Musically, Lifter Puller is a different beast than Craig Finn’s current band The Hold Steady. The late 90s Minneapolis alternative rock band channels new wave, art-punk, and early hardcore, contrasting with the classic-rock-influenced masturbatory bar band antics of the Hold Steady. I love both bands but Lifter Puller won me over when I first heard “Nassau Coliseum,” off their second album Half Dead and Dynamite. It finds them operating in a similar, if not darker, style to The Hold Steady. After the opening bass notes eerily creep in, a combo of dissonant staccato minor chord stabs while the band’s hip-hop-indebted drums complete the rhythm section. After a while, the vocals start up – a six minute stretch of half-sung adolescent nostalgia, seedy youths, police violence, geographic namedrops, and explicit come-ons. There might be less explicit Christianity here, but there’s still a familiar theme of troubled youths trying to find redemption in sprawling cinematic narratives.
Describing the back story to “Nassau Coliseum” in an old interview, Finn states: “In 1991, I went to a Grateful Dead show at Nassau Coliseum. Supposedly, it was the biggest drug bust in Grateful Dead history.” He avoids any mention of the girl at the song’s core. The first verse introduces her and the narrator as two young drunks fooling around on a porch swing. After a drug-referencing verse, the heart of the story unfolds with a flashback to the concert at the Coliseum. The girl is there with the narrator. An unlicensed beer vendor gets busted. A hippie girl selling t-shirts gets handcuffed and beaten. Once we hear that the girl from the first verse has left him, the narrator even admits to being angrily swept up in the spectacle of the hippie t-shirt vendor getting beaten (“I don’t regret it/ that I got some kicks in”).
Starting with the line “Every hippie that goes home bloody feels like a martyr back in the city,” the last verse leads to a triumphant close. After listing thirteen cities, states, and countries, Finn shouts “I wanna fuck you/ I wanna fuck you/ out on Long Island.” Nassau Coliseum is located in Long Island if you didn’t already know that.
It’s this final verse that distinguishes Craig Finn as one of America’s great lyricists. At its shallowest surface, the song ends up being about wanting to get laid by an ex at the same place where Finn’s narrator had a poignant experience. At its deepest reaches though, like all great Lifter Puller/Hold Steady narratives, the song tries to string together many of the messy loose ends that seem tethered to youth — pain, violence, music, love, drugs, alcohol, sex. There’s a catharsis in that final line that reaches down into the depths of what it means to be young and making questionable decisions. The song is one of many to accomplish this feat in Lifter Puller’s vastly underrated catalog, a body of work that I highly recommend you take some time to explore.