“There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right, boys and girls in America live such a sad time together”
These were the first words I heard spit forth from Craig Finn’s mouth, when The Hold Steady tore up Jools Holland riding a wave of critical acclaim garnered from their album Boys & Girls In America. I was 17, in the middle of my first long-term relationship, a girl with whom the only thing I really had in common was music. This music was almost exclusively American alt-country, the kind of stuff that No Depression wet their pants over.
Quickly we adopted The Hold Steady as ours. Boys & Girls was a killer record, full of killer lines. “Lost in fog and love and faithless fear, I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere.” “They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs, it was kinda sexy, but kinda creepy.” “How’m I s’posed to know if you’re high if you won’t let me touch you?” – I hadn’t heard writing like this before. I still haven’t.
I remember driving us both down to see them in Cardiff, at a fantastic venue called The Point on the Bay, which unfortunately no longer remains – some wise-guy decided the best place for residential flats was next to said venue, which meant that the venue had to undergo some cripplingly expensive sound-proofing, which it never recovered from financially. I was offered a gig there once, but had to turn it down, which I regret to this day. That Hold Steady show was the most intense rock and roll gig I’d been to up until that point. Beer flying everywhere, the band tore through their new album and dipped into their back catalogue for a few too, all the while smiling, hollering, engaging the crowd and generally having a pretty damn good time. I remember at the end of the show, soaked in sweat, my voice long since gone, my eyes met those of a Welsh rugby lad and we both kind of exhaled – he just said: “What a fuckin’ gig!” The drive home was interesting – some wrong turns meant we ended up going over the Brecon Beacons at 2 in the morning. You know you’re in the middle of nowhere when the only thing coming towards you in the road at that time is a horse.
Predictably that relationship ended. I went to University, she was still in high school, and we drifted. She got a Hold Steady tattoo on her wrist, and suggested I get the same one. I didn’t, gladly, though I always kinda liked hers. Maybe I’ll get a line inked on me sometime: “Damn right he’ll rise again.” Maybe not.
I remember moving back to London early that summer, to get away from small towns where people talk about your business, to start a job where I would meet new people. There was a girl who smoked, who probably led me on more than I’d care to admit, but I didn’t seem to care at the time. She lived around Angel, and I watched In Bruges with her before heading over to see The Hold Steady at Islington Academy. She didn’t like the film. It would have never worked. Just one of those lusty little crushes, soon to be replaced with a spectacular German girl who kissed me without asking, who looked great beneath hot, soft light.
Stay Positive had just come out, a record less concept driven than their last two, I’d say, but full of brilliantly catchy, melodic, well written songs – Craig Finn had taken vocal lessons before making the record too, and it shows. When he needs to croon, the guy can croon, the bridge on Slapped Actress being the best example. I remember listening to Constructive Summer for the first time and thinking “this is my Born To Run,” and I longed to be in a crowded room raising a toast to St. Joe Strummer with the band leading the celebrations. My ribs crushed against the steel bar separating us from the stage for that show. When Tad Kubler let loose on his Les Paul for Lord I’m Discouraged, the room stood still.
That German girl overlapped with a beautiful English girl, who wasn’t much keen on barroom rock and roll, but loved barrooms, rocking and rolling all the same. It didn’t matter she didn’t like my favourite band, she liked me plenty, and I liked her too. We had three brilliant years, as good a three years as anyone’s had I’d be willing to bet. That was our time. In the middle of that three year period I was able to sit with Craig Finn, my musical and lyrical hero, for 20 minutes before their show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Heaven Is Whenever had just been released, a record I wasn’t that keen on. The band had lost their pianist, and as a result a big part of their sound. Saying that, The Weekenders has an explosively brilliant chorus, and the line “the theme of this party’s the industrial age / and you came in dressed like a train wreck” is one of Finn’s best. The album is worth it for that and that alone. The interview was fascinating. We talked Raymond Carver, influences, writing styles and hip-hop. He was gracious and forthcoming, and it was incredible, but I stopped listening to them after that, for a good while. Don’t meet your heroes? I don’t know; I’m glad I got 20 minutes with a man who’s been such a part of my life. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
And yeah, I’ve been revisiting them lately. I’ve been revisiting music in general, really, but particularly Separation Sunday, a rock and roll record that more than stands up against The Replacements’ Let It Be or London Calling or Born To Run. I saw Craig Finn do an acoustic gig at Union Chapel last year with Will Johnson and Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers, each of them swapping songs, drinking beer and talking about the devil. Craig played an unreleased song called Jeremiah’s Blues, the best thing I’ve heard in years, a quintessential American short-story with a truly heart-breaking ending. Then a girl at work said something in passing about how much she liked them and Drive-By – the kind of girl who glides around with a kind of effortless beauty, whose clothes drape from her like bed sheets – and all of a sudden more songs came flooding back: Positive Jam, Your Little Hoodrat Friend, Stevie Nix. God, Stevie Nix; a song so perfect it doesn’t bear thinking about. “She got high for the first time in the camps down by the banks of the Mississippi river...Lord, to be 17 forever.” Certain songs get so scratched into your soul. Never a truer line sung.