The Minneapolis rock band Lifter Puller, who were together from 1994 to 2000, had a way of inspiring obsession in their fans. I picked up their final album, Fiestas + Fiascos, only about a month before they split and became enthralled with it too late to see them live. So when they reunited in New York in 2002 to play a farewell show for the East Village club Brownie’s, I spent two entire paychecks to fly out and be there. And I was hardly the most dedicated fan in attendance—I met one guy from San Francisco who had lftr pllr tattooed across his knuckles and asked me to call him Nightclub Dwight, after a recurring character in the band’s songs.
That dude is probably really happy this week. Lifter Puller‘s entire discography was reissued digitally on December 1 by the Orchard: three albums and an EP, all but one beefed up with live tracks, plus a collection of singles and rarities called Slips Backwards. Front man Craig Finn, who’s now in the Hold Steady with Lifter Puller bassist Tad Kubler, has also published Lifter Puller vs. the End Of, a 96-page book of photos, lyrics, and oral history that he compiled with help from Reader contributor Jessica Hopper; a picture I took of a piece of Lifter Puller graffiti in Ann Arbor made the cut. The book comes with a download card that gets you everything but the live tracks.
By the time the band recorded the punchy, hooky songs on Fiestas + Fiascos they’d perfected a muscular blend of indie rock, new wave, and hip-hop—Finn’s talk-singing owes a lot to rap, and the drumming shows a bit of that influence too. But even a superfan like me can admit that the music isn’t consistently great. Lifter Puller’s early singles and self-titled debut consist mostly of blurry, half-formed Archers of Loaf retreads, and their second album, Half Dead and Dynamite, has a few duds too.
Lifter Puller fandom has never been first and foremost about the music, though. It’s about Finn’s lyrics. Download the reissues and listen to them all, starting with Lifter Puller, and see if you don’t get drawn into his multivocal, nonlinear narrative. Taken as a whole the band’s output is like a rock opera, a radio play, and an avant-garde novel rolled into one. The first track gives us an unnamed narrator in an unnamed city, getting wrecked and then getting fucked by a woman he calls the Queen of Diamonds. Even this early on, Finn is using the approach he turned into an art form during Lifter Puller’s lifetime and still uses in the Hold Steady, telling debauched tales full of tricky wordplay and offsetting his sometimes surreal imagery with mundane details. “I got kicked out of a fern bar,” he sings. “I slept beneath a race car.”
On Lifter Puller‘s third track, “Star Wars Hips” (recut in an improved version on the band’s 1998 EP The Entertainment and Arts), he offers more details. This time the narrator warns someone named Juanita that he’s been busted by the cops and snitched to cut a deal, linking her to a series of nightclub fires. Thus begins in earnest the sprawling story that unfolds in bits and pieces across the rest of the band’s discography, with a cast that includes not just Juanita, the narrator, and Nightclub Dwight but also two more female protagonists, Jenny and Katrina (aka Special K or just K), and dozens of fuckups, rich kids, cokeheads, and petty thieves—basically the sort of people who tend to find one another, whether they want to or not, in the underbelly of any city’s nightlife.
The narrative revolves around a series of nightclubs and raves, and at their center is a place called the Nice Nice, run by Nightclub Dwight. Three more or less innocent girls find both damnation and redemption, plus a bunch of sketchy dudes, among the after-hours set in a fictional city that has a lot in common with both Minneapolis and Boston (Lifter Puller started out at Boston College). Then things go really bad—like arson-and-murder bad. Finn’s vision of the underground club scene is drawn in bold strokes, larger than life and occasionally cartoonish. Packs of purse-snatching gangbangers regularly show up at raves and at the Nice Nice, as do the cops. “The busts they look just like the ‘Hey Kool-Aid’ commercial,” Finn sings on “Touch My Stuff,” a track from Fiestas. “Breaking down the walls and they’re tippin’ over tables and it tastes great.”
But despite the jokey spin Finn sometimes puts on it, it’s one of the best and most nuanced portraits of modern nightlife I’ve encountered. The detail is sharp: On “Katrina and the K-Hole,” also from Fiestas, he sings, “These guys with their eyes in their visors / Are a good place to start / If you’re looking for K,” referring both to Katrina and to the club drug ketamine, as well as to a sartorial choice popular among ravers a decade ago (and coming back in the current rave revival). In the single “4 Dix” he sketches a poignant scene of hedonists living beyond their means: “Too many pills, they made a pilgrimage / From upstairs at the Nice Nice to the ATM / Katrina got a little bit religious again / She said Lord grant me twenty, she said Lord grant me ten.”
The preponderance of sex, drugs, and violence in Finn’s lyrics can sometimes bring to mind the hysteria that followed the late-90s explosion of raves in the midwest, which was inspired in part by the notorious case of New York club-kid killer Michael Alig. Panicky local news reports convinced parents that their kids were shooting experimental drugs directly into their brains and having public sex with criminals every time they went to a party. But Finn’s stories are fiction, and he treats his characters and their lifestyles sympathetically—he uses these sensational elements not to demonize but to whip up drama. Nightclub Dwight’s diamond smuggling and drug dealing, ravers rioting in the streets, a shady character referred to simply as the Eye-Patch Guy ordering the burning of the Nice Nice over a bad debt—it’s exciting, almost cinematic. Putting on a Lifter Puller record isn’t something you do when you just want to keep your ears occupied; it’s almost like popping in a DVD.
What really made a fanboy out of me, though, is Finn’s ability to evoke the allure of this life—the beauty and transcendence you can find in raves and clubs. “Back in Blackbeard,” a compilation track now collected on Slips Backwards, says it best. It begins with a repetitive guitar lick that sounds like half an AC/DC riff skipping on a CD, and then Finn enters, describing the chaos that sometimes erupts when large quantities of recreational chemicals and teenage hormones mix. But at its halfway point the song breaks into an uplifting major-key ascent and guest vocalist Nancy Seward sings, “Jenny looks on the bright side / She says, ‘I never saw the sunrise before I met all you guys / Now I’ve done it on the D line and bathed in all your bass lines / And I still ain’t died.'” It’s a perfect summation of club-kid satori, and she lets it hang in the air for a few seconds before she adds, “Or have I?”