Shot in the Arm
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."
That tour was the beginning of the end of a very long year for Wilco; Nonesuch Records signed the band and released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in April. But it still isn't over. Not yet. Thanks to Sam Jones' documentary, the band is, in a way, living through those rough times again, on pristine 16mm black-and-white film. Jones arrived at Wilco's loft studio in Chicago the day after Coomer left the group; his drum kit was still set up, ready to go. The fun was just starting.
And it was fun, for a while, especially for the filmmaker; Wilco is one of his favorite bands, and as a musician himself, he was happy to have the chance to watch them work. "I'm fine with the film, as far as how it represents what Sam saw," Tweedy says, noting that if the band had been involved in editing ("a terrible idea," he adds), it might have turned out differently. "I think it's Sam's movie, and I think that he did a pretty honest portrayal of the band that he liked, you know?"
That's where I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is at its strongest, when Jones is just standing back, taking it all in as the band runs through a rocked-up version of Yankee's "Kamera." Or when he's peeking over Tweedy and Bennett's shoulders as they argue over a mix of "Heavy Metal Drummer," followed by an uncomfortable image of Tweedy puking in the bathroom. Or charting the progress as "Poor Places" grows from bedroom folk to Knitting Factory noise. Moments such as these recall the best rock-and-roll films, maybe D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back or Jean Luc Goddard's Sympathy for the Devil.
Which is exactly the kind of film Jones aspired to. He got the idea for making a film about Wilco after seeing the band play in New York in late 1999: "I had the thought that someone must be doing a film on these guys, and if they're not, then someone should." A year later, he flew to Chicago to approach Tweedy and manager Tony Margherita about the film over a long dinner. "By the time the dinner was over, Jeff realized I was pretty serious about it," Jones says, "and that I wanted to make not just a fan following them around with a DV camera, but I wanted to make a feature-length, serious film."
It certainly is a serious film; at times, too serious. But that was unavoidable, given what Jones caught with his camera, and all of the drama that happened when he wasn't around. And, as Stirratt says, "A tranquil year in the life of Wilco probably wouldn't have been very interesting for people."
Halfway through the film, Margherita talks to Reprise about the future for Wilco and its album. Even though you can't hear what Margherita is hearing, it's clear there isn't a future for either of them, not at Reprise. "Ironically, there were more single-sounding songs than we've probably ever had on a record," Stirratt says now. (But then, Tweedy points out that those songs--"Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and "Pot Kettle Black"--would've only been singles "30 years ago. In Malaysia.") "I don't know if they ever even really listened to the second half of it. They couldn't get past 'Trying to Break Your Heart,' I'm sure."
If Reprise couldn't get past "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's are-you-in-or-out? opener, Wilco couldn't move forward with Bennett still in the band. Just as they couldn't have made the album with Coomer behind the drums. Bennett claims, "Jeff wanted his band back," and that he was fired before he could quit; the rest of the group, judging by their comments in the film, just wanted a happier place to go to work. As for Coomer, Tweedy has often said that he was holding Wilco back a bit, that he wasn't quite equipped for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's subtler songs. "Each situation was handled separately, but with the same intention of being good for the band and good for the music and, ironically, maybe even good for us and them," Stirratt says. "It was totally stressful and rough, but sometimes you have to experience pain to get to a better place, personally and musically."
Jones, however, insists he wasn't aware of the impending personnel change until it happened, and he was left trying to figure out what to do with his movie, since one of the main characters had walked off the set without explanation.
"I mean, I attributed some of those arguments just to typical frustrations involved with mixing that much material and trying to make a record, you know?" Jones says. "I think that's a tough thing to do for anybody. I didn't think it would have that disastrous of consequences. But there were also a lot of things under the surface. I think the band is very polite on the surface, and you wouldn't know a lot of the disagreements if you weren't right there in the room when they happened."
He takes great pains to put the audience in the room, watching as Bennett (looking like Phillip Seymour Hoffman under a mess of dreadlocks) slowly backs himself out of the group. It's only when he takes the camera out of the room and focuses it on Rolling Stone's David Fricke or Chicago Tribune pop-music critic Greg Kot or, all too often, Margherita, that I Am Trying to Break Your Heart begins to sag. That's when the film goes so far behind the music that it winds up banging on the front door, trying to find a way back inside. If the first half inspires people to make music, the second makes you wonder why anyone ever does.
The story has a happy ending--for everyone except for Bennett and Coomer, of course. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released by Nonesuch (ironically, a subsidiary of Time-Warner-AOL, the same company that owns Reprise) on April 23 to five-star reviews and a No. 13 spot on the Billboard charts, the group's highest debut ever. Since then, the disc has sold more than 300,000 copies, another first for the band. It isn't really an ending, though; the finish line keeps getting further away. Wilco would like to release another album soon, and the group's been working since it finished Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on new material that Tweedy says "sounds kind of like a Burl Ives record that cyborgs have attacked." He laughs. "It sounds pretty fresh to us. Maybe not Burl Ives, OK, maybe a Nick Drake record that has somehow been corrupted in someone's computer." For now, however, Wilco has to be content keeping the three hours of music it's recorded (Tweedy's unwieldy title: "the collected box set of unreleased Wilco since February") to itself, a CD wallet full of new Wilco albums the band keeps on the tour bus. They can't let go of them yet, not until they get enough distance.
"Not only has it lengthened the whole life of this record, but there's been more press about us, you know, in magazines," Stirratt says. "I'm just kind of afraid of backlash at this point. Overexposure, or something. Never been very sensitive to that. It does make you kinda hunker down a little more for the next one."
"There's one side of the band that's the public side, and it's had this record and it's been talked about for a long, long time," Tweedy says. "But the internal side of the band--I guess the side we're concerned with, as far as how fulfilling the band actually is for us to be a part of--has been recording since February. And luckily, the songs have all held up pretty well over time and evolved, and we still feel like playing them. And, as well, there's a bunch of new stuff to work on that occupies our minds and doesn't make us feel too much like a jukebox."
Fans may be able to hear for themselves how some of it works; since the group doesn't want to put out another full record so soon after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it's considering making several of the songs available on its Web site for downloading, maybe even with print-ready artwork. Better than many bands--and almost every record label--the members of Wilco know how the Internet can work in their favor. After all, even though Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a below-radar best seller as a CD-R, plenty of listeners still picked up copies when the real version hit stores. "If people wanna hear something, they'll download it and still wanna own it," Stirratt says. "I think a lot of the bigger artists who are afraid, you know, who are lashing out maybe just don't want their records to be heard before they're bought." He laughs.
"It helped us be a lot more relaxed about that type of thing, because we could envision the worst-case scenario would be that no label in the world would be interested in touching us, and we could just put our records up on the Web site and have people listen to 'em and do what we've been doing for 12 years," Tweedy says. "What would really change, except for the fact that the records wouldn't actually be physically available in stores?" He pauses, so I can think about the answer. "It just kind of broadened our outlook of what it is to be a band, I guess. We're not necessarily defined by having a piece of plastic to sell."
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