Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Boys and Girls in America: The sublime "Stuck Between Stations"

On April 8, 2006, I posted the following:
Somewhere in the ether, there is an ideal platonic Bruce Springsteen song, and somewhere else, there is an ideal platonic Billy Joel song, neither of which exist in real life. On their new album, The Hold Steady will have a song called "Stuck Between Stations" that is those songs -- the Springsteen and Billy Joel that never existed, but should. It's a story about the poet John Berryman. Any song that pays tribute to On the Road, the Golden Gophers, and a celebrated American poet is going to be intriguing; what I can't do justice is the sweep and the sweetness of the sound. You can find an mp3 of "Stuck Between Stations" played acoustically on Bows Plus Arrows. It's a nice version, but it doesn't give you a glimpse of the song's grandeur; it's a pencil sketch of a Rembrandt, but for now, it'll do. I'm giddy right now so I don't trust myself; I want to call it one of the great songs of our lifetime, but in retrospect, I'm sure that judgment will embarrass me.
That judgment does not embarrass me.

The Hold Steady's new album "Boys and Girls in America" goes on sale a week from tomorrow. Between Amazon's streaming-with-purchase function and the thoughtfulness of another blogger, I've had a few days to listen, argue my thoughts, and digest.

The album is not as dark, smart or literate as The Hold Steady's two prior releases, "Almost Killed Me" and "Separation Sunday." It aims its sights a little lower than a Biblical epic about disgrace and redemption, drawing instead from the band's threads that connect to the Meatloaf and the Billy Joel, about teenage boys and girls and the romances that crash down around them.

It's a very good album. I plan to write more about it, but for now I just want to address the first track, "Stuck Between Stations." It's in a class apart.

According to the Oxford Book of American Poetry, the song's hero, John Berryman, was born in MacAlester, Oklahoma. "When he was eleven, his father (whose restaurant business had gone under) was found shot to death." The death was determined to be a suicide, a theme that appears in many of Berryman's poems: "Berryman felt that the 'artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business.' On 7 January 1972, he jumped to his death off the Washington Avenue bridge between St. Paul and Minneapolis."

It's natural material for Craig Finn, whose lyrics drip Twin Cities lore and a two-books-a-week erudition. Like the early Martin Scorsese movies, he's preoccupied with Catholic suffering and redemption. (The released version of this song actually omits a great couplet that made it into the acoustic version -- "he was petulant and spastic / but he ended up a crazy cool Catholic.") Spending a little time looking over Berryman's poems, I think Finn was consciously mirroring Berryman's structure and word choice.

Berryman's 1948 poem "The Traveler" includes the following passage:
I took the same train that the others took,
To the same place. Were it not for that look
And those words, we were all of us the same.
I studied merely maps. I tried to name
The effects of motion on the travelers,
I watched the couple I could see, the curse
And blessings of that couple, their destination,
The deception practiced on them at the station,
Their courage. When the trained stopped and they knew
The end of their journey, I descended too.
Here's a passage of Craig Finn's lyrics from "Stuck Between Stations":
The Devil and John Berryman, they took a walk together,
and they ended up on Washington, talking to the river.
He said, "I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers,
but big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers."

There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly.
But he didn't so he died.

She said, "You're pretty good with words but words won't change your life."
And they didn't so he died.

And he was drunk and exhausted but he was critically acclaimed and respected.
He loved the golden gophers but he hated all the drawn out winters.
He likes the warm feeling but he's tired of all the dehydration.
Most nights are kind of fuzzy but that last night he had total retention.

These Twin Cities kisses, they sound like clicks and hisses.
We all fell down and drowned in the Mississippi River.
I don't know if Finn was consciously mimicking "The Traveler" or if portions of the structure and rhyme scheme -- lyrics that revolve around a rhyme with "station" and culminate in a descent -- sound similar by coincidence. Finn certainly knows the poem, but whether he had it in front of him or it just burrowed into his mind is anyone's guess.

The power of these lyrics might get subsumed in the song's opening quotation of Jack Kerouac ("There are nights when I think Sal Paradise is right: boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.") and its framing around the narrator's girlfriend, who also likes the warm feeling but is tired of the dehydration. The individual lines in these lyrics have real force. Words won't change your life; big brains and soft bodies make for lousy lovers. At once, Finn romanticizes and dreads a writer's life, and Berryman's.

This song also rocks as much as any other Hold Steady song. Finn's lyrics could have been about guinea pigs or his humps and the song would be a minor classic. This is essential to the song's success. With maudlin music, it would be Tori Amos for dudes. As it is, you can hate poets but love the song, which is fine by me.

I'll write later about my ambivalence with other portions of the album, where the lyrics don't live up to the band's quirky sophistication -- forget Humbert Humbert and Mackenzie Phillips, because some stretches are Laguna Beach material. Whatever my other small misgivings, this song compensates.

Lastly, I think Finn and Berryman look a little bit alike. Even if it's just in the glasses.

John Berryman

Craig Finn


Jeff said...

I'm going to have to check out this so-called "Berryman" fellow...I actually hadn't realized how good the lyrics to Stuck Between Stations was until you pulled them out...I suppose I'd been lost in the general greatness of the music. I'm with you on the instant classic qualification. As is the album. With the exception of Chillout Tent, I think its pretty comparable to the greatness of the last two.

CrimeNotes said...

You know I think it's a notch below the other two, but I hope you argue back and give me a reason to change my mind. It's addictive and occasionally brilliant. When I write about the rest of the album, Massive Nights and Chillout Tent are going to take a beating.

LeRoy said...

One small correction to the quote from the Oxford Book of American Poetry: the Washington Avenue Bridge does cross the Mississippi River but is not "between" Minneapolis and St. Paul (and so it's not itself "stuck between stations," at least not until the next light rail train line gets built). The bridge is between the West Bank and East Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus: both ends are in Minneapolis proper. See the map at "The Hold Steady Guide to the Twin Cities" at http://www.morecowbell.net/2006/10/03/the-hold-steady-guide-to-the-twin-cities (the Washington Avenue Bridge is marked near the "S" in "Minneapolis").

"Stuck Between Stations" has a line -- "These Twin Cities kisses, they sound like clicks and hisses" -- that reminds me of "Crackle and Drag," Paul Westerberg's song about another suicide, of another American poet of the 1950s, Sylvia Plath. The title and refrain of Westerberg's song consciously lift the last line from Plath's last poem, "Edge" (although Westerberg doesn't name her in the song, whereas Ryan Adams next album had a song called "Sylvia Plath"). It sounds like Craig Finn's homage to Berryman is more in the vein of Westerberg's.

Berryman had at least one poem that dripped Twin Cities lore too (which as far as I know only appeared posthumously in a Minneapolis newspaper) called "MPLS, MOTHER" (not to be confused with Westerberg's "MPLS").

CrimeNotes said...

The Hold Steady Guide to the Twin Cities is a nice piece of work. If you're at all responsible for it, thank you, and thanks for dropping some Twin Cities knowledge on here.

LeRoy said...

No, I can't take any credit for the brilliant mapping of lyrics at the Hold Steady Guide to the Twin Cities.

I happened to come across my old photocopy of that posthumous Berryman poem I mentioned. I'm not sure, but I think it could be his most Finn-like in its concentration on local geography, though Berryman was more academic than beat. It was written in the fall of 1970 and may have been omitted from his last book of poems, "Delusions Etc." FYI, Hennepin is the county that includes Minneapolis and many if not most of the suburbs mentioned in Hold Steady lyrics.

by John Berryman

"At least one temple for the city's tutelary god" --
seems a small thing to ask. But the building here
of interest was put up the other day by a Japanese
to enclose some Upper Midwest insurance men.

Surely [u]some[/u] emotion will be appropriate?
A Dubliner who came ten days ago
to feast in one of our colleges a year
says he's written already a poem called you.

I've lived here off & on for sixteen years
and can't tell if -- inspired at last by him --
I bend my art to it
whether to deplore or celebrate your essential nonentity.

Site without history! City of [u]lakes[/u], it's true,
but only the Lake of the Isles possesses distinction
and that's contaminated for swimming and
the boating's tivial, a few canoes.

Size? Ah, but L.A., a sort of sub-continent,
ranks only as "six suburbs in search of a city,"
unified solely by smog and unspeakable freeways.
Where, Mother of Hennepin, shall I seek [u]your[/u] center?

And who, I enquire in vain
at the corner of Fifth & Hennepin, was Hennepin?
Professor Toynbee speaks of "the rudiments of a soul"
that you must have evolved in order to become a "city."

Where here then is Dionysus venerated,
inspirer of poets? -- for you have had poets;
Mr. Tate, retired now & back in his South,
this impetuous young mick, & your humble inhabitant.

What martyr's cry quickens our civil blood,
Wolfe Tone's, Parnell's? Whose sacrifice
on a [u]noche triste[/u] centuries alive
enables an ultimate homogeneity?

Heavily, heavily Scandinavian,
your proper only feast an old Swede one
I forget too, your touted waterfall
flowing but by appointment, on a budget.

Vast eyesore granaries, pathetic monopoly newspapers,
a pretty little Mall we're all so vain of,
the redman in the gutter, a University
only by the voters of our own State hated.

Even on [u]this[/] continent, I prefer Mexico D.F.,
& Cinti Ohio, so near above turfy Kentucky,
& suddenly since World War II unrecognizable & unbearable New York,
home of sharp elbows short tempers & Puerto Ricans.

O leafing these volumes thro' without surprising
one uttered word worth my preserving here
([u]Carthago delenda est. No pasaran[/u])
or sentiment seeming intimately yours,
I fall almost to despair,

Place of great winds and higher & higher drifts
far into March, I recognize you by your frozen waters
& fur-capped denizens helping each other out,
grinning, with stuck cars.


NOTE: The following stanza, in longhand, was found attached to the typescript of the poem, and was evidently meant for inclusion in the completed poem:

You warned me, dear, to increase underwear
When I moved here, and hell I haven't done it.
It's true I often pass in hospital
the good bit of the year.