One from the vaults: Having had the great fortune to just see Son Volt in town, and knowing Wilco are on their way (even if I'm not going this time), it made me wonder how an Independent story I wrote way back in 1997 still read. Now you can see how it still reads, too, from a time so long ago when newspapers weren't on the internet (so were still a semi-going concern).
Bipolar thinking can get you in a whole heap of trouble, if it’s fair to call stupidity trouble. Let’s just take the 1970s; yeah, them again. It’s mighty easy to reduce ’70s music into opposing camps — disco versus punk, say, or singer-songwriters versus arena rock. But such lines exist merely because critics, eager to fill column inches easily, need ways to show they can make distinctions. (Note most can make only two.) Take Fleetwood Mac. At what point do they cross from a band of three singer-songwriters into arena rock: When Rumors moved its 4 millionth unit? And yes, yes, I know, they were once a blues band and later something for the Clintons and Gores to bop around to as a way to prove they are hip, god help us. (Further evidence the Democrats are just Republican Lite.)
Simply put, the “everything is one thing or the other” theory merely means everything not one or the other doesn’t exist. There are many musical 1970s out there vanished to us, as if hidden in hangars in Roswell, or something. A cult of believers might insist that a Big Star or a Cleveland punk scene existed, but most people, in pod-like serenity, go on believing only what radio dishes up for their ears, to mix both UFO references and metaphors.
But the boys in Wilco aren’t most people, and that’s why you need to go see them on the Sheryl Crow bill this Sunday at the Bowl. They named themselves after an old radio for a reason, given they receive transmissions from across the eras. And to put those transmissions in context, it’s necessary for you to sit yourself down and listen to a bit of musical history.
Wilco exists because Uncle Tupelo doesn’t, but I can tell I probably already lost too many of you. Which is sad, ’cause Uncle Tupelo was one of the best bands of the early ’90s that never got heard given too many people had flannel in their ears and teen spirit in their noses, but nevermind that, that’s a different story. Tupelo knew punk meant, at its very black heart, being uncool, and in 1990, that meant liking, or I should say likin’, country. And that’s real country: Uncle Tupelo’s first album is called No Depression after a Carter Family tune and now No Depression is the name for all like-minded musicians, such is the UT legacy. That Tupelo could like country and still like Black Flag and Neil Young only sounded on paper like a way to clear rooms or break rental agreements. On record, and even moreso live, it was the music that bar sawdust would sing if it had a voice (not to mention amps and fiddles and pedal steel and heart and brains).
The Uncle Tupelo story ends in 1993 with their fourth album, Anodyne, when Jay Farrar, or so it’s rumored, given the group has never made completely public the causes of their split, said it was all over. Maybe he knew that they could never top Anodyne, an album that whistles round the river’s bend (“Acuff-Rose,” “New Madrid”) and then rocks back up the other bank (“The Long Cut,” “We’ve Been Had”) stopping mid-river for an anthem about the Civil War, maybe, or maybe just love and its uncivil wars (“Chickamauga”). Fans could only fear that the end would mean what the end of the Replacements or the Beatles meant—yet more once-talented people doddering on as if they could even touch the hem of the musical garments they themselves once wore. How sad to once be someone, to once have had talent, if only (and only can mean most nearly everything) the talent that came from the spark and rub of others.
Maybe not having even Mats-sized success saved Tupelo, though. For now it’s time to risk, once again, bipolar thinking. UT split into two, Son Volt led by Jay Farrar, and Wilco, led by Jeff Tweedy. Most Tupelo fans, if they were betting sorts, put their money on Son Volt, given Farrar always seemed the soul of Tupelo, while Tweedy seemed the engaging cut-up; sure enough the first cut of the first Wilco album is “I Must Be High.” Turned out, though, that the old bipolar thinking trap swallowed whole any bettors, for if Farrar took the better voice (one person has said he sounds as if he’s lived three lifetimes, already) to Son Volt, Tweedy got to take the rest of Uncle Tupelo to Wilco. And by Anodyne that really meant something; the rest of the band could flat out play, seemingly any sort of music. And they did, and do, on two albums, now — A.M. and Being There.
This is modestly ambitious music. It cops, more than a hook or a line, a vibe, a feeling that time is such a silly thing we’ve shackled ourselves to. Real music is outside time, which might be why it moves us so — not just a recording of a tune but the tune itself seems out there, somewhere, floating, waiting, like A.M. radio waves bouncing about the planet. The subject matter of Being There is almost incessantly music itself; it’s as if Tweedy wants to define self-reflexivity to those put-off by postmodern theory. So he sings about life on the road, insists this sounds like “Someone Else’s Song,” and croons a mash note to the lamé-wearing Elvis.
It’s not country, really, not by a long shot, given the first song sounds like a less in need of Prozac version of Big Star’s Third (talk about your albums left in Roswell) and drops lines from Peter Laughner, co-founder of Pere Ubu and one of the first punk martyrs. Referencing Laughner so early might be a clue, though. After all, Laughner, who was so punk he beat Sid Vicious to OD-ing, loved Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, and Richard Thompson, while writing “Life Stinks,” “Amphetamine,” and the scabrous ditty “Ain’t It Fun,” whose best lines we can’t print in this paper.
There’s a lot of music out there. And if you play it like you know it, which has something to do with (and so help me I’m writing this) soul, and you sing it like you mean it (which is knowing the power of the pulled punch), well, you end up a lot like Wilco. Given so few bands do the first two, and so few have the smarts to know and the heart to love so many musics, there’s only one Wilco. Don’t miss your chance.