In terms of its artistic
ambition and its dramatic back story, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" seemed like a
difficult accomplishment for Wilco to top.
The 2002 album presented an entirely new sound for Chicago's widely
regarded alternative-country group, and it marked a high point for
bandleader Jeff Tweedy's emotional and poetic lyrics, with songs such as
"War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags" taking on a deep if unintended
resonance in the wake of 9/11.
Thanks to countless newspaper and magazine stories and director Sam
Jones' film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," the troubled crafting of
Wilco's fourth proper album also became a cautionary tale of the modern
music industry. The group lost two longtime band members in the process --
drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett -- and the music,
the finest of Wilco's career, was initially rejected by its label.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
Tickets: Sold out
Phone: (312) 559-1212
The band wound up parting with Reprise, floating the album for free on
the Internet, signing a new deal with Nonesuch and garnering its best sales
ever (debuting at No. 13 on the Billboard albums chart) when "Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot" was finally officially released some nine months after its
completion. Before the Reprise debacle, the group played a celebratory
concert in Grant Park on July 4, 2001.
There seemed to be nothing nearly as dramatic happening as Wilco crafted
its fifth album, "A Ghost Is Born," at its loft on the city's Northwest Side
and at Soma Studio in Wicker Park. Sure, there was some minor controversy
when multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach parted ways with the band shortly
after the recording was completed. But by most accounts, the split was
mutual and amicable, and Tweedy seemed his usual low-key but optimistic self
when he talked with me
about his new music in his home not far from the Wilco loft last March.
Then, a few weeks after that conversation, the album's original June 8th
release date was pushed back to June 22, a publicity trip to Europe was
canceled, and the band pulled out of a series of high-profile gigs,
including a May 1 appearance at the massive Coachella Festival in
California. The band's publicist announced that Tweedy had checked into
rehab to battle an addiction to prescription painkillers, the result of his
fight with the chronic migraines and depression that have plagued him for
much of his life.
Suddenly, the group's future was thrown into question. "Are you guys
addicted to the drama?" I asked bassist John Stirratt, the most senior
member of the band after Tweedy, several days after the troubling news broke
"I'm sure not, I'll tell you that," Stirratt said in his usual
easygoing manner. "I'm not; whether he is is a different story.
Someone brought it to my attention that every [Wilco] record is connected to
some huge event. It's really kind of interesting -- but I'm really not into
that aspect of it at all."
To date, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" has sold more than 400,000 copies in the
United States. The album's popularity positions Wilco to reach its biggest
audience ever with its new disc -- or to suffer a serious critical and
commercial backlash. When we first spoke last March, Tweedy said he was
ready for people to be disappointed with "A Ghost Is Born."
More great surprises
"A GHOST IS BORN"
Wilco's fifth studio album (or its seventh, if you count its
collaborations with Billy Bragg in tribute to Woody Guthrie) is not the
equal or better of 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." But it is an
incredibly strong, compelling, emotional and brutally honest effort that
maintains the Chicago band's position as one of the most musically
inventive and lyrically brilliant groups of its generation.
Musically, the disc continues the art-rock experimentation of its
predecessor, with more mixed results. On "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," the band
adopts the snaking guitars and metronomic drum beat that were trademarks
of Krautrock heroes Neu!; it brings the jangly version of the song first
heard in concert to a whole new level. But much less successful is the
15-minute epic "Less Than You Think," which not only claims the title of
the most annoying song Wilco has ever recorded, but makes a short list
of the most glaring mistakes in album sequencing ever.
The wandering, aimless track begins with a stark piano and vocal
snippet of a maudlin tune in the mold of Big Star's "Holocaust," then
devolves into the sort of simultaneously static but wildly
self-indulgent noodling that producer Jim O'Rourke specialized in with
Gastr del Sol. It separates two otherwise great songs: the uplifting,
piano-driven "Theologians" (with its striking lyrical opener of "Theologians/They
don't know nothing about my soul") and the album closer "The Late
Greats," a fun, breezy sing-along that champions the gleeful obscurity
of a garage band that recorded "the greatest lost track of all time."
Overall, the album has a much more low-key (if less produced and more
immediate) feel than "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." There are more moments of
brilliance (another is the jaunty, keyboard-driven "Hummingbird") than
there are self-indulgent disasters or lazy alt-country pandering ("I'm a
Wheel" is the worst offender in that department). But the key line comes
in the chorus of "Handshake Drugs," when Tweedy asks, "Exactly what
do you want me to be?"
The artist still isn't entirely sure of his own identity. This is
both a curse (when we're forced to endure the failed experiments) and a
blessing: Wilco is a band capable of great surprises, and that remains
something that is all too rare in rock today.
"I've been ready for it with every record," he said, laughing as we sat
around his kitchen table drinking Diet Cokes. "To be honest with you, I
think it would've happened more heavily last time if it hadn't been the
slam-dunk of Reprise dumping us. I think that record would've split people
more if it hadn't been a case of, 'Well, why are we going to kick them when
they are already down?' Now, I know the chickens are coming home to roost,
but I don't care."
The bandleader has always thrived on defying expectations. Plenty of
skeptics thought Jay Farrar was the only significant songwriter in legendary
underground favorites Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy's first band. With Wilco's 1995
debut, "A.M.," Tweedy proved that he could more than carry an album on his
own. The next year, with the sprawling double album "Being There," he
delivered one of the defining releases of the alternative-country movement,
only to turn around in 1999 and reject that sound with the elaborate
orchestrated pop of "Summerteeth."
The fractured art-rock of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was greeted as yet
another controversial and unexpected detour. But Tweedy claims to welcome
the dialogue with skeptics who think they know better than he does what
Wilco "should" be doing next.
"I don't know if you can guard yourself against it completely," he said.
"I always feel that you run a risk if you turn that voice off completely. I
don't mind the dialogue at all with critics, or even the f---ing maniacal
crazy fan speculation, because I think it's one of the only things in my
life where I have both sides of the story.
"I don't think anything good can ever happen if you are just thinking
about yourself," he continued. "The ego has to get destroyed and come out,
and then you can look at it later and recognize it and hopefully assess it.
The pure creation is the stuff that just pours out."
The most valuable part of the creative process may come pouring out for
the 37-year-old artist, but that doesn't mean that Tweedy and his bandmates
don't labor over perfecting the ultimate version of whatever those ideas
become. Though the goal was to simplify things after two albums of intensive
studio overdubbing, the crafting of "A Ghost Is Born" wasn't much less
complicated than the processes that produced "Summerteeth" and "Yankee Hotel
For both of those albums, the songs were essentially built in the
recording studio, and Wilco wound up having to learn how to play them live
after the recordings were completed. Tweedy wanted to alter this method for
"A Ghost Is Born," trying many different versions of a song first -- either
onstage or during live-in-the-studio jams -- then learning how to play the
"perfect" version of the tune together as a group, so that the final
recording could be made with a minimum of overdubs and as much of a live and
immediate feeling as possible.
Lyrically, "arc" is a word that Tweedy uses a lot when talking about the
new album, and he's referring to both the arc of a story and the "ark" that
the biblical character of Noah used to rescue two of every animal from the
"I thought this record was about identity in a way," he said. "Those two
things to me were like, 'OK, an ark -- you'd say you could build a new
world; you have all the elements you'd need to make the world over again. I
thought that was a beautiful idea for a record. And an arc -- 'How do you
define yourself? How do you define an identity?' It wants to be an echo --
'I'm a wheel, I'm this, I'm that. What do you want me to be? Half of it's
you, half of it's me.' It's in almost every song, some kind of searching.
"I just wanted to make a record that was more passionate and more
appealing than the way 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' sounded to me over time. I
stand by that record -- I really am proud of it -- but one of the things
that changed about the world for me between 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' and this
record is that I don't think you can hide the passion anymore. I think there
is a distance to 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,' and in fact, a lot of the music is
about that distance, and understanding distance.
"I think this record is more about me being human and having an
identity," he concluded. "The world is as f---ed-up as it is, and you look
around, and you struggle with this -- how to define yourself -- and you ask,
'What do I have to hold on to?' What do you end up finding that's real to
make yourself feel like a human? You define yourself by the things you love
and the people you love, and I guess I tried to make this record an ark of
all the things I love most about music, and the things that I think would be
most important to have intact if the world were destroyed and you had to
reach over and grab this record.
"I don't know if we achieved that, but I think that we thought that at
that point in time. I understand that it is not going to be an immediate hit
with some people. It's immediate for me, because it's very personal."
Looking around the kitchen, with his kids' cereal bowls still heaped in
the sink and assorted toys scattered around the floor, I asked Tweedy if
he's becoming more comfortable exposing himself to such a degree.
"Oh, I feel useless if I'm not doing it," he said in his nicotine-stained
rasp. "It would be wrong to say that I enjoy it all the time, because there
are days when it feels like it is a lot to contend with. But I feel like you
can only play the songs if some part of you remembers the pain."
There is something masochistic about the process of sharing your psyche
with an audience, especially when you've endured an intense experience like
addiction or depression. And Tweedy certainly isn't the first artist to
wrestle with this dilemma. Given the announcement of his stint in rehab just
as the process of talking to the press about "A Ghost Is Born" was getting
under way, it's not surprising that much of the banter about the album among
fans on the Internet involves searching for connections between the more
downbeat sounds of the album and the barbiturate high.
Rather than indulging in idle speculation, anyone looking for facts about
the roots of Tweedy's current predicament can find the story laid bare in a
new biography published by Broadway Books called Wilco: Learning How to
Die. (In the interest of journalistic disclosure, I should note that
author Greg Kot is my sparring partner on the rock 'n' roll talk show,
"Sound Opinions.") The compelling and exhaustively researched book depicts
Tweedy's battle with debilitating migraines and sudden panic attacks as a
lifelong struggle, and one that he has foolishly tried to conquer at times
When Tweedy emerged from rehab in late April, he told me in a second
interview that he was eager to return to the road. (The band's new lineup --
Tweedy, Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist and computer programmer
Mikael Jorgensen, keyboardist and guitarist Pat Sansone and guitarist Nels
Cline -- will play a sold-out show at the Vic Theatre at 7:30 p.m.
"I feel a lot better than I did a month ago, that's for sure, but it's a
touch-and-go thing," Tweedy said. "You know how long it can take to feel
normal. At this point, I have no choice but to take care of myself and do
whatever I need to do. My well-being is a lot more important than selling a
record. I wanna play 'I'm the Man Who Loves You' when I'm 85."
Tweedy was characteristically frank in talking about his addiction. When
I told him that it's brave to share so much of himself in his songs and in
interviews, he protested that there is no other choice for an artist.
"I've never understood before why people spend so much energy controlling
their image," he said. "I didn't really think we had an image worth
controlling, and I still don't feel like I have that amount of energy. I
think one of the invigorating things about playing music in front of people
is that I was confronting a fearful side of myself that was only generated
by ego and being afraid of what people think of me. Subverting what people
think of me is a healthier way to approach your ego.
"What ends up happening is the appearance of it to them is that you are
promoting your ego, but I think it is actually confronting it. And I don't
think there could ever possibly be anything wrong with anybody putting that
out as a piece of art."
Jeff Tweedy talks
Jeff Tweedy and I spoke for the second time at the end of April, shortly
after he finished his inpatient stay at a Chicago rehab center, and while
his outpatient treatment was ongoing. Here are the highlights of that
Q. Like many of your fans, I was shocked when I heard you were
A. Yeah, me, too. I was probably sober when I talked to you [in
March]. I had quit taking painkillers, but I've struggled with it for a
long, long time.
What I've discovered in the past two months is that I am what they call
"dual diagnosis." I have depression, generalized anxiety and severe panic
I always knew that I wanted to feel better, and the migraines are
actually a product of panic disorder. They are closely related. So I
self-medicated for a long time.
I quit drinking 13 years ago. I got myself off of painkillers and
morphine five years ago. And then I had these last two winters -- there is a
real seasonal component to my depression -- and these last two winters with
the light change, I went off the deep end. The migraines came back, and I
had a doctor who didn't have to twist my arm, who said, "You shouldn't be in
pain, you should be functional. Let's put you on some painkillers."
I'm really grateful that I got into rehab. I really resisted it. I knew I
needed help to get off of painkillers. I did it on my own about five weeks
before I went into rehab. I detoxed at home, and that was kind of miserable,
but I started feeling better.
But the problem was that I was so phobic about taking pills that I
stopped taking all of my medication, which is what people with depression
often do, especially because I never had any real help. I never reached out
and got real help for this.
Q. You can't enjoy talking about this.
A. I'm not ashamed of it at all. I resisted getting help because I
hated the rock 'n' roll cliche of the drug-addicted rock star. But it was
different because I wasn't seeking oblivion. I wasn't married to the idea of
being a debauched, partying rock god.
But somehow, because the panic got so severe, I couldn't function. In a
lot of ways, the mental component of this illness saved my life, because I
just couldn't function at all.
I went to the emergency room two days in a row. The second time I was
there, they told me about this facility in Chicago that deals with dual
diagnosis -- addiction and mental illness combined. I'd never heard of that
before. No one had ever put those two things together for me. I'm a smart
guy, but I didn't have any of that figured out.
Q. How were you able to get up and deliver onstage when you
were suffering like that?
A. Well, it's a very powerful thing. I'm terrified walking out on
the stage, but music has the ability to take you outside yourself. And that
is exactly what you need when you suffer from panic -- the ability to get
outside of yourself. You gotta do something. Music has probably saved my
life. No, not probably -- I know certainly it has saved my life. It is
probably the only really healthy thing I've ever endeavored to do.