Walk Around, Drink Some More: An Afternoon Constitutional With the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn
“I always feel, a little bit, like I’m visiting still,” Craig Finn, frontman/bard of the Hold Steady, says of his adopted New York. “It’s just that kind of city.” Finn moved here from Minnesota in 2000, as a married man with an office job, his rock-and-roll dreams purportedly put to bed. Four years later, the Hold Steady would drop its debut, Almost Killed Me — in the annals of smartass-core, an instant classic — which Finn led off with a simple enough aphorism: “I got bored when I didn’t have band / And so I started a band, man / We gotta start it with a positive jam!” Now, after almost exactly 10 years — as well as five albums, three lineup changes, two hospitalizations, one divorce, and roughly 1.73 billion brewskies — Finn and that band are still alive and well in New York City.
The band is celebrating the landmark with a string of anniversary shows and a new album, the rollicking Teeth Dreams, released today. And to commemorate the occasion in one more way, we ask Finn to take us on a stroll around Brooklyn. The idea is to revisit some of his spots, old and new — a nostalgic Hold Steady walking tour.
First Stop: Take ’Em to Church
We meet at Café Grumpy (the real Café Grumpy) in Greenpoint, where Finn shows up on time, and on brand, bundled in a black peacoat and a Minnesota Twins winter cap. The band’s guitarist and co-songwriter, Tad Kubler, Finn points out, lives a block away; drummer Bobby Drake is just a few more blocks over. “And this is my house, right on the second floor,” Finn says, waving up at a flakingly yellow low-slung place. “My girlfriend Angie’s an overnight cardio nurse at NYU hospital, so she’s asleep right now. Otherwise I’d take you up.”
We loop by a giant dollar store that’s going out of business, to Finn’s great chagrin: “This place has always been here. It’s the best! You need a dish rack, they have it.” Then we march on to Finn’s church, a modest brown number named in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua. (Evocativeness alert: He’s the patron saint of lost things.)
It’s not exactly a bustling establishment. “I was here once and the priest says, ‘Hey, the archbishop of the archdiocese is coming next week,’” Finn recalls. “And he looks around and there’s barely anyone there. And he says” — and here Finn pauses, anticipating the punch line with a wry smile — “‘Maybe next week you bring a few friends?’”
But that solitude is key. “It gives me a peaceful, easy feeling,” Finn says. “It’s quiet, there’s the rituals — you zone out into these familiar rhythms. It’s also a sense of accomplishment: I was raised Catholic, so I feel like I checked that off my list, and can enjoy Sunday.”
Finn is probably (sorry, Sufjan!) indie rock’s best-known Christian. On the Hold Steady’s second album, Separation Sunday, he wove a brilliant tale of a faithful girl named Holly — short for Hallelujah — struggling with powders and pills, sometimes among the pews. It all ended, in dramatic fashion, with her crashing into Easter Mass with her hair “done up in broken glass” to ask the priest a simple enough question: “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”
“People hadn’t heard that talk in a while,” Finn says now. “Catholic stuff really freaked everyone out. You say ‘Jesus’ in a song and everyone reaches for their wallet to make sure it’s still there.” (Or, to put it another way: “TheysayyoucanrapaboutanythingexceptforJesus.”) But Sep Sunday, as Finn calls it, wasn’t didactic, one way or the other; figuring out just what the hell was going on was a big part of its prickly pleasure. Here were the lessons of the Bible, the thing interpreted as more or less an ineffective, more or less still holy, self-help book.
Finn’s not too hung up on the contradictions. You’re allowed to pick and choose? I volunteer. He nods. “‘Cafeteria Catholic,’ is what my mom called it. Think about the forgiveness, the redemption. There’s some really nice stuff in there.”
Second Stop: Practice, Practice, Practice/Drink, Drink, Drink
“We rehearsed right there, on that second floor above the tattoo shop,” Finn says, as we trudge up to a quietly anonymous corner a block from the East River. “I’d write lyrics mainly at home, but we’d work [the songs] out here.” Was it a nice place? “It was windowless, and filthy, and we’d always get noise complaints,” he answers, the corners of his lips curling up.
More than anything — and appropriately enough for these proud lushes — the memories are in the bars. Every few feet, it seems, Finn tells me, “Well, where we actually drank a lot was …” The to-go hot toddies at this one! The shootout at that one! And, ooh, the ramshackle place that fashioned a bar top out of an old door. “For some reason we really loved it. It was like, ‘This is awesome. You drink, and there’s a door …’”
One place, now a spiffed-up joint that probably serves goddamn weekend brunch, was once a permanently faltering dive called the Blue Lady Lounge. “You knew they were in trouble when they got all these T-shirts and put ’em all over the walls,” Finn remembers. “If you had four beers, you could get a free T-shirt. But the shirt didn’t say Blue Lady Lounge or anything; it said, like, Hofstra Athletics, and they obviously got them out of a barrel in a thrift store. We’d always be joking: ‘Dude, two more beers and you can have that!’”
And here’s Enid’s, where Finn’s buddy Harrison used to bartend. “He invented this drink called the Harrison-Rita and they still serve it, but the bartenders hate it when you order it because there’s like five different liquors in it. This was my bar. Now there’s babies in here.” I peep in to see what he’s talking about, and see a couple moms having a relaxing afternoon with their recently hatched offspring. “Look at that. Couldn’t be more perfect for this story. To see two strollers in there.”
Third Stop: First Show
“This being Music Hall of Williamsburg, of course — the scene of the crime.” Way back in January 2003, when this place was the delightfully dingier Northsix, the Hold Steady played its first-ever show here. Which, if you’re keeping count at home, would make this, yep, the 11th anniversary. In perfect, shambling Hold Steady fashion, the band didn’t get around to celebrating its 10th anniversary until 11 years in.
Over the incessant bang of a young woman pounding her fist on the steel door behind us, Finn recalls that first gig. Because of the small but stalwart reputation of Lifter Puller, Finn and Kubler’s old band from Minnesota, the Hold Steady didn’t just have to rely on Becky and Josephus from the office making it out that first night. “I remember it being 100 people,” Finn says. “Maybe it was 75. But it was more than most bands get at their first show. And I remember thinking, ‘This might go OK.’”
In 2006, the band shot the cover for its third album, Boys and Girls in America, here. “There really weren’t that many people there, and we had all these beers and confetti, so Tad went to an art gallery down the street and convinced a bunch of people to come down for free beer.” Also: “I remember I was really hungover and I was laying on the stage. It wasn’t my best performance.”
Meanwhile, the young lady is still banging away, to no avail. Finn quips, “Maybe make a call?”
Fourth Stop: Street Cleaning/Alternate Side Parking
Walking east through Williamsburg, Finn reminiscences on the days he’d drive around here, desperate to find a parking spot for the band’s big old white box truck. “It was a total death trap,” he says. “The band before us put a TV in the back and a couch, not bolted in. But we bought it for like $10,000 and put 100,000 miles on it. We had some terrifying times in it; we drove it through the Canadian Rockies. Luckily, everyone stayed alive.”
Those were the days of true debauchery. “The bus (now) is the most boring thing ever. The crazy shit happens when you’re in a van and meeting new people every night, and you have until like ten in the morning. One time we put 18 people in there to go to a party after the show. That was our record.” At one point on the rider were two bottles of whiskey and “cases of cases” of beer — “I don’t remember what Guided by Voices get, but it was slowly approaching that.” The band members were primarily whiskey/beer kind of guys, although, Finn says, “Eventually, it got pretty much everywhere.”
Like — Adderall! “At first I thought it was genius,” Finn says. “‘I can remember every word!’ And then it started giving me really massive headaches. You’d have to hold a gun to my head to get me to take that now.” Were you snorting them? “The ones I was getting were blue? So, that wouldn’t have looked right.”
Eventually, things slowed down. Kubler was hospitalized twice for pancreatitis, a result of years of alcohol abuse; once the band’s biggest maniac, he’s been sober since 2010. And the band got big enough for the boring ol’ tour bus. Besides, it was only a matter of time before that box truck was gonna kill someone.
They donated it to a charity, and a fellow from the foundation came to pick it up. “He’s this rich guy, really tanned,” Finn remembers. “And Bobby looks at him and says, ‘What are you, a lifeguard?’”
As for the rider? “We cut it down to one bottle of whiskey.”
Fifth Stop: Exes
We’ve now marched all the way up to an ominous spot. It doesn’t look particularly imposing — just another set of well-worn Williamsburg row houses — but it’s got history. “That’s the apartment where my marriage started to crumble,” Finn says. “That’s where it went wrong.” Nowadays, he more or less avoids this patch of Brooklyn. “It freaks me out a little bit. It always makes me edgy.”
Creatively, at least, it was a good time for the band: They were writing and recording the songs that would become their breakthrough second album. “We were loading into the studio on a Sunday, and it was late in the football season,” Finn recalls. “And Cris Carter or someone was going, ‘It’s separation Sunday! We’re gonna find out who’s the real deal!’ With all the Catholic shit [on the album], I was like, ‘Ooh, I think I got a record title.’”
Back then, too, Kubler lived around the block. The gritty street corner on the now-beloved cover of the album is a photo he took one day, just stepping out of his front door. Finn points to the very corner, and I get a jolt of recognition. So what’s the significance? “I guess that’s the … separation?” Finn says, grinning. “It’s … it’s a photo of a street.”
The album was a critical success, catapulting its wordy, druggy, over-30 nerds into late-breaking rock-and-roll redemption. But it also heralded “dark times” for Finn’s marriage. “I was touring a lot. My wife wasn’t taking good care of herself.” Eventually, struggling with alcohol and depression, she went back to Minneapolis. Finn shuffled his stuff through a series of apartments that were little more than glorified storage spaces and took to a life on the road.
“It was pretty reckless,” Finn says. “Having a real, civilized life [wasn’t a concern]. It was all about touring and ‘Fuck it, none of it matters’ and rocking and ‘Where are we tonight?’ and waking up so hungover and then doing it again.’”
That era led, naturally, to the celebratory songs on the Hold Steady’s third album, Boys and Girls in America. But for Finn, those joyous bangers were always obviously tinged with darkness: “Personally, it was me at my worst. So we said, ‘We’re just gonna have fun, throw confetti in the air, throw beers in the air, and fight against this bad feeling.” And, I mean, he did try to tell us. Cribbed from Kerouac, the full line that birthed the album title is “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.”
One night during that era, Finn recalls, he came back to New York from touring, with nowhere to stay. “So I drove the box truck to [a bar],” he says, “went inside, drank tons of beers, went outside, got in the box truck, and slept. The times those were, I think each one of us spent at least one night in that box truck.”
Sixth Stop: Bottoms Up
The bar. Finally, the bar. We head into Lake Street on Manhattan Avenue, an inviting neighborhood joint with a warm Midwestern vibe, for a couple of rounds of beers. It’s Finn’s spot these days; it’s also, not uncoincidentally, co-owned by his drummer, Bobby, who happens to be in this afternoon, tending bar. Finn grabs a corner seat at the counter, says hey to every one of the scattered assemblage, then small-talks with Bobby about tour dates, gear, and girls.
Now that we’ve run through all our destinations, Finn tells me, “I love the thing in hip-hop articles where they go to his friend’s house and watch him play video games or whatever. I wanted to stop some place and, like, roll an eighth into a blunt.” That … that would have been awesome. But hearing Finn explain his mission statement over afternoon pints is pretty glorious as well.
See, the band regularly hears from dudes just so psyched to see ’em. “It’s like, a 34-year-old graphic designer at an advertising agency, and he’s got three kids, and he can’t go out Monday night and drink 10 beers and high-five his friends. But he heard our record and when we come to Chicago in January he’s already got a sitter lined up and he took the day off …”
Pulling ’em in the room is already an accomplishment: “We talk a lot about how rock is almost at a lesser place now, and there’s so many ways we can stay home now.” And “putting your hands in the air and singing along — that, to me, is becoming more and more important.” But “if I see two guys that I know didn’t know each other at the beginning of the night put their arms around each other? That’s like, ‘We did it. We did it tonight,’” Finn says.
“At Catholic Mass, you say, ‘Peace be with you’ to the people next to you, you shake their hands. That’s like a rock show. You’re saying ‘I’m here.’ ‘You’re here.’ ‘We’re here.’”