In the eyes of the record label there was a failure; and in the eyes of Wilco there was an album growing heavy for the vintage. How Jeff Tweedy and Co. fought against the man and amongst themselves for the fruits of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. By Jonathan Valania
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
That was written by William Carlos Williams, an American poet. Best I can tell, he was talking about the significance of insignificance, that little things truly do mean a lot—like if you could surf the past in a time machine and you did something as small as, say, kicking a stone in the Stone Age, it could send a ripple through the entire fabric of history. Everything after could be slightly different. You might even erase yourself from existence.
I bring this up because this is a story about American poets, who will be referred to hereafter as the rock band Wilco. And this is a story filled with insignificance: business deals, personnel changes, communication breakdowns, creative dysfunction and small personal failures. Basically, a lot of red wheelbarrows in the rain that so much depends upon. Not the least of which is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I’m pretty sure will be remembered one day as great American poetry in thought and word and sound and action. If 1999’s Summerteeth was Wilco’s Pet Sounds, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is its Smile—American beauty edged in transcendental weirdness and giddy invention. YHF is the smoking gun in the case for Wilco being the new Great American Band—a torch-passing tradition that stretches from prime R.E.M. to the Band to Bob Dylan, who got it from Woody Guthrie, who picked it up from Carl Sandburg, who had it passed to him by Walt Whitman.
The wonderment of this artistic triumph is made all the more remarkable by the fact it happened at a time when Wilco—perhaps the last group we’ll be able to refer to as “a great underground major-label rock band”—was completely reinventing itself in public. First, the drummer was asked to leave. Then, the band’s label asked the band to leave. Finally, the guitar player was asked to leave. How and why all these things happened depends on whom you ask. That’s the thing about these red wheelbarrows upon which so much depends.
Don’t Go Back To Rockville
The recent release of Uncle Tupelo’s 89/93: An Anthology—the first step in Columbia/Legacy’s plan to reissue the band’s three indie records—isn’t just a reminder of where Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has been, but also how far he’s come. He sounds so boyish and tentative on those recordings, especially compared to fellow Uncle Tupelo singer/songwriter Jay Farrar’s glowering, Mount Rushmore gravitas. At the time, everyone thought Farrar was the heavyweight and Tweedy the lightweight, the eager one in the straw hat with the Minutemen jones. And then Tweedy got heavy. He stepped out of Farrar’s shadow Oct. 22, 1996. That’s the day Being There, Wilco’s sophomore album, was released. And on that day, Jeff Tweedy started casting his own shadow, and it’s only stretched farther and wider with each ensuing Wilco album. Not that he cares about shadows anymore, his or anybody else’s. He’s done worshiping heroes; now he just learns from them. That’s what Being There was about.
The conventional wisdom is that Uncle Tupelo pioneered the alt-country genre, and while that’s factually incorrect—‘80s groups like the Long Ryders and Green On Red first wedded rootsy twang to indie rock—the band did succeed in making country music cool in dorm rooms across America. Columbia/Legacy’s reissue series came about when Tweedy and Farrar—who share the same attorney—finally managed to wrest control of their master tapes away from Rockville Records, the now-defunct label that released Uncle Tupelo’s first three albums. Tweedy has nothing nice to say about Rockville: “Ran a very unethical business,” “tried to screw a lot of people” and “cease and desist orders” are some of the phrases he uses to describe the process of getting the band’s catalog back.
He does, however, have nice things to say about Farrar, which is somewhat surprising considering Uncle Tupelo didn’t exactly go gently into that good night. One day, Farrar announced he no longer wanted anything to do with Uncle Tupelo or the people involved—and that was the end. Apparently, a lot of water has passed under that particular bridge. Tweedy actually seems open to the notion of a one-off reunion. “Actually, nobody has asked us,” he says. “There’s no weirdness between me and Jay, we just don’t talk. But you know, we never talked much when we were in a band together.”
Summer Teeth And Some Are Mermaids
In the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s bitter split in 1994, Farrar went on to form Son Volt; Tweedy started Wilco. A.M., Wilco’s 1995 debut, sounds like Uncle Tupelo minus Farrar, which was pretty much the case. All of that changed when Jay Bennett, formerly of Midwest power-popsters Titanic Love Affair, joined the band shortly after the completion of A.M. Bennett brought with him a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of rock music, and his creative partnership with Tweedy opened a lot of new doors, enough to fill the two CDs that would make up Being There. On the back cover of the album is a photograph of disembodied hands hovering over the keys of a piano. This would prove to be a prophetic image: Wilco was about to make a great leap forward artistically.
Although Bennett was hired on as a guitar player, Tweedy was delighted to learn he could also play piano. Tweedy started writing with piano voicings in mind, something he’d never done before. At every tour stop, they would comb junk shops and music stores for esoteric keyboards: modular synthesizers, moogs, mellotrons, theremins. They would doodle endlessly, searching for strange new textures onto which they could project the songs that would eventually become Summerteeth. The Pet Sounds boxed set was released around this time, and it, too, was closely studied.
Tweedy also began to rethink the way he approached lyrics, questioning his insistence on writing in the conversational voice. He relaxed his rule against committing lyrics to paper: If you couldn’t remember it, it wasn’t worth singing in the first place. “I used to want to write songs that anybody could sing, but then I started to think it was OK to write songs that only sound right when I sing them,” says Tweedy.
He began to realize mysterious things happened in the spaces between words, and that when you arranged them in certain ways, you could create magnetic fields of deep suggestiveness. He experimented with collage and cut-up techniques, snipping words out of newspapers and magazines, tossing them in a hat and drawing them randomly to see what sentences they made. He would write a page of lyrics, then switch all the nouns and verbs. To break up the boredom on the road, Wilco and crew would participate in an old surrealist word game called cadavre exquis (“exquisite corpse”). A typewriter would be set up in the back of the bus, and whenever someone felt like it, he could go back and type a sentence. The one rule: You could only see the sentence typed by the person before you; all the rest were kept covered. Some of this accidental poetry would make it into songs, such as the line “Please beware, the quiet front yard,” from Summerteeth’s “She’s A Jar.”
Marriage and fatherhood had deepened Tweedy’s perspective. He learned to quiet his mind in the hours he would sit by his son Spencer’s bedside, waiting for him to fall asleep. “I really just started reading six years ago,” says Tweedy. “It’s not like I didn’t read before, but now I actually finish books. I’ve finished more books in the last six years than I did in the preceding 28 years of my life.” Books like The Making Of A Poem: A Norton Anthology Of Poetic Forms and The Anxiety Of Influence: A Theory Of Poetry by Harold Bloom. Beckett novels. Books about Dadaism, surrealism and minimalism. It was obvious to anyone who was paying attention that Tweedy was becoming something extremely rare in rock ‘n’ roll: a poet.
Billy Bragg seemed to notice. In 1995, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora invited Bragg to dig through the dustbowl bard’s extensive archives of orphaned lyrics and build songs out of them. It was Bragg’s idea to include Wilco in the Mermaid Avenue project. In 1997, Tweedy made a pilgrimage to the Guthrie archives in New York City, spending hours sifting through thousands of pages of lyrics, doodles and musings. It’s impossible to ignore the passing-of-the-torch analogies: young upstart American songwriter given the task of finishing the work of a giant of American music.
That December in Chicago, Wilco recorded a handful of tunes it had put to Guthrie’s lyrics before heading to Ireland a month later to record with Bragg. Six weeks under Dublin’s damp, dreary skies took its toll on the band. “It was a rough time,” says Tweedy. According to some observers, this is when Tweedy and Bennett’s friendship and creative partnership began to fray. “Jay Bennett lost his mind in Dublin,” says one insider close to Wilco.
Bennett cops to going a little stir crazy. “We had just come off the Being There tour, which was Wilco’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll tour,” says Bennett. “I had just quit alcohol and caffeine. And the sun came out for maybe five minutes in the six weeks we were there.” Despite the misery, it was a prolific time. The bulk of the tracks that appear on volumes one and two of Mermaid Avenue were recorded; in all, 49 songs were put to tape.
Still, it was an uneasy partnership with Bragg, which explains in part why there never was a Mermaid Avenue tour. “As a collaboration, it had worn thin,” says Tweedy, making it clear Wilco won’t be doing a Mermaid Avenue Vol. III. “We never really saw eye to eye. It was hard for us to relinquish control over what we put out into the world, as I’m sure it was for Billy.”
On top of it all, the cruel logic of major-label math meant Wilco’s royalties for both Mermaid Avenue albums were less than $1,000 despite their combined sales of about 400,000. Tweedy had long ago figured out that making records isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. “Since Uncle Tupelo, I’ve been trained that you put out a record and people buy it five years later,” says Tweedy.
He Fell In Love With A Drummer
In the early days of Wilco, each member called a different city home, with Tweedy living in Chicago, Bennett in Champaign, Ill., bassist John Stirratt in New Orleans and drummer Ken Coomer in Nashville. Everyone would saddle up in Chicago for tours and recording sessions, then go their separate ways afterward. Stirratt and Bennett soon relocated to Chicago, but Coomer elected to stay in Nashville. It was a decision that ultimately led to him being asked to leave the band early last year. He was, quite simply, out of the loop.
After Dublin, Wilco took up residence in a loft space in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighborhood. It would serve as recording studio, secret hideout and incubator of ideas. “It became a legitimate workshop, and I don’t think Ken ever got the concept of the loft,” says Stirratt. “We were paying a lot of money for it, and we wanted to take full advantage of it. He never even bothered to get his own key to the place. Sometimes he would be waiting outside for one of us to let him in. It was like, ‘You don’t understand. This is your place, too.’”
The band’s finances were a sore subject with the drummer. To this day, Wilco has yet to see a dime in royalties from album sales. Salaries are drawn from touring revenue, and in an off year, each member earns about $30,000—in a good year, as much as $70,000. Tweedy draws additional income from publishing royalties and is said to be more generous with it than most.
Two years ago, Coomer asked that Wilco’s books be audited. Reportedly, when he got the results, his response was, “Wilco grossed a million dollars and I can’t pay my rent?” Wilco is run like a business—the band calls it Wilco World Tours—and as such, there’s significant overhead. “Ken was always the first to ask questions about that kind of stuff but the last to actually look into it,” says Stirratt. “You have to understand, this is a band that spent $125,000 on taxis in one year.”
In May 2000, Tweedy was invited by Chicago’s Noise Pop festival to collaborate with esteemed local highbrow-rock renaissance man Jim O’Rourke, who brought along drummer Glenn Kotche, a Kentucky native formally schooled in percussion. Kotche, a mainstay on the Chicago scene, has toured frequently with O’Rourke and played on a number of his records. The Noise Pop gig went so well that Tweedy and O’Rourke wrote and recorded a soon-to-be-released album with Kotche. One night, the drummer showed up at a Tweedy solo show and wound up sitting in.
“I don’t think he really knew any of the songs,” says Tweedy. “But it seemed like he had been playing them for 15 years. There was a really intuitive communication between the songs and what he was doing with them, and I felt really great about it.”
Sessions for Wilco’s fourth album began that summer: songwriting, woodshedding, demos. The working title was Here Comes Everybody. Wilco would record in two-week blocks, for which Coomer would fly into Chicago. Picking up where Summerteeth left off, Tweedy wanted to continue moving away from the band’s early rip-it-up live aesthetic and into heretofore uncharted territories of mood, vibe and sound. But an air of frustration and vague dissatisfaction hung over the sessions. For Tweedy, it felt like playing in “a Wilco cover band.”
By January, it became clear to the members of Wilco a change had to be made. “I hate to say ‘fired,’ but we let Ken go not based on his personality or our feelings about him as a drummer,” says Tweedy. “It was primarily about a chemistry and a relationship that I had developed with Glenn and his sensitivity to what I was trying to do musically. And I didn’t want to give that up. But it was a decision that could not have been made unless the rest of the band agreed to it.”
“It was a difficult decision, definitely not for the faint of heart,” says Stirratt. “It was rough.”
“It was handled really badly,” says Bennett. “(Wilco manager Tony) Margherita called him.”
Tweedy and Coomer haven’t spoken since.
When Swag, Coomer’s new band, was on tour later that spring, I asked him what had happened. He shrugged and said, “You tell me.” I called him at his Nashville home in February to get his side of the story. He still hasn’t called back.
Yankee … Hotel … Foxtrot … Over
Last November, Wilco received a letter from Los Angeles photographer Sam Jones. He wanted to make a film documenting his favorite band going through the process of recording and releasing its fourth album. Tweedy liked the idea, and Jones was given unlimited access and permission to film anything he saw fit. With cameras rolling and Kotche behind the drum kit, Wilco set about reworking and re-recording all the songs.
All the basic tracking for YHF was done in the band’s loft, and Bennett insisted on handling the bulk of the recording responsibilities. Everyone else chafed at this arrangement. “Jay had put himself in a position of being something other than a member of the band,” says Tweedy. “I think we would have all been happier if he had spent less time recording and more time making music.”
“Things came to a head between me and the rest of the band because I was wearing too many hats, and I’ll take the blame for that,” says Bennett.
A lot of time was given over to experimentation. The band held “noise parties,” building Rube Goldberg-style noisemaking contraptions, hooking up a fan so the blades struck the strings of a piano or an electric guitar, then running that sound through a chain of effects pedals before putting it to tape. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s title comes from a recording of a short-wave radio broadcast featuring a woman intoning the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, which was mixed into the noisy coda of the song “Poor Places.” For additional nuance, Kotche would sometimes play one drum kit on the verse of a song and switch over to another kit for the chorus. He brought along his collection of ceramic floor tiles, which he played like a marimba. There was a lot of tape splicing and filtering instruments through modular synthesizers, “basically trying to destroy anything that sounded traditional or natural,” says Tweedy.
Given unlimited time and access to equipment, Wilco wound up recording many of the songs from YHF six or seven different ways, complete with vocals and instrumental overdubs. It was a bootlegger’s dream—seven versions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—but in the end, this approach proved exhausting and disorienting. “I would never want to record that way again,” says Stirratt.
At the end of March, the band convened at the Chicago Recording Company (the preferred studio of the Smashing Pumpkins and R. Kelly) to commence mixing. The first step was weeding through upward of 48 tracks’ worth of overdubs—“endless weirdness,” as Bennett calls it—for each song. It was to be a democratic process of elimination, with all members voting on decisions and Bennett steering from behind the mixing console. From the beginning, it was a trainwreck. “The decision-making of the group was not functioning properly,” says Tweedy of the sessions, which routinely stretched into 14-hour days.
According to Bennett, the presence of Jones’ film crew didn’t help matters. “It was as much about making a movie and trying to look like you’re making a record as actually making a record,” he says.
By this point, Bennett’s estrangement from the rest of the band was almost complete. One by one, the other members stopped showing up.
Back at the loft, a new plan was hatched: Bring in Jim O’Rourke to sort it all out and mix it down. Some say Bennett saw this as a slap in the face, but he begs to differ. “I co-wrote a bunch of those songs, and I recorded them,” says Bennett. “Am I the best person to be mixing it down? No. By that point, I was ready to do a hand-off.”
O’Rourke, Tweedy and Kotche set up shop at nearby Soma Electronic Music Studios (owned and run by Tortoise’s John McEntire) and began paring down the material and clearing away the clutter, occasionally recording fresh tracks to reinforce a new direction. The first thing O’Rourke did was strip away all the reverb and dry the songs out. “I don’t like using effects,” says O’Rourke. “I just think it separates the listener from the music.”
“Everyone thinks [O’Rourke] is this avant-garde guy, but he actually made the record less weird,” says Stirratt.
All the while, Bennett was back at the Wilco loft, furiously recording guitar and keyboard overdubs. “When he started to realize how little he was on the record, he would stay there day and night recording tracks and tracks, and it just didn’t fit in,” says Stirratt.
“The record was already done, and when we started mixing with Jim, the idea was ‘more space, less clutter,’” says Tweedy. “That was what was going on on one side of the city. I don’t know what was going on on the other side of the city.”
I Want To Thank You All For Nothing At All
When Reprise Records got word Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was nearing completion, the label penciled in a release date: September 11. Wilco sent Reprise a tape of the first batch of mixes: “Ashes Of American Flags,” “Kamera,” “Radio Cure.” Reprise’s enthusiasm was muted at best.
“We didn’t get an overwhelmingly positive response from them, so we decided that we were not going to talk to them any more until we finished the record,” says Tweedy. “We finished the record and sent it to them and didn’t hear anything for 14 or 15 days. That’s usually not good. When they finally did respond, they thought it still needed work. Our response was we were done with our record and weren’t interested in doing any more work on it. We were happy with it, and that’s the way we wanted it to come out. Their response was, ‘If you’re not willing to make some changes, you should consider whether or not you want to leave.’ And our response was, ‘We can do that?’”
At the time, Reprise was in the midst of a changing of the guard. Label head Howie Klein was retiring (one source at Reprise says he was quietly forced out). Klein was one of the last old-school major-label honchos who still believed in long-term career development. “Wilco was the band on Reprise slated to develop a deep and lasting catalog,” says Klein, who calls Summerteeth “the most beautiful album released in the last 10 years.”
Klein’s replacement, Tom Whalley, was busy tying up loose ends at his post at Interscope, and David Kahne, senior vice president of A&R at Reprise, was acting as label head in the interim. Reportedly, Kahne’s response to the album was, “It’s so bad it would kill Wilco’s career.” A noted producer who’s worked with everyone from Sugar Ray and Sublime to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett, Kahne has a keen ear for what commercial radio likes to hear; he crafted the Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian.” (Kahne declined an opportunity to tell his side of the story.)
“People have a hard time justifying their jobs when they don’t make some kind of change to what they’re manufacturing,” says Tweedy. “But they aren’t manufacturing something. They’re making copies of it and selling it to people on the street.”
By August, a deal was struck: Wilco would compensate the label $50,000 in exchange for ownership of the master tapes to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and release from its contract. From the outside, it looked like Wilco was getting fucked over by the suits, but to the band, it was like being handed a get-out-of-jail-free card. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, that doesn’t happen,” says Klein, explaining that labels usually drop bands and retain the rights to the music. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to them. I know David thought he was doing them a great favor.”
Most major-label artists earn a royalty rate of 12 percent of the retail price of a CD. The problem is, this 12 percent goes toward paying off the six-figure costs of making and marketing a record. As such, most bands never see any money from album sales. With all debts canceled and a new record bought and paid for, Wilco stands to make a nice chunk of change from the sale of YHF. When you consider Wilco sells 150,000-plus copies of each release at almost $20 a pop, we’re talking about a lot of lettuce. “We think of it as a great rock ‘n’ roll swindle,” says Tweedy.
In the wake of the Reprise buyout, Wilco found itself in the middle of a bidding war, sifting through offers from 30 different record companies. In December, the band settled on Nonesuch, a label that’s had a great deal of success in finding an audience for artier, grown-up music by bands like the Kronos Quartet and minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, not to mention the Buena Vista Social Club. Ironically, Nonesuch is owned by the same parent company as Reprise: AOL/Time Warner, which has now effectively paid for YHF twice. Tweedy was impressed by Nonesuch’s ability “to get a lot of people interested in a recording by a bunch of old Cubans.”
Take The Guitar Player For A Ride
On a muggy August day last year, Jeff Tweedy walked up to Jay Bennett in the parking lot of the Wilco loft and told him he couldn’t take it anymore. Bennett was officially fired. He would be compensated for his contributions to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He could take all of his gear. He could tell the press whatever he wanted about how his departure came about. But he had to go.
This was a long time coming, as the relationship between Bennett and the other members of Wilco had been disintegrating for more than a year. There were numerous minor sins that pushed Bennett out of good graces with Tweedy and Co. Chief among them were frequent production gigs Bennett took on, which were seen as “whoring out the Wilco name,” according to someone close to the band. Bennett further ruffled feathers by enumerating his contributions to Wilco in the press. “Jay was very concerned about getting credit for what he did,” says Stirratt. “At the same time, in a lot of ways, Summerteeth was very much a Jay Bennett record.”
Then there were the drugs. There was a time when pills—mostly painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin—had a role in Wilco; this is a rock band after all. The pills made you feel warm and fuzzy and helped slow down the velocity of life on the road. They made you feel good onstage. It’s no accident Summerteeth sounds so druggy. At some point, according to sources in the Wilco camp, everybody stopped but Bennett—and that turned into a problem.
For the record, Bennett denies all of this. His explanation for his departure from the band is simple: He made a power grab and lost. “I tried to force an agenda,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that had more of the uptempo pop songs that got cut off the record. But [Tweedy] is the lyricist, and he was trying to make a statement. And I had a hard time seeing that because I was seeing things through my lens, which was, ‘You don’t leave uptempo pop songs off a record.’ I guess, in a way, I saw things the same way that Reprise did.”
In any event, Bennett is moving on. He got married in January and currently resides in Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb. His basement—stacked floor to ceiling with his extensive collection of vintage musical instruments—has been converted into a recording studio. In the Wilco divorce, Bennett got the gear used in the recording of YHF. He reunited with old friend and songwriting partner Edward Burch, and together they have a new album called The Palace At 4am (Part 1). It’s mostly full of uptempo pop songs in the classic mold of Bennett’s idol, Elvis Costello, including a couple songs that didn’t make it onto YHF (“Venus Stopped The Train” and “Shankin’ Sugar”). Bennett says he couldn’t be happier. “I wanted to be in Wilco, but I didn’t want to be in Jeff Tweedy & Wilco,” says Bennett. “I knew I was second fiddle all along, and Jeff didn’t need a second fiddle anymore. And by that point, I wanted to be first fiddle.” It’s no accident The Palace At 4am was released the same day as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Down With Wilco
“I would like to salute the ashes of American flags,” Tweedy sings on YHF. File that under Careful What You Wish For in the Archives Of Eerie Coincidences. Tweedy spent the morning of September 11 playing slot cars with his six-year-old son Spencer. All told, it seems as reasonable a reaction to the day’s events as any. Later, Tweedy drove over to Soma, where Wilco was in the middle of working with Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey on a new album by the Minus Five, McCaughey’s ongoing side band. The name of the song they recorded was “I’m Not Bitter.” The name of the album, scheduled for release later this year, is Down With Wilco—McCaughey’s sarcastic rejoinder to Wilco’s troubles with Reprise.
While recording the Minus Five album, Wilco was rehearsing for a national tour that was slated to begin in less than a week. It was a ballsy move, touring in the immediate wake of September 11 on an album that didn’t come out, just one month after firing Bennett (who was widely regarded as the fulcrum of Wilco’s live sound). There was a lot of debate within the band as to whether it should cancel the tour. “I just thought it would be cowardly not to do it,” says Tweedy.
Leroy Bach, who joined Wilco during the tail end of the Summerteeth sessions as a keyboard player, took over Bennett’s multi-instrumental duties. Up until YHF, Bach was something of a junior partner in the band, rarely doing interviews or posing for group photos. With Bennett gone, Bach has become the go-to guy onstage. “It’s not like I got a gold watch or something,” he says dryly.
The band streamed YHF on its Web site (www.wilcoworld.net) to give hardcore fans a taste, and the tour was a sellout. The first few nights were a little rough, but by the time Wilco got to the West Coast in early December, it felt like a band again.
I Need A Kamera To My Eye
I’m interviewing Tweedy in his New York hotel room. Sam Jones is there with his film crew. He’s shooting the final scenes of his documentary, titled I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and set for a late-summer release. As the cameras roll, I ask Tweedy about Bennett. It’s like poking a sore tooth.
“I’m not going to have much to say, I’m just warning you,” says Tweedy. “There are definitely a lot of things that: a) I can’t talk about; and b) I don’t think are important. Jay’s contributions to the band were important and valued. As far as the actual circumstances of Jay’s leaving, that’s up to him to define. As far as my feelings about it? I couldn’t be happier.”
Tweedy offers to play me Wilco’s “new” album. “Our plan is to record a different album every month, and then at the end of the year, we will have 12 albums to select a greatest-hits record from,” he says, only half-joking. Recorded over the course of a week in early February, the album consists of four proper Tweedy songs—they have the same ELO-meets-the-Band vibe of YHF’s “War On War” and “Jesus, Etc.”—and four improvisational pieces, wherein the rule was no one could use an instrument he knew how to play. For one of the improv pieces, the band “played” a newspaper article about a suicide like it was a piece of sheet music. “The motto was ‘hear the sound before the sound hears you,’” says Tweedy with a chuckle.
Carl Sandburg called it the City Of Big Shoulders. The Wilco loft is situated in a prototypical Chicago neighborhood: grey-hued and walled up by meat-and-potatoes architecture bannered with neon signage that blurs by the taxi window: OASISLOUNGEBARGROCERYLIQUORPARKINGINTHEREAR.
The loft is standard-issue brick-and-pillar, illuminated by Chinese lanterns and stuffed with gear and bohemian bric-a-brac: acoustic guitars, old-school synthesizers, bongos, a sitar, a grand piano, old radios, Clark Nova typewriters. There are workbenches with amps and guitars in various states of undress. The master tapes of YHF sit on the shelf; one is marked “Reprise Slave Reel.” Tweedy and Stirratt have their own desks, framed by bookshelves. A quick scan of titles: Thus Spake The Corpse: An Exquisite Corpse Reader 1988-1998; Conceptual Art (Art And Ideas) by Tony Godfrey; Technicians Of The Sacred: A Range Of Poetries From Africa, America, Asia, Europe And Oceania; Zen Concrete & Etc. by D.A. Levy; Purple America and Demonology by Rick Moody. And there are CDs: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich, Raymond Scott, Syd Barrett, Public Image Ltd., lots of Dylan bootlegs.
Stuck to the refrigerator door is one of those magnetic poetry kits arranged into the following phrases: Eternity Car Whispering; Fiddle Finger Lather; Please Incubate; Me Smell Rock; After Chocolate Ask; Say Put Puppy Girl; Frenetic Peach Crush.
Jeff Tweedy Is Trying To Break My Heart
What more can I tell you about Jeff Tweedy that he hasn’t already told you himself? He’s an American aquarium drinker. He doesn’t believe in touchdowns. His mind is full of radio cures. He shakes like a toothache when he hears himself sing. He spends a lot more than three dollars and 63 cents on Diet Coca Cola and unlit cigarettes. He doesn’t so much walk or swagger down the avenue—he assassins. He’s the man that loves you and, yes, he’s trying to break your heart.
So what was I thinking when I said hello? I know what I was thinking when I said goodbye: You should never try to write a magazine profile about a band you really love. It’s too humbling. I followed Wilco to New York, Chicago and the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Los Angeles like a dog fetching a stick. I asked too many questions and learned more than I wanted to know. And now Tweedy has asked me to stop calling him. That’s OK, I understand. I would’ve told me to fuck off a long time ago if I were him. But I’m not. Because even though he’s the last person who would ever admit it—even to himself—Jeff Tweedy is special. Special like Dylan. Special like Guthrie. Special like Thom Yorke.
People talk about Wilco the way they talk about Radiohead, the way they used to talk about R.E.M. Wilco is a band that people listen to in their bedrooms and talk about at parties. Wilco can sell out a national tour in support of a record that didn’t even come out. Wilco is a band that people make movies about. Wilco sings softly and cuddles a big stick. Wilco is standing on the shoulders of giants.
Tweedy has been to what Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America,” and he’s seen the future age. And he’s come back here to tell us that, well, he’s come back here to tell us writer types that we’re making asses of ourselves when we say that kind of stuff about him.
“I just talked to this journalist from Germany who told me our record had a distinct advantage because it was written by a prophet,” says Tweedy, shaking his head in disbelief. “Hilarious.”