Via Chicago

Big Black’s The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape CD is a re-release of the 1982 LP, Atomizer. The liner notes open with the welcoming phrase, “You pussies can all suck our cocks”, and go on to say that the CD was “compiled to exploit those of you gullible enough to own the bastardly first-generation digital home music system.” Steve Albini, the author of these abrasive platitudes, is somewhat of a local hero. For Albini has always lived and worked in Chicago. And Chicago loves a fanatical crank.

“Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so/proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Sandburg was right. On a clear day the south view across the lake shows the steel foundries of Gary, Indiana. The foundries’ “Big Shoulders” are all hard brick against iron sky. Chicago’s allure is not the flash and easy sparkle of Times Square or of Hollywood. If you do not know where to go for music in Chicago, you won’t find direction advertised in six-story neon.

Those who really know music will tell you that Chicago, like Austin Texas, and London, is one of a handful of epicenters worldwide. Outsiders may think of past eras when they think of Chicago music -— the blues and hot jazz -— but nowadays hipsters will point to the fact that a bunch of Chicago gearheads are responsible for “postrock” and its influence as far away as Scotland (um, Mogwai?). Of course, don’t talk to anyone in Chicago about Tortoise. They’ll look at you like you just ordered a glass of urine.

“When you’re back in your old neighborhood”, sings Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, “the cigarettes taste so good / but you’re so misunderstood”. He should know. After a career making stint in St. Louis he returned to his hometown Chicago for Wilco’s second album, Being There, from which the above lyrics were taken. St. Louis was home base for Tweedy and Jay Ferrar’s alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo is still the cowpunk avatar, and its legacy No Depression is the print locus for a crowd of twang-addled fans Tweedy now mostly disregards. St. Louis is also where Tweedy and company recorded the countrified Wilco debut, A.M., after Ferrar and Tweedy parted ways.

Chicago, on the other hand, has largely ignored Wilco. There seemed little place in that old neighborhood for a band that quietly signed to Reprise, a major but respected label (part of the Warner Brothers family —- a label which famously signed that other crossover indie hit, R.E.M.) and put out three critically, well-received but moderately selling pop albums. Tweedy married, moved into a brownstone on the North Side, and raised two children. Then came Wilco’s mainstream breakthrough with the single “Can’t Stand It” off their keyboard-laden fourth album, Summer Teeth. The alternative radio loved it, but by 1998 “alternative” was already a dirty word not only in Chicago, but also in the whole of self-respecting bohemia. If Wilco didn’t earn the scorn locally reserved for acts like Tortoise, it was only because no one really bothered to disparage them.

It may be true that Chicago only started paying real attention to Wilco once they became underground heroes. In late summer of 2001, Wilco finished their fourth album and handed it over to the execs at Reprise. What happened next has already become urban myth: Reprise asked Wilco for changes to make the record more “commercial”. The band refused and Wilco was released from their recording contract. The conditions of this release are not prominent in the story of martyrdom and refusal: Wilco walked away as sole owners of the album, and therefore as masters of their commercial fate. They looked for a new label, but they also set up the album in streaming audio from their website. Fans across the country downloaded the music. One unconfirmed story goes that Reprise begged them to come back. This winter the band announced that Nonesuch Records would officially release the album.

“How many of you downloaded our album?” Jeff Tweedy asked the packed house at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre on the day after Thanksgiving, 2001. From the first floor balcony I looked down at a sea of raised hands.

The city was unusually warm for the day after Thanksgiving, and a steady rain had been falling since late afternoon. It took me almost an hour to park, because the nearby Aragon Ballroom also had a show that night. From the crowds of men in cowboy hats and tight black jeans and the flotillas of cars sporting Mexican flags, I judged the Aragon’s offering to be something on the Tex Mex tip. Ah, Chicago, city of parallel (but never intersecting) cultures. The Aragon Ballroom is practically across the street, but the scene at the Riviera was worlds away.

For those who haven’t visited, the Riviera is one of Chicago’s older clubs, but certainly not its smallest or more intimate. It has a wide floor space, two balconies, and a vaulted ceiling painted midnight blue and scattered with stars. Like the Aragon, it was a dance hall in the Jazz Age. The Riviera is not where local indie bands play, or even where Shellac usually plays. They used to play at the Lounge Ax before it closed (Jeff Tweedy’s wife owned the narrow, long bar), or at the wood-floored Logan Square Auditorium, or at the Empty Bottle. All of these places are small bars, and except for the Lounge Ax, which was in fact forced out by noise complaints from more upscale neighbors, these bars are located in the hipster-friendly (and hotly contested) northwest neighborhoods of Bucktown and Logan Square. The Riviera is plain old North Side, east of Bucktown et. al., but south of yuppie Lincoln Park.

The Riviera is host to shows sponsored by WXRT, the local corporate/mainstream rock station. Indeed, WXRT had sponsored Wilco’s show that night. The Riviera is where you play once you’ve arrived, and everybody who’s too cool hates you once you’re there. It’s where Liz Phair plays when she comes to town, and it’s too small now for the Smashing Pumpkins.

Wilco had their gear preset, presumably because of the technological hocus pocus required for the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot songs. Mercury Rev opened with a waspish, languid set, all leather-clad legs and tapered fingers stroking the microphone stand. After the interval, I noticed that the consequence of the preset gear was that in order to leave Mercury Rev room enough for their (admittedly lethargic) stylings, Wilco had to set up a good three feet back from the lip of the stage.

They laid down a dusty oriental rug, and above them hung a net of tiny white lights that in turn supported six white Chinese paper lanterns. When Tweedy and company took the stage, there was a moment of fumbling hesitation as Tweedy, acoustic guitar slung behind his back, bent awkwardly to fiddle with a laptop set up on a chair next to the keyboard amps. He punched a button, frowned, stepped back to squint at the screen, frowned and punched again. This time it worked. He pulled himself up to standing, all square and tall and almost expressionless, while the feedback hum gave way to sparkling synth drops and he sang, “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue”

Next to me on the first floor balcony were two boys, clearly young and from the suburbs, with clean scrubbed faces and polo shirts and baseball caps. They were quiet and intense, their eyes pinned to the stage at every moment, mouthing the words to the songs. When I got up to walk around, they politely offered to guard my seat. What a pleasure to see real reverence for a band, instead of the usual nonplussed boredom and crossed arm, hipster attitude. Hooray for Wilco, if these are the sorts of fans they attract.

To market experts, the Midwest is the origin of nothing and the consumer of everything. It is the middle of the road, heartland America, where products either fly or fail, depending on the conservative, consumer-savvy judgments of a million or more suburban moms and dads. The Chicago suburbs are where John Hughs filmed all of his teenage angst flicks. The Chicago suburbs are the definition of ticky-tack houses all in a row. The Chicago suburbs produced Jeff Tweedy.

“I’m sorry about this,” Tweedy said a few songs in. “I’m sorry we’re so far away. Next time we’ll be in your laps, I promise.” Pause. “Next time we’ll give you a lapdance.”

Oh, lordy. He didn’t have much else to say, either before or after that. At no time did he refer to the album dispute, except to ask, as mentioned noted before, whether anyone had downloaded the album. “Thanks,” he said to the politely raised sea of hands. “Thanks for listening to our music.”

Every once in a while he’d raise one long trunk of a leg horizontally and let it fall like timber on the downbeat. He offered no more grandiose gesture -— but that movement electrified me. I’ve read unfavorable Wilco live reviews that complained about Tweedy’s stiffness, his lack of showmanship. I think otherwise. Listening to Wilco and watching them play, I had the uncomfortable sensation of watching Tweedy struggling with his every limitation. Yes, he was stiff. But beyond that stiffness, his strumming hand moved like water over the strings.

It was as simple as that. With this album dispute, a little technological and business know-how, and a quiet legion of fans, Wilco has changed how artists will relate to their corporate patrons in the future. But they didn’t do it to make a point. They just quietly took the revolution into their own hands because they wanted to make music as they pleased. The audience didn’t hear any Albini-style rantings about the music industry that night. Tweedy’s silence was in no way sullen. It was shy.

Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Tweedy suffers from panic attacks before he goes on stage. This I can imagine. Take the YHF lyrics, “Every song is a comeback / every moment’s a little bit later”. Can you imagine an anxiety that marks every passing moment? No wonder they wanted to own their album, wanted to put it out as they had made it. There isn’t time to mess around, there is so much more to do —- and certainly no time to grandstand or apologize. Tweedy also sings on Summerteeth, “I was saved by rock and roll”, and this I can imagine, too. He writes and plays as if he were pursued by demons, as if time were a liability. He write with full knowledge that no one ever returns home the same, even those who return “Via Chicago”.

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