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A Brief Interview with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady
preceding notes and interview by Alex Ruskell

The arc of John Berryman's life was made for a tragic song. In 1926, when John was eight, his father committed suicide with a shotgun while standing outside John's bedroom window after a land deal went bad. Within months, his mother had married her lover, who had been their landlord while his father was alive, and moved the family from Tampa, Florida to New York City. There she gave young John Smith his new last name, Berryman. John suffered from anxiety, insomnia, hypochondria, and depression, culminating in a suicide attempt in 1931. The next year he enrolled at Columbia. At Columbia Mark Van Doren took him under his wing, and John began publishing poems in both The Columbia Review and The Nation. He studied two years at Cambridge University in England, and then taught at Wayne University (later Wayne State University). He drank heavily, womanized, and antagonized many of those around him, while at the same time becoming friends with writers such as Randall Jarrell and Adrienne Rich.

He eventually ended up at The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was later fired after being arrested for drunkenly defecating on his landlord's porch. At that point, he called his friend Allen Tate, who secured him a post at the University of Minnesota. His poem "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" was published in the Parisian Review and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1956.

The Dream Songs, a long poem in 385 parts and his most famous work, was written in his new home of Minneapolis, and later captured Berryman the Pulitzer Prize. In his acceptance speech, he told the assembled crowd "I set up The Dream Songs as hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry." Haunted by depression and alcoholism, he continued to live and work in Minneapolis until one day in 1972 when he waved to the assembled crowd and threw himself from the Washington Avenue Bridge. He was 57.

Reflecting their Minneapolis roots, The Hold Steady's "Stuck Between Stations" references Berryman's sad biography with the lyrics:

The Devil and John Berryman took a walk together / They ended up on Washington talking to the river / He said "I surround myself with doctors and deep thinkers but big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers" / There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly / But he didn't so he died / She said "You're pretty good with words but words won't save your life" and they didn't so he died / He was drunk and exhausted but he was critically acclaimed and respected."

Thus ending with the image of the song's protagonist and others floating down the Mississippi River. In the song's video, the band's bass player, Galen Polivka, is reading a copy of The Dream Songs. Much like the protagonist of a Hold Steady song, Henry, the protagonist of The Dream Songs, is haunted, libidinous, prone to substance abuse, and acutely aware of himself and the world's impact upon his psyche. He also finds himself explaining his mind and motives to Friend, much like a Hold Steady song seems to be explaining itself to the unknown listener, the unnamed "you" who is either criticized, plagued, harangued, or loved.

Similar to Berryman, it is easy to believe that Craig Finn, the Hold Steady's lyricist and frontman, is being completely autobiographical within the band's songs. And like all good writers, this was a misconception Berryman often faced, arguing in his note to The Dream Songs' final edition that "Henry is not the poet, not me... [he is] an imaginary character."

Your songs tend to tell stories that revolve around a few repeating images and themes (youth, drug use, the Mississippi River, Minneapolis, going to music shows)—what compels you to keep returning to them?
I think it's the way that I have experienced our world. A lot of my songs are, at their heart, about wonder. Coming up in Minneapolis, these were my life, and were important to the way that I realized there was a world beyond my suburb and school.

As a question that gets asked to authors constantly, how autobiographical are your songs (e.g., did you really get punctured under the train bridge)?
I never got punctured, but I have been robbed. My songs are about the kinds of people I was around, especially at age 16-23. Basically, once I got a driver's license, I immediately started going towards bad decisions. The driver's license is a huge step in the lives of the young suburban. Mobility and freedom are often seen holding hands, if not downright screwing.

On some songs where I have heard several different versions, you change the lyrics, and in concert, you often sing away from the microphone. Are the precise words in the songs important?
They aren't totally important. I think my lyrics are best when they are most conversational, and I try to get away from reading or reciting lyrics. A good storyteller will make slightly different word choices each time. I am interested in a natural delivery. I think the best public speakers are comfortable following an outline, rather than reading something verbatim.

What is your interest in John Berryman?
It mainly has to do with his biography—alcoholism, religious experiences, and suicide. The latter of which occurred in my hometown. I read an article about him and got interested and then explored his writing. But it was really the fact that he was my hometown's most famous suicide that made him so interesting to me.

Who are your favorite authors, and why?
Historically, Kerouac due to his rhythm, but also the way he is able to highlight unique American experiences. I very much admire Phillip Roth's ability to unravel a story. Also, I am in awe of the humorous tone achieved at times by Richard Russo and Larry McMurtry.

Are there any lyricists you really admire, emulate?
Obviously Dylan and Springsteen. Also Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley from the Drive by Truckers. John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats. John Samson from the Weakerthans. Blake Schwartzenbach from Jawbreaker/Jets to Brazil. Paddy Costello from Dillinger Four. There are a lot that I can't think of. I still listen to a lot of new music.

People keep claiming (and have claimed forever) that the novel is dying, that people don't read, etc., etc. Might the next Great American Novel be a rock song? Would that be a bad thing?
I think it would be best if it's a novel. I think it's a format worth preserving. Not unlike the album. I think the novel provides an internal dialogue within a characters head that gives it more intellectual weight than a song or an album or a movie. If someone tells me they don't read, I have a hard time warming up to them. That said, most people I know are better read than I am.

What lines just kill you? (E.g., a couple of mine are "I've got a hurricane in my pocket, but no one will believe me." — Drivin' n' Cryin'; and "I feel like a stray from your cannonball days."—Ryan Adams.)
My all-time favorite: "Fingernails and cigarettes—a lousy dinner" — The Replacements.

Favorite newish: "It was a difficult delivery, now it's growing up mean and strong / When you tell me that it's getting a little bit tight, ain't the first time I been outgrown" — Patterson Hood, Drive By Truckers (from "Heathens").

As a writer, do you feel closer to poetry or fiction?
I feel way closer to fiction. There is very little poetry that has excited me. Maybe I have a hard time finding its rhythm. But to me, it's often due to a lack of humor or sense of humor. I know my favorite books, movies, and songs are all humorous at times. Even when they might be serious as a whole.

As you look out at the crowds, what is the face of America?
Wow, that's a heavy question. I do think technology is allowing people to bridge gaps they weren't able to before. For instance, our audience has a lot of different ages, backgrounds, etc. Seriousness aside, in our crowds, the face of America looks like its going to be hung over tomorrow.

Alex Ruskell teaches at Roger Williams University School of Law.

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