In certain corners of the rock ‘n’ roll world, where the next new thing is the only thing and people would rather give up the ghost than give a damn, something got lost. Bed heads and skinny ties shunned the building blocks of rock and kicked the rubble to the backstreets—which, in case you forgot, run alongside Main Street, U.S.A.
While insouciance and fashion sense dominated the headlines on the trendy zines and the bars in Brooklyn, a group of transplanted Minnesotans were rediscovering the joys of classic rock as they jammed on tracks by the likes of AC/DC and Thin Lizzy. In doing so, they were reminded of how good that music sounded, and so the Hold Steady was born, with the desire, in the words of singer and lyricist Craig Finn, to make some “real meat and potatoes rock ‘n’ roll”. With their most recent album, Separation Sunday, the Hold Steady are bringing back to indie rock the things that never went away on the outside world: teenage dreams, twin guitar leads, songs about driving around and getting high, and a healthy love of Jesus.
The hearts, and hopes, of teenagers have always been the great subject matter of rock ‘n’ roll. But the subject has usually been covered with the obscuring sheen of romanticism. The early godfathers (Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochrane, Buddy Holly) sang about the quotidian trials and travails of going to school, getting a job, and cruising around, but the sheer joy and exuberance of their sound elevated those mundanities to the realm of the mythic. These activities were no longer just things that teens did, but self-aware rites of passage. That glorification of regular behaviour reached its apex with the early work of working-class rock ‘n’ rollers like Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy, who were the first generation to come of age listening to rock ‘n’ roll explain their behaviour to them. In a ritual of big arrangements and holy-roller passion, rock ‘n’ roll soon apotheosized the American teenage experience, or least the fantasy of what that entailed. Now, 30 years later and having heard both Springsteen and the Sex Pistols—not to mention the Replacements and Black Flag—the Hold Steady have taken on the task of chronicling the American teenage experience.
On the surface, Separation Sunday uses the sacred tools of classic rock—two guitars, bass, drums, and teenage subject matter—to subvert the traditional narratives. Instead of cruising for beers and slow-dancing at parties, the kids in the Hold Steady’s songs end up in the ER after getting their asses kicked, drinking gin out of jam jars. Rather than Peggy Sue, we get Holly the hoodrat, screwed by soccer players and muttering her confessional through a mouthful of abscessed teeth. It’s venom, not honey, that drips from her mouth when she says, “Lord, to be 17 forever.”
Even though he’s using the instruments of rock and roll to shatter some of its greatest myths, Finn, 33, insists there’s still rich beauty to be found among his gang of hoodrats, users, and punks.
“I do think there is romanticism in it. I just think maybe it’s a little more honest, a little less cheery. It’s very much a youthful record. I think rock ‘n’ roll is always kind of connected to the teen years. You’re at the age where, I don’t want to say you hate your parents, but you want to spend as little time as possible alone with them at home. A car allows you to drive around and smoke pot and kinda have your own little world. So [Separation Sunday] is about that.”
Finn knows that an album about adolescents wanting to speed away from parents is a stock rock ‘n’ roll album, but aside from his refusal to sugar-coat, he keeps it fresh by throwing the biggest authority figure of all into the mix. One of the most surprising and refreshing things about Separation Sunday is its ability to find a respectful place for JC on an album where authority is more likely to be gobbed on than prayed to. Finn’s a self-admitted lapsed catholic, but the sinners on the album are viewed more in the spirit of forgiveness than judgement.
“There’s always this thing where if you’re experimenting or pushing out on things—your morality, your upbringing—you always have this kind of thing ringing in the back of your mind where if you’re doing something that’s sinful or transgressive you’re reminded of your guilt. But at the same time there’s a lot of beauty in the church and the Bible. I was trying to concentrate on that. Catholicism has a huge aspect of forgiveness, and reconciliation is a big part of it too.”
But one of the year’s best rock ‘n’ roll albums wouldn’t be what it is if it were just about forgiveness and reconciliation. No one can deny that rock works best when it’s knocking down doors. For all of Finn’s good spirit towards religion, he’s quick to point out that Catholicism makes for good rock ‘n’ roll in the same way that “teachers, parents and Reagan” do. Yet, while kicking against the pricks is standard in all the variations of rock, there’s something unique about the subset of rock ‘n’ roll made by streetwise Catholics. Aside from a love of straight-ahead guitars, Finn recognizes that the Hold Steady shares a particular ethic with other great rock ‘n’ roll altar boys like Springsteen, Jim Carroll, Phil Lynott, and Billy Joel (Jewish, but an honorary Catholic according to Finn).
“There’s this kind of mystery that they put on the American teenage experience that relates to Catholicism—the mysteries of life or Catholicism, empowering inanimate objects. There’s this element of how you experience the world that comes from being raised Catholic,” says Finn. Add guitars to communion and the step between being young, dumb, and not allowed to cum and something bigger is a short one. “At the very least you’re a superhero,” says Finn. “You might be Christ too.”
While such pronouncements may smack of hyperbole, Finn sees the conflation between rock and religion as a natural one. “Wherever people place these things in their lives, be it rock ‘n’ roll or gambling or whatever, is often exactly the same place that religion goes. It’s a way of experiencing things or resolving things—it can be a crutch. I think rock ‘n’ roll has a saving quality. It definitely changed my life.”
The Hold Steady may not change your life, but they deserve credit for recognizing the ecstasy that can be found in the rituals of classic rock—and with nary an ironic smirk in sight. The music that his band builds their sound on may have long been dismissed as hopelessly passé and their recent exposure in a series of ads for the Target retail mega-chain (including the OddsAgainst7even series) has put another indie rock bull’s eye on their back, but such considerations don’t mean much to the Hold Steady frontman.
“I think our thing is already a reaction against elitist indie thinking. I do think we have a potential fanbase that are the kind of people who would hear us through a Target ad. You’re obviously not an indie rocker who buys eight records a week if you’re hearing about a band through a Target ad.”
“As much as I love all of our fanbase,” Finn continues, “I get really excited when I get the 38-year-old who’s got his kids with a sitter and is just wasted coming out for the first time in eight months or something. It warms my heart.”
Even if taking some money from the man means the return of some unhip long lost rock ‘n’ rollers, the Hold Steady are still a long way from sell-outs. It’s not as if we need to worry that a 30-something bar band whose songs don’t have choruses and is fronted by a guy with glasses who can’t really sing, is going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone anytime soon. Besides, maybe this kind of rock ‘n’ roll is best kept between, you, me, Target shoppers, and Jesus. After all, we wouldn’t want the hipsters to come and spoil it.