ShuffleLove: The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations, Boys And Girls In America, 2006

I never liked Jack Kerouac. I’m pretty sure that I was introduced to him way too late in my life–I was no longer a whimsical teenager who believed that anything was possible; instead I was a college graduate who was reading all of the classics that I should’ve paid attention to during those formative years while working at a golf pro shop.

The job was simple enough: I worked the desk, checked folks in & out, & from time to time, I would suggest various pieces of golfing equipment for customers. I would give vague advice in regards to club speed: you need to be able to hit the ball as far as you can, but you don’t want to sacrifice accuracy, I would vacuum the tartan-patterned carpet.

But most of all, I would read those classics–most I would slog through for the benefit of “bettering” myself; I was hoping to attend graduate school the next year & I figured I needed to at least have these books ready in my ‘have-read’ catalogue provided that I would find myself at an awkward party where someone would chastise me for never reading Rilke, or Kerouac, or that other white dude who did that thing.

During this classics binge, I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to know as much about writers as possible, & so I started reading through interviews in The Paris Review–I learned about Carver & Coover & Bishop & Eliot & Vonnegut & Didion, so on & so forth. I distinctly remember reading John Berryman’s interview, which was conducted shortly before he flung himself into the Mississippi River. In it, the interviewer asks him about ranking certain poets & writers: if he were to give the world a top five list, where would he fit. He refuses to do so, saying that it is hard to distance their work from his personal relationships with the work & the writers; he has dinner with Robert Lowell, so he can’t possibly put him 3rd or 4th.

This is all to say is that when we write about music, we tend to rank things: we obsess over year-end lists, we talk about who are favorite bands are, what is the best concert we’ve ever seen. Even in the previous iterations of this series, I’ve found myself mentioning how a particular album is still an all-time favorite; this other band was my favorite band in high school. The Hold Steady, especially Boys and Girls in America, would rank pretty high on the list of favorites–I have an intimate relationship with this album; it brings me back to the beginnings of my second year in Tuscaloosa–driving home from the Downtown Pub & not turning off my Ford Explorer until the pianos built back up during “First Night,” or running as fast as I can on a treadmill the next morning to “Stuck Between Stations,” trying to forget a Midwestern girl who didn’t show up to the bar even though she said she would.

And that’s the problem: the album arrived at a pitch-perfect time for all of these moments–I was about to turn 24, I was one-year into something that I was completely unsure of, yet entirely devoted to, I had things sorted out for a hot second before they cooled into something unrecognizable. I liked the warm feeling but I was tired of all the dehydration; I knew some damn good dancers & some terrible girlfriends; I was pretty good with words, but they were delivering me nowhere & nowhere fast.

So I sang along & deemed these songs anthems; told everyone that this was my favorite album of the year. But perhaps I had grown too close to it–as Berryman said, it’s hard to think rationally & critically about something when you had dinner with the artist the night before. To this day, “Stuck Between Stations,” is still on my iTunes Top 25 Most Played, & I haven’t come across it in at least two or three years now.

One of the great things in life is stumbling across songs from your past & re-evaluating them with an older ear: occasionally you’ll listen to something that you couldn’t get enough of when you were younger but it now sounds hollow. Other times, you hear something & have a new appreciation for. With the case of “Stuck Between Stations,” it’s hard to say that I would love this song as much if I came into it at a different point in my life; if, say, I had first heard it when I was 25, or, hell, even now, where my musical palate has shifted strongly away from guitars & towards synthesizers. I could’ve loved “On The Road.” I could’ve found Craig Finn’s rambling grating instead of endearing. I could’ve been a different writer. A different person.

And yet, I listen to “Stuck Between Stations,” now–the ringing piano coming in with its stop-start motions, the shouts of “on the radio,” & I get excited. I hear the references to Berryman, & the Golden Gophers, & the Twin City kisses & I think of my girlfriend from St. Paul who is sleeping with the lights on as I write this essay. I think of the randomness of static: the millions of patterns on loop, how every variable is unsystematic–& yet, in the end, the white noise is universal: a symphony of low frequency, the hum of a vacuum cleaner across golf cleat pocked carpet, the whirr of a transmission as it upshifts up the hill near the library, all things stray, yet all things delivered comfortably–a flat signal with no timeline to speak of.


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