So maybe we’re not California, a state about which there seem to be dozens of songs written — even Minnesota’s own Low has a song named after the Golden State. But when Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell said he was looking California and feeling Minnesota, was that necessarily a bad thing? St. Paul and Minneapolis have had plenty of admirers—both hometown and national artists — who have immortalized the Twin Towns in song. Here are a few of the most notable.
01. “Lake Street is for Lovers”
by Lifter Puller
Fiestas + Fiascos
Like a couple of these songs, Lifter Puller’s just-over-a-minute ode to one of Minneapolis’ best-known byways doesn’t exactly have a lot to do with the street itself. But at its core is the scuzzy, down-and-out heart of singer Craig Finn’s menagerie of streetwalkers and bartenders. In songs like “Nice, Nice,” Finn specifically namechecks intersections like 15th and Franklin, but the real significance of all his waypoints and street signs is that every city holds a lost generation, a class of shady characters living on the fringes. Plus, “Lake Street is for Lovers” has the late, lamented Wesley Willis on backup vocals, chanting the song’s signature, “Yes, yes y’all.”
02. “Stuck Between Stations”
by The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
When Finn decamped to New York and formed The Hold Steady, he didn’t forget about the Twin Cities. If anything, Finn’s lyrics became even more Minnesota-centric, and on “Stuck Between Stations” he pulls in a real-life Twin Citian, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Berryman. Berryman was teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1972 when he committed suicide by jumping from the Washington Ave Bridge. Poetic license in hand, Finn follows the poet on a walk with the devil, who explains, “You’re pretty good with words / but words won’t save your life.” And so Berryman joins Finn’s mytho-poetic cadre of misfits and burnouts, a man who “loved the Golden Gophers” but “hated all the drawn out winters.”
03. “9th and Hennepin” and “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” (Tie)
Fact once again collides with fiction in Tom Waits’ “9th and Hennepin,” a spoken-word jazz meditation about the downtown Minneapolis corner where “[a]ll the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes.” According to Waits, most of the song’s vivid imagery is actually drawn from New York (the dead giveaway is the “evening train” in the last line), but it was initially inspired by a donnybrook between pimps at a donut shop on Hennepin. The donut names Waits remember? “Cherry twist, lime rickey.”
“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is an open letter to an ex-lover where the titular hooker papers over her rundown life in an attempt to win sympathy, and a bit of cash. Ninth Street makes another appearance, where the narrator lives “right above a dirty bookstore / off Euclid Avenue.” The only problem? There’s no Euclid Avenue in Minneapolis. There’s a Euclid Place, right near Lake of the Isles, and a Euclid Street in St. Paul, but Waits’ Euclid Avenue is a work of pure fiction.
04. “Positively Fourth Street”
by Bob Dylan
Released as a non-album single in 1965
Now 4th Street positively exists in Minneapolis (in Dinkytown, specifically), and Dylan even lived near there before moving to Greenwich Village. Most people will tell you this song is a snide backhand to the entrenched folkerati in New York, but for an artist who evoked both the Delta and his hometown of Hibbing in “Highway 61 Revisited,” it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think Dylan could be using 4th Street to do double duty. Dylan’s always had mixed feelings about Minnesota, and it’s entirely possible to hear the song as a kiss off to a place where he never quite felt at home.
by that dog.
Retreat from the Sun
It’s not all suicidal poets and hookers and jerks when it comes to the Twin Cities in song, though. Despite the title, “Minneapolis” takes place in Los Angeles, where the narrator starts crushing hard on a boy at the (now defunct) Jabberjaw Café. The catch? The boy is from Minneapolis where “he saw [her] at the Entry.” Throw in a reference to Low and a sly callout to Semisonic’s big hit (“Hung around till closing time / I wanna make him mine all mine”) and you’ve got a golden Minnesota pop jam.
06. “Always Coming Back Home To You” / “Say Shh”
“Always Coming Back Home To You” is one of those perfect album closing songs: a little sad, a little nostalgic, but clear-eyed and ultimately resolute. It follows Slug through Uptown, down Lyndale and past the places he’s known in a virtual tour of south Minneapolis. But the hidden track that truly closes out 2003’s Seven’s Travels has arguably become the more famous track. “Say Shh” (or possibly just “Shh,” depending whom you ask) was the first cut played on MPR’s The Current when it debuted in 2005, and fittingly so. It makes as eloquent an argument as any Minnesotan could for having Midwestern pride. Like Slug says, “It sucks that you think where I’m from is wack / but as long as that’s enough to keep your ass from coming back.”
Steve McPherson is a writer and musician who has lived in the Twin Cities since 2004, where he teaches writing and music at McNally Smith. His dog is named after both a drink and a guitar. He tweets from @steventurous.