The Hold Steady will release their 6th studio album Teeth Dreams on March 25th. To celebrate the newest album from my favorite band, I present the definitive list of the top ten Hold Steady lyrics.
A lot of my favorite Hold Steady lyrics didn’t make it into the top ten. For example, one of my favorite lyrics is: “She came into the ER/ Drinking gin from a jam jar/ And the nurses making jokes about the ER being like an after bar.” That’s a great lyric. It’s from “Stevie Nix” on Separation Sunday, and I wrestled with whether to include it, but I decided against it because I wanted to use this list tp highlight the fact that Craig Finn, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, has written some of the best lyrical moments in rock and roll history, not just some of the best jokes or one liners. I want to show Finn the songwriter, and let’s be honest, a lot of his songs, although great, don’t hold together thematically as well as others in spite of containing a great lyric here or there. Some are a collection of great lyrics, some are great songs. I wanted to focus on the parts of the great songs that really move me and make me do things like listen to the band’s catalog on repeat and talk myself into the new album’s greatness in spite of pretty clear evidence that the band’s best days are behind them. But hell, I thought the same thing about David Ortiz.
Here are some honorable mentions that didn’t make the list, along with the song they are from and album on which they appear. (I’m sure I’m forgetting some.)
“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/ I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.” – “Citrus” from Boys and Girls in America
“How am I supposed to know if your high if you won’t let me touch you?/ How am I supposed to know if you’re high if you won’t even dance?” – “Chips Ahoy” off Boys and Girls In America.
“She got screwed up by religion/She got screwed by soccer players.” – “Stevie Nix” off Separation Sunday.
“We drink and dry up and and now we crumble into dust/ We get wet and we corrode and now we’re covered up in rust.” – From “Stuck Between Stations” off Boys and Girls in America.
“They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs/ It was kind of of sexy but it was kind of creepy/ Their mouths were fizzy with the cherry cola/ They had the privacy of bedsheets and all the other kids were mostly in comas.” – “Chillout Tent” off Boys and Girls in America.
“Seeing lousy movies but only for the AC/ Skimpy little outfits and bad guys acting crazy/ That’s how I know when you’re lying/ It looks just like overacting.” – “Hostile, Massachusetts” off Almost Killed Me.
“Yeah we didn’t go to Dallas / Because Jackie Onassis said / That it ain’t safe for Catholics yet/ Think about what they pulled on Kennedy/ Then think about his security/ Yeah, then think about what they might to pull on you and me.” – “Don’t Let Me Explode” off Separation Sunday.
“Killer parties almost killed me.” – “Killer Parties” off of Almost Killed Me.
“Getting older makes it harder to remember/ We are our only saviors/ We’re going to build something this summer.” – “Constructive Summer” from Stay Positive.
Without further ado, I humbly present…
The Top Ten Hold Steady Lyrics
10. From “Knuckles” on Almost Killed Me:
“It’s hard to keep trying when half your friends are dying
It’s hard to keep it steady when half your friends are dead already
We had tax men coming around the back in the Kevlar vests
Militia men cooking up a batch of the crystal meth
We got wars going down in the middle west
We got wars going down in the middle western states
Kevlar vests against the crystal flakes.”
In a recent Grantland podcast, Finn mentions that “Knuckles” is the first song the Hold Steady performed, so this seems like a pretty logical place to start. “Knuckles” overall is a bit uneven, and the gimmick that Finn uses throughout the song where he sings, “I’ve been trying get people to call me x, but people keep calling me y” gets a little repetitive, and the joke is sort of funny the first time, but not so much after. This part, however, is a perfect example of the really incredible song writing that happens on the first album when Finn gets a little less scatological and lets a few lines build on each other, which is something he does to greater and greater effect on the next two albums, Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America, which are the band’s best.
But what makes this verse so great is the fact that he’s talking about a meth raid and manages to work in all of these great little subtleties. He uses “taxmen” instead of the DEA, or some other police agency, to represent the forces of law order, which is a great way of making the conflict a little more about money and a little less about legality. The fact that the dealers are “militia men” adds color and a strange sort of gang/ideological motivation that wouldn’t be present if the meth cookers were just dealers. He’s made both sides ostensibly political in their motivations, but of course the reality is they both represent money making operations. The thing is though, this song isn’t really political; in fact the Hold Steady have never been political at all. The only ideology in the Hold Steady universe is that redemption is a attainable, and that we are all sort of broken and bruised. That’s very Christian yes, and Finn uses Christian symbolism to make this message, but I ultimately don’t think it’s about Christianity or Christ as much as it’s about the larger truth that the Christian narrative gives us: that we are imperfect but capable of transcendence. The Christianity in Finn’s lyrics are about the redemptive power of rock and roll fellowship, and how the possibility of some limited kind of redemption through that fellowship is beset on all sides by rock and roll’s sins: the drugs, the violence, the partying, and the dishonest sex. But even these youthful indiscretions are part of the journey one must make to get to that place of wholeness and unity, what Finn calls the “unified scene.”
Good god, we’re only on the first one and I’m already talking about Craig Finn’s vision of heaven. Let’s quickly move on.
9. From “You Can Make Him Like You” on Boys and Girls in America:
“You don’t have to deal with the dealers
Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers
It only gets inconvenient
When you wanna get high alone
You don’t have to know how to get home
Let your boyfriend tell the driver the best way to go
It only gets kinda weird when you wanna go home alone
You don’t have to know the inspiring people
Let your boyfriend know the inspiring people
You can hang in the kitchen
Talk about the stars in the upcoming sequel.”
This verse is a scathing and sad indictment of women who define themselves by their lovers. It’s both mean toward the female subject while simultaneously being feminist. And it ends on an image that really makes me feel something close to despair every time I hear it, the image of a woman talking about stupid movies, in the kitchen, in the background, while the inspiring people are out of sight, presumably talking about more important things, their absence making the contrast that much more powerful. Don’t we all feel like that most of the time, that the inspiring people are somewhere else, changing the world while we debate meaningless pop culture? (Writes the guy putting a top-ten list for a specific band on his blog).
8. From “Certain Songs” on Almost Killed Me:
“B-1 is for the good girls and it’s ‘Only The Good Die Young’
C-9 is for the making eyes, it’s ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’
B-12 is for the speeders and D-4 is for the lovers
And the hard drugs are for the bartenders and the kitchen workers and the bartender’s friends
And they’re playing it again
And Ellen Foley gives ’em hope
And certain songs they get so scratched into our souls.”
You could probably choose a view different set of lyrics from this song, but this is my favorite. Finn’s vision of the jukebox as the great commonality between different groups of people, and the really clever way he goes about giving specific song examples with specific button examples, is even cooler than it looks. “B12 is for the speeders” is a great little line about vitamin B12 being an energy boost. Then “D4 is for the lovers” could be about the dopamine receptor D4, which, in addition to being a dopamine receptor, has been linked to bipolar disorder and addictive behavior, which are, I would say, the two most common traits of all Finn’s characters and certainly a pretty accurate medical diagnosis of what being in love is like, especially in Finn songs. Do I think Finn choose D4 on purpose for that reason? I have no idea. But it would be pretty awesome if he did.
“Certain songs they get so scratched into our souls” is as good as line about the power of not just music, but song specifically, as exists in rock and roll.
7. From “One for the Cutters” on Stay Positive:
“One drop of blood on immaculate Keds
Mom, do you know where your girl is?
Sophomore accomplice in a turtleneck sweater
Dad, do you know where your kids are?
Sniffing on crystal in cute little cars
Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars
It’s a cute little town, boutiques and cafes
Her friends all seemed nice, she was getting good grades
But when she came home for Christmas, she just seemed distant and different.”
As a subject, the town-gown split in college towns might not seem like the most compelling thing to write a song about, but using it as the context for a really tight narrative about a fight and what may or may not be a murder is surprisingly riveting. Finn uses an analysis of townies and the good rich girl who falls in with them to explore where questions of justice, class, gender, and innocence.
Also, “Sniffing on crystal in cute little cars/Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars” is an absolute hall of fame couplet.
6. From “Most People are DJs” on Almost Killed Me:
“Working backwards from the doctor to the drugs
From the packie to the taxi to the cabbie to the club
A thousand kids will fall in love in all these clubs tonight
A thousand other kids will end up gushing blood tonight
Two thousand kids won’t get all that much sleep tonight
Two thousand kids they still feel pretty sweet tonight
Yeah, I still feel pretty sweet.”
This verse at the end of “Most People Are DJs” is the songwriting equivalent of the long pull back shot at the end of a movie, when the camera retreats out of the apartment window and looks out over the city as it floats up to heaven. It’s the shot where the whole scene is surveyed before we fade to black, all the kids in the clubs, and all the possible ways their nights will end. Some of those endings will be dangerous or violent and will lead to visits to medical professionals, but some will also end in love. It’s a big ugly mess. But so is life.
We don’t know for sure if the “I” that still feels pretty sweet is the same person who went from the drugs to the doctor, but I like to think it is, because that means that he/she is okay. We take chances on love and joy. Sometimes we fail. That’s what life is. It should, in spite of everything, still feel pretty sweet.
5. From “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on Separation Sunday:
“Your little hoodrat friends been calling me again
And I can’t stand all the things she sticks into her skin
Like tiny ball point pens and steel guitar strings
She says it hurts but it’s worth it
Tiny little text etched into her neck, it says ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins’
She’s got blue black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back
Says damn right he’ll rise again
Yeah, damn right you’ll rise again
Damn right you’ll rise again.”
During the summer summer of 2007, when I first started listening to the Hold Steady obsessively, I briefly had a job that was about a 40 minute drive from where I lived near my college campus. I can’t even count how many times I listened to “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” during those drives to work, alone in the car driving north on 87 to Lake George, and screaming “Damn right you’ll rise again!” at the top of my lungs day after day. That verse always makes me feel a surge of something, something akin to religious fervor. Finn is describing a pretty broken girl, one of the many borderline personalities that populate his songs, and there’s something so beautiful about scratching a dirty homemade tattoo (that’s how I see it) promising redemption into your back. And then Finn agrees with her and with that dirty tattoo. It’s going to get better.
Rock and roll is different than just about any other kind of art, and anybody who has been to a Hold Steady show can attest to that. It’s beautiful, but it’s communal, it’s primal and emotional, and also capable of being philosophical. So when Finn sings “damn right you’ll rise again” it’s not a religious thing. I think he’s articulating the promise of rock and roll, that you can feel this communal exuberance again, that you can tap into the unique rock and roll euphoria that for a moment feels something like transcendence because rock and roll is always there for you. There will be another show down the road where you can touch it again, not matter how broken you might be, no matter how your parents, or the other kids at school, or your many personal and professional failures might discourage you.
4. From “Barfruit Blues” on Almost Killed Me:
“Half the crowds calling out for ‘Born to Run’
Half the crowd for ‘Born to Lose’
Baby we were born to choose
We’ve got that last call, bar band really, really, really big decision blues
We were born to bruise
We were born to bruise”
Not only is this another fine example of Finn’s ability to articulate the way rock and roll can mitigate life’s blows, it’s just a fantastic few lines that manage to give us a deep message about the nature of life (“Born to bruise” might be the most simple, clear-eyed, and yet hopeful three word depiction of humanity in music) but it also manages to show the band’s musical influences and the tension between them, with the crowd split down the middle in cheering for the populist rock and roll of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and the nihilistic-punk of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ “Born to Lose.” In the Hold Steady’s music you can find both Springsteen’s classic rock belief in the open road and its possibilities and as well as the racing power chord nihilism of punk. I think you could say Finn’s lyrics manage to combine Springsteen’s depiction of the people and places he grew up with and punk’s subversion and self-destruction. And the best part is Finn sets up these two songs as options, and then identifies himself as part of a bar-band, a third musical option, an imitator that can do little more than choose from somebody else’s music. Which is, you know, sort of bruising. But that music is making the crowd happy, they are, after all, calling out for it. So the decision is important, because people are waiting for their rock and roll fix, which even the humble bar band can deliver.
3. From “Hot Soft Light” on Boys and Girls in America:
“It started recreational
It ended kinda medical
It came on hot and soft and then it tightened up its tentacles.”
This chorus from “Hot Soft Light” might be the best three lines ever written about drug use and addiction, which is saying a lot since that’s a topic rock and roll has not failed to cover at length and in depth. The only thing I can think of that’s close are these three lines from Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done”:
“I’ve seen the needle and the damage done/
A little part of it in everyone/
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.”
2. From “How a Resurrection Really Feels” on Separation Sunday:
“The Priest just kinda laughed
The Deacon caught a draft
She crashed into the Easter mass with her head done up in broken glass
She was limping left on broken heals
And she said ‘Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?’ ”
The imagery of this moment is magnificent. Separation Sunday is a sort of concept album about Holly (short for Hallelujah) a confused, druggy hoodrat who dies and is then resurrected. And in this moment, in the final song of the album, Holly returns to the living. Finn plays this moment perfectly by not going to any of his usual bag of tricks; there’s no wordplay or bits of gutter philosophy here. Instead he paints a beautiful scene of a lost soul coming back to the church baring good news about the possibility of new life. Every word in this verse is perfect. It’s a beautiful, breathtaking bit of songwriting, and Finn’s lyrics combined with Tad Kubler’s fantastic riffs and solos make “How a Resurrection Really Feels” one of my favorite songs, period.
1. From “Stuck Between Stations” on Boys and Girls in America:
“There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right
Boys and girls in America, they have such a sad time together
Sucking off each other at the demonstrations
Making sure their makeups straight
Crushing one another with colossal expectations
Dependent, undisciplined and sleeping late
She was a really cool kisser but 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
He likes the warm feeling but he’s tired of all the dehydration
Most nights are crystal clear but tonight it’s like he’s stuck between stations
On the radio.”
These are the first lyrics on the first track of “Boys and Girls in America” and it sets the tone for what is an amazing rock and roll album. If you haven’t heard the Hold Steady, this is the song I’m playing for you. This whole song is perfect, and lyrically there isn’t a single misstep. There’s just so much vivid imagery and ideas packed into this opening. It establishes the band’s literary chops by quoting Kerouac then immediately diving into the chaos and brutality of young love and the emptiness of fervent youthful belief (“sucking off each other at the demonstrations” is hilarious). Then it sort of beautifully turns these conflicts into an actual figure, a girl who can’t reconcile responsibility and seriousness with fun and sexuality, a bad girlfriend with half-ass beliefs who also happens to be an excellent dancer and kisser. And then it uses dehydration to stand in for the hollowness of drinking and drug abuse, all before using the whole mess of conflict to say that the combined effect is like being stuck between stations on the radio. Awesome. Failing to find a radio station is the perfect image for the first verse of this album to end with, as The Hold Steady’s previous album had been called “the best album you didn’t listen to last year” by multiple year end lists. When writing this song, the band itself was stuck somewhere off the radio dial and out of the public consciousness. That would not be the case after “Boys and Girls in America.”
(I’d love to hear any thoughts about the list, especially what I missed or got wrong. Let me know in the comments.)