The names have changed but the rites of passage have remained the same. They tore out all the pay phones in those little Midwestern towns but the kids have their cells, and they know how to score if they need to. Their Impalas are Altimas now, their cruising strips are just strip malls, their Led Zeppelin is Lil Jon or System of a Down, though sometimes it's still Zeppelin or ZZ Top because nothing sounds so good breaking up the 'rents' rear speakers when they need to feel they're going somewhere even though they don't have a clue. But they crank that sucker, because no one else has a clue either.
Craig Finn, like most of us, was one of those kids, and his band, the Hold Steady, has some kind of clue: It's rock & roll, even classic rock & roll, with heavy power chords and strutting leads and drum 'n' bass breakdowns that the emaciated-by-irony and faddish-by-fashion emo-indie-alterna-rockers couldn't stand. And they couldn't really rock either.
So sing it: Rock is dead, long live rock.
"It's like a ground zero," Finn says of the Hold Steady's classic foundation. "In hip-hop they use really repetitive beats to boost the lyrics. We use classic rock riffs. Even today you get in the car and hear a Boston song and you realize you know every single word. Growing up in Minneapolis, I loved the Replacements, they're still my favorite band, but I used to think they were punk. Now I listen and I know they weren't reinventing anything. It was classic rock with a lot of booze and energy. Maybe that's what we do too."
Now based in New York, the Hold Steady grew out of Finn's previous band, Lifter Puller, a Replacementsy, Talking Headsy attempt to document the Minneapolis raver/nightclub/drug party scene. They flirted with AC/DC riffage but couldn't go all the way. Whether he exhausted the city or the city exhausted him, Finn split, meeting up with then bassist now guitarist Tad Kubler in Brooklyn.
"I got really concerned in Lifter Puller after a while," Finn says. "There was less hopefulness in that band. I'd do a show and kids would come up to me and say, 'Hey, we're on three hits of Ecstasy!' That's not exactly what I had in mind. I do feel some sense of responsibility."
Finn took the Midwest with him, or at least his version of it: the meth wars, the GTOs, the kids cut up by motorcycle chains, the literally killer parties, the jukebox playing songs scratching into every small-town soul. With his first post-Midwest album, The Hold Steady Almost Killed, Finn tapped into a scary smart sound, like Thin Lizzy slashed up by the Minutemen, something so catchy but tough that a 2004 release date seemed like a misprint.
"Our songs are cinematic as opposed to confessional," he explains. "I'm not some guy up there with a guitar telling you how he feels -- or not exactly. It's all through stories and parables, you can make your characters do whatever you want."
On Separation Sunday, Finn and the Steady revisit the killer parties -- the banging camps down by the woods along the Mississippi, where the kids stick guitar strings in their arms and say prayers to get blown if they can just get that hoodrat princess high enough -- and try to figure out just what makes them so attractive and so lethal.
"I'm not super-extreme," Finn says, "but I've become fascinated by those who are. I have friends who have gone to these hardcore places and then come out born again. That swinging wildly back and forth is interesting to me."
Hard-rock riffage is a religion, and so are those river's edge parties. The hallucinations of trips gone bad aren't so far from the escapes of twelve-step plans. The gods are always false, the Hold Steady shouts from a crack house rooftop, but a godless life isn't life at all.
"The Catholicism on the record is about that extremism," Finn continues. "People use religion the way a drug addict or an alcoholic will use substances. But unless you get your head straight, none of these things are gonna work. This record wasn't meant to be derogatory towards religion. Catholicism is the one direct link I have back to my ancestors. I'm Irish American, but I've never been to Ireland. When I go into a church there's a real peaceful feeling. I'm not religious or spiritual, but I can still reflect on family and traditions. There have been enough bad things happening in the church in the last five or ten years. But the record isn't a renouncement."
Declaimed in the voice of some street corner doomsayer who may have lost his mind but isn't shutting up or letting anyone off the hook till Jesus or maybe just Bon Scott rises again, Finn's compulsively detailed stories of the teenage apocalypse don't offer much hope, at least not conventionally. Sometimes just recounting the names of every otherwise forgotten, wasted life provides all the meaning you're likely to find.
"Naming places and people, that's a real hip-hop thing," Finn says. "You tour around the country and you see a certain mall architecture -- Petsmart, Home Depot, every city is starting to look the same. But when you name and describe these cities, people get off on it. They're holding on to something. It's like a little secret they can hold on to."
So if the Hold Steady plays something called classic rock, don't misunderstand. Their amped-to-ecstatic guitars aren't some security blanket, some reactionary withdrawal into comfortably dumb nostalgia. In Finn's vision, rock & roll may be about redemption; you'll just have to go through Hell to get there.
"I wanted this record to end hopefully," Finn says, "in that final last scene of a girl coming back to the church. There's an element of forgiveness and reconciliation in faith. Then you can move on. Redemption is a big word. It looks good in print, I guess."