I’m seeing The Hold Steady live in two days, so I feel like writing about them. Deal with it.
Song: “Stuck Between Stations” by The Hold Steady
Album: Boys And Girls In America
Written By: Craig Finn, Tad Kubler, and Franz Nicolay
My Relationship With This Song
I was not a party guy in college. This should be surprising to exactly zero people who know me, but I think it’s key in understanding why The Hold Steady were my go-to band during my four years at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Then again, art schools aren’t exactly the biggest hotbed for fraternities, so not being a party guy wasn’t really the worst thing in the world. However, I do remember a couple of numskulls knocking on my door that were trying to start a fraternity in our dorm, because apparently stupidity is a virus that even a city like San Francisco isn’t completely immune to.
I know this is going to sound pretty lame, but I think you could say that all of the “partying” I did in college came exclusively from listening to Hold Steady albums. By this I mean that in some strange way, I lived vicariously through the lyrics of Craig Finn, which often described the joyous nights of young people who seemingly had the weight of the world on their drunken shoulders. In my mind, these self-described massive nights sounded so much more thrilling than the parties that were going on at my school, which I assume mostly consisted of long-haired bearded dudes sitting around stoned, asking “What is art?” Not that I would’ve known, since I looked like a guy who had accidentally enrolled in what he thought was the Academy Of Narc University.
Anyways, when I think of “Stuck Between Stations”, I’m mostly reminded of being plugged into my iPod while riding around on different buses through late-00s, pre-App-obsessed San Francisco. I guess it would’ve been 2008 to be exact, when The Hold Steady had first caught my attention with their then-most recent album Stay Positive. Fortunately for me, Stay Positive was just the tip of the iceberg in a truly great four album run that I’d put up against any band’s four album run from the last 20 years.
So as I worked my way backwards through The Hold Steady’s catalogue, “Stuck Between Stations” struck me as the purest expression of this band’s almighty power, and a great lead-off to the epically awesome Boys And Girls In America album. And being that it was the first track, I’d often find myself listening to it while anxiously awaiting my bus to come pick me up for some late night class or editing session at the school’s Final Cut labs. And because I was in film school while spending a lot of time listening to this song, I of course tried my damnedest to fit “Stuck Between Stations” into one of my short film projects, though I just couldn’t ever quite make it work. Perhaps there’s such a thing as a song being too cinematic.
Reasons Why I Love This Song
The Intro Feels So Wrong It’s Right: The guitar riff that Tad Kubler starts the song off with is, in my opinion, a perfect distillation of what’s to come: it’s very pretty, but there’s also enough distortion there that you know this thing is gonna rock. Then pianist Franz Nicolay starts laying those Springsteen-ian piano riffs over it, and it’s a beautiful thing. However, there’s something about that kick drum that seems a little off. I don’t want to get into technical musician-speak (because I’m not smart enough to), but something about that straight drum beat doesn’t completely gel. Or at least it didn’t the first few times I heard it, and then I ended up listening to this song so many times that it didn’t matter. It’s just a part of this song. So why not embrace it?
“There Are Nights That I Think Sal Paradise Was Right”: Most smartypantses knew what this song’s opening lyrics were a reference to the first time they heard it. I did not. Though I do remember being able to organically put it together one random day in summer 2009, when I found myself sitting on the lawn of the campus of Gustavus University, which I believe is located somewhere in Western Minnesota. I guess I should explain that my family was on vacation, and my younger sister was thinking about going to school in Minnesota, where my parents grew up. So while they were busy taking a tour of the campus, I was sitting there reading a copy of Kerouac’s On The Road, and stumbled on to a passage where the book’s narrator Sal Paradise proclaims, “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” And after reading that line, I knew something about it sounded both profound and familiar, and yet I couldn’t figure out why. Then I remembered, “Oh Yeah! That Hold Steady lyric!” Which may or may not be tied to the fact that On The Road ended up becoming one of my favorite books ever.
“Oh The Radio!”: I don’t want to get too caught up on Franz Nicolay, since he’s no longer in The Hold Steady, and I think a big part of me enjoying The Hold Steady show I’m going to on Friday will be accepting that they’re kind of a different band now without him. But man is he killin’ it on this song. Not only do his piano runs completely extend the scope and breadth of this song, but his intermittent back-up vocals also give it even more power than it already had. Two of these moments come when Craig Finn and Nicolay in unison sing that one of the song’s characters “likes the warm feeling. / But he’s tired of all the dehydration.” and then joyously cap off the chorus by simply shouting “Oh the radio!” in completely different vocal registers. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t really notice at first, but became a lot more noticeable to me after seeing The Hold Steady’s performance of “Stuck Between Stations” on Letterman.
“These Twin City Kisses”: Despite being officially labeled as a “Brooklyn band”, you wouldn’t be able to tell this from The Hold Steady’s lyrics. Because as any Hold Steady fan knows, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler both came from the Twin Cities, and thusly Finn’s story-songs often evoke Minnesota and the Midwest in general. I’ve already mentioned one particular reason why “Stuck Between Stations” reminds me of Minnesota, but it also does just in the sense that this might be the most Minnesota-y of all Hold Steady songs. You not only have Finn describing how “these Twin City kisses, they sound like clicks and hisses.” But you’ve also got a long passage about poet John Berryman not being able to stand the area’s drawn-out winters, despite his affinity for the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers. I know, it’s a pretty weird mishmash of images and ideas, but somehow it all makes sense in the context of a Hold Steady song.
Why I Will Continue To Love This Song
I really don’t want to belabor my love of this song anymore than I already have, since my personal love of The Hold Steady is far from the consensus here at Mildly Pleased. But I’ll just say that I’ll continue to love “Stuck Between Stations” because, for me, it is joy personified (but in a heady, intellectual kind of way). It’s a song that whenever I’m going through some transitionary or uncertain moment in my life where I’m thinking “Gee, I don’t know if this is gonna work out…” More often than not, I’ll put on this song, and my response will be “Fuck yeah this is gonna work out! Everything is awesome!” and then in my mind I’ll do a little Howard Dean scream/fist pump.
Also, I’m not sure I did justice to how much this song totally fucking rocks. But believe me, it does. Hard.