The Hold Steady: "Cattle and the Creeping Things" (Annotated)

"Cattle and the Creeping Things" contains more than a dozen references to the Bible, but it's not an explicitly religious song. It's more about Craig Finn characters making tentative acknowledgment of their own religious upbringing; Finn uses the moral issues implicit in the Bible to create tension within the hard living of his characters.

Suspend your cursor over underlined words in the lyrics to see explanatory text by NPR's Jacob Ganz. This works only with Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher; if you're using a different browser, see the footnotes below.

They got to the part with the cattle and the creeping things1. They said I'm pretty sure we've heard this one before. Don't it all end up in some revelation2 with 4 guys on horses3, and violent red visions famine and death and pestilence and war4. I'm pretty sure I heard this one before. You in the corner with a good looking drifter. Two cups of coffee and ten packs of sugar. I heard Gideon5 saw you in Denver. He said you're contagious. Silly rabbit. Tripping is for teenagers. Murder is for murderers6. And hard drugs are for bartenders7. I think I might have mentioned that before.

He's got the pages in his pockets that he ripped out of the Bible from his bedstand in the motel8. He likes the part where the traders get chased out from the temple9. I guess I heard about original sin10. I heard the dude blamed the chick. I heard the chick blamed the snake11. I heard they were naked when they got busted. I heard things ain't been the same since. You on the streets with a tendency to preach to the choir. Wired for sound and down with whatever. I heard Gideon did you in Denver.

She's got a cross around her neck that she ripped off from a schoolgirl in the subway on a visit to the city. She likes how it looks on her chest with three open buttons. She likes the part where one brother kills the other12. She has to wonder if the the world ever will recover. Because Cain and Abel seem to still be causing trouble.

She said: I was seeing double for 3 straight days after I got born again13 it felt strange but it was nice and peaceful. It really pleased me to be around so many people. Of course half were just visions but half of them were friends from going thru the program with me. Later on we did some sexy things. Took a couple photographs and carved them into wood reliefs. But that's enough about me. Tell me how you got down here into Ybor City14.

He said: I got thru the part about the exodus15. Up to then I only knew it was a movement of the people. But if small town cops are like swarms of flies16 and if blackened foil17 is like boils and hail18. Then I'm pretty sure we've been thru this before. And it seemed like a simple place to score. Then some old lady came to the door and said Mackenzie Phillips19 doesn't live here anymore.

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NOTES

1The very first page of our Old Testament (Revised Standard Version, Genesis 1:24) says that on the fifth day of creation, God made animals, specifically calling forth "cattle and creeping things" from the earth. Later, He gets upset at his creation, and decides to wash these things away in a flood (Gen. 6:7).

2It really does all end up in "some revelation." The final book of the New Testament is called Revelations and presents "the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him to show his servants what must soon take place." (Rev. 1:1) That's a not-too-subtle reference to the end of the world.

3Harbingers of the end of the world, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They ride different colored horses (white, red, black, pale) and take different things from the humans on earth. Guy No. 4, for example, is Death. His job? Leading the swarms of hell onto the earth.

4Death, the rider of the pale horse, sweeps into Revelations 6:7 "to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth."

5Gideon pops up in Judges (6:11 - 8:35) to lead the people of Israel back to God's good graces after they lapse into worship of false gods. This prophet also lends his name to Gideons International, an organization of missionaries who leave bibles in motel bedstands. Finn's Gideon has a more complicated relationship with virtue than his namesakes.

6Druggy paraphrase of the General Mill Trix cereal slogan, "Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!"

7An in-joke: "Certain Songs," from the album The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me contains the line "Hard drugs are for the bartenders and the kitchen workers and the bartender's friends."

8This is a nice image: a character named Gideon tearing pages out of a bible that was left in a motel by the Gideons.

9Each of the New Testament's four Gospels has a scene in which Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem, overturns the tables of moneylenders, and drives out those who buy and sell goods (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15, Luke 19:45, John 2:13-15). It's a scene that echoes the actions of Old Testament prophets like Gideon, who are frequently employed by God to refocus the Israelites when their attentions are diverted from their covenantal duties.

10The phrase "original sin" doesn't actually appear in our Bible, but the idea is central to Catholic doctrine. It refers to the disobedience shown by Adam and Eve in the 3rd chapter of Genesis and their resulting expulsion from Eden. The significance for the rest of us? The Catholic Church says that we are born with the stain of that disobedience and must repent in order to be saved. It has absolutely nothing to do with the 2001 film starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie.

11He heard right. This is pretty much exactly what happens in Genesis 3:8-13. See also the next two lines.

12In Genesis 4:8, Cain kills his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy. These two brothers, the sons of Adam and Eve, are often referenced as the progenitors of human conflict.

13Because they believe in original sin, Catholics (like Protestants) believe that to be saved, you must be born again. Jesus even says so: "Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).

14Near Tampa, FL. How Holly made it here from Minnesota, I'd like to know.

15The second book of the Old Testament, Exodus is the story of Moses leading the Jews out of enslavement in Egypt. God helps out by sending ten plagues down on the Egyptians (blood, frogs, hail, etc.), and parting the Red Sea. Once the Jews are safely out of Pharaoh's clutches, He reveals the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai.

16The fourth of those plagues mentioned earlier. In Exodus 8:20-24, the Lord sends swarms of flies to fill the houses of the Egyptians. Flies don't quite do the trick, and six more plagues ensue.

17A reference to the result of smoking drugs (often freebase cocaine) from a sheet of foil. Some of the plagues visited upon Finn's characters are self-inflicted.

18The sixth and seventh plagues visited up on the Egyptians. Pharaoh's resolve is weakening at this point.

19The eighth plague in Exodus: Just joking. Actress and daughter of John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, best known for her role as a teenager in George Lucas' American Graffiti. Phillips was arrested for cocaine possession while a cast member of the sitcom One Day at a Time.

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