Albums of the Aughts: The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America

A little over 50 years ago, America’s number one traveling mystic-poet, Jack Kerouac, came out with On the Road. The novel documents the beginnings of a massive cultural change in America, in which a post-war generation of young beats decided to begin living with more passion and zest for life, choosing to live within each moment, find the endless pools of adventure that this country has to offer, and quaff them. The novel is about careening down the highways and slamming your fists on the dashboard as you defy death itself, staggering from club to club in search some deity manifested in the form a jazz pianist, hopping trains to Mexico and doing enough uppers until you’re no longer yourself and the world is absolutely lucid. It’s kind of about “drinking, drying up and crumbling into dust.”
It’s not self-serving in the least that Craig Finn salutes the famous beat writer in the opening lines of Boys and Girls in America. “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right,” he sighs. It’s perfectly fitting. The two artists are of the same mind, conveying a very similar message — only a half century apart. On Boys and Girls, Finn relates to us tales of hitting it big at the tracks and “spending the whole next weekend high” off the winnings, walking around the dirty streets of an American town and drinking until the world looks different, and those first nights with your oldest friends when you were innocent and smashed in a place that will stick in your memory and haunt you for the rest of your life. In a sense Finn proves that, at least in the twin cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis, the America that Kerouac fell in love with, pursued and documented till his death, still exits.
I’ll admit that I didn’t initially adore this album like I adore it now until I had seen the band live, but that’s not to say that the album doesn’t stand as a groundbreaking work of art on its own. I just had to see the band first hand. I had to see Finn — the words spilling out of him both on and off the mic because he can’t contain his own excitement or the contagious excitement of the crowd of united fans around him — to understand just what the Hold Steady are about, and what their songs are about. It captures our own absurd, beautiful, drunken lives.

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