Sympathy for the Angel

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and the scourge of great art

The streets are still littered with trash -- every single inch, it seems, covered in a thin gray slime that oozes on forever. The light drizzle only makes things worse, more slippery-sticky. Hard to keep your footing in a mess like this. One wrong step, and it's ass-first into the Mardi Gras hangover that drapes over the French Quarter like a wet, oily rag. Fat Tuesday has groaned toward Ash Wednesday, but it will take New Orleans a week longer to clear the wreckage two million tourists have wrought upon this miserably beautiful city. The newscasters seem proud to announce that this year's trash tonnage exceeds last year's record-setting amount by a good 100 tons. Must be a matter of twisted civic pride: Our town produces more garbage than yours, ha-ha. For some reason, they never mention the smell: crawfish and vomit.

Or maybe that's just the stink of radio programmers, who have flown into New Orleans today for the beginning of the annual Gavin Seminar, a conference where music directors go to pat themselves on the backs and listen to bands they'll never actually play on their stations. Hundreds of conventioneers fill the balcony at the House of Blues in the Quarter, spilling beer all over themselves as they try to light each other's cigarettes. They're a walking Mardi Gras parade, a traveling pack of freaks. You can tell radio folks by their clothes and their habits: the freebie rock T-shirts, the blue-jean jackets with station logos embroidered on the back, the inability to pick up a check when there's a record-company VP around.

The House of Blues, the only venue that makes the Hard Rock Cafe seem authentic, reverberates with their noisy, incessant babbling. You can almost feel it in your bones, the roar of conversation that never subsides. Radio people don't even shut up when the only rock and roll band in the world that matters begins performing.

The lead singer's first words are so quiet they float to the ceiling along with the cigarette smoke and chitchat rumble. They're striking words, like tiny blows to the face. The crowd on the floor -- the paying audience, standing in rapt attention -- seems to collectively wince. This is the first time they've heard Jeff Tweedy sing the song "Via Chicago," off Wilco's forthcoming Summer Teeth. One fan will later say she "wasn't prepared" for the song and others like it, so many dealing with the threat, or maybe the promise, of infidelity.

"Dreamed about killing you last night," Tweedy rasps over his gently strummed acoustic guitar. "And it felt all right to me."

It's a whisper against the thunderstorm of conversation, a beautiful and desperate cry that goes unnoticed in the balcony, except by Jeff's mother, who has come from Illinois bearing homemade cookies in the shape of guitars. But on the floor, the crowd stands silent, as still as cutouts. Directly in front of Tweedy stands a young girl who looks like the one in Bjsrk's baby pictures. She perches her left arm on the stage and rests her head on her left hand; in her right hand, she plays with a pacifier. She keeps her angel eyes shut, staring at the singer through closed eyelids. She sways her body in time with the music, bobbing up and down with the Beach Boy la-la-las of the next song. "I'm worried," Tweedy sings, while band mate Jay Bennett plinks out a catchy new-wave wheeze on the keyboards. "I'm always in love."

To the girl's left stands a guy who looks as though he has just gotten off the Greyhound from Kansas. He wears his hair El Camino-style, short in front, long in back. With every beat, he jabs an unlit cigarette into the air. Behind him is a motley crowd: Latin B-boys in red baseball caps turned backward, tattooed hippie chicks in leather jackets and floral print dresses, and fresh-scrubbed couples on first and last dates. And there are, of course, men wearing Wilco T-shirts, and a few with faded Uncle Tupelo tees, kept in storage since Tweedy and his old, now-lost friend, Jay Farrar, split up almost five years ago.

When Tweedy starts talking again, he aims his comments at the balcony. "Don't you think they should play all these things on the radio?" he asks. A cheer rises from the floor. "Isn't this what this is all about? Why isn't Wilco on the radio?" He pauses, then adds with a slight chuckle, "Just kidding."

The band is playing the Gavin conference at the request of its label, Reprise Records, which is desperate to get Wilco on the radio. A band can't subsist on critical acclaim forever, and besides, Summer Teeth might actually sound great on the radio. There are at least a half-dozen singles on the record, or songs that might have been singles 20 years ago, before radio became so frightened of playing anything that challenged its audience. The disc abounds with references to every record Jeff Tweedy listened to as a kid working in a record store; imagine a thousand pieces of vinyl melted down into a single album. Summer Teeth is Beach Boys as performed by the Replacements on a Lovin' Spoonful high; it's art-rock masquerading as new wave made by a 32-year-old father and husband who spent most of his twenties playing country songs and punk-rock covers. And then there's that song, "We're Just Friends," that so echoes John Lennon's finest, most intimate solo moments, you're surprised to find it didn't come from the boxed set of outtakes.

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