Wilco will love you, baby
September 2, 2010
“To love the world, you must learn to love one thing,” Jeff Tweedy said. Tweedy confesses he is uncertain which philosopher he is quoting; his best guess is Kierkegaard. But Tweedy has a useful excuse for his lack of knowledge on this point: He has been too busy living the phrase to remember who said it.From earliest childhood, Tweedy has been obsessed with one thing: music. “I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t the center of my life,” the Illinois native, who turned 43 last week, said from his home in Chicago. As the Tweedy family legend has it, Tweedy, before he could speak, would indicate his desire by pointing at the stereo until someone put a record on.Tweedy’s love of music is most apparent in the ambition and success of Wilco, the rock band he has led for 15 years. It is also evident to a lesser extent in the various projects he has pursued outside of Wilco: Golden Smog, which has to be one of the few side project to have released a greatest hits collection; and the two volumes of “Mermaid Avenue” albums, made from leftover Woody Guthrie lyrics, he has participated in.The obsession is also reflected, perhaps not quite so obviously, in the music itself, in the words that Tweedy writes and sings. Like few other songwriters, Tweedy’s songs concern themselves with the subject of music, and its capabilities. In his eyes, the power of music is enormous, endless. “Sunken Treasure,” from Wilco’s 1996 two-disc album “Being There,” is about disconnection, repeating the line, “I am so out of tune with you.” But he is surely in tune with music; the song ends with Tweedy earnestly singing, “Music is my savior, and I was maimed by rock ‘n’ roll/ … I was tamed by rock ‘n’ roll/ I got my name from rock ‘n’ roll/ I’m not ashamed of rock ‘n’ roll.””I think anyone is best when writing about things they really know,” Tweedy, who makes his first area appearance tonight, leading Wilco to a headlining gig in Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival.It can’t be a coincidence that the band Tweedy founded took its name from radio lingo. “Wilco,” in CB radio talk, is short for “will comply.” (Tweedy, who has been surrounded by a shifting cast of players in the band, returned to radio jargon for the title of the band’s 2002 breakthrough album; Tweedy had heard the code phrase “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” on a recording of early radio broadcasts.) Wilco debuted with the 1995 album “A.M.,” whose cover image is an ancient radio.Tweedy returned over and over to the subject of music as a source of inspiration for his own music. “Misunderstood” – the opening track on two Wilco albums, “Being There” and the live 2005 album “Kicking Television” – lays out a scenario of alienation, and then asks, “Do you still love rock ‘n’ roll?” as if that might be the problem. About the closest Wilco has come to a hit song is “Heavy Metal Drummer,” an atypically breezy and nostalgic love letter to both hard rock and classical music.After six Wilco albums, Tweedy seems only to have become more consumed with the subject of music. The group’s latest recording, from 2009, was titled “Wilco (the album),” and it opened with “Wilco (The Song).” The tune features one of the strongest and loveliest sentiments a band could deliver: “This is a fact that you ought to know-ho-ho-ho/ Wilco, Wilco will love you baby.” It takes the form of a promise – that Wilco will continue to make music that will warm you, give you refuge – but Tweedy says it’s an even bigger promise than that.”I really looked at it as being more about records in general, not Wilco records,” he said of the song. “It’s not so much about how Wilco affects someone’s life; it’s more about how records have affected my life.”••••It is a broad swath of the sonic realm that Tweedy has explored, which might be why it has been, and remains, such a satisfying pursuit.Tweedy’s first prominent band was Uncle Tupelo, which he founded with fellow Belleville, Ill., native Jay Farrar. It didn’t swear allegiance, as Wilco does, to rock n’ roll. Formed in 1987, Uncle Tupelo was part of the early wave of alternative country, with Farrar and Tweedy looking not to modern-day Nashville for inspiration, but to the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons. The band’s first album, 1990’s “No Depression,” was a cornerstone of the alt-country movement; an influential music magazine borrowed the name. Uncle Tupelo, in turn, had taken the name from the Carter Family song, “No Depression in Heaven.”Uncle Tupelo split up in 1994 as tensions between Farrar and Tweedy ran high, and much of the reason for the bad feelings had to be Tweedy’s artistic ambition. Farrar was the principal lead singer and songwriter, an arrangement that sat well with Tweedy for a time.”I was very comfortable in Uncle Tupelo to color in the spaces that were left in a collective vision, I was comfortable with Jay’s voice being the predominant voice in the band, and was good at helping someone else see their vision through, and enhancing it,” Tweedy said. “After Uncle Tupelo I had to come to grips with a desire to make music that I was at the center of as well. I had to gain a lot of confidence after Uncle Tupelo to be able to put myself in the center of something.”The first step in that process was tentative. “A.M.,” recorded shortly after the break-up of Uncle Tupelo and using several members of the old band, was at best a small step removed from alt-country. Critically, and in sales, it disappointed. But Tweedy stepped up big the following year with “Being There,” a two-disc set that fulfilled its grand ambitions, with horns, strutting rhythms, and most significantly, the addition of keyboardist Jay Bennett. “Summerteeth,” from 1999, took another leap forward in terms of studio technique, and lyrics, as Tweedy had started reading heavy literature in an attempt to improve his word-craft. Tweedy was determined that the next record would place Wilco in the upper reaches of rock bands; he ended up making a bit of music history. After putting extraordinary efforts into making the album – a process documented in the artful, worthwhile film, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” – the band submitted the album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” to its label. Reprise Records was undergoing an executive shake-up, and one of the casualties was Wilco’s album, which was rejected. Wilco was handed back their music, with permission to do with it as they liked. After shopping it around, they sold it to Nonesuch, a label owned, perversely, by Warner Bros., which also owned Reprise. So the same corporation ended up paying twice for “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” – a poignant chapter in the collapse of the record industry.And by the way, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” upon its 2002 release, was deemed an instant classic. Rolling Stone would later name it the third best album of the ’00s.Rather than a peak, it marked a new level of excellence. “A Ghost Is Born,” from 2004, was even more experimental, with a greater emphasis on Tweedy’s guitar solos – noisy affairs inspired, he said, by panic attacks and migraines. The album earned Wilco its first Grammy Award, for best alternative album. “Sky Blue Sky,” from 2007, was mature and easy to like; “Wilco (the album)” was upbeat and confident. Wilco has arrived at a place where they comfortably explore corners of country, rowdy rock, and avant-garde art music.••••Last month, Tweedy and his bandmates – guitarist Nels Cline; drummer Glenn Kotche; pianist Mikael Jorgensen, who replaced Bennett in 2002; multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone; and John Stirrat, who has been the bassist in Tweedy’s bands going back to Uncle Tupelo – debuted their Solid Sound event. Unlike most modern music festivals, this one wasn’t held in a big open field, but at an art museum – Mass MoCA, in rural North Adams, Mass. Wilco curated the three-day festival themselves, picking the music, comedy and visual artists, and spotlighting the band’s various side projects. The festival closed with a solo set by Tweedy.Despite the lofty surroundings of Solid Sound, Tweedy isn’t sure he wants to put his music on the level of high art. “I don’t know if it’s ever seen as part of our attitude toward what we do,” he said. “It’s much more simple than that. We’re interested in a lot of types of music and a lot of different things that people aren’t sure one person should like. But the point of life if that you should always expand your appreciation of what is out there.”That might seem a curious statement coming from someone who has staked so much on one thing, for someone who describes music as “a pretty all-consuming obsession for most of my life.” But then, Tweedy has gotten more out of that one thing he loves than most people get out of any particular thing. For some, rock ‘n’ roll might seem a narrow perch on which to build one’s life. For Tweedy it has been plenty wide.”I’m not ignorant of the fact that a great percentage of the world never finds one thing they love to do. I’ve been able to intuit and observe a lot about the world through loving one thing very deeply,” he said. “There are worse strategies for finding comfort in life than depending on your records. Way worse strategies.”email@example.com
WilcoTonight, at 8 p.m., at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day FestivalSnowmass VillageAlso today: DeVotchKa, at 6 p.m.; Calexico, at 4 p.m.; and the New Mastersounds, in the Outside Music ClubSaturday, Sept. 4: Glenn Frey & Joe Walsh, Court Yard Hounds, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and LubriphonicSunday, Sept. 5: Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Black Crowes, Truth & Salvage Co., and the Stone FoxesTickets for the Labor Day Festival are available at the Belly Up box office, by calling 1-866-JAS-TIXX (527-8499), or at jazzaspen.org. Children 13 and under are admitted free if accompanied by a paying adult. College students with a vlid student ID will be able to buy tickets at a 50 percent discount at the door each day. For further information, go to jazzaspen.org.Limited paid parking is available at the Rodeo Lot, adjacent to the festival grounds. There is free parking at the Intercept Lot at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82, with free shuttles running continuously between the lot and the festival. RFTA buses running after the festival are free; regular fares apply to buses going to the festival.