The Gospel According to the Hold Steady

On their great new album, Brooklyn's best band explores why Catholic girls start much too early

"There's a lot of misinformation in rock," Finn says. "There's a huge oral tradition that you become obsessed with. Information gets completely mixed up and these stories just build and build. I think that fits in with the Catholic thing as well," he adds. "Early Christianity was an oral tradition to begin with, and a lot of mythology is built on the idea that the early Christians were a persecuted fringe group."

The Empire Strikes Back to Almost Killed Me's Star Wars, Separation Sunday regales us with the further adventures of figures we met on the Hold Steady's debut. There's Charlemagne, for instance, a pimp and a pusher who the suburban kids are a little afraid of. "There were always these legendary guys that you'd hear about, and some of them were really scary," Finn says. "You'd know enough to stay away." But not everyone does. Hallelujah is the nice girl who gets in way too deep, the hoodrat who ends up "half naked and three quarters wasted."

"Especially in junior high," Finn says, "there were people who just got in over their heads and would disappear from school." But not Finn—these drug experiences aren't his. He was the Minnesota dude who was hip enough to think of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü as local rock. "The 'Mats were one of the first things I got into," Finn says. "I thought of them as an unsuccessful rock band, not like punk or part of the underground." But he was still suburban enough to need his folks to drive his 12-year-old ass to the shows.

"I'm not sure they understood what it was," he says, "but they knew I was a creative kid and this stuff seemed to foster creativity. Dropping your kid off at a punk rock show is a leap of faith, you know?" He pauses and swallows some tea. "It was way cooler to get dropped off at the bus stop and take the bus." (See also Sunday's "Your Little Hoodrat Friend": "Some nites the bus wouldn't even stop/there were just way too many kids.")

Rolling in from the suburbs, an observer and cataloger of types as much as a participant—in the scene, but not of it—Finn was the kid who played by the rules and was drawn to punk's geekier wing. "I loved the Descendents," Finn says. "They sang about getting no chicks, and that's something I knew a whole lot about." But scenester ideals can't stop rock clichés. "At one show of theirs [a Descendent] asked a bunch of us if we knew any chicks that would blow him. I was like, 'If we knew that, what would be doing at a Descendents show?' "

But it was those illusions that fueled his imagination. "I had no concept of touring or anything like that," he says. "I would see a flyer for Black Flag or a new Descendents album and it was like it just materialized out of nowhere. Communication was not that good."

Like many white suburban punks, Finn was hypnotized by hardcore's mixture of the raging and the trivial, which laid the groundwork for the band's weird mix of earnest storytelling and distancing irony. "The interesting thing to me about hardcore in the late '80s is how worked up these guys would get," he says. "Take a band like Youth of Today. That guy was just enraged and it was all about the scene and backstabbing and your crew versus my crew, all these kind of minor things, and they would get so furious. That's why hardcore appealed to me more than metal. I don't think you can be truly angry and play 64th notes."

His fans, on the other hand, expect still more dysfunction. "Some people are disappointed when they meet me, that I'm not more fucked up," Finn says. "They really want me to be more like the characters."

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