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"A Musical Handshake: Growing Old with Wilco" - Houston Chronicle article

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Excellent article that really resonates with me because the trajectory of my Wilco fandom is pretty much on par with the writer's. Great quotes from Jeff, too. 




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I'm not a subscriber and it works fine for me. Let me try to paste the text of the article. If this isn't OK, I apologize in advance and am OK if a moderator removes this post.



LOS ANGELES - Jeff Tweedy stops strumming his guitar, unfolds himself from a couch backstage at the Ace Theater and reaches forward for a handshake, connecting a musical circuit of creator and listener that has spanned more than two decades.


"I'm going to sing all my answers to your questions if that's OK." His speaking voice is like his singing voice, raspy and melodically conversational.


Had he done so, it wouldn't be the first time Wilco's frontman sang a discussion about music. He's written a couple of songs about musicians, and he's written many more about being there as a listener, and being there as a musician. Sometimes I think Wilco's second album - "Being There," released in 1996 - is a conceptual song cycle about the duality of music maker and music listener.

"I think I define so many things by music because it's simply what I know best," Tweedy says. "For some people, it's relatable, I guess. It's just what I know."

I first saw Tweedy play with Wilco in 1995, and I saw them most recently in September. As you'd expect in such a span of time, a lot has changed with Wilco and with me. We have been in tune and out of tune with one another. Once was the time Wilco was the band I thought I'd grow old with.


Then we drifted apart.


Wilco evolved from the '80s rock underground - which included bands like Sonic Youth, the Replacements, the Minutemen - except Wilco stuck around long enough for its club to become not-so-secret. Wilco was the realization of that underground music dream - the marriage of independence and acceptance. Tweedy, though, doesn't entirely bite on the suggestion.

Tweedy: "We were never cool like those bands, though. Were we?"

Me: "To a depressive dork from an industrial town in Kentucky who was a few years too young for prime-'80s underground, yeah."

Tweedy: "Well, that's like grading on a curve, though."

I realize then I'm writing an autobiography of sorts. My Wilco autobiography. Isn't that what deep-rooted affinity for art is about?


Bayou Music Center, Houston, TX, May 6, 2011

My 25th Wilco concert will be my last, I tell myself. The show feels like an afterthought, one on a short tour of markets skipped on a prior Wilco tour. The set list is maddening in its predictability, with nothing new from "The Whole Love," which will be released a few months later. This is an able and comfortable band running on autopilot.

"From my perspective records have always been like people," Tweedy says. "They're like friends. There's something about the ones you've spent the most time with. You're not going to buy a new record and say it means as much to you as the one you've lived with for most of your life.

"Maybe it's just me, but I see so many correlations between how I interact with people - maybe it's just my obsessive nature that makes me see everything through the lens of records. Anytime we put out a record inevitably there's a list: 'Wilco records ranked worst to best.' Who would (expletive) do that with their friends? There are people you don't want to spend as much time with, maybe. But they're not bad people. Right?"

He laughs. I mentally start undoing my Wilco album rankings, feeling like a poor friend to the newer acquaintances, which felt antithetical to how I wish to be with culture.

At some point I decided we're not defined by what we know, but rather how we react to what we don't know - it frees us from the definable past. It's a form of hope, maybe.

My expectations of Wilco in 1995 were low: I'd have settled for a few years of melodic roots pop. Instead Tweedy showed creative unease and he took the long cut - steering his band in interesting and sometimes experimental directions. The weirder Wilco got, as on the 2004 album "A Ghost Is Born," the deeper my affection for the music. But working in the avant garde can result in swallowing one's tail, or in more impolite terms putting one's head up a dark space. Still, I preferred Tweedy, the writer and musician, in conflict: either with former bandmate Jay Bennett, or addiction, or depression, or his limitations as an instrumentalist. I gravitated toward his fight songs. His imagery and use of metaphor spoke to depression: "Printed my name on the back of a leaf and I watched it float away."

Then blue skies emerged. 

"Sky Blue Sky," released in 2007, was the first of what I considered comfortable Wilco records. The next album became my least favorite, and it carries a title that implied simplicity: "Wilco (The Album)."

Then in 2011, Wilco played that Houston show. After years of turnover Tweedy had built the band of his dreams: They could play ornamental folk music and they could play complicated avant garde rock, and they could blur perceived lines between the two.

I missed the conflict.


Mercury Lounge, New York, NY, December 2, 1996

"The bass is too loud," somebody yells from the crowd. Tweedy comes unglued. He puts down his acoustic guitar and bangs on the electric the rest of the night, which goes forward with venom. During "Kingpin" a guy with a shaved head jumps on stage and starts screaming "kingpin" repeatedly. "That was brilliant," Tweedy says. "Don't ever (expletive) do that again. If you see that guy outside, beat the (expletive) out of him." He's sheepish the next night, apologizing for "angry Wilco." The second night set is midtempo and not as interesting.

"Did I really advocate an act of violence?" Tweedy says. "That's not good."

But Tweedy has always had a precarious push/pull dynamic with the Wilco fan base. I remember a performance at Waterloo Records in Austin in March 1995. After a short, acoustic set, the band greeted fans. "We love you all," former drummer Ken Coomer wrote on a Wilco placard. 

"I don't love anybody," Tweedy scribbled.

I never thought of Wilco's "adventurous" recordings as adventurous exactly, but rather logical points on a musical travelogue. After "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" in 2001 Tweedy says he noticed a "schism," between factions of fans who favored one particular side of the band. He trusted his instincts and pushed through. Doing so created some tense moments.

A song request interrupted a late '00s Houston show a few chords into a song. Tweedy stopped the song dead. "Jesus, I'm trying to sing something here," he said.

If the Rolling Stones play a show, people will show up. There isn't a wall between band and fan, but there may as well be. There's no interrupting the singer. The listener buy-in is different.

"They were a major engine of culture at one point," Tweedy says of the Stones. "We live on the periphery, and every time we get some cultural cache, we get pushed back out, and that's fine with me. Over time, that meant more people come to us as though we're theirs. We don't belong to the culture at large. There's still a personal connection that can happen."

When Wilco toured "Star Wars" last year, the band played the new album in its entirety before moving on to "the hits, or whatever people think of as the hits," Tweedy says. "There are two or three songs that people get upset if we don't play."

Ah, I reply, surely "Via Chicago," "Misunderstood." The songs about being stuck in the darker corners of your own head.

Tweedy stares unblinking through his black glasses.

"No, it's 'Jesus, Etc.,' 'Impossible Germany' and maybe 'California Stars.' "

By Wilco standards, these are the romantic songs.


Irving Plaza, New York, NY, October 26, 1995

The stage lights are on the fritz all night. As the show comes to a close they go out again and people mill about stage. Some light eventually returns, and almost everything looks wrong. The drummer plays guitar. The guitarist plays keys and then drums. The bassist sits at pedal steel. The pedal steel guy is on bass. I hear Wilco play "Misunderstood" for the first time, and am left breathless by the dynamics: the comfort in the quiet spells only heightens the fury of the song's crescendo.

With a band like Wilco one must reconcile personal and shared experience with the art. But from the first time I heard "Misunderstood" 20 years ago my connection to Wilco transformed from enthusiasm into something more visceral. 

I don't know if Tweedy was addressing himself or some other person, but when he sang, "I know you've got to god-shaped hole, leaning out your awful soul," in "Misunderstood," it struck an uncomfortable chord.

The god-shaped hole and the awful soul were my "can't get no satisfaction." 

To my ears, Tweedy's inelegant but expressive voice - whether applied to somber folk or screaming punk - was Otis Redding exorcising old man trouble. To my ears the songs were compression of chaos in one's life.

After "A Ghost Is Born" - the most tempestuous of Wilco's albums - I heard less of that chaos. Tweedy sought treatment for addiction to prescription painkillers and assembled that band of his dreams, one capable of playing just about anything: avant garde noise workouts, minimalist repetitive pieces, ornamental folk.

He found his sky blue sky.

I was slower to find it. The back door was at the end of the band's eighth album, "The Whole Love," released in 2011. "One Sunday Morning," from that record, became my reintroduction to Wilco. "I feel in love with the burden," Tweedy sang, "holding me down."


Ace Theater, Los Angeles, CA, September 15, 2016

My 26th Wilco show, the one I swore I'd never see. "Misunderstood" - that touchstone from my past - now rides on a more mellow tempo set by a banjo. The refrain "I'd like to thank you all, for nothing at all" no longer features 32 increasingly raw repetitions of "nothing." And it sounds nice, a measured melancholy. The god-shaped hole wasn't plugged with god, but rather some resignation at the recognition of getting older. I'm 43, not 23.

When I first saw Wilco had a new album titled "Schmilco" I was disappointed, even though the title was an homage to a Harry Nilsson record I admired. Twenty years later I still wanted to care about a new Wilco album, and that title implied some degree of indifference.

What I found playing it, though, was an entry point back into the band I meant to grow old with - not to Wilco then, but Wilco now. The hole in the soul is a more modulated and measured melancholy.

Reviews thus far have been cautiously positive, which has been common for Wilco for the past 10 years. One called it "pastoral," an adjective that causes Tweedy to roll his eyes.

"I'm not even sure what that means?" he says. "I've also heard it called 'folk.' I'm really unsure about how people define folk. I keep telling people, even though it's more acoustic than the last one you can still turn it up loud."

Thematically, nostalgia turns up in a lot of the reviews, too, likely because of references to childhood and family.

"Reassessing how you go to where you are in your life based on the patterns and relationships you've made in your life, the things that have recurred and mistakes you made repeatedly is, I think, not nostalgic," Tweedy says. "I think it's the opposite of nostalgia. I want to understand this so I can move forward. ... I don't miss the kid who hated everybody. I am the kid that hates everybody. I'm still skeptical and alienated and I feel like I'm never friendly enough."

I recently dragged out a Wilco tour shirt from 1995. When I pulled it on, the shirt's hem sank below the hem of my shorts.

"Were you a larger man then?" Tweedy asks.

Oddly enough, no. But we change, I suppose. We figure out who we are through acquisition and shedding. So, it seems, do bands.

"I do want people to feel like I'm growing," he says. "Or something."

I bring up a book about music in which the author discusses that unknowable point at which one accumulates more music than he can realistically listen to before he dies. That's the rub with sobriety: The time wasted puts a premium on time remaining, and it can induce crippling anxiety.

Tweedy has come out the other end of that anxiety with some perspective I'd welcome for myself.

"I didn't really go to college ... I mean I went to college, but I didn't learn how to be an academic at all," he says. "But I always enjoyed learning. So I've grown comfortable with whatever the happenstance of when I need something I'm going to find it. The only reason I care about absorbing this other stuff is that it always makes me want to make something. And that's sustaining. I like literary anthologies. I want to read somebody who spent their (expletive) life caring about Dante. I'm not saying you shouldn't read Dante. But I just don't give a (expletive). I don't want to feel bad.

"For me it goes back to loving one thing. I love rock 'n' roll. And the liberation and freedom that comes from self-expression. I can find that in the kid down the street flipping the (expletive) sign in front of Jiffy Lube, doing it with such panache that he feels liberated in some way. I'm happy I can see that."

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Thanks for posting. Jeff really nailed the Jesus etc, Impossible Germany, California Stars bit lol. That's why I'm in favor of those songs becoming rarities for a bit!


He is such a contrarian though (and we love him for that)! Certainly he doesn't think Via Chicago isn't in that category. They play it more frequently that CA Stars.

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I was at both of those NYC shows that he mentions in the article. What memories. They covered Cock in My Pocket and I Wish I Was Your Mother at the Mercury Lounge show. Tweedy's face singing Misunderstood from behind the drums at Irving Plaza is burned into my memory. Thanks for posting that.

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