If we’re lucky in this life, we’ll get to see a couple of moments where the confluences of the personal, political, artistic, and spiritual create unforgettable moments and experiences, where the unspoken energies flowing beneath everything run together, like tributaries to a river, to burst forth into our reality with the magic and soul that we can sometimes sense is there underneath but rarely if ever directly experience.
This is the story of my first one.
I. The Meaning
Cheer up, honey, I hope you can
There is something wrong with me
My mind is filled with radio cures
Electronic surgical words
I discovered Wilco in the fashion I’m sure was still quite common among teenagers in the mid-1990s: through a review in Rolling Stone magazine. I didn’t know anything about Uncle Tupelo, or Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s acrimony that led to a splitting up of the band, or even Wilco’s first album, A.M.1
Reading the RS review of Being There2, something about the album stood out to me, even though four out of five stars wasn’t exactly blowing the cover off the magazine. The fact that it was a double album at a single-album price, at a time when I was a teenager having to buy CDs, helped. So in late 1996 I plunked down my $18.99 and picked up the beige album with the sparse photo of one hand on a guitar neck.
1 – Tweedy took the remaining original members– bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, as well as Bottle Rockets guitarist and Uncle Tupelo guest guitarist Brian Henneman, to form Wilco and record A.M.
2 – By the time of Being There, Henneman was no longer playing with the band, having been replaced by Jay Bennett; in addition, Bob Egan would join the band for some sessions, and Johnston would leave before Summerteeth, being replaced by Leroy Bach. Frequent lineup changes were a hallmark of Wilco’s early years.
Being There became my soundtrack for much of the summer of 1997, driving around aimlessly in a small town with nowhere to go and no one to see. MTV played the video for breakout single “Outtasite (Outta Mind).” Wilco became my band, in the way young people attach themselves to something they’ve discovered that they feel is special, a secret no one else knows about.
1999’s Summerteeth only cemented my feelings on the band; its lush pop and more mature themes, which made it in some ways the Pet Sounds of its day, was even more in tune with my tastes. Whether it was bouncy, joyful power pop like hidden track “Candy Floss,” or more sweeping, orchestral epics like “Pieholden Suite,” every track on the record delivered. As I prepared to head to college, Wilco was undeniably the most important band around to me, the one that I felt a personal connection to and that was also still making great music. I went through that album endlessly; it still occupies a position as one of my all-time personal favorites.
They weren’t proper Wilco albums, but I also picked up the two Mermaid Avenue records. Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora had a large collection of his lyrics that had never been published or recorded; she asked UK folk/protest singer Billy Bragg to write music and record them, and he in turn asked Wilco. The two acts split the workload and eventually made two albums’ worth of material out of the lyrics, with the first in 1998 and Vol. II in 2000. These albums contained some Wilco fan favorites, such as “California Stars” and “Airline to Heaven.”
Wilco was my band.
I awaited Yankee Hotel Foxtrot breathlessly.
I’ve got reservations
About so many things
But not about you
II. The Myth
I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’m hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you?
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has entered the annals of rock legend as much for the tale behind its production and release as for the record itself.
A rather tumultuous recording process saw some members of the band leave. The previous year had seen Tweedy perform at Chicago’s Noise Pop festival with musician and producer Jim O’Rourke, who suggested drummer Glenn Kotche join them. The trio ended up recording a six-song album in the summer of 2000 as Loose Fur. That experience led Tweedy to try to incorporate more of that sound and feel into Wilco.
Frustrated with Ken Coomer’s inconsistent drumming and unwillingness to adjust to the needs of the record, Tweedy asked Kotche to record some percussion parts for the album, and ultimately proposed the band replace Coomer with Kotche for the YHF sessions. After hearing what Kotche recorded, the rest of the band unanimously agreed, and he was named Wilco’s new drummer in January 2001.
Tweedy also began to clash with Jay Bennett, who had taken production duties on most of the songs but wasn’t getting the sound they wanted with his mixing. Tweedy suggested bringing in O’Rourke to mix the album, and after hearing his “audition mix,” Bennett agreed, although he and Tweedy continued to butt heads over how to shape the album, with Bennett more concerned with individual songs and Tweedy with the big picture. After the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions were finished, Tweedy dismissed Bennett from the band. (Sadly, Bennett died in 2009 at age 45 after an accidental fentanyl overdose.)
After the album was completed, Wilco ran into problems with their record label. When AOL merged with Time Warner, Reprise Records president Howie Klein, a big supporter of the band, was dismissed, and head A&R representative David Kahne was placed in charge of the decision. He ultimately rejected the album, saying there was no hit single on the album; reportedly, he or other executives referred to it as “unlistenable.” (The label acrimony was not helped when bootleg copies of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot began to leak online.)
Wilco, confident in their album and not willing to make any changes for executives, then negotiated a buyout that gave them the YHF master tapes, to seek another label for its release.
You’re gonna lose
You have to lose
You have to learn how to die
If you want to, want to be alive…
III. The Movie
I need a camera
To my eye
To my eye, reminding
Which lies I’ve been hiding
Which echoes belong
Most of the events I just described can be witnessed for yourself. Los Angeles-based photographer Sam Jones contacted Wilco about filming a documentary of the making of YHF, although surely he did not know what he was in for. He started shooting footage on the day Ken Coomer was replaced on drums by Glenn Kotche.
The entire drama surrounding the record– the production difficulties, the dismissal of band members, the record label troubles– were all chronicled by Jones, eventually released in the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. It’s a terrific watch and a serendipitous thing to exist at all; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains possibly the most mythological album of the 21st century, something Jones couldn’t possibly have known when he started filming.
IV. The Music
I miss the innocence I’ve known
Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned
I’ve gotten awfully far without talking about the actual music of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
From the get-go, we get the sense of how this will be a different Wilco record. Being There opened with the drumming and shimmering guitar of “Misunderstood”, giving way to loud feedback that eventually broke for the lyrics. Summerteeth kicked off with the poppy riff of “Can’t Stand It,” a song Wilco agreed to remix in an attempt to find a more commercially viable single (which they insisted they would do “once and only once”). Yankee Hotel Foxtrot starts off with a burst of noise, as though someone were trying to properly tune into the album, that eventually incorporates drumming on odd surfaces and fuzzy instruments that give way to clarity– it’s similar to the intro to Being There, but it’s darker, more chaotic, and goes on even longer, over a full minute before Tweedy’s voice comes in with “I am an American aquarium drinker…”
The rest of the song continues more or less normally for the most part, though the last couple of minutes become strange and troubling again– the opening lines are repeated over increasing noise, which eventually overwhelms the song– until the title line from the eighth track, “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” pokes through at the end. The song ends with a burst of noise, as though we’ve cracked through to something by accidentally getting to a song further down the line, and whatever that thing is is trying to tell us, Forget what you heard. Go back. The sequence is normal.
Tweedy’s fascination with shortwave numbers stations informs much of the record; the female voice intoning the album’s title at the end of “Poor Places” comes from The Conet Project, a collection of recordings from those stations. That moment in particular, in conjunction with many of the other blasts of noise and strange, out-of-place happenings, gives the album the same eerie sense of something discordant happening under the surface, the way one might feel were one to stumble upon some coded broadcast intended for some long-forgotten spy. (I too have a fascination with hidden realities and with both the artistic works and the real-world phenomena that suggest them.)
Though the overall aesthetic of the album is dark and noisy, confusion existing in the liminal spaces, quite a few of the songs are relatively straightforward and poppy underneath. “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” stand out in this regard in particular. The album as a whole does a great job contrasting the more mellow, clean-sounding songs (which also include “Kamera,” “Jesus Etc.,” and “Pot Kettle Black”) with the dark drifts into noise and fracture. The variety of songs also reflects Wilco’s growing and boundary-expanding musical aesthetic: A.M. was alt-country in the vein of Uncle Tupelo; Being There had a bit of country- and blues-rock mixed with psychedelia; Summerteeth was literate power-pop with glossy production and the occasional epic. Wilco ran the gamut here; fragmented between dark noise and bright simplicity; between straightforward pop-songs and fractured narratives; between guitars and strings, and odder instruments and sources of noise and vocal samples.
The lyrics are frequently more abstract and metaphorical than ever: Phrases like “I wanna hold you in the Bible-black predawn,” “You are not my typewriter, but you could be my demon,” and “Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I’ve never seen” dot the album. Tweedy’s literary interests informed Summerteeth to a greater degree than any of his previous work, and that continued on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; several lines from “Ashes of American Flags” are taken directly from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Still, as mentioned in the paragraphs above, this contrasts with the very straightforward lyrics of a song like “Heavy Metal Drummer,” a simple reminiscence of more innocent times in younger days, a teenaged Tweedy seeing rock bands at St. Louis’ Laclede’s Landing in the 1980s.
Tweedy’s got some severe ambivalence going on in his relationships as well; just looking at the fact that the album contains both “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” speak to that. But it’s surprising how many of these sounds could be described as love songs; even the stranger tracks, like “Poor Places,” contain lines like “I really want to see you tonight.” Much like with the contemporary work of Radiohead (OK Computer and Kid A in particular), Wilco’s noise and technology and strangeness still has, underneath, a yearning for human connection. Possibly the most direct line in this regard is the chorus of “Radio Cure”: “Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable.”
And with nowhere else to insert it, but as its theme of rebirth and the chance to get it– it— right is one that’s stuck with me in many of my favorite works of music, I’ll share with you the chorus of “Ashes of American Flags”: “All my lies are always wishes / I know I would die if I could come back new.”
It’s eerie how much the album seems to presage 9/11. Having watched Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation not too long ago, I was stunned by the montage of how many movies seemed to prefigure the attacks– scene after scene of metropolitan destruction, scene after scene of the tallest buildings in a city being obliterated, scene after scene of death raining from above. Was it always there in our psychic unconscious? Was this always going to happen? Is time truly a meaningless illusion we lay over the always-existent forces of the cosmos in order to understand them?
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot carries an awfully similar feeling. For an album recorded in 2001, finished several months before 9/11, that leaked a few weeks before the event… a lot of these lyrics sure evoke the event: tall buildings shaking and skyscrapers scraping (“Jesus, Etc.”), crying overseas (“Poor Places”), the war (or more accurately, the “War on War”), a more innocent previous time (“Heavy Metal Drummer”), and of course, the centerpiece of the album, “Ashes of American Flags.” The title says it all, and “Speaking of tomorrow, how will it ever come?” was certainly a sentiment many of us felt in the aftermath.
Even the cover art is a sepia-toned photo of Marina City, a Chicago building complex consisting of, as you can see for yourself, twin towers.
The third key song on the album, after opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and centerpiece “Ashes of American Flags,” is the 10th track, “Poor Places.”
The latter is where the strange spaces existing under the surface of the album finally burst forth. It starts off normally enough (for this album): a noise of some sort, one that makes me picture a lighthouse beacon in the fog– aided, no doubt, by Tweedy’s opening lyrics: “It’s my father’s voice dreaming of sailors sailing off in the morning…” That sound and others, the sounds of otherworldly radio transmissions, haunt the whole song, but it’s only as it builds and builds, into the latter section where the chorus is repeated over and over as the song gets noisier and noisier, that the barrier between the two worlds finally breaks, and we get the broadcast from the other side: The female voice intoning “Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot.” repeatedly, an alien transmission out of time and place. A brief look into another universe.
Then, abruptly, it all stops, before even the last “Foxtrot” in the sequence. The window is shut, the barrier sealed again.
The album then closes on the plaintive “Reservations,” which while still maintaining the same style of production that unifies the album, is a quiet ballad, a simple love song, one which closes with several minutes of burbling sounds, noise and feedback– for that description, it’s quiet, a surprisingly gentle outro that takes us back to the real world.
It’s an album without a single misstep, every bit worth the sturm und drang it took to get it made and released.
Every song’s a comeback
Every moment’s a little bit later
V. The Moment
Tall buildings shake
Singing sad, sad songs
Tuned to chords
Strung down your cheeks
Turning your orbit around
The events of September 11, for me (and I imagine many others), kicked me into consciousness about global politics in a way I hadn’t been before. 20 years old at the time, having been raised in the 1980s and 1990s (when America was still riding high and the devastation of neoliberalism hadn’t taken root yet), I certainly wouldn’t say I subscribed to Francis Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history, but it did seem like America had a stable, cemented direction for the future and that there wasn’t much we could do to change it. (Hell, I might have even been ignorant enough to believe in 2000 that there wasn’t really that much difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore.)
September 11, of course, was an immediate shattering of that bubble. For whatever I did and didn’t know about our national and international politics, it was very clear to me that not all was well in a world where something like that would happen– where, for whatever reason, someone would do that. And while I’d credit it with opening my eyes and beginning my radicalization leftward, what’s more pertinent to this story is the national mood, the fear and uncertainty that gripped the American imagination in a way I’d never seen, possibly in a way that hadn’t happened since World War II.
September 11, 2001 was also the day Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was originally scheduled to be released. But with no record label, Wilco instead opted, one week later, to stream the album for free from their website, rather than leave fans’ only exposure to be lower-quality bootleg copies. (I had one of these, naturally.)
It was in those circumstances that, on September 22, 2001, I made the drive with my friend Dave and his girlfriend Adriana, and a couple of her friends3 from Houston to Austin, to the legendary Stubb’s BBQ, to see Wilco in concert: a country uncertain and scared, a band with no record label and missing a member, a sense of peak uncertainty for both band and audience about what the future would hold. (Mikael Jorgensen still hadn’t come on to fill the hole left by Jay Bennett’s firing, so they played the show as a four-piece.) We were all walking out on a limb every day, every moment; now we were listening to a band that was doing that not just in the sense we were, but with their own art and their own livelihoods, a brilliant band that had no way of knowing if they’d ever be signed again or if they’d ever get to let the album they were touring for see the light of day officially.
And I’ve never been part of a better concert in my life. Writing about it doesn’t seem to do it justice. The palpable hum of nervous energy in the air. The tangible connection of the fans to the band they loved, knowing that, even if nothing worked out for the band in terms of the future, we would have this moment together. And something about the fact that the band’s fortunes and the world were so precarious at the moment made it all the more precious, all the more heightened, all the more rapturous.
They opened with the first track from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the perfect intro for a crowd that was pumped to hear this new, unreleased album. (Tweedy cracked jokes about not having a record label, as well as upon seeing how many people could sing along with the songs from an unreleased album that had been officially streaming for all of four days.)
And I’ve never seen a crowd cheer like I saw the crowd cheer for the final stanza, with the title drop, of “Ashes of American Flags.” Like on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot itself, the band played it at the exact midpoint of the show.
They played three encores, with something I’ve never seen before: The third encore seemed genuinely spontaneous, willed by a crowd that didn’t want this moment of respite from the horrors of the world to end, that wanted the magic to keep going. The members of Wilco clearly had not prepared for a third encore, and were clearly talking among themselves as to which song to play, eventually settling on Being There’s “I Got You (at the End of the Century).”
For one night, we were able to put aside our fears and uncertainties and come together; we were able to really experience the divine, the ecstatic power of music. I’ve never had an experience like that at a concert since; the closest I’ve come was, so many years after their beloved and groundbreaking record, finally seeing Neutral Milk Hotel live in Boulder in 2014.
3 – Only Dave and I saw Wilco. The others went to Austin to see Ben Folds Five. We won.
As a side note, the opening act was the Handsome Family, whom you probably know better now as the artists behind the season 1 theme song to True Detective. I had to consult Dave for some details about their set; he recalls them making their own jokes about the situation (mentioning that you could buy their album at the show, since they still had a record label) and having some pretty hilarious banter otherwise. (The line that’s stuck with Dave: “Ducks act stupid, but they know what the fuck is going on.”)
I made a Spotify playlist of the complete set list from that show as according to setlist.fm. (As you might accurately suspect if you’ve listened to enough stories about my life, I’ve done a lot of things that mean my memory isn’t what it used to be.)
They cried all over overseas
And it makes no difference to me…
VI. The Mepilogue
I couldn’t tell if it’d bring my heart
The way I wanted when I started
Writing this letter to you
Wilco eventually signed with Nonesuch Records, a smaller label better known for world music, in November 2001. (In an irony, or what one might call the complete opposite of synergy, Nonesuch, just like Reprise, was a subsidiary of Time Warner.) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saw its official release in April 2002. It debuted at #13 on the Billboard 200 and remains Wilco’s best-selling album to date, their only Gold record. Pitchfork Media gave the album a perfect 10.0, and in 2009 named it the #4 album of the decade. It scored the #1 spot at the 2002 year-end Pazz & Jop critics’ poll in The Village Voice. Not bad for an album Reprise Records deemed “unlistenable.”
(The bad publicity Reprise got from the decision actually ended up helping other artists; their regret over their mistake led them to re-commit to supporting talented, acclaimed artists of questionable commercial viability. As Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips was quoted in an interview, “The people on Warners said, ‘We’ll never have a band like Wilco feel we don’t believe in them again.'”)
Wilco would add Mikael Jorgensen as a multi-instrumentalist in 2002, then guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone in 2004, replacing the departing Leroy Bach. Tweedy and Stirratt are the only original members remaining, and the only members remaining who were there from the very beginning of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions. Wilco’s lineup has not changed since. Their next album, A Ghost Is Born, won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.
I didn’t sleep much the night of September 22, on the floor of some of Adriana’s University of Texas friends. The next morning, I got behind the wheel and drove us back, pushing 100 MPH most of the way.
Many numbers stations remained in operation well into the 21st century.
Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot.
I would like to salute
The ashes of American flags
And all the fallen leaves
Filling up shopping bags