My artist for this week didn’t have time to help us out, and that’s ok. I’ve decided to take on this behemoth myself. It’s only fair since I’ve been asking people to do it for the past month. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn something about me you didn’t know (favorite food: pizza, favorite color: blue).
When I was a kid, it was all about movies for me. Even up in to my late teens, I devoured everything I could, from Scorsese and Tarantino to Walter Hill and Samuel Fuller-I didn’t watch many foreign films until later. I could watch Goodfellas on repeat for a whole day, still could if time permitted.
Music was always a part of my life, but never something that I thought about on a higher level. My father is a musician who grew up in the 60’s, so there was always a good amount of Beatles and Stones playing. Around the the time I was 15 I started getting into the blues, and he made me a bunch of cassettes to play in my car once I had my license.
Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lonnie Brooks, Howlin’ Wolf-all the greats. I’d drive around the small town of LaPorte jamming out on air guitar (while ALWAYS paying strict attention to the road) singing my heart out along with Steve Miller’s “Evil.”
A little while later I met a kid named Kyle. He said he played guitar and I thought that was cool. He was a goofy kid. He didn’t have a lot of friends, and his ability on guitar was not being used by the jazz band at our school. So we started a band called Tax Evasion.
We played blues covers like “Pride and Joy” and then “Blue on Black” by the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band. I wrote a couple originals that were beyond terrible. Basically the band was a reason to listen to Kyle play guitar. The guy was amazing-and he was only 16!!
Well, as these things tend to happen we split up after a couple months together. Everyone was busy and Kyle felt like he wasn’t spending enough time focusing on his relationship with Jesus or something.
The next fall I started school at Purdue in W Lafayette, IN. A great school, no doubt, but I had little to no interest in classes. I had better things to do like play video games and go to the rec to shoot around with my friends. What I spent the most time doing was sitting in the computer lab, downloading copious amounts of music from a new thing called Napster that had shot up over the summer.
The computer labs all had T1 lines, and the amount of space allowed for each student on their servers was ridiculous. So, I’d show up and pretend to be doing some schoolwork, all the while downloading 5-10 albums at a crack and burning them to a cd.
I was downloading everything I could get my hands on. Hip-hop, rock, indie, blues. I didn’t care what it was, I just wanted to hear it. All of it.
I was at Purdue from 99-03. Not enrolled the whole time, but I was there. During that time some amazing albums were released: Bright Eyes-Lifted; or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear to The Ground, OutKast’s Stankonia, the debut of The Strokes, and White Blood Cells by the White Stripes. But we’ve made the rule of choosing one album fairly concrete by this point, so I will play the game that I’ve created.
The first time I heard the record was through the recommendation of my friend Jeremy. We kinda shared his space on the Purdue server after I dropped out. I’d go into the lab, log in as him, and go through everything he had downloaded. This was the same way I got turned on to things like The Streets and Har Mar Superstar.
Wilco was different, though. It took me to places musically that I had never been. It successfully married the brilliantly poignant lyrics by Jeff Tweedy with the ethereal soundscape created by the late Jay Bennett. The first time I heard “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” I thought it was the most bizarre, intriguing way to start an album. All throughout there are pieces of other songs from the album. A line here, a note there. It’s a brilliant piece of songwriting and producing.
Tweedy and Bennett had a contentious relationship, to say the least. I think that sometimes that kind of thing is necessary to create great music. Just look at Keith and Mick. Somehow they’ve managed to keep it together for forty years, but they’re not hanging out at each others Italian villa.
I’ve listened to YHF countless times. I’ve gone weeks where that’s the only album I listen to. The songs “War on War,” “Jesus, etc,” and “Ashes of American Flags” are maybe the best 4-5-6 lineup of any album ever made. The line “You have to learn how to die if you really wanna be alive” is maybe my favorite line in a song ever. Though, I think Jeff curbed it a bit from Red in Shawshank Redemption.
YHF opened up a lot of doors for me musically that would have otherwise been shut by my own myopic views of music. Surely I could have never enjoyed something like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea if I didn’t first have Wilco’s masterpiece introduce me to this new world of indie music (though, to be fair, NMH did come out in ’98, I just didn’t know it at the time).
People have said some disparaging things about Wilco’s albums since YHF. As if writing another album of that quality would be easy. They are a band constantly experimenting with the formula they use to create music. Whether you like it or not doesn’t really matter to them. The only thing they are interested in is making music that excites them and keeps them wanting to make music.
I personally think that A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky are both fantastic records. They aren’t AS fantastic as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but hey, every Dylan album isn’t as good as Blonde on Blonde, ya know?
Listening to Wilco has allowed me the opportunity to hear a lot of things that I would have written off entirely otherwise. In particular, country and alt-country music. I grew up in that time when it was changing to crossover garbage, and I didn’t really think about the fact that there were bands out there staying true to the roots of the genre.
So for that, and for so many other reasons, I thank Wilco for bestowing upon us a record so complete in it’s vision and so beautiful in it’s execution that I could honestly listen to it forever and never grow weary. As a Chicagoan and as a music lover, I am forever indebted to the band that changed my life.