In a song: what I see in St. Louis, what I see in Detroit

The first time I heard Neko Case’s song “Thrice All American,” I was visiting St. Louis from my then-home in Chicagoland. My friends wanted to stop in Vintage Vinyl. Foolishly, foolishly, I thought I’d avoid buying anything by perusing a listening station rather than browsing. I popped on the giant headphones, idly flipped here and there through songs without any of them particularly catching my attention, and then…. I heard this wonderful song. Frugality be damned, I bought the CD and announced to my friend that we’d be playing it in her car right away. We put it in the discman-rigged-to-tapeplayer set-up and rolled down the windows of her grandma-given hooptie and turned it up and drove down Delmar. 

Neko Case’s lyrics are about her native Tacoma, but when I first heard “Thrice All American,” all I could think was St. Louis St. Louis St. Louis. As Detroit has increasingly become a part of my life, I’ve begun to picture its streets as well when I hear the song.

Lyrics follow:

“Thrice All American”

I want to tell you about my hometown
It’s a dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound
Where the factories churn and the timber’s all cut down
And life goes by slow in Tacoma

People they laugh when they hear you’re from my town
They say it’s a sour and used up old place
I defended its honor, shrugged off the put-downs
You know that you’re poor, from Tacoma

Buildings are empty like ghettos or ghost-towns
It gives me a chill to think what was inside
I can’t seem to fathom the dark of my history
I invented my own in Tacoma

There was nothing to put me in love with the good life
I’m in league with the the gangs, and the guns, and the crime
There was no hollow promise that life would reward you
There was nowhere to hide in Tacoma

The people who built it they loved it like I do
There was hope in the trainyards that something inspired
Once was I on it, but it’s been painted shut
I found passion for life in Tacoma

Well I don’t make it home much, I sadly neglect you
But that’s how you like it away from the world
God bless California, make way for the Wal-Mart
I hope they don’t find you, Tacoma

If you’d like to hear the song, there’s a charming, gleeful fan video for it on youtube.

I can’t say it any better than she does in her own words, but I like that Neko Case does not treat a town and its residents being down on their luck as some wholly, monolithically terrible thing. I don’t mean to sugarcoat decay or to in any way dismiss the struggles of people who live in communities like, well, mine, but damn it we have pride and history, too. It’s not all bad, and to focus only on pathology-centric accounts of places like this is to deny our communities their human complexity.

Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 7:51 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That song definitely resonates. St. Louis will miss you when you leave for Detroit, but we know you’ll keep it in your heart. Motown will be a better city with you in it.

    Good luck.

  2. The people who built it, they loved it like I do.

    …That’s unbelievably beautiful…and accurate for me and St. Louis too.

    What a wonderful song. I think we’re on the exact same page. I am a St. Louisan who was obsessed with Detroit also. I visited in June 2006–saw Michigan Central, Heidelberg, Eastern Market, Mexicantown, Corktown, Woodbridge…I’m still kind of dazed from my love for the city as well.

    What is it in us Rustbelters that makes us feel more at ease amidst places “away from the world”?

    Thanks so much for sharing and best of wishes in Detroit!

  3. when Old North and Detroit get all gentrified and twee, i’ll meet you on the east side my dear.

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