Going Mobile

Nathan Grumdahl

Being a teenager means being restless, since that's usually when you realize that your borders have expanded, past your street and your block and your neighborhood, to a nearly unlimited number of possibilities. Also, for suburban kids especially, it can mean a lot of driving. Craig Finn, the leader of ascending Brooklyn band the Hold Steady, is giving me an auto tour of the Twin Cities. It's a circuitous, Diet Coke-fueled excursion that takes a borrowed, decade-old Jeep Cherokee all around south Minneapolis and to the singer's boyhood home in Edina.

"I went to Breck," Finn says, referring to the K-12 Episcopalian private school in Golden Valley, "so I knew people who were from a big variety of places around the Twin Cities metro area. In high school we'd be in Wayzata or Minnetonka, and we'd hear about some party in some suburb east of St. Paul, and we'd be like, 'I'll check it out.' We'd get in our car and we'd drive 45 minutes, and we'd go there and be like, 'Aw, this isn't that sweet.' So we'd all pile back into the car and drive back to Minnetonka. You'd put 130 miles on your car in an evening. You'd go out in high school and spend 98 percent of the time driving around, and then you'd be at your destination for four minutes."

And there were plenty of reasons not to stick around in Edina. "Liquor stores in Edina are controlled by the city, so buying booze in Edina was not really possible. Teenagers would not even attempt buying booze in Edina. It was a known fact it was not gonna work." So the pilgrimage would be made to Minneapolis, a long, freeway-circumventing trip drawn out for optimum weed-smoking time.

That's a long while to spend cooped up in a car listening to classic rock on KQ. Despite Finn's early affinity for the Replacements (a pivotal moment in his life involved a deal with his dad to mow the lawn in exchange for a ride to Oarfolkjokeopus to pick up Let It Be) and a 7th-grade-onward guitar tutelage under the Suicide Commandos' Chris Osgood, Finn admits that he wasn't as hasty as your typical punk-epiphany case to jettison classic rock. "We've all grown up with rock riffs from day one and our generation has been exposed to that. Zeppelin is still an absolute constant and an absolute part of growing up. You spend a lot of time in your car, especially as a teenager; it was kinda like your one little space, driving around, and KQ was probably the best you could get."

Just the type to support the hardcore scene while keeping one ear turned to his birth year of 1971, Finn gave the record store Extreme Noise a minor boost by buying all the $2 Zeppelin and Doobies records that the jaded punk clientele unloaded during the shop's start-up days. "Styx became my favorite band before MTV came out," he says, discussing the mysteries of juvenile pop fandom. "And I didn't really understand it until you could watch it that Styx and the Ramones were two totally separate things."

One kid in his accelerated math class saw "THE REPLACEMENTS" written on Craig's folder and asked him if he liked Black Flag. "I was like, 'I don't think I like that. It seems like it's too heavy.' And he was, 'Dude, I don't think you know what you're talking about.' Then he made me a tape of a bunch of stuff, and it turned out I was already listening to punk rock. I knew Hüsker Dü, too, I just thought it was 'local music,' which was something else."

So now the Hold Steady make local KQ-warped punk (or 'Mats-warped classic rock) from the nonlocal home base of Brooklyn, which is another something else entirely. The sounds are familiar: Franz Nicolay's Damn the Torpedoes organ, Craig and Tad Kubler's Jailbreak guitars, a Sticky Fingers horn section. The vocals, well, there the band departs from the Freedom Rock tradition--though not entirely. Finn's singing was often acquired-taste confrontational in the Lifter Puller days. A point-missing Pitchfork pan of Fiestas + Fiascos called him "that guy nobody likes who absolutely has to chatter for hours about the wild, crazy-ass party he went to the other night." With his slurry, oddly expressive talk-singing, Finn now sounds more than ever like Shane MacGowan as a Midwesterner awed by Springsteen instead of the Sex Pistols.

Finn's youthful adventures into expanding musical taste are a microcosm of the bigger theme at work in his lyrics: people venturing out of familiar territory to find out how many places they can fit into, and what happens when they don't fit anywhere. That theme became more prominent once Lifter Puller split and Finn moved to Brooklyn, where a side gig with a comedian's AC/DC-happy house band (which included Lifter Puller vet Kubler) eventually evolved into the Hold Steady. Finn is in love with locality--the details of specific parts of the city and the way they pull at people.

Finn elaborates, quoting the last line of "Hornets! Hornets!", the first track from the Hold Steady's new album Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss). "When you say 'Nicollet and 66th', 'drove the wrong way down 169/almost died up by Edina High', the guy who went to Edina High, or drives down 169 to go to work every day, or lives on Nicollet and 66th might say, 'Fuck yeah, I know what you're talking about, I understand where you're coming from, I know those kids. Whoa, they're singing about us.'" The more homogenous the country gets, Finn says, the more the provincial details stand out, and one finds "people grabbing onto and really celebrating...just something you love that you can only do in your place."

Separation Sunday is about what happens when that place vanishes into the horizon, so far away that until you return, everyone there thinks you've died. The lyrical focus falls on a girl named Halleluiah--the kids all called her Holly--who's quoted secondhand via stereo channel panning to open the album: "She said always remember never to trust me/She said that the first night she met me/She said there's gonna be a time when I'm gonna have to go with whoever's gonna get me the highest." It's fittingly ironic that Holly winds up wandering in pursuit of aimless highs with Gideon, a recurring character from the band's previous album, ...Almost Killed Me, who of course shares a name with the Old Testament judge and patron saint of motel Bibles.

Almost every moment of cross-country bad-trip miscreancy either dovetails with or ricochets off Catholicism, often manifesting as an underground youth sect with a drug-tinted, malleable sense of morality. "The Cattle and the Creeping Things" spins "Only the Good Die Young"-cadenced tales about the story of Genesis as if it were a breathless teen rumor ("I heard the dude blamed the chick/I heard the chick blamed the snake/I heard they were naked when they got busted/I heard things ain't been the same since") and reveals that Holly wears a stolen crucifix ("She likes how it looks on her chest with three open buttons.")

Another three opened buttons--peyote, maybe--come into play in "Multitude of Casualties," where a drug-fueled, fast-car Colorado-to-Cali trek finds the heroine coming down from being "high as hell and shivering and smashed" to find herself at folk mass crying to "One Tin Soldier." The punch line: "Youth services always find a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little messed-up teenage life." The last track is called "How a Resurrection Really Feels," wherein our protagonist crashes Easter Mass and confesses, "Some nights she felt protected/Some nights she felt afraid/She spent half last winter just trying to get paid/From some guy she'd originally thought to be her savior."

The portrayal is sympathetic, if a bit bemused. "If you're getting any sort of professional treatment for a substance problem, there's a pretty good chance there's faith mixed into the treatment," Finn says. "The characters on the record...I think they're believable because I've known people who've started one way and then become born-again Christians. And it's like, wait a minute--isn't there somewhere in the middle you can kinda hang out at?" And that middle, the intersection of the spiritual and the local pop-cultural, is where Separation Sunday finds so much of its power, drawing parallel lines between Bill and Billy Graham. "We gather our gospels from gossip and bar talk then declare them the truth," he shouts on "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night." "We salvage our sermons from message boards and scene reports/We come on to the youth/We try out new testaments on the guys sitting next to us in the bars with the bars in their windows/Even if you don't get converted tonight you must admit that the band's pretty tight."

Finn testifies as we continue down a gray-skied Lake Street, the end result of youthful restlessness coalescing into on-the-run rock-band hearsay: "You sit down, you meet the band, you immediately start telling tour stories--'Yo, did you hear what happened to D4 at Madison?' It's the oral tradition, really. Maybe that's parallel to the Bible in some way."

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