The Hold Steady: "The Swish" (Annotated)

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"The Swish," from The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, the group's first album, is a free-associative ramble through Craig Finn's mental encyclopedia of rock, pop and suburbia, carefully patterned with references to pop, celebrities and illegal substances of all kinds.

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.

Pills and powders baby. Powders and pills. We spent the night last night in Beverly Hills1. There was this chick that looked like Beverly Sills2. We got killed. Tights and skirts baby. Skirts and tights. We used to shake it up in Shaker Heights3. There was this chick, she looked like Patty Smyth4. She seemed seemed shaky but nice.

She said my name is Rick Danko5 but people call me one-hour photo. I've got some hazardous chemicals. Drive around to the window. She said my name is Robbie Robertson6 but people call me robo7. I blew red white and blue right into a tissue. I came right over the counter just to kiss you.

Ginger and Jack8 and four or five Feminax9. Psycho eyes and a stovepipe hat. A ray of light in tight white rayon slacks. We got cracked. Shoes and socks baby. Socks and shoes. We spent the night last night in Newport News10. This chick she looked just like Elizabeth Shue11. we got bruised.

She said my name is Steve Perry12 but people call me Circuit City13. I'm so well connected. My UPC14 is dialed into the system. She said my name's Neil Schon15 but some people call me Nina Simone16. Some people call me Andre Cymone17. I've survived the '80s18 one time already. And i don't recall them all that fondly.

It was a blockbuster summer. Moving pictures helped us get through to September. They made a movie about me and you. It was half-nude and half-true. It was a bloodsucking summer. I spent half the time trying to get paid from our savior. Swishing though the city center. I did a couple favors for some guys who looked like Tuscan Raiders19.

More Songs Translated


1The tour kicks off with a couple of dates on the west coast, including this stop in hedonistic Bev-Niner. One would presume there'd be plentiful access to both powders and pills.

2The aesthetic (and physical) embodiment of the diva. In 1971, Time magazine called her "America's Queen of Opera." Also, her name rhymes nicely with "Beverly Hills."

3Tearing through the Midwest, the van's starting to smell. After a show in Cleveland, the band crashes with the friend of a friend in a lush suburb.

4Spiky-haired lead singer of '80s one-hit wonders Scandal. Smyth's hair, like her sound, was much less provocative by the time of a latter-day 1992 hit duet with Don Henley, "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough."

5Shambling bassist for the Band, archtypal, unimpeachably authentic rural rockers. Danko played in a reformed Band in the 1980s without key member Robbie Robertson.

6Songwriter and guitarist in the Band, whose all-star farewell show was documented in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. Robertson is paired here with his Band-mate Danko. In this verse, Craig Finn links Robertson and Danko to imagery both dangerous and patriotic.

7This one had us stumped. Mr. Finn? Craig Finn: "Robo is slang for robitussin, which some people drink to get high." NPR: "Ah, of course."

8Ginger ale and Jack Daniels, a popular mixed drink.

9 Medication containing the active ingredients paracetamol, caffeine, codeine, and hyoscine, recommended for relief of menstrual cramps. One would assume that it's used here for something slightly more illicit.

10The tour cruises into a southern seaside town near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Virginia being for lovers, the groupies are getting a bit more attractive.

11Actress who went from movies such as Adventures in Babysitting and Cocktail in the late 1980s to an Academy Award nomination for her role as a prostitute in Leaving Las Vegas. Career's been shaky since then.

12Fluty, slightly ridiculous lead singer for the arena-rock era of the band Journey. He co-wrote and sang the hits "Don't Stop Believin'" "Any Way You Want It," and "Open Arms."

13Circuit City is a major electronics chain with over 600 stores across mostly suburban America.

14UPC = Universal Product Code (a.k.a. bar code)

15Journey's lead guitarist from its earliest progressive-rock days. The deflating Journey pairing parallels the earlier mentions of Danko and Robertson of the Band. As suggested by the images of Circuit City and barcodes, Journey was a far more commercial project than the Band.

16Versatile, uncompromising vocal performer, fluent in the idioms of jazz, pop, and soul. At this point the coherence of Finn's musical references is dissolving in a hail of half-remembered names from his memory banks.

17Childhood friend and early backing musician for Prince; Cymone later wrote the hits "Looking for a New Love" and "Real Love" for Jody Watley.

18In 1983, Cymone released his second solo album, Survivin' in the 80s. See also the Hold Steady's "Positive Jam": "The 80s almost killed me, let's not recall them quite so fondly."

19In the Star Wars movies, the nomadic, kaftan-wearing inhabitants of Tatooine, the sandy planet that Luke Skywalker calls home in the original trilogy. They are not the most attractive creatures.