Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Hold Steady's Murder Mystery

Against my better instincts, I'm going out this weekend. Out to see an all-ages show in fact, mingling with youngsters who are probably young enough to be my own children. And why, pray tell, would I expose myself to the elements in such a perilious fashion?

Because Craig Finn is driving me crazy with his bamboozling lyrics. I'm out to see The Hold Steady, a band I'm surprised hasn't become even bigger already. How Kings of Leon gets to play the O2 in London but The Hold Steady has steadfastly remained a bar band is beyond me. Anyway, the tightly-knit members of The Hold Steady are out touring behind the new double-disc live album A Positive Rage.

I think my biggest trouble is that I approached the band's albums piecemeal. I'd hear a song here and there - I think I got turned onto "Stuck Between Stations," which references the suicide of John Berryman after hearing Okkervil River's "John Allyn Smith Sails," a really haunting version of the same sad event. After I got a couple of copies of the band's new album Stay Positive, and 2006's Boys and Girls in America, I started catching the repeating references to characters and places.

I still don't know if there's a coherent narrative there, and that's a question that someone should ask Finn, whether there's a truly whole story in his head. But in stitching together all the disparate threads in my head, it builds a fantastic murder mystery.

Finn told the Seattle PI, "I think there is a little bit of everyone in those characters, and I think everyone can see themselves in my songs and these characters. The more you firm them up with more and more details, the more you exclude people from relating to the stories."

Among the repeating characters are a couple of dangerous boys - Gideon, the destructive "cowboy on the crosstown bus," and Charlemagne, a pimp and drug addict, last seen in "Ask Her For Adderall" - "Skinny, scared and off his game, he's been hiding from those gentlemen with the same tattoos as Gideon."

There are also a couple of girls, Holly, whose real name is Hallelujah, dates all the way back to "Barfruit Blues" from the 2004 album Almost Killed Me. Certainly most of Separation Sunday is built around her. Another is Sapphire, the center of the lovely and underrated "Yeah, Sapphire," a recent track, and reportedly the psychic girl from the fan favorite "Chips Ahoy."

There is at least one murder during the course of these albums, and possibly a couple. In "Both Crosses," one of the girls recalls, "She's known a couple boys who died and both of them were crucified." Naturally, one of these might be a Catholic/religious reference, but I'm not entirely sure it is. In "Joke About Jamaica," the line is revisited as "One summer, two kids died, and one of them was crucified."

I'm fairly sure the narrator of this particular narrative is Sapphire: "She saw him gushing blood just before he got cut. She saw them put a body in a bag in the trunk." Now, is this the kid who gets killed in the spectacular "One For The Cutters," which recounts the incident from a different point of view? "The night with the fight and the butterfly knife was the first night she spent with that one guy she liked?" But then the "one guy" splits for Cleveland, and comes back with blood on his jacket.

Certainly someone has gotten what's coming to him in "Yeah, Sapphire": "I'm not drunk, I'm cut, I'm gushing blood and I need someone to come pick me up." The working theory is that it's same fatal fight and Sapphire wasn't physically present for it, even though she saw it coming. See how this thing will bend your noodle if you think about it too much?

But back to the original theme, Finn and The Hold Steady build these great little scenes that are straight out of a crime novel, like the investigation in "One For The Cutters."

"Now the cops want to question everyone present. They parade every townie in town through the station. But no one says nothing and they can't find the weapon," followed shortly by the song's best (and oft-misinterpreted) line: "One drop of blood on immaculate keds." That's all it takes to put somebody away these days.

There's another elegant little song on the new album, "Sequestered In Memphis," during which somebody is obviously getting sweated over a liaison gone wrong: "I think she drove a new Mustang. I guess it might be a rental. I remember she had satellite radio. I guess she seemed a bit nervous. Do you think I'm that stupid? What the hell, I'll tell my story again."

Even the songs that aren't about murder are heartbreaking, like "Lord I'm Discouraged," in which I imagine Holly has succumbed to the things she's seen, and someone is doing their best to look after her. "I know it's unlikely she'll ever be mine, so I mostly just pray she don't die."

Is there an answer to all these riddles? I don't know, but it's damned intriguing to try to stitch all these threads together. Maybe best to leave it with a line from Separation Sunday.

"Do you want me to tell it like boy meets girls and the rest is history? Or do you want it like a murder mystery?"


lindsey said...

That main female character has been around since Craig's Lifter Puller days- her name was Jenny back then (see "Secret Santa Cruz").

Have a GREAT time tonight- make sure you find a place in the pit and leave entirely soaked in beer and sweat (10% of which should be yours).

Clayton Moore said...

I was wondering about that. I only stumbled across the earlier incarnation of the band this morning and hadn't gotten to delve into their lyrics yet. Thanks.

At least there will be beer. I've heard the St. Louis show was dry. That's just not right.

lindsey said...

The first time I saw THS was at a Mesonic Temple in Connecticut- needless to say it was "dry," but almost everyone smuggled in a flask. So, instead of being covered in beer, I was whiskey soaked. Come to think of it, that was the best show of theirs I ever saw... ;)

But, yes, beer is a good idea also. I plan on drinking quite a bit of it when I see them this June (once with your brother!).

If you need any of Lifter Puller's albums, I'll zip them and send them over. I know they're ultra hard to find.

John said...

And you can't forget that in a subplot, developed through the miscellaneous non-album tracks, Holly disappears to California ("Modesto is not that Sweet") and the narrator--Craig Finn himself, or maybe "Hard Corey," for all we know--chases her out there and is disgusted. Why was she on the run? And did she end up in Ybor City?

I love these clues he scatters throughout. I think, as much as Separation Sunday was Holly's album, that the next one needs to be about Charlemagne. I'm worried about him. He's mixed up in things that are much larger than he is.