sweatpants" into infectious pop hooks through sheer force of personality.
The Hold Steady
"I believe wholeheartedly that rock and roll and comedy are very much bedfellows," declares Finn. "And any rock music that isn't funny in some way is probably bad. And by that I don't mean always coming out with funny jokes. Like, for instance, Chuck Berry and Mick Jagger are very funny to watch: There's a comedic timing to everything they do. And even people like Nick Cave or Elliott Smith, who are rightly considered 'dark,' find humor in themselves as well. I think 'walking up the street like a Duracell bunny' is a funny line."
In a typical Hold Steady song, shameless, self-mocking puns ("Tramps like us and we like tramps!") and surreal name-dropping ("My name's Neal Schon but people call me Nina Simone"; "Mackenzie Phillips doesn't live here anymore"), along with literary and inter-rock allusions (Lolita's Humbert Humbert and Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" are both evoked with cruel poignancy in one song), are all part of Finn's motor-mouthed verbal arsenal. And it is pretty funny. But a close listen to the second Hold Steady CD, Separation Sunday (French Kiss Records), reveals that the overriding themes are, well, dark. In fact, they're deadly serious: the lingering effects of a Catholic upbringing and the purgatory of drug rehab.
The disc is less linear than the average "rock opera" but still manages to get across its street-gritty story of Hallelujah ("the kids all called her Holly"), a "real sweet girl who's made some not-sweet friends." Holly is "disappeared" from the drug scene and finds herself forcibly born again ("Youth Services always finds a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little teenage life"). She finally returns to her childhood church, "hair done up in broken glass," to let the congregation know "how a resurrection really feels." The whole thing would seem like a freaked-out Jesus-fever-dream or a world-weary epic poem (free-) based on James Frey's greatest quasi-fictional hits -- if it weren't for the relentless, hedonistic, fun-time retro-guitar rock of the band, the kind of music Finn's characters would listen to at their literally "killer parties."
"It's supposed to be cinematic, y'know?" Finn explains. "On both albums the same characters come back, and it's all pretty much one story. There will be songs on our next record that contain the same characters. I don't know that it'll be quite as conceptual or all about those characters, but that's a world I've created that I can write in. And it's supposed to be kinda densely woven so that I hope that people can listen to it 35 times and on the 36th have a certain revelation."
At the mention of cinema, I seize what may be my only opportunity to pitch Finn my own lovingly crafted treatment for a major Hold Steady motion picture. Okay, in broad strokes: Think Eddie and the Cruisers. Think remake, but with the Hold Steady standing in for John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band. At first, Finn is thrilled at the idea ("Ohhhhh, yeeaaaaah!" he exclaims). Even after I tell him that in order to totally re-create the aura of the 1983 original, the production will require a conventionally handsome heartthrob to play the part of Eddie, but lip-synching to Finn's voice for both singing and dialogue ("Josh Hartnett is from Minnesota!" he enthuses). This is all to set the stage so that once the film becomes a runaway hit, the Hold Steady's latest video will premier on TRL for the real payoff: That crestfallen, nationwide "what the fuck" moment when throngs of teenage girl fans simultaneously catch their first glimpse of the somewhat balding, slightly pudgy, owlishly bespectacled real Hold Steady singer to rival the previous WTF when the Michael Paré-worshiping pubescent girls of two decades ago caught their first glimpse of the real, hangdog, lank-haired John Cafferty singing "On the Dark Side." When I finish my breathless pitch, Finn has just one question for me.
"Will I have to fake my own death at the end?"
I assure him that indeed he will, but soon the fickle rock bard has moved on to higher concepts. "Hey, did you ever see the Fat Boys in Disorderlies? Well, how about the Hold Steady in Disorderlies 2?" he muses heartlessly as my precious idea floats away on the winds of caprice. "If we do Disorderlies 2, there'll be a lot of opportunities for, like, us taking medication from off the carts!"
All joking aside, if Hollywood ever does make a Hold Steady movie, it'll likely be an inspirational after-school special based on the band's amazing and unlikely real-life participation in Littleton, Colorado's educational program for at-risk youths.
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"Littleton is the community where the Columbine massacre took place," Finn confirms. "And in its wake Littleton High School created something called Freshman Academy, I guess because they somehow identified that ninth grade is where a lot of the kids were sorta getting lost. It's just a different vibe there within the school. Some kids might take all their classes there, others might take just a couple, and it's everyone from dudes who are into, like, heavily smokin' weed and listening to, uh, My Chemical Romance or whatever to kids who are kinda nerds, and who are at risk just because they're smart. I mean, the general population of the school did seem very, very jock-oriented.
"So, yeah, the teacher at Freshman Academy is just the coolest guy," Finn continues. "I guess he heard the Hold Steady on NPR and was like, 'I'm gonna buy this record and teach it to my kids' to have 'em look for, like, literary references and stuff like that. So he brought it in and the kids really responded to it. Eventually, this teacher wrote a letter to the band and asked us to play at the school. And we found out later that once we'd accepted that invitation he just went and changed his whole lesson plan. They continued to study our lyrics in the literature class, but he also expanded it to include, like, geography reports, where every day that we were on tour, a student would have to stand up and give a report about wherever we were playing that night, like 'What Vancouver, British Columbia, Is Like.' And in math class they figured out our gas prices for the tour it was a complete 100 percent Hold Steady curriculum. And when we finally came and played there, the kids went nuts!"
As bizarre (though uplifting) as the Littleton saga is, the one part that's easy to picture is the audience going crazy. On stage these guys rock with an unapologetic fervor nearly extinct among current bands. What could easily degenerate into a smug irony-fest is instead a sincere, sweaty, fist-pumping celebration of rock music in its purest form. Finn is a galvanizing front man, part preacher and part stand-up comic, emphasizing every word as if his bruised, Catholic soul depended on it. He's often hilarious but never goes for the cheap laughs, even when they're staring him in the face.
A positive jam indeed. The Hold Steady appears Monday, February 13, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington Avenue, 713-862-2513. For information, visit www.superunison.com.