After a decade of cheap beer, positive jams and killer parties, there’s ‘blood on the carpet, mud on the mattress.’ MAGNET (well, just me, actually) goes to Brooklandia to watch The Hold Steady sleep it off and wake up with that American Sadness. I’m still hungover. As promised, here’s that meaty, beaty, big and bouncy excerpt. Enjoy:
BY JONATHAN VALANIA When Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn was growing up in suburban Minneapolis in the shag-carpeted ’70s, there was nothing musical about the family Finn, nothing at all. Nobody played an instrument. Nobody played records on the stereo. They did not even sing show tunes on long car rides. But when he was eight years old Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham choked to death on his own vomit, and that’s when he discovered the awesome, mood-altering, life-changing power of rock n’ roll. Up until this point he’d thought of rock n’ roll as nothing more than the interstitial music between the zany capers and wacky hijinks on The Monkees and The Bay City Rollers. But judging by the trail of tears running down the apple-hued cheeks of his babysitter — a pretty neighborhood teen he had a secret crush on — this was an Important Cultural Moment, right up there with the bombing of Pear Harbor and the Kennedy assassination. His babysitter made him listen to Led Zeppelin A-Z that day and there would be no turning back. One day, he vowed with God as his witness, he would make pretty girls cry when he died. This remains a work in progress.
This year Finn turns 42 and the The Hold Steady turns 10 (technically 11, but who’s counting). The kids at their shows now have kids of their own, as the song goes. On March 25th The Hold Steady released Teeth Dreams, their sixth studio album, not counting the six EPs and a live album. If they were The Replacements, this would be their Don’t Tell A Soul. It’s been four years since The Hold Steady released an album, which is something like 16 in rock n’ roll years. Entire presidencies, college football careers, and world wars come and go in the space of four years. In that time the band came closer to ceasing to exist than anyone in the band cares to admit out loud. Ego, exhaustion, addiction and communication breakdown — the great hunger-makers of rock n’ roll’s infamously insatiable appetite for self-destruction — have left their scars, as they invariably do to bands around the sixth album mark. Which only goes to show that there is always a crack where the darkness gets in, and even a critically-acclaimed band that has publicly waved the flag of positivity high and mightily, is not immune to private despair. Fortunately, the members, all at or nearing 40something, were mature and self aware enough to recognize the warning signs and course correct before it was too late. So they took some time off. Finn started working on a novel and then flew to Austin and recorded a well-received solo album and toured it for a year, guitarist/primary songwriter Tad Kubler got clean, drummer Bobby Drake bought a bar in Brooklyn with Spoon’s Rob Pope, keyboardist Franze Nicolay took his leave and was replaced by noted Memphian six-string shredder Steve Selvidge (son of the late, great folksinger/recordist/indie label pioneer Sid Selvidge, a pillar of the Memphis music scene for five decades who will be remembered for, if nothing else, having the sheer balls to release Alex Chilton’s Like Flies On Sherbet, one of rock n’ roll’s all-time great hot messes). They got new management, a new label, a new producer and a whole new attitude — more heart, less cowbell. And unto the world a new Hold Steady album was born.
It’s 3 PM on a yet another colder-than-a-witch’s late winter afternoon in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Hold Steady frontman is nursing a seltzer and lime at a back table at Lake Street bar, an old man dive short on old men and long on beardo Brooklandians getting a head start on tonight. Finn asked to meet here because he knows the owner — Hold Steady drummer Bobby Drake, who is presently re-stocking the bar in preparation for the coming happy hour onslaught — and, as the song goes, the drinks are cheap and they leave you alone.
He’s a little bummed at the moment. His friend Oscar Issac didn’t even get nominated for his indelible portrayal of wouldbe Voice Of A Generation Llewyin Davis in the latest Coen Brothers film. “I think he got screwed,” says Finn emphatically. “He was mindblowing.”
The first thing you notice about Craig Finn when you get up close and personal is the kind, clear eyes hidden behind his trademark Clark Kent spectacles. Soft-spoken and courteous, dressed in a blue v-neck sweater over a crisp white oxford, his hairline making a slow northward retreat, Craig Finn looks more like the guy who would do your taxes than the fierce, suds-fueled, battle-hardened, 21st century defender of the rock n’ roll faith in his press clips. He knows this, of course. He gets it all the time. And he made his peace with it a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean that, deep down, it doesn’t still sting a little. Matador records honcho Gerard Cosloy famously dismissed The Hold Steady as “later-period Soul Asylum fronted by Charles Nelson Reilly.”
“I remember when that came out I was like ‘If I read that, I’d probably want to go see that band’,” he says when I ask him if he cares to respond. “Honestly, though, I was also disappointed because it wasn’t meant to be complimentary and the dude’s label has put out some of my favorite bands. But you’ve got to let some of this roll.”
Finn is too nice of a guy to return fire so I’ll do it for him. Craig Finn — who, come to think of it, doesn’t really look all that different than Gerard Cosloy — has something that the Cos, for all his vast reserves of hipness and uncanny knack for recognizing what comes next before everyone else, will never have: the gift of the common touch. Like the Boss, from whom he is clearly descended, Finn’s never pulled a shift on the line, he doesn’t play beer league softball with the boys on Saturday afternoons, his hands are soft and he votes straight Democrat. Hell, he read Infinite Jest. Twice. But, like The Boss, he has an unshakeable belief in the transcendental power of a shit-hot bar band to set the working man free on a Friday night, if only until last call, and is more than willing, night after night, to shed the requisite blood, sweat and beers it takes to git ‘er done.
So word to Mr. Cosloy: Next time they ask you about Charlemagne, be polite and say something vague. MORE