Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Stuck Between Stations by the Hold Steady

Stuck Between Stations

By The Hold Steady

Listen to the studio recording here. Listen to a live version here.

Crank this tune and enter the mess of whirling images and thoughts of fame, poetry, drinking, art, depression, Minneapolis winters, Catholicism, guilt, lust, and longing, most of all, longing for the promise and clarity offered by a girl. The song sometimes sounds bizarrely upbeat given that the core of the lyrics tell of John Berryman  – the great American confessional poet – and his demise: jumping off the Washington Street Bridge in Minneapolis and drowning in the Mississippi River.

We plunge into an opening that sounds like an English major on a bender frothing with observations and self-damnations and then we slip into a love song for the girl he cannot get to hold still for long enough to see, to say nothing of love him. The singer’s loneliness sends up the ruminations on John Berryman and his fateful walk. In the end, all three movements fall into each other to create the song’s finale.

The song opens with fuzzy guitar chords that explode into waves of insistent rock and roll – their sound inspired less by Phil Spector and more by their Twin City older brothers Hüsker Dü and The Replacements. The singer leans close to us and says:

There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right.
Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together.

The slow huskiness of the singing conjures the sad drunk sadness that so often left Sal (from Kerouac’s On the Road) moaning while Dean Moriarity dashed all around him. All these would-be lovers crushed by “colossal expectations” even as the singer feels the weight of the same grand ambitions.

Then the love song breaks out:

She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian.
She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.

She leaves the singer (and us) with the two recurrent images from the song. She’s the drink he desires, yet like any drunk knows, she’ll leave you dehydrated in the morning. So he sings, “She likes the warm feeling but she’s tired of all the dehydration.” Left alone, the singer turns a late night refuge, songs on the radio, but he finds no salvation and no clarity:

Most nights are crystal clear
But tonight it’s like it’s stuck between stations
On the radio.

In that lost Minneapolis night, the singer goes walking and sees John Berryman out too, only it’s Berryman’s last night. The poet who is surrounded by “doctors and deep thinkers, but big heads with soft bodies make for lousy lovers.” All that acclaim and respect doesn’t add up. Berryman’s following his Dream Songs to the fate he has been avoiding since his birth (Berryman’s father committed suicide soon after the poet’s birth). Like the singer, he’s stuck in Minneapolis, stuck between what he wants and what he has:

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.

We hear from a girl whispering to Berryman his death sentence:

“You’re pretty good with words
But words won’t save your life
And they didn’t
So he died.”

Only that girl may be the pretty good dancer speaking to the singer as she walks away. The words are pretty good, but they won’t win her love and won’t save your life.”

Here the song collapses onto itself. The singer talking to Berryman and talking to himself. The girl whispering to Berryman is whispering to the singer and it’s the same girl’s who’s such a good kisser and such a good dancer.

He’s alone in the Minneapolis nights, his head full of “clicks and hisses” from all the static and he’s drinking hard cause he needs that warm feeling even though he dreads the dehydration, that lifeless, lonely morning that’s worse than the night. Berryman drowns in the Mississippi, the song ends with the fury of the music and the hoping for the girl and her dancing and the warm feeling and the exhaustion from all that dehydration and the words that might let him fly.

More Info 

The Hold Steady come from the Twin Cities by way of Brooklyn. A rock band with dense story songs, they reflect the gnarled pop ambitions of their Minnesota predecessors the Replacements, though they have more in common sonically with Hüsker Dü. You can hear the lyric precision of Grant Hart as well as the abstract reaching of Bob Mould. You can learn more about the Hold Steady here.

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2 Responses to “Stuck Between Stations by the Hold Steady”

  1. You’re right, it is remarkable how this song is so upbeat while drawing so heavily on Berryman. I’m a huge fan of The Hold Steady for their ability to condense some lofty ideas into actual rock songs ((none of these artsy-fartsy acoustic pontifications that are sprouting up all over the place)).

    I tend to stand this song next to “John Allyn Smith Sails” by Okkervil River ((found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUi_Di5hO6g and sorry it’s a live version that’s a bit off, but it’s the only one with decent sound that I found)), not only because of the obvious ((John Berryman popping up)) but also how uplifting it seems. I’ve had arguments left and right about whether or not “John Allyn Smith Sails” is a positive song ((which, I maintain, it is)), but to each his own I suppose.

    At any rate, really cool blog you got here! I look forward to seeing some more songs here.

    • Thanks for the link to Okkervil River. There’s some humor in finding John Berryman inspiring songs. Maybe I’ll look into poes as subject mateers of songs. Ryan Adams has his Sylvia Plath song and Lou Reed sings aobut Delmore Schwartz on Blue Mask. The Smiths “Cemetary Gates” mentions Keats, Yeats and Oscar Wilde. I’m sure that Van Morrison mentions some poets i his rambling songs, just can’t think of any at this moment. Paul Simon makes like an English major in name dropping peots in his songs Dylan refers poets by the boatload:
      Rimbaud and Verlaine in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”
      T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in “Desolation Row”
      St. John of the Cross in “Where are you tonight?”
      Dante in “Tangled Up on Blue”

      Anyway, thanks for the comments.


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