The Hold Steady: "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" (Annotated)
From the band's second album, Separation Sunday, this song is a landmark in Craig Finn's effort to conflate religion and rock 'n' roll. Told from the twin perspectives of a proselytizing band and ecstatic fans, this is an ode to the power of a good rock show and a salute to one local band.
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.
Nelson Algren1 came to Paddy2 at some party at the Dead End Alley3. He told him what to celebrate. And I met William Butler Yeats4. Sunday Nite Dance Party5, summer 1988. At first I thought it might be William Blake6.
We mix our own mythologies. We push them out through PA systems. We dictate our doxologies7 and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen. I'm not saying we could save you. But we could put you in a place where you could save yrself. If you don't get born again at least you'll get high as hell8.
Sweet Saint Paul9. That must be the hardest luck saint of them all. We met him in some suburban Saint Paul mall10. When St. Theresa11 came to Holly12. I wasn't even at that party. I'd already moved out to New York City13. When Judas14 went up and kissed him. I almost got sick. I guess I knew what was coming. I guess I knew it was coming.
We gather our gospels15 from gossip and bar talk then declare them the truth. We salvage our sermons from message boards and scene reports. We come on to the youth. We try out new testaments16 on the guys sitting next to us in the bars with the bars in their windows. Even if you don't get converted tonite you must admit that the band's pretty tight.
They did "She's Got Legs"17 into "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg"18 into something by the Dixie Dregs19. They faked their way thru "Fairytale of New York."20 When the band stopped playing we howled out for more.
Hey Nelson Algren. Chicago seemed tired last nite. They had cigarettes where there were supposed to be eyes. Hey William Butler Yeats. The Irish seemed wired last nite. They tried to separate our girls from our guys. They had cigarettes where there were supposed to be eyes.
More Songs Translated
1Chicago author (1909-1981) of The Man with the Golden Arm, a bleak account of morphine addiction.
2Patrick Costello of the St. Paul, Minnesota, punk band Dillinger Four.
3The house lived in by members of Dillinger Four and the location of parties and shows attended by the Hold Steady's Craig Finn. This lyric, Finn says, is a reference to a lyric in a Dillinger Four song: "Nelson Algren came to me and said celebrate the ugly things."
4Nobel Prize winning Irish poet and author (1865-1939), fan of folk tales, mysticism, and the occult.
5All-ages dance night at First Avenue, seminal Minneapolis rock venue.
6British poet famed for his engravings and his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. While many of his works deal specifically with Christianity, Blake had a complicated relationship with religion, and famously sided with Satan in his analysis of Milton's Paradise Lost.
7Christian hymns glorifying God.
8Finn's playing religion off rock 'n roll again here, and calling back to his song "Banging Camp," where a character is told to take a hit of nitrous before baptism in a river: "When you wake up again you'll be high as hell and born again."
9The city of Saint Paul, Minn., gets its name from this New Testament author. Born Saul, he's depicted as a persecutor of early Christians who changes his tune, and his name, after seeing a vision of Jesus while on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-5).
10It's anyone's guess which mall Finn is talking about here, but it's worth noting that the country's largest retail and entertainment complex is the massive Mall of America, located in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.
11Saint Theresa of Avila, 16th-century Carmelite nun and patron saint of headache sufferers. At a young age, she bounced between extreme religious piety and rebellious behavior. She would go on to found the Discalced Carmelite order, and reformed many convents.
12Craig Finn's protagonist on Separation Sunday. Holly displays a similar tendency toward trouble as did the young Theresa of Avila, but also some of Theresa's affinity for religion.
13Craig Finn moved to New York City in 2000 after the dissolution of his band Lifter Puller.
14One of Jesus' 12 apostles, he betrayed his teacher for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-16) by leading officials from Jerusalem to Jesus and planting a kiss on his cheek.
15Testimonial or teaching, religious in nature. In the New Testament, the four Gospels are histories of Jesus' ministry as told by four of his followers.
16The New Testament of the Bible, 27 books dealing with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
17"Legs" was a top ten hit for hard-rockers ZZ Top in 1984.
181966 hit from Motown superstars the Temptations, or the first single from condom-clad 90s girl group TLC. Either way, the band's looking pretty versatile at this point.
19Good-natured late-70s rockers known for their ambitious fusion of genres both smart (jazz) and dumb (southern rock).
201988 Christmas ballad from motley Irish folk-rockers the Pogues, with guest vocals by Kirsty MacColl. Any band that can play straight-ahead rock, soul or hip hop, southern rock/jazz fusion, and this bawdy Irish-American holiday tune is basically turning water into wine.