Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Making Money With My Math: My Lifter Puller Regrets

So I'm sitting here having a typical Ali night: Downloading music pseudo-illegally through a website that appears vaguely Argentinian, eating pretzel goldfish, attempting to explain (with my eyes) to two cats that I'm running low on the dry food so they'll be getting more of the plentiful wet food which should not be a problem since they LOVE the wet food and merely tolerate the dry food. But they seem upset by this change in policy.

So I'm having this typical night and I'm counting down the days until the 24th (when I can get that dry food, when I can pass that smog test, when I can file that paperwork, when I can drive across that morning bridge with a sense of purpose) and debating whether I should really call my next big (and I mean BIG) poem Unincorporated East Los Angeles or if I should just not call it anything and not write it and just let it be.

So I'm sitting here and I realize my biggest regret. No - not the obvious regrets that have traditionally traveled through my brain at bedtime, culminating in lovely and poetic but kind of sad Top 10 Lists of Regrets. (Sample Top 10 List, circa August 2008: 10. Never asked Alicia out in 200x; 9. Never asked Romalyn out in 199x; 8. Never asked Cathy A. out in 1983; 7, Did ask Karen S. out in 1983; 6. Didn't see Fishbone at First Ave. in 1986, choosing instead to study for a midterm; 5. Didn't stay in Brea for a few more months in 1990; 4. Didn't stay in Minneapolis for a few more months in 1991; 3. Didn't wait another few months to move in with A.E. in 2007; 2. Didn't take that job in Minneapolis in 2006; 1. Repeat regret number X because that's the one I really regret and...) But no there's a bigger regret and this one doesn't involve a girl, a city, a job, or a woman. No this regret involved a band.

You see, I was THERE.

I was there.

The whole time. I was right THERE.

I was even invited to go see them once. Brett (hey Brett - accept the friend request; don't let it just hang there like a fished-for compliment gone unflung) said "hey Ali - I know I said I like hate and I hate everything else but you gotta see this band with me tonight at the Entry. Lifter Puller. I like them."

I declined. Yeah Brett was the coolest guy in Minneapolis circa 1999 but I wasn't that far behind and I thought I knew better. I had heard the dreaded P word bandied about about Lifter Puller. P as in Punk. And I held steadfast to my belief that all music was good and continually evolved but that punk was born in '77 with the Ramones and it evolved beautifully into the second Violent Femmes album in '83 and why bother after that? So Brett took my no and never asked again, never suggested a second time, never made me a goddamn mix CD/cassette to try and convince me that Lifter Puller was awesome. (I, on the other hand, never give up. For example, I still try to convince the world that Mark Eitzel is a fucking goddamn genius and no one believes me. They don't want to believe me. They never will believe me. But he is. He is. He is.)

But this isn't about Mark and his big gay heart that will never not remember. This is about Lifter Puller. This is about a Minneapolis band that existed between 1994 to 2000. I lived there form 1996 to 2002. I was THERE. They probably played locally 1,000 times. Yes, I'm exaggerating but I'm not about to go to fan sites and scour the old touring schedules to get an accurate count. Let's just say they were incessant about plugging in the amps and educating the local kids and women and men. (the song that follows is by Lifter Puller; the video, though entertaining, is not)

Half of Lifter Puller became 40% of The Hold Steady, a band that you know I like and I write about frequently. The Hold Steady have continued Lifter Puller's love of touring and I have happily seen them three times. But Lifter Puller is gone and they're not coming back (not everyone comes back.) In the final act of their final song on Lifter Puller's final album, a man (Nightclub Dwight) was killed and his club (The Nice Nice) was burned down. That's about as destructive as it comes. In the first song of the first Hold Steady album, a new gauntlet was thrown down and a new American history was laid down carefully, decade by decade. No one was going back.

The simple story would be that the strongest common link between the two bands is the obvious one: the songs / the songwriter / the singer. Craig Finn was there for both of them. And let's run through that story a little more carefully:

The songs: Brilliant in both bands. But kind of different. Finn has explained that The Hold Steady is the classic rock counterpoint to Lifter Puller's more experimental Punk. That's a good enough generality. But really the continuum between the two bands is cleaner than that. The songs are about boys and girls and women and men and drugs and drinking and rock and punk and crime and drugs (again) and girls (one more time). The songs are classic rock and classic punk and classic love and classic hate. I have no preference. I love both bands.

"Math is money and money is math. Leather vest and assless chaps" - Math Is Money, Lifter Puller

But yeah I had the chance to see them. I had the chance to sing along. In '96 when they weren't great yet but they were so so close. In '97 when there was no looking back. In '98 when Brett made the offer and I couldn't have made a bigger mistake. In '99 when - admittedly - I needed the punk and the rock. In 2000 when it neared its end and Fiestas and Fiascos, my likely choice for best album of the decade (Separation Sunday by the Steady will likely be #2) was released.

And where was I in 2000? I think I was listening to the quiet folk music and downloading Boz Scaggs 23 years late. Interstingly, six years later after hearing The Hold Steady, Fiestas and Fiascos was the first album I legally downloaded. Though I found genius and joy in its songs, the one Lifter Puller song I kept playing in those early discovery days was Viceburgh from one of the other albums. God, I could listen to that song every day of my life and I still wouldn't be sure if I envied the protagonists or was happy I never became then:

"Sad ravers in freight elevators, sucking on skyscrapers, living on Life Savers baby" - Viceburgh - Lifter Puller

It wasn't until THIS summer - the summer of whatever the fuck this summer is about - that I truly got into Fiestas and Fiascos. But I had my chance, nine years earlier when they released that masterpiece and toured for the final time. I had my chance but I stayed inside and played Scrabble. How would my life have changed? Would I have dove into a different kind of darkness? Would I have worn Indian fringes? Would I have moved to Brooklyn? No one knows.

The songwriter: Maybe Craig Finn knows. It's clear - to me, to others, but not to everyone - that the man is the greatest songwriter working today. And I mean truly working - constant touring, 3 LFTR PLLR albums plus countless singles and a perfect EP, 4 HLD STDY albums plus a live one and some other stuff. All in the last 12--13 years. And a thousand shows. PLUS he had to live the LIFE necessary to write those songs. And while I don't necessarily think he was Nightclub Dwight or the Man with the Japanese Hand Fan or Katrina or Juanita or Holly or Gideon or Charlemagne, he had to have been someone. And he had to have spent time at those places: 15th & Franklin and Mission Viejo and the LBI and the Nassau Coliseum and the Nankin and 66th & Nicollet and Osseo and Highway 169 and First Ave. and Santa Cruz and Bloomington and Jefferson Ave. and Dogtown and Payne Ave. (Full disclosure: I have been to ALL of those places except the LBI and Santa Cruz and I would have gone to Santa Cruz that one weekend in 2006 if Caroline had returned my calls.) So thanks Craig - you've made me happy. (the song that follows is by Lifter Puller; the video, though entertaining, is not)

The singer: I'm almost out of words and I can't find any good live Lifter Puller footage so let's just move into the present and the future to define Craig Finn: a live Hold Steady performance that wonderfully displays his black-framed squints and manic hand-singing AND a new video of an unreleased song, the smoothest/mellowest Craig had ever been and he still nails it so beautifully:

So I was there and I didn't go. I caught the later years of genius, years that will likely go on and on. I missed the beginning. That's all. It's not so bad.


Or is it?

Consider this: I actively paid money to see swing bands perform live in the nineties. I actively avoided Lifter Puller. I shall not be forgiven. I saw the goddamn Big Bad Royal Crown Squirrel Voodoo Daddy Revue Zippers and missed out on:

"Power to the people making money with their mouths."


"I like some funky drums and I hate some chunky drummers."


"We stepped out of the Jersey Pines, headed straight for the neon signs."


"Did you fucking fall asleep on the futon?"

"Woke up on 15th and Franklin with some straight looking chick and some prick she picked up from the Nankin."


"I want Nightclub Dwight dead in his grave and I want the Nice Nice up in blazes."

I will survive this regret. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow is a day with hope and potential. Tomorrow is mine. (Note: Sharona is coming back to Monk - for one episode!)

"Even if you threw like Vida Blue, I'd hit on you like Killebrew."

So I've spent this one regret, my biggest regret. I'm too tired to listen to anymore of their songs. It's past midnight. I must have other regrets. I will close the laptop and prepare the bed for sleep. I will close my eyes and make a new list in my head: Top 10 Regrets, July 22, 12:05am. Number 10. Never.....


Maybe I can make amends on that one. Maybe I can do something about it. I have a picture to look at and a poem to reread. Then, I will sleep.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog post.
I missed it too. 94-00 is a blur. ha
-Steve Barone

obscurapersona said...

Hmmm... I like this post... I love top 10 lists... especially when they're about regrets...

Eddie D. said...

Do we know for sure that Nightclub Dwight met his demise as directed by the Eye Patch Guy?

I ask because I've been harboring a theory that Gideon is Nightclub Dwight.

But anyway, great post. I sadly totally missed out on Lifter Puller and didn't know it existed until I got into The Hold Steady, who I'm FINALLY going to see live next week.