The Hold Steady's frontman studied, then mastered rock storytelling
What happens when the (former) sound of youthful rebellion — rock and roll — finally decides it's ready to grow up?
Well ... we're still waiting to find out. But if it does — and proves up to the task of addressing adulthood honestly — it will be because of the likes of Craig Finn, 42, frontman for The Hold Steady, performing Feb. 4 at Mr. Small's.
“I hope to write songs that are universal enough that you can relate at any age,” Finn says.
Although The Hold Steady are based in today's epicenter of hipness, Brooklyn, Finn's roots go back to the punk-rock scene of the late '80s in the Twin Cities.
It was an almost absurdly fruitful time and place for music, from the groundbreaking pop of Prince, to the rolling snow-squalls of sound from Husker Du, to the boozy balladry and reckless energy of the Replacements.
“Growing up there and then moving away, I kind of understood what a special place it is,” Finn says. “It takes seven hours to get to Milwaukee and eight to Chicago. It's got its own thing. The Mississippi pretty much starts there. You're at the top and center of America. It feels like the first stop into the West.”
The Replacements are always a good place to start.
“They made it all believable,” Finn says. “You just don't know people who look like Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith), but I saw the Replacements and said, ‘I know a hundred guys who look like this.' And just great songs. Very honest, romantic lyrics.”
From there, Finn began an exhaustive study of rock storytelling that began with the short, sharp shocks of punk rock and widened to include the big-sky panorama of classic rock: Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison.
Musically, The Hold Steady are balanced precariously between the recklessness of punk rock and the populist guitar heroics of classic rock, held together by piano and Finn's wry, wordy lyrics.
Finn's songs are populated with characters drawn with almost painful detail: wrestling with spiritual confusion, go-nowhere gigs, the call of the barroom and Jack Kerouac's open road, and the simultaneously limiting and liberating canon of rock mythology.
He maintains a striking empathy for his characters, even when they make bad choices (which is often).
Finn finds his songs slowly wandering into the rock and roll no-man's-land of middle age.
“I tend to be obsessed a little less with teenage life,” he says. “It's really a hard thing. It takes really a strong songwriter like Springsteen to write about people in their 40s. But no matter what age you're at, you're still trying to get at the heart of these simple truths. The best art makes you say, ‘Hey, I've actually felt that way before.' ”
The band's new single “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You” is typical of Finn's sharply detailed storytelling. The line “There was a side of the city I didn't want you to see...” drops the listener into a tale of taking a girl home for Christmas, then running into old friends from the music scene.
As is often the case, it's intertwined with the drug scene and getting really dangerous: “Now they've got masks for the gas/And they're sleeping in bulletproof vests...”
Few bands foster as strong a connection to their fans as The Hold Steady. Recently, they assembled an EP of cover songs to benefit the children of a fan.
“We had this fan who was kind of the unofficial leader of the fan club, Jersey Mike, who became more of a friend than a fan. He unfortunately passed away,” Finn says. “Rock and roll's answer to every problem is to throw a hastily assembled benefit show. We wanted to do something different.”
They turned to crowd-funding, offering rewards like a three-mile jog and/or a personal pep talk from Finn, a musical tour of Memphis with Steve Selvidge (guitar), a haircut from Tad Kubler (guitar) and bartending services from Glen Polivka (bass). They blew through their goal in 24 hours.
A record of all-new songs, “Teeth Dreams,” will be out March 25.
“ ‘Teeth Dreams' themselves are kind of anxiety dreams,” Finn says. “Anxiety in our modern lives — what causes this nervousness? And whether telling the truth in your life is a relief or cure for anxiety. All the stuff you have liked on Facebook — it's you 50 pounds lighter and 10 years younger. Isn't there an anxiety that fills in the space between what you want to be, and what you are?”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.