My Page: Craig Finn ‘Positively 52nd Street’
photo credit: James Goodwin
My parents’ record collection was not very big, probably 25 LPs. They had a few Joan Baez albums and some Christmas music, but mostly platinum-selling ‘70s stuff on the softer side of the spectrum—Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, Saturday Night Fever, etc. The records were stored in a pile on a shelf under the television set, laying on their backs rather than on their sides with the spines exposed. You’d have to take out the whole bunch to flip through them.
Sometimes before hosting dinner parties, they’d load a stack up onto the turntable, where some mechanical function would drop one, play the side and then drop the next automatically. It was clunky, but it worked—the technology of the day giving you 90 minutes or so of mostly uninterrupted music before the sound of chirping crickets, perfectly in tune with the suburban Minneapolis summer night, would fill the room once again.
I started pulling out records in early grade school and putting them on myself. My favorites were Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits and Billy Joel’s The Stranger and 52nd Street. One of my big attractions was that each of those albums had printed lyrics on the sleeve, which was something that not all of my parents’ records had. I liked listening and reading along. I dug how each of these songwriters told stories. Paul Simon’s “Duncan” painted a vivid picture of a wanderer who finds salvation. In “Slip Slidin’ Away,” he opens with the chorus and then mentions a woman named Delores a few lines into the first verse. I loved how him saying her proper name snapped the picture into focus for me, making me see her more vividly.
Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” took you through the highs and lows—to the end of the show—of young lovers Brenda and Eddie. “Only the Good Die Young” asked a few questions about Catholicism that made me a bit nervous in the pews of Our Lady of Grace church on Sundays. I knew what some of it meant; I vowed to find out the rest. It all seemed important, adult, complex and enticing.
I looked at the album jackets to try and find clues. Both artists dressed differently than my preppy parents. Paul Simon was rumpled in a vest and wide collar on the back cover of Greatest Hits. On The Stranger, Billy Joel was surrounded by his friends before a meal in an old-school Italian place, looking wise and hip. And on the cover of 52nd Street, he was holding a trumpet and dressed in a blazer, jeans and Tretorn shoes.
My father wore a suit to work every day, and I’d never seen a guy wear a blazer with jeans before. I asked my dad if that was allowed—a sport coat and jeans together? Are there rules about this? He told me that some people who live in New York City could pull off that look, but—it was implied— not him, not me, not anyone we hung out with.
I’m not sure if I realized it at the time but Paul Simon was also bringing his own New York thing to my Midwestern family-room listening. However, I quickly got distracted anyway. I found my own music and started buying my own records. The Bay City Rollers led to Kiss which led to Queen. My own record collection started to outgrow my parents’ small stack of albums. At the beginning of junior high, I discovered The Ramones, and then The Replacements, who lived in Minneapolis. That was huge.
I started to seek out local music and smaller bands at all-ages shows. I liked that these groups were fast, new and hard. Paul Simon and Billy Joel became my parents’ music and I pointed my life in the direction of these new sounds. They enveloped me. These bands became my life, so to speak. I started my own band after college, we broke up, and, in 2000, I moved to Brooklyn, where we formed The Hold Steady. We didn’t break up. Here I am, 50 years old, playing music and still in love with it.
So there I was this past weekend at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. Nathaniel Rateliff was onstage hosting the “American Tune Revue,” a set of various artists covering Paul Simon songs. I was standing way back by the boats in the harbor, just taking it all in. The set was basically the Greatest Hits record I had obsessed over as a child. When they did “Slip Slidin’ Away” and Rateliff sang the line about Delores, I mused about how many times over the years I’d placed a woman’s proper name in the middle of verses of my own songs. Is that where it started? Then, Paul Simon himself surprised the wildly appreciative crowd, and I got a little misty-eyed while standing in the back.
While I’d abandoned certain artists in my teens and 20s, I’ve now returned to everything without any apologies, and I see more clearly what I’ve picked up along the way. When I originally decided to move to New York City in 2000, I would have hung it on Lou Reed, but now I’m not so sure. I often wear a blazer and jeans, just like Billy Joel did in 52nd Street. Maybe my dad would think I’m pulling it off. I tend to accessorize with a baseball hat. So does Paul Simon. Neither of those guys invented those looks but they were the ones who brought it into my house as a kid. And I think both artists might have beckoned me this way, by flashing an early sign from ‘70s New York City to Edina, Minn., where a young boy used those records to try to see a world beyond his own.
On the first Hold Steady record, I said, “Certain songs get scratched into our souls.” And it’s true. But sometimes they get scratched so deeply that it takes a while for them to find the surface and show themselves again.
Craig Finn released his fifth solo album, the Josh Kaufman-produced A Legacy of Rentals, in May via Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers. He will support the LP, which features contributions from Joe Russo, Michael Libramento, Stuart Bogie, Cassandra Jenkins and Annie Nero, on the road with The Uptown Controllers.