Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Grant Johnson and Bob Strakele at Good Danny's, Austin, Texas
If The Hold Steady's Craig Finn ever dreams the way that J.D. Salinger had his most iconic character dream, worrying about phony bologna people and the kinds of personal and emotional corruption that turn a person into stinking, alcoholic rubble or cracked up bodies beyond the point of being just scrambled, then he dreams of a thankless job. It's one that he derives satisfaction from, as some hyper-observant savant who makes all of the right moves for his well-being and betterment, as well as that of numerous nameless, faceless people who have a lot of life left (or should have a lot of life left, whichever is the case), but still can't find much interest in anything that operates any other way but as a dysfunctional quagmire. It may be trite to quote a passage from "The Catcher In The Rye" when writing about one of the best bands the United States of America has going for it, but here it goes anyway.
As a young Mr. Caulfield is speaking with his sister toward the end of the novel, he details his reoccurring dream, a mistake as it turns out, having adapted a line from a Robert Burns poem incorrectly, "I thought it was 'If a body catch a body.' Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day…I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."
Finn doesn't deal with little kids. He deals with those big people, who should know better or who should have figured out some of the right ways to go about getting by. And he doesn't necessarily take on the role of some kind of savior, feeling the need to protect and save all of the wayward men and women - the townies, the girls who party with them, the drug dealers and those girls who party with them, the normal guys who haven't gotten any luckier, richer or happier despite an exhausting attempt at all of those things.
He is a guy - a writer with one of the keenest and most demonstrative voices, be it of ink or of voice, of anyone working today - who sees failed lives or flailing lives as the most fascinating subject matter imaginable and yet he pities these people so intensely that he can't leave them behind. He might see a panhandler and think about him in a very specific way for years after, modifying him into a character or characters who become something like family members to thousands and thousands of the New York-by-way-of-Minneapolis band's fans. They are the Charlemagnes and all the extras that Finn puts into these songs - the big, bad guitar rockers -- that are just serials playing out over years and years, soap operas on bar floors that are combinations of all matters of good buzz and bad hangover, of right and wrong getting confused for the other until there's no distinction any longer, just some highly evolved religious harangue getting its limbs all in a knot. The Hold Steady is a decidedly Midwestern band and they'll never be able to get away from it, even by moving off to the city that never sleeps.
Everywhere you look in one of his songs, Finn is bringing us closer to those half-flattened, half-deflated men who can't help but work at the grain elevator, the mill, the truck yard, or on the assembly line at the packing plant until they've run out of years, finally able to retire, which only means spending a couple of years enjoying their failing health and their futile memories of work and all of those six-packs they picked up at the convenience store on their way home at 5 o'clock. Finn is a maker of these people, or just the guy who props them up and buys them a drink.
*Essay originally published April, 2009