Being There with Wilco

The awesome crew over at music/film zine Ze Catalist asked if I’d contribute something to their ‘Wilco Week’ series, celebrating the release of the rock band’s new album, The Whole Love. I was thrilled to jump in and get all hyperbolic. Originally published September 29, 2011.

Back before I boycotted all non-Fort Wayne shows by the Wilcos, I used to go see those guys all the time. Look, I know I sound a bit like a Wilco-focused remix of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” but I was there at Taste of Chicago in Grant Park, captured in the ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ documentary, Jay Bennett’s last gig, when they were debuting all this weird mess off a much-delayed new record supposedly called Here Comes Everybody. A few months earlier, I was there, at the Jeff Tweedy solo show at the Abbey Pub, when he brought out Stirratt and Bennett and some drummer named Glenn—and nobody named Coomer—and played a song that just kept saying “it’s a war on war, it’s a war on war” over and over. Riveting. I was there, in Bloomington IN, when the newly four-piece Wilco tried to take Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on the road. I was there, at the Riviera on New Year’s Eve 1999 with Steve Earle opening and a long, druggy Wilco set that culminated with “End of the Century” as the clock struck 2000. I was there, at The Vogue in Indianapolis when The Old 97’s opened, touring behind Fight Songs, while Wilco played one of the all-time magnificent rock shows I’d ever seen, in support of the new Summerteeth. (The two best pop albums of the 90s?) I was there, with Nels Cline in Nashville on the Ghost Is Born tour when they stopped being the band I loved. I was there in Boulder and Bloomington and Chicago, again and again and again. I was there when I proposed to my wife after playing and singing “Hesitating Beauty” in a hotel room in Minneapolis before a Paul Westerberg concert. I was there, in a Summerteeth t-shirt when my son was born, and in the same shirt when my daughter was born. I was there.

I remember A.M. got an endcap display at Streetside Records on Kirkwood Avenue. I didn’t care much about new bands, I was discovering Bob Dylan records. My roommate Matt Traughber talked about a song called “Pecan Pie” and soon enough we decided to head down to the Bluebird and see a band called Son Volt. We stood up front. I was about to graduate college. Richard Buckner opened the show, and my mind, and I decided that in two weeks—the day after graduation—I would buy a guitar. I never listened to Buckner again (what else could he possibly do for me?), but I ran into him years later in Austin TX and told him all about it. Then Son Volt came on, stomping their feet and playing with a loud, angry, sad tightness that shook me. Some guy grabbed my shoulders, yelling about Uncle Someone. “Dunno,” I said, “I like Dylan.” This guy’s eyes went crazy in his head, “UNCLE SO-AND-SO IS BETTER THAN DYLAAAAAAAAAAAN!” In the encore, the singer in Son Volt—who didn’t speak a word the entire night—launched into a particular song and the roof shook and people freaked. the hell. out. (I later realized it was “Chickamauga,” but you all already know that.)

When I got a job after college, I soon enough bought my first car with a…tape deck. Easy now. My old car only had an AM/FM radio, but I had an FM modulator for my Discman and I was playing CDs all the time. But tapes? They were new to me. To celebrate this brand-new used car (1993 Volkswagen Corrado SLC), I went to Best Buy and bought two tapes: Bob Dylan’s Unplugged (which I already owned on CD and DVD and which could probably change your life) and Wilco’s newie, Being There. I immediately hated myself for not listening to Matt Traughber more closely. Dammit, I didn’t know everything I needed to know after all, and realized I never would again.

By the time Mermaid Avenue came out, I was obsessed. I still remember the day I bought that album, and finding it to be one of the all-time great records, bringing together two artists quickly becoming all-time favorites for me (Wilco and Billy Bragg), along with the words of Mr. Woody Guthrie, who had inspired most of the artists I loved at that point in my life, other than Jarvis Cocker. I went to Henry’s to hang out with friends but brought the CD in with me and lost track of conversations as I read the words and sniffed the liners and obsessed about the design and the way the paper smelled.

I had an old, true friend in Detroit and we agreed to meet up at Pine Knob for the touring version of the HORDE Festival. Wilco had a prime mid-afternoon slot, and I was dying to finally see ’em. It was a good, loose show—a hot summer day north of Detroit, and the band still had a steel guitar player. I was there, when the first song caught me like a ton of bricks and I remember the feeling to this day. What was I hearing?! The most beautiful melody, a wonderful little riff, and a chorus about “My fragile family tree…” When finally home again, I scoured the internet, and could never find the song. I searched for the lyrics I had scrawled in my hand at the show. Nothing. I finished buying the Tupelo catalog—nowhere. I figured it was a long forgotten Woody Guthrie song, maybe one that didn’t make Mermaid. Months went by. It was lost.

I read the reports of Wilco’s next original album with a tireless interest (Addicted to Noise, y’all!). Finally, it dropped. Summerteeth. One of those albums that is the best kind of album—you know how it feels when your favorite artist releases your new favorite album, like, ever? A masterpiece. How perfect, and it only happens a few times in your life, and you hope you’ll remember it forever. I bought it after work on the day of release at Wooden Nickel on Dupont Road from a girl I went to high school with (Laura Pauley, where you at?), a girl that I probably should have always dated but never had the courage or the coolness to ask her about such an idea. She was a bit like Em from Adventureland, the coolest, most effortlessly rocking girl. A girl without cliques, a girl above the fray, a scene unto herself. A girl with a more sophisticated undertow, and a sad look in her eyes. She knew more than me. You know what I mean? But now I was the guy buying Summerteeth, and telling her who this band even was. Passionately, I might add. I was ahead of the buzz, and you could tell it meant something to her that I loved it. I was there.

You know what happened next, right?

All that time waiting. All that time wondering. And then it happened.

The second song, “She’s a Jar,” and I heard that guitar, the sleepy kisses, and the chorus hit: “Just climb aboard the tracks of my train…and my fragile family  tree.”

You ever hear the best song ever and then wait an entire year to hear it again? At its best, life is funny like that. Trust me, I was there.

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