The Hold Steady: The Body and Blood
Craig Finn likes his audience to be a little sloppy, and maybe even unhinged.
“It’s hard to feel validated unless you have people throwing beer up in the air,” he says. Finn, the singer and lyricist of The Hold Steady, is joking—kind of. He’s describing the sense of rightness he felt about returning to focus on the band after doing quieter solo acoustic shows. As Finn sang on “Positive Jam,” the opening song on 2004’s Almost Killed Me, the band’s first record, “I got bored when I didn’t have a band, man.”
Finn and Hold Steady guitarist and songwriting collaborator Tad Kubler are coming off a busy South By Southwest and prepping for the late-March release of Teeth Dreams, their sixth studio record. The previous day, Finn and Kubler fielded a barrage of “tweet chat” questions during an #asktheholdsteady event hosted by @iTunes. The Twitterverse had a lot of queries: Would The Hold Steady play any festivals in the U.K. this summer? Where do they go for slices in Brooklyn? What basketball teams do they root for? What kind of amps do they use? Will there be a vinyl reissue of earlier records? Beyond that, fans asked if characters in some songs relate to those in others, how those personalities all tie together, and if Finn would consider a book-length exposition of some of the stories in his songs?
Those aren’t idle questions. The opening line on “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” the first song on their new record, is: “I heard the Cityscape Skins are kinda kicking it again,” which is a reworking of a line from “Sweet Payne” off of the band’s debut album. “The Ambassador,” another track on the new release, refers to a guy who can “move things with his mind,”which evokes the paranormal elements of songs like “Chips Ahoy!,” one of the band’s best-known tunes, which is about a woman who can predict the future and uses her gift to win money on horse races and then party in grand fashion. Hold Steady fans expect these subtle lyrical ripples and reiterations.
“You want the continuity,” says Finn, whose songwriting style emerged from his own experience as an attentive young music buff. “It rewards the obsessive listener.”
It’s true that Hold Steady fans are enthusiastic, and maybe even fanatical. But the band’s lyrics withstand prolonged scrutiny. Imagine the fervor of the college-basketball obsessed fused with soap-opera devotees or Trekkies, all transposed to the world of the rock club or the record store and you get an idea about the Hold Steady audience. There’s a boozy tent-revival vibe to a Hold Steady show. From the stage, Finn barks out the lyrics, hissing certain syllables, emphatically mouthing a few choice end lines off-mic, as if singing them once wasn’t enough—a one-man call-and-response machine. He has the zeal of a nerdy, amped-up, hardcore altar boy, backed by a muscular classic-rock outfit playing dual-guitar riffs that can singe the ends of your feathered bangs. And, fittingly, the fans like to sling some brews around, anointing the faithful, shouting along with the wordy choruses—hard-luck litanies.
Finn is a practicing Catholic and a regular churchgoer. (He gave up drinking for Lent this year.) And so an element of faith is never far from Hold Steady songs. He’s certainly not the only “devout” Catholic playing in a rock band, but he’s probably the first that comes to mind. The singer’s lyrics chronicle a world of interwoven characters: self-destructive partiers, played-out scenesters, small-time dealers, redemption-seekers, muddle-headed lovers, damaged Catholics and recovering searchers ping-ponging in an orbit between evening Mass and crappy bars. There’s religion in The Hold Steady’s music, but you never know if the body and blood are spiritual metaphors or real- life stuff. Fans pore over Finn’s lyrical tea leaves trying to figure out the fates of recurring people like Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon.
The Hold Steady’s music has the big-rock combustion, the driving energy and the arcing solos to incite fist-pumping and kinetic frenzy. It’s a sacred and profane throw-down. The almost-over-the-top swagger of the guitars, the workmanlike drive of Galen Polivka on bass and the drumming of Bobby Drake are the right counterweight to the narrative heft and density of the lyrics. The combination allows for listeners to appreciate the songs on multiple levels—as elaborate, literate narratives or as elemental, cathartic rock.
Many people start rock bands thinking that they’re going to do something new—to create a groundbreaking sound, to tap into some uncharted zone of feeling or to embody the spirit of the time in unexpected ways. Most bands recycle rock and pop tropes, even rummaging through the wardrobes and amp collections of previous eras—and that’s not a bad thing. Nostalgia is baked into popular music.
The Hold Steady can harness rock’s signs and lingo with the best of them—they got started by wryly mining the core of classic rock, and doing what Kubler describes as “live rock-and- roll karaoke” with a comedy troupe. And yet, the band has never worked to create sonic wax-museum replicas of a vintage sound from rock’s golden age. But The Hold Steady offer something unprecedented— at least outside of the world of Broadway and musical theater or rock opera. Finn’s songs tell stories about individuals who reappear and interact in other songs, sometimes told from other perspectives.
“It’s flattering that people care so much and want to know these things,” says Finn about fan interest in the details of his songs. “The narratives and the interconnected characters come from my own music fandom,” which he describes as “obsessive.”
As a kid listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run,” he was curious about the stars of that epic. “I thought, ‘Who the hell is Wendy? I wanna know more about her.’”
Then he poses the question that launched him on his way, and that seems like it could unlock all kinds of possibilities for other songwriters: “If there’s going to be characters, why isn’t there character development?”