By Jim Schutze
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The last time Wilco played in Dallas, the band was awful. That's what singer-guitarist Jeff Tweedy is saying on the phone right now, groaning as he's reminded of the ill-fated gig. He's at home in Chicago, taking a couple of days off between tour stops, stealing a few moments with his wife, Sue, and his two young sons, Spencer and Sam. "That was probably one of the worst shows we've played." He vows to avenge their defeat when they return to town September 26. But it's not like there wasn't a good reason for it.
The tour had been put together a few months earlier, back when the band expected to be promoting its new album. Back when the group still had a label. Back when there were five members in the band. Back when New York's skyline remained unchanged. But by the time September 21 arrived last year, everyone in Wilco was looking at the calendar through different eyes, the kind of view you adopt when the future and past slip from your grasp and you're left holding onto an uncertain present. By then, nothing was the same, only the fact that the band was still going to start its tour on that date at the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum.
The months leading up to that show had been difficult, to put it mildly. Reprise Records, the label that had released Wilco's three previous albums (1995's A.M., 1996's Being There and 1999's Summerteeth), rejected the group's latest effort, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the band as well. Not long after the record was finished, the band fired guitarist-keyboard player-engineer Jay Bennett, the second member of Wilco that didn't survive Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; drummer Ken Coomer was ditched at the beginning of the sessions, replaced by Glenn Kotche. And then, well, everyone knows what happened on September 11.
Most people probably already know what happened after the band turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, too; in the music press and beyond, Wilco's troubles have been as well-documented as Donald Rumsfeld's color-coded warnings. In some cases, they were deemed just as important. And now, at a theater near you, Wilco's battles with the music industry (and each other) have been edited into an hour-and-a-half highlight reel, director Sam Jones' documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, now showing at The Magnolia. It's a rock-and-roll Zapruder film, depicting Reprise's assassination attempt on Wilco's new album and the great divide that developed between Bennett and the rest of the band, as well as the fallout from both. That show at the Tea Room might as well have been a scene from it.
When Wilco landed in Dallas last September, the country's wounds hadn't begun to heal, and in a smaller sense, neither had the band's. Everyone was trying to figure out what to do next. And if people needed a reason to leave the world behind for a few hours, so did the members of Wilco. They hadn't done much of that since Reprise decided to cut them loose. They weren't sure what was going to happen; they just knew they had to go.
"Looking back on it, it was pretty ballsy," says bassist John Stirratt. He spoke on his cell phone, about a month ago, while he was taking care of some last-minute details before Wilco headed to Canada to start a new tour. "We were basically a new band. We were a four-piece, and it was only Glen's fifth gig...don't know if we were totally ready to go out."
Stirratt and the band (which also includes Leroy Bach on guitar and keyboards) soon found out that, if they weren't completely prepared to be on the road, their fans were ready for them to be there. And it didn't have much to do with merely getting away from the creepy crawls scrolling across their TV screens.
It had to do with an album that was the best record of last year, even if it didn't officially exist. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is so honest you halfway expect a polygraph machine to be credited in the liner notes. Given what actually is on the disc, it's a fair assumption; at times, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds like a Stax/Volt side remixed by Aphex Twin, soul music surrounded by wide-open spaces and closed-tight eyes. Tweedy free-associates like a Beat poet ("I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue" is the first lyric on the album) and pounds the pulpit like a manic street preacher ("You have to learn how to die/If you wanna wanna be alive," he says in "War on War"). In a way, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a love letter to everything the band cares about in music.
Copies of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot quickly made their way onto the Internet, courtesy of illicit MP3s on various file-trading services, and later via streaming audio files on the Wilco Web site, www.wilcoworld.net. When they unveiled new songs such as "War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags," the crowds were singing along.
"I don't think we ever really freaked out severely about being dropped, and I think part of it was because we knew that most of how we had been surviving all along had been from that audience," Tweedy says. He laughs often when he talks, ending his sentences with a chuckle instead of a period. "Just from touring and playing a lot, and people coming to see us play. That's kinda how we had been hanging around. When the record was up on the Web site, we knew that we were getting a lot of, um, hits, as I guess you call 'em. When we got out on that tour and people were singing along with the new songs, it was great. It gave us an environment to be pretty patient, as far as worrying about putting out our record for real."