Sympathy for the Angel
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.
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"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.
Summer Teeth is a thousand years beyond the first record Tweedy ever appeared on, 1990's No Depression, a scruffy, not-country country record made by two guys who once played together in a punk band called, so appropriately, the Primitives. For all its charm -- it's so quaint in retrospect, the noise ambitious children make when they try to do everything all at once -- No Depression offers barely a hint of the record Tweedy would end the decade with. Perhaps that's because the album barely belongs to him at all, and he has spent the past five years reclaiming for himself the credit and the respect he never received when he stood in Jay Farrar's shadow all those years ago.
Wilco, the band Tweedy formed when Uncle Tupelo was buried out in the middle of nowhere, has already released two records: 1995's debut, A.M., and 1996's double disc, Being There. The first record was a swell little gem containing perhaps three or four songs that rank among the finest Tweedy has written, among them "Passenger Side," about needing a ride after a few too many. The second disc was a sprawling epic, the messiest masterpiece of the decade -- 19 songs about the joy of making music, about being in love with being in love, about what it means to be a fan. "Being There was motivated by some unhealthy things," Tweedy says now. "It ended up being a really healthy thing to do. But I was -- I am -- tired of being called a country-rock band, those kind of petty little things. The big thing was just this sense in myself of, 'Why do I have to keep subverting all the things I had to subvert to be in Uncle Tupelo? Why have I let myself do that? Why did I let myself be co-opted into someone else's vision for so long, like this was my only chance to play music?'
"That was the first time I realized and admitted to myself that I probably would have played music if it wasn't for Jay Farrar. If Uncle Tupelo hadn't happened, maybe this [Being There and Summer Teeth] is what I would have sounded like. I had to go through some sense of lost time, like a really late bloomer."
If Being There was the celebration following liberation, then Summer Teeth is the result of a life spent reveling in freedom. The new album is like Being There condensed and stretched apart again -- and, says Jay Bennett, a "logical progression" away from the so-called "country-rock tag that gets put on us." Its every song sounds so familiar and brand-new, as though each piece contains a thousand echoes funneled through the sensibilities of a man who proudly shows you his influences but makes no excuses. You have heard this record before -- and never heard anything like it at all. "It's just acknowledging that those reference points are in you, that they're a part of you," Tweedy says. "It's not a real conscious effort to inject tradition back in the music, but at the same time I do feel strongly about it. Literature is very much like that. The literary world would be nothing if people couldn't quote and had to invent a new language every time they wrote a book. And in poetry, every step that's worth a shit has antecedents, and you can see them or you can see how they've been destroyed or deconstructed.
"Everything comes from somewhere. It's just a matter of how well it's been hidden or just finding the source."
There is a song on Being There that describes Jeff Tweedy better than anything a stranger could ever say about him. It's called "The Lonely One," which may well have been written about a particular musician. Maybe it was written about Paul Westerberg, among Tweedy's heroes and someone around whom Tweedy has never been comfortable. He says they have met a few times, always with uneasy results. In the song, Tweedy steps off the stage and stands beside us as nothing more than a self-proclaimed "rock and roll fan" who lives only to hear his favorite singer perform his favorite song one more time.
He recounts a concert as though writing about a lover in a diary. "You stood alone in a halo's haze / Shining guitar hung on gold lame / And you, you were the lonely one / You were the lonely one," he sings, his voice almost breaking. Or maybe he's writing a fan letter he knows the singer will never read. It's so sincere it's almost embarrassing, especially when Tweedy apologizes for being "just a fan."
But it's also wonderfully real; what are our favorite musicians if not reflections of our own desires, dreams, fears, imperfections? We choose our rock and roll heroes -- and even our villains -- because they allow us, for three minutes or a lifetime, to live through them and become who we were, are, or want to be. The Byrds poked fun at being a rock and roll star, Kurt Cobain griped about being one throughout In Utero, but Jeff Tweedy understands the passion of the music fan because he is one. He is us.
There have long been critics who dismiss Tweedy as too much the collector, as a former record store employee who wears his massive collection on his album sleeve and steals myriad ancient riffs to form his "own" music. Summer Teeth, built upon a foundation of classic grooves, will not change that. But Wilco's music doesn't come off as contrived; it's self-conscious, but it also at times comes across as slapdash and fragile, as though Tweedy genuinely needs to write songs or he'll explode. "I totally know I only feel good when I'm writing or playing or thinking about writing or thinking about playing," he says. "I guess I just feel better. That's the only real freedom you can sense and internalize, the only sense of freedom you really have: creating."
Tweedy is one of rock and roll's last honest musicians, a guy you can believe in as much as you once could Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen when they mattered. He belongs in their ranks because you always believe Tweedy's telling you the truth, the truth that belongs to anyone who still believes in the power of a simple song told passionately and honestly. You never suspect for a second that the guy singing in that hoarse, broken voice is revealing anything other than himself. Like Young and Springsteen, Tweedy's a poet of the everyday who doesn't hide behind vagaries or ellipses. He's rarely confessional, but he makes clear the sense of how difficult it is to write music, to make tangible the words and music floating inside a person's head.
Yet, if anything, Summer Teeth fools the listener into thinking Tweedy is serving up nothing but confessionals. The words hint -- hell, they scream -- at a darkness lurking beneath the feel-good grooves of songs such as "Can't Stand It," "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)" and "A Shot in the Arm." Taken literally, the record chronicles a relationship crumbling beneath the weight of distance and misunderstanding. Lovers stay up all night smoking, dreaming of what used to be and what could have been. A husband promises his wife (or maybe a father tells a child) that "he'll come back to you" and that he and unknown others are "just friends." When Tweedy sings that he's always in love, you feel as though he doesn't necessarily mean with the woman with whom he shares his life. He wonders "How to Fight Loneliness." He worries about waking up feeling old. And, of course, he dreams of killing a lover, then tells her about it, promising he's coming home soon. Tweedy even opens the record singing through a moan: "The way things go / You get so low / Struggle to find your skin / Hey ho / Look out below / Your prayers will never be answered again."
Yet behind him the band plays as though with the biggest grin, all organs and piano and ring-a-ding cymbals and orchestra bells. Never has a band gone to so much trouble to make suffering feel like a happy thing. Jay Bennett says he and Tweedy intentionally brightened up the music to compensate for the somber lyrics. And Bennett insists he doesn't read anything into the words -- that he interprets them not as Tweedy's oh-shit revelations, but simply as stories told in the first person. "There are some music fans that want to connect with the lyrics and don't give a shit what that guy was writing about," says Bennett, who joined Wilco shortly after the band began touring for A.M. "And then there are people who I quite frankly think are just mistaken, who want to find out what the guy was writing about. I think that's doing the music a disservice. That's why I hate Sting. Sting in every interview will tell you exactly what he wrote every song about. Hey, then why'd you write the song?" Tweedy admits he wouldn't want to listen to these lyrics if they were accompanied by only an acoustic guitar. He also likes to say that he never worries about revealing too much of himself in his songs; they are, after all, the sum total of who he is. Rather, he worries too much about explaining everything in an interview. He is not Sting. But he will say that the songs are not to be read as autobiography. He does not dream of killing his wife.
But as the father of a 3-year-old son and as the husband of Sue Miller, a revered figure in Chicago's club scene, Tweedy is trying to grapple with many new emotions. His son now knows when Daddy's going on tour; he wants to know why his father is leaving again. It's not an easy thing trying to balance life on the road with some facsimile of domesticity. It can drive a person crazy. Tweedy, who spends every free second absorbed in the writings of Henry Miller or Sherwood Anderson, often talks about the lack of irony in his music, but he also realizes that the opposite of irony is vulnerability. In "She's a Jar," the second song on Summer Teeth, he writes, "when I forget how to talk, I sing." If anything, the record acts as something of a release valve; maybe this is how he communicates after all.
"There's a lot of really specific emotions and things very internal to me in these lyrics ... and private in a way," he says. "And I wanted it to be more real instead of feeling more real. The raw versions of those songs felt way, way overwhelming; I didn't want to listen to them. I can't imagine why anybody would want to listen to it, you know? Stark acoustic guitar and these vocals, having murderous dreams and things like that.
"I want to make it clear to people that I don't see this as being unique to me or an attempt to add lyrical weight with darkness, because they weren't dark to me. Even the darkest songs -- or the ones that people perceive as being dark -- to me, the reason I'm moved by them or felt moved enough to sing them is that there was something beautiful about it. In other words, I don't like confessional records. I like confessions. There's a difference."
Jeff Tweedy, collaborating with Jay Bennett for the first time, wrote the record between November 1997 and August 1998, with occasional breaks. Tweedy would go off for two four-day recording sessions with his side project, Golden Smog, which also features Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum and now Jody Stephens of Big Star. The sessions resulted in last year's Weird Tales, which features five songs Tweedy either wrote or co-wrote, the best of which, "All the Same to Me," he penned with the Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks.
Wilco would also assist Billy Bragg in setting to music more than a dozen of the hundreds of lyrics Woody Guthrie left behind. Tweedy says it wasn't entirely easy making Mermaid Avenue, that he and Bragg often argued about Bragg's mixes of some of the songs Tweedy wrote and performed -- though, of course, it was nothing personal, since it was Bragg's idea to bring in Tweedy and the band. As Bragg told the Dallas Observer last June, Wilco's a "rootsy American bands [whose roots] go back to before the turn of the century."
In some ways, Mermaid Avenue was a step back for Wilco: The songs were the most "country"-sounding and the most folk-tinged compositions he had written since Uncle Tupelo. It was as though Tweedy was trying to imagine Guthrie as a modern-day folk artist who would live to hear pop music and weave it into his own work. In the end, such songs as "California Stars," "Hoodoo Voodoo" and "Hesitating Beauty" would end up sounding like perfect hybrids of yesterday and tomorrow. "Mermaid Avenue is more like Wilco than Wilco -- or more like Wilco than whatever people had perceived to be Wilco," Tweedy says. "We're more of a country-rock band [on Mermaid Avenue] than on anything we'd ever done. If that would have been the first thing that Wilco had ever done, I would have understood everybody saying we were country-rock."
It's a label that has been stuck on Tweedy's head since 1990, when he and Farrar released their first Uncle Tupelo record. They had known each other since they were in high school in Belleville, Illinois, a suburb just east of St. Louis. Though they were the same age, Farrar had been in other bands before he and Tweedy began performing together. A young Jeff looked up to Jay, saw him as something of a mentor. He says now that he would never get over that initial awe. At first the duo, joined by drummer Mike Heidorn, were punks who turned to country because they saw it as the most outrageous thing they could do. Who else their age was performing Gang of Four songs and Carter Family material? Who among their buddies had even heard of Leadbelly? They were working-class snobs.
But as Tweedy tells it now, he never wanted to sing the few songs he originally brought to Uncle Tupelo. He wanted Farrar to sing them. But Jay wouldn't. So Jeff had to learn bass and was forced to sing the few songs of his that appear on No Depression. He says now he can't even stand to listen to his voice on that record. Tweedy's contributions would become more substantial with each release: His song "Gun" (among the best things he will ever write) opens 1991's Still Feel Gone, and it was his idea to make March 16-20, 1992, a disc full of songs about coal miners and atomic energy; his songs also liven up 1993's farewell, Anodyne. Indeed, that record contains one of the few Tupelo songs Tweedy still performs, the glory-hallelujah sing-along "New Madrid."
Tweedy rarely talks about the reasons behind the breakup of Uncle Tupelo. The story has always been that Farrar abruptly packed up his shit and walked away in 1994, leaving Jeff to pick up everything else by himself. But it wasn't that simple. To hear Tweedy talk about his relationship with Farrar five years after the bust-up is to hear a man who had grown tired of being perceived as Tupelo's weak link. Tweedy had always read the reviews talking about how he was the band's "pop" guy, the kid with the lightweight songs, while Farrar was the brooding center whose deep-dark vocals defined the band. One gets the sense that had Farrar not quit, Tweedy might well have walked. "With March, I started playing guitar on my songs, and I could sing better and felt better about them," Tweedy says. "I felt like they were being done closer to the way I imagined them. I felt like I was getting more and more confident, and I don't feel like Jay liked that very much. He started being passive-aggressive and mean to me, and I turned a blind eye to it -- like, 'This is just getting better, he's got to see that.' I really was convinced when we were touring on Anodyne that the band was growing into something much better than we'd ever imagined. But I think my involvement in Uncle Tupelo was on the verge of being dismissed."
In the end, the band that appeared on A.M. looked very much like the one on Anodyne, without Farrar. And the music sounded like Tweedy's songs from that record; now he admits that he followed too closely in someone else's footsteps when making A.M. But if nothing else, Tweedy says of making the record, at least he could do what he wanted without someone else shooting him a nasty look. Still, Tweedy couldn't help but notice that Farrar's band Son Volt still got the better reviews when Trace debuted around the same time as A.M. He had grown tired and cold from standing in Farrar's shadow for so long.
That's how Being There, and now Summer Teeth, happened: Tweedy was going to prove he wasn't Jay Farrar's second anything -- not his collaborator, not his whipping boy. And somewhere along the way, Farrar stopped dead in his tracks and watched Tweedy speed past him: Son Volt kept making the same record, the same song, while Wilco became something far bigger than a mere echo of a band no one much remembers anyway. "In the span of eight years or so," he says, "the Beatles went from 'She Loves You' to 'Across the Universe.' That's staggering. But it's really not that complex. Think about how you were when you were in high school compared to how you are now. I like that. I think that's the only way to live and the only way to create and be happy creating and be happy living, or even try to be happy. And that isn't really even the goal. Happiness just kind of happens to you. But I think it only happens to you because you leave yourself undefined."
After the show at the House of Blues, Jeff Tweedy will return to his dressing room and find himself surrounded by radio execs who will tell him the new record is "hot," a compliment band members insist they don't understand. He will be amiable, signing autographs and offering his mother's homemade cookies to well-wishers. Whether or not he sold the record to these radio people is hardly his concern. There's so much more going on in his head than getting on playlists next to tomorrow's flavor-of. And in the end, Summer Teeth is too good for radio -- so much bigger than the medium.
At some point during the interview, even Tweedy had to admit that trying to prove you're better than your old partner isn't the healthiest of reasons to make music. But he has to be content now. Jay Farrar will always sound like Jay Farrar. Wilco, right now, sounds like endless possibilities. The night is young.
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