Two Cheers for Jeff Tweedy

Within 10 days in April, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy wound up on David Letterman, on two separate and lengthy NPR features, and on page one of the Sunday New York Times arts section. Along with regular coverage in the music press, this blitz of mass tweedia — part routine hype timed to the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, part highbrow promotion that continued with a review in the June 10, 2002 New Yorker and with coverage of the Wilco documentary in July and August — was unfortunately a blur. In his 15 minutes, it’s clear that Tweedy will comply; it’s less clear what he has to say. The rootsy antagonisms of Uncle Tupelo are recalled in his first band’s recent anthology, where the group’s punk-meets-country insurgency sent a message both earnest and ingenious. Of course Wilco has discovered different, lovely, fertile territory, a set of almost catchy, almost blue song textures that need not leave us nostalgic for the earlier band’s Guthrie punk. But Wilco’s deliberate obliqueness — felt as much in this publicity round as in the enchanting murk of the music — could use something of punk’s claim on us, particularly its forms of media critique.

Tweedy’s hesitancy during these interviews was remarkable, since publicity itself seems essential to the band’s identity. The broadcast delivery of art and information — or publicity, as it might be most generally understood — is integral to Wilco’s self-definition. At one level, the band’s ties to publicity are part and parcel of being a commercial artist. But the ties have been more urgently determined by the story that intrigued the mainstream press and gave the band leader entree to the major media: Reprise’s rejection of the new disc and of Tweedy, with the astonishing autonomy then allowed Wilco as the group shopped the disc to other firms and distributed it on-line. The story is told in the film documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which is generating yet more Wilco hype as it has been distributed to repertory houses this summer and fall (when it is also scheduled for DVD release).

The band was released from a major label contract and they owned the record; Tweedy told The Nation this was a “dream come true.” Yet given the opportunity to discuss the story during the buzz cycle in April, Tweedy was reticent about recording-contract inequities. Certainly his integrity in facing down Reprise is praiseworthy. But in a business climate where artists are asked to pay for all production costs out of royalty accounts, where the royalty arrangements themselves are a fraction of the profits made by a record (a fraction rarely delivered, to boot), and where exclusive contracts and “grant of rights” clauses bind musical artists and their art to the label far beyond the standard seven-year restriction that protects, for example, film performers, Wilco’s control of their product was indeed a “dream.” Tweedy’s access to media outlets interested in a corporate label’s unjust treatment would have been a perfect chance to publicize some of this message to a wider audience.

One wishes the documentary — another genre of publicity — provided a critique of the recording industry. But other than a callous moment that is quickly bandaged, the film is a Valentine to Tweedy, and unaware of its service to the star-making machinery. Tweedy holds back, sweet but slack in his self-presentation. Moreover, the film seems to think it is outside the realm of advertising, constantly reminding us of the tension between Commerce and Art, assuring us that it is on the side of the latter. In an early sequence cut between backstage scenes at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, the film contrasts a group of vulturous music business hangers-on taking in an impatient Tweedy with a jokey exchange between Tweedy and the Hall’s emcee about press interviews, commercial hype, and celebrity. Guess who wins our sympathy. The movie suggests that it views hype with the same independence as Tweedy and the emcee, and makes league between artist and audience against music-business types. The film plays this game of bad conscience throughout. Because of course all of us — the director, moviegoers, me — are hangers-on vulturously taking in Tweedy; we’re music-business types feeding off the publicity machine. Least persuasive, then, is Jones’s constant need to defer to Rolling Stone as an independent arbiter of value in the story’s melodramatic structure of Commerce versus Art. See, for instance, the seal of approval during the final caption. Art appreciation can be construed (at best) as vaguely the magazine’s agenda, a notion to which perhaps only music writers and some needy musicians cleave. The selling of popular culture is however most transparently its m.o. At some point, Rolling Stone probably once served as counter-cultural critique, and it still features great writers, from William Greider to Rob Sheffield. Yet — and it feels odd to have to say something so obvious — commercial hype is the magazine’s compliant vocation.

It can be argued that there is the beginning of an important analysis of the record business in the film, the kind of consciousness-raising viewers get from sincere cable-station fare. It’s a start, and we shouldn’t expect Sam Jones to be Noam Chomsky. Yet even with such a message, the difference between kinds of publicity deserves attention. A documentary’s reach is limited, with audiences of fans already inclined to the star’s politics. On the other hand, broadcast conversations with the mainstream press (such as Tweedy’s opportunities during the April hype) preach to the unconverted, to an extended audience open to persuasion.

Tweedy’s reserve is thus also striking given his near obsession with the techne of broadcasting. In Wilco’s aesthetic, media is the creative ether, and radio the primary muse, noticed in everything from band name and record titles (“wilco” and “Yankee hotel foxtrot” are military and shortwave radio abbreviations), to cover art (see A.M.), to lyrical content (the “electronic surgical words” of “Radio Cure” on the new disc). It provides the band a self-referential world of musical communication, with melodies, vocal lines, and timbres burbling up and making strange the public airwaves that function as setting. One way to get at this preoccupation is via Chicago. Wilco’s home is famously a city of skyscrapers and sky, a startling architectural environment of course, images of which haunt the new disc’s booklet. But this space also makes Chicago a city of signs, of neon, of buildings and billboards, a place where travel on highways, surface roads, and sidewalks is thoroughly scattered with broadcast information. It’s not the saturation and claustrophobia of the future L.A. in Blade Runner — nor the current Times Square for that matter. Instead, it is a foreground of signs, a background of sky, a tableau with room to think, one that makes residents continually aware of public communication. Chicago has bred great art in Wilco, who create an aural analogue to this broadcast environment. But in Tweedy it doesn’t seem to have bred a skepticism about publicity.

Still, the band leader’s media dreams often make gorgeous, plaintive music. As with Being There, the new record opens with a composition of unpredictable depth, a song so good it tends to overwhelm everything else on the disc. Lyrically, however, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” turns inward, its larger statements about Americana lost in the interpersonal drama of its title. Tweedy’s deteriorating vocals owe something to Alex Chilton on Sister Lovers, and he often uses them for poetry that enriches rather than obscures meaning. The line breaks and repetitions in “Reservations” undermine the chorus’s sentiment; the indecipherability of the lyric in “Radio Cure” — is that a “no” or an “a” in “distance has [no] [a] way of making love / understandable”? — names the speaker’s dilemma. The loose joints of “Poor Places” Ð a song that effectively scores the first third of Jones’s film — hide a structure that keeps reorienting the audience without ever giving us a home, as if the ex-pat vet persona and the listener were together, roaming, dancing, indeed realizing the embedded sense of the phrase “Yankee hotel foxtrot,” the sampled language that concludes the piece. Former band-member Jay Bennett has described the pure chance behind this use of a clipped British voice from shortwave; but its placement in this moving work suggests that musical meaning is often about intuitive composition, not intended control.

Other choices seem less adroit; they seem safe, even calculated. Working hard to say something every other piece of pop culture on the planet currently says, “Heavy Metal Drummer” is, yep, retro. The Replacements made this song’s point less didactically when they recorded “Black Diamond” in 1984: in Kiss covers like this or in “Kids Don’t Follow,” their punk refused nostalgia by just not growing up. Worse, the CSNY guitar solo that opens and the Memphis horns that close “I’m the Man Who Loves You” bid for baby-boomer recognition. Where’s the wit of the New Order synthesizers from Summerteeth? Like that record’s bland homage to The Band (“We’re Just Friends”), “I’m the Man Who Loves You” alludes to an airwave sickness rather than a radio cure. Ultimately, the mainstream press’s interest in Wilco might stem from these reference points, with the band finding a metaphorical if not literal home in the programming sickbed of corporate radio, classic rock.

Punk might inoculate Tweedy here, saving him from both the allusions to classic rock and the silence before the press. Whether purposefully compromised (John Lydon), gropingly well-intentioned (Joe Strummer), or furiously reasoned (Elvis Costello), punk’s bite nipped most persistently at corporate control of publicity, at control of both art and information. DIY aesthetics and media- based agit-spectacles were respective answers to that control. To be sure, “Rock the Casbah” is a staple on retro radio. But whatever its failures and glories, punk gave post-boomers a language of idealism and dissent whereby they might blow a whistle, or at least fail gloriously as well. And Tweedy was not averse to this critique: consider Uncle Tupelo’s “We’ve Been Had,” an anthem of fan rancor, a song so nagging, funny, and intent it outpaced its conceit. It left us thinking the singer might become a punk star, that this was even a kind of leadership.

So two cheers for Jeff Tweedy. He’s swapped “We’ve Been Had”‘s sturm und drang for the pulse and drone of “Poor Places”, creating adventurous music that is now, by way of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, finding a crossover audience. He’s made a prophetic album that eerily forecast the world post-9/11. “Ashes of American Flags” and “War on War” were written before the attacks. Indeed, Jones’s evocative photos of skyscrapers at Wilco’s website and on YHF‘s jacket art comment on our experience of public space since the terrorism. A photograph freezes time; we know when we see it that its moment has passed. Now a photo of an intact high rise suggests a time before the attacks, while reminding us of the vulnerability of such monuments as we replay footage of the fallen trade center.

This hunch deepens when we think about the cover image: two identical buildings abstracted from their skyline of other, taller skyscrapers, thus echoing images of the trade center’s loft. It pictures the Marina Towers, Chicago’s twin towers built a few years before the WTC, odd cylinders that are the anti-Mies, condos of privilege to be sure, but buildings intended as an urban neighborhood. Parked cars and apartment balconies nose the skyline, a display of personal property that conveys wealth, but also home, the personal as well as the propertied, persons rather than profit. It’s not — duh — affordable public housing and, on the ground, the Marina Towers are home to everything that is horrible about pop: the House of Blues. But in the curved sublime of the image, in the rounded eccentricities of the buildings themselves, the towers feel like an ideal of human community, something Wilco gestures to, warmly.

It is a warmth that could be made more political. The world on the ground is a house of blues, made worse by compliance, made better by songs and heart and Ð most un-punk — civic-mindedness. Tweedy might take seriously the Woody Guthrie mantle he inherited with Billy Bragg during the Mermaid Avenue sessions. A punk star could speak more directly, both to the politics of music-making and to the discordant music of political life. There is perhaps an answer close to home. During one of the April interviews, Tweedy was refreshingly up front about a current pop pleasure: he described his young children’s love of the Ramones — now that’s leadership — and how parent and kids rocked around the house to punk’s founding fathers. It’s cartoon punk, rather than Guthrie punk, but it’s a start. Kids don’t follow. Might not Tweedy not follow as well?

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Matthew P. Brown is an assistant professor of cultural studies and American literature at the University of Iowa.

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