Halleluiah and Other Casualties

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Here’s the deal, boys and girls in America: the best rock ‘n roll band in the world these days is fronted by a barstool poet named Craig Finn, and he’s the heir to all the wide-eyed, wild-haired proclamations of outsiders and would-be Messiahs from Kerouac to Dylan to Springsteen to Bono. His band, The Hold Steady, plays AC/DC and Who power chords and Professor Roy Bittan piano riffs. Finn roams the stage, runs his fingers through his hair, and declaims half-spoken, half-sung visionary statements about addiction and Jesus, hopelessness and hope. They are little rock ‘n roll vignettes that are haunted by shadowy characters living life at the edges of the world. Some of them fall off. Some of them walk on back to love and if not wholeness, then at least sanity. He’s easily the best songwriter I’ve heard in the past five years, and he brought his cautionary, desperate, and desperately funny sermons to Columbus, Ohio on St. Patrick’s Day.

I knew that the confluence of The Hold Steady and St. Patrick’s Day was likely to produce some interesting moments. And indeed it did. Whenever you mix a glorified bar band with frat boys and an excuse to party, the results are fairly predictable. So the flying beer ended up in my hair. I did my small part to keep various crowd surfers off the ground. And I got pummeled and bruised a bit. No big deal. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, Bud Light hair and all.

Finn and his band played most of their latest album, Boys and Girls in America, and a few selections from earlier albums Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. The crowd sang along with every word (and there are a lot of words in Craig Finn songs), pumped their fists, and slammed into one another. Guitarist Tad Kubler made a few rock star moves and at one point played atop a 20-foot Marshall amp. But for the most part, this was Craig Finn’s show, and Craig Finn came across as the quintessential boho poet, part acid casualty and part dissolute English professor, the smartest, most sensitive, and most damaged guy in the room. It was glorious rock ‘n roll, the perfect marriage of music and lyrics, and it left my bruised, beer-soaked self very, very happy.

For what it’s worth, don’t look for the MTV Awards and superstardom to follow anytime soon. The keyboard player looked like a Brooklyn cabbie, Kubler has a beer gut, and Finn, disheveled and, yes, wild-eyed, looked like he wasn’t lying when he sang that the eighties almost killed him. If image is everything, then The Hold Steady will amount to nothing. But none of that matters. Every so often these little rock ‘n roll epiphanies remind me why I even bother to care about disposable, four-minute songs. And I experienced more than a few of those moments Saturday night, and I realized that, at its best, and in spite of crowds who are more interested in getting drunk and rowdy than listening to good music, rock ‘n roll can still carry the seeds of redemption.

“Certain songs they get scratched into our souls,” Finn sang at one point, and he is right. One of them was about Holly, a recurring character in Finn’s songs who first made her appearance Saturday night in a song called “Crucifixion Cruise”:

Halleluiah came to in a confession booth
Infested with infections
Smiling on an abcessed tooth
Running hard on residue
Crashing thru the vestibule
The crucifixion cruise
She climbed the cross and found she liked the view
Sat reflecting on the resurrection
Talking loud over lousy connections
She put her mouth around a difficult question
She said Lord what do you recommend
To a real sweet girl who’s made some not sweet friends?
Lord what would you prescribe
To a real soft girl who’s having real hard times?

The frat boys in the crowd went apeshit over that one, screaming “USA! USA!” in unison when it ended. Go figure: a song about existential despair greeted by a hockey chant. And here was the best one, another song about Holly, an impossibly harrowing and tender little ditty called “How a Resurrection Really Feels” that closed the concert:

Her parents named her Halleluiah, the kids all called her Holly
If she scared you then she’s sorry
She’s been stranded at these parties
These parties they start lovely but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody
The priest just kinda laughed
The deacon caught a draft
She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass
She was limping left on broken heels
When she said father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?

Holly was a hoodrat
Now you finally know that
She’s been disappeared for years
Today she finally came back
She said: St. Louis had enslaved me
I guess Santa Ana saved me
St. Peter had me on the queue
The St. Paul saints they waved me through
I was all wrapped up in some video booth
When I heard her say I love you too

She said I’ve laid beneath my lovers but I’ve never gotten laid
Some nights she felt protected
Some nights she felt afraid
She spent half last winter just trying to get paid
From some guy she’d originally thought to be her saviour
They wrote her name in magic marks
On stopsigns and subway cars
They got a mural up on East 13th
That said Halleluiah rest in peace
Halleluiah was a hoodrat
And now you finally know that
She’s been disappeared for years
Today she finally came back

Walk on back
Walk on back
She said don’t turn me on again
I’d probably just go and get myself all gone again
Holly was a sexy mess
She looked strung out but experienced
So we all got kind of curious

Walk on back
Walk on back

“Walk on back,” Finn sang softly, over and over again. After a night of raucous power chords, it was startling in its quiet insistence. “Walk on back,” he sang, his voice, at last, barely a whisper, his right arm extended out over the crowd. And then he walked off the stage. “USA! USA!” the frat boys chanted, and spilled their beers. All the boys and girls in America were too wasted to recognize a gentle benediction.

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