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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Wilco Calling

1997was, among other things, the year Wilco came of rock'n'roll age and releasedthe sprawlingly great Being There. KeithCameron found himself in Missouri with Jeff Tweedy and cohorts, subsequently filingthis report for UK monthly Vox--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock'sBackpages

Thewaitress next door to the Blue Note desperately wants to come, but she couldn'tget the night off work. "Oh, it'll be fantastic!" she enthuses."I saw the Violent Femmes there a couple of months ago and had a greattime. Y'all enjoy yourselves!"

Thewaitress across the road from the Blue Note, however, remembered to arrange anearly shift and is now bracing herself for authentic scenes of obscure Midwestcollege town rock mayhem.

"Theyalways f---ing sell about 200 more tickets than they should at thatplace," she says, frowning. "I'm gonna have to try find a space togroove a little. Can I get you guys some more coffee?"

Such arethe concerns of two waitresses trying to earn honest beer money duringterm-time at the University of Missouri, which dominates the quiet little townof Columbia. For their part, Bob and Jo, retirement-age residents ofBelleville, Illinois, have driven two-and-a-half hours to be here tonight.They've brought their elder son Steve along, arriving just in time toexperience the vaguest apology for a soundcheck this noble hall has everwitnessed.

Onstage,most of the five members of Wilco are elsewhere. Steel guitar-player Bob Eganand bassist John Stirratt were last seen headed in the direction of thenext-door record shop. Drummer Ken Coomer, it is strongly suspected, hasembarked upon a quest for food. Unable to find a legitimate alibi, guitaristJay Bennett is dolefully poking at his amplifier and wearing the unmistakable facialglaze of déjà vu. If it's Columbia, Missouri, then this must be the 28th andlast night of the tour.

JeffTweedy knows the situation all too well. You don't play in bands for half ofyour 29 years without learning how to warp the tedious routine of rock 'n' rollinto acceptable customs. Strapping on his guitar, Wilco's leader dives straightfor his trusted, patented Soundcheck Redemption Maneuver.

Hebegins playing 'Hell's Bells' by AC/DC. That's my boy!

JoTweedy smiles knowingly. For as long as her youngest son has been pullingstunts like that, she's been out there, somewhere.

"Iused to rent the hall and run the door when Jeff and Jay were playing at highschool. The other parents thought I was insane. Those were the days when theywere the Primitives, of course. They played cover songs, mostly. 'Twist AndShout,' 'Under the Boardwalk.' And 'Louie Louie.' Everyone enjoyed thatone."

Shesmiles and gives a little sigh. Her husband Bob approaches, proudly sporting ared Wilco baseball cap. He's ready to get something to eat.

"Littledid we know," says Jo, "what we were taking on with Jeff."

Thereare those who will claim rock 'n' roll to be a matter of life and death. Thenthere are those who have no time for such an attitude. They insist it is farmore important than that.

JeffTweedy used to believe as much. Indeed, he used to proselytize his convictionthat rock 'n' roll was the centrifugal force upon which our very existencehinged with such vigor that he helped spawn something dangerously close to areligious cult. With his school friend Jay Farrar, Jeff formed Uncle Tupelo,whose firebranded fusion of punk rock and country won them a small buthysterically devoted following. As their sound became ever more desolate andmournful, so Uncle Tupelo's star brightened. Yet the intensity of their musetook its toll on the friendship at the group's core, and when Farrar quit in1994, he and Tweedy hadn't communicated for months. Jeff took immediate solacein Wilco.

"Themain goal was to just brighten it all up," he recalls. "Not be asemotionally and sonically impenetrable as Uncle Tupelo was."

Essentially,the final Uncle Tupelo line-up minus Farrar, Wilco made a debut album, A.M., to Jeff's stated brief. It wasimmediate, immaculate and straightforward country rock. After the fervor ofUncle Tupelo, Wilco felt like light relief.

Farrar,meanwhile, had formed a new band, Son Volt, featuring the original Uncle Tupelodrummer Mike Heidorn. His first post-Tupelo document, Trace, emerged draped in gloom and despair. The sonic dichotomybetween the former partners' new work apparently confirmed what one school ofTupelo disciples had long contended: that Farrar was the tortured genius,Tweedy his good-time, honky-tonkin' buddy.

Certainly,few could have predicted what Wilco would do next. After touring A.M. for the best part or a year--withnew member Jay Bennett in tow--Jeff's head was reeling with songs, at leasthalf of which appeared gripped by a mental joust over the whole point of rock'n' roll.

"Justa lot of stuff about music," says Jeff. "The idea of playing musicand the relationship you have with it after doing it all your adult life.Thinking it's so ridiculously important compared to other stuff, and realisingnot everybody looks at it that way. And maybe it's better that theydon't."

Jeff wasjolted from his eternal rock adolescence with the birth of his first child. Andso it was to young Spencer Miller Tweedy that he dedicated the second Wilco LP Being There, a sprawling alchemicalvision of rock 'n' roll at the end of the century. Suddenly, Wilco were makingmusic as grand, or even grandiose, as their leader's vision. Where A.M. fitted a generic niche, Being Therelurches through country, blues, soul, folk, and bar-hall punk, before decidingit liked them all sufficiently enough to destroy and re-invent each. Whateverother records are made this year, BeingThere bookends 1997 in monumental style.

Theatmosphere is spontaneous and ardent. Songs break down as often as therelationships depicted within. "I am so out of tune with you," mournsJeff on 'Sunken Treasure', the second of the album's anthemic bridgeheads. Buthe finally admits: "I was made by rock 'n' roll / I was tamed by rock 'n'roll / I took my name from rock 'n' roll." On the opening"Misunderstood," he sums it up more bluntly: "Yet you still loverock 'n' roll."

Being There is the sound of one man and his soul epiphany.

JeffTweedy laughs softly. Voice hoarse from nearly a month on tour, he is smokingAmerican Spirit herbal cigarettes in between chewing at a cheese toastie. We'retucked into the far corner of a Columbia diner, enamored at the sight andsmell of an entire shelf's worth of hot sauces, and persistently catered to bytonight's gig-bound staff member.

"I'mmore comfortable with letting go now," he says. "A.M. was stilltrying to tread some water with some perceived audience. This time we said:'Forget we have an audience.' And it's a lot more rewarding and satisfying. Youdon't assume anyone's gonna care. Being There was a conscious effort to becentered on what I really wanted to do, as opposed to being part of somebodyelse's vision. On A.M., I had it inthe back of my mind that I was bringing songs to Jay for his approval in UncleTupelo. On this record, that was nowhere near my thought process."

Lifetoward the end of Uncle Tupelo was, in Jeff's estimation, "grim,"despite the fact that the band were at last reaping some commercial rewards foryears of penurious slog.

"Jayand I weren't talking at all. I felt very much hated in the band," Jeffchuckles in the direction of the attendant--and in this context, confusinglynamed--Jay Bennett. "We knew Jay was leaving so we were on autopilot forthree months to play out our touring schedule."

"Isaw the second-to-last show," says Bennett. "It was grim."

"Jay'spersonality isn't bubbly under the best of circumstances," Jeff declares,"but in that context, it was downright morbid. At some point he stoppedsinging I and we when we'd do harmony vocals together. Which was intenselyweird."

The Jaywho now plays with Jeff considers the behavior of his predecessor: "Thatis... get some help."

JeffTweedy and Jay Farrar met and talked for the first time since their split afortnight ago, when the Wilco tour reached St. Louis.

"Itwas fine," says Jeff. "It'll be a long time, if ever, before I feellike going back to that world with Jay. But it was good to see him."

Theworld Jeff currently inhabits revolves around not taking oneself too seriously.The beautiful irony of Being There'sthat, despite all the evidence to the contrary its author manages to find, itsmagnificent heart confirms that rock 'n' roll is important after all. Justdon't be ashamed of enjoying it.

"Weantagonize our audience quite a bit," Jeff smiles. "In a friendlyway. 'We're here--throw stuff at us!' I think people have really been misledabout rock 'n' roll being some kind of important art form. They've ceased tosmoke pot and bring Strawberry Hill wine in a flask to the show and get f---edup and jump up and down like idiots and have fun. I don't think that's retro. Ithink that's what it's for. I really believe it should be some sort oftranscendental release. Why would you want to go to a show and have it be justas boring as your everyday life? Y'know, come home from work, get ready go tothe show...And then stand there for an hour and a half before you go home? Youmight just as well listen to the record or go see a movie."

Jefflost his rock 'n' roll virginity to The Clash. He fell in love with the scrawnyattitude, the virulent mess of noise...and the pictures on the back of London Calling. And, of course, theClash conveyed punk's ultimate legacy: accessibility.

"Youlay in bed and listened to the Sex Pistols and thought: 'I could dothat!'" enthuses Jeff. "Like, it can't be that hard! And you readthat Paul Simonon's been playing bass for two months and he's in The Clash. Hedoesn't look any smarter than me! He's maybe better-looking but...So, reallyromantic, I guess."

Punkwas, and remains, Tweedy's bedrock, the base from which his interpretations ofother music stems. He bridles when Wilco gets referred to as a country band.Uncle Tupelo were at least as honest in their debt to the Minutemen as theCarter Family, while Wilco's chaotic production values on Being There wouldn't shame Sonic Youth.

"Thelast time I checked, country music was a part of rock 'n' roll. It never neededto be defined as such. But I still believe in punk rock. Spiritually. Notnecessarily as part of a genre of music. To me, it's rock 'n' roll, it's thesame thing. It's just some idea that you're important, that you could have someimportance. I appreciate the amateurism of punk rock. And I think rock 'n' rollis like that, and the blues and folk, all the really pure forms of music or artin general are inspired by somebody's naive audacity to do it. The ability topretend you're important in spite of really knowing where you're from, reallyknowing how low you are."

Maintaininginnocence in the face of harsh reality is as worthy an aspiration as any. Andit's surely close to the essence of Wilco.

"It'sgood for you to totally f--- a song up," considers Jeff, "especiallya song you've played a couple of hundred times. More real emotion comes from f---ingsomething up than sitting there trying to make it perfect every night.Interacting with the audience helps."

Thatnight at The Blue Note, Jeff decides to interact with the audience by divinginto it. He struts, prances, leaps up and down. He wiggles his arse. After aset lasting over two hours, one's guts feel pulped, something to do with Wilcoreally being five bands in one.

"Beingin a prototypical rock band is a pretty stupid thing to do," says Jeff."I mean, at the same time I'm convinced about it, doing it the way we doit, but you run the risk of getting called a throwback. But then that'sactually great. I like banging up expectations. It's invigorating. If thereweren't expectations, you'd be in a creative quandary."

Afterthe show, a quaint scene unfolds. So laidback are the Blue Note staff that fansare allowed to wander up onto the stage and chat to the band as technicianswork to dismantle the stage. Huddling in excited little knots, they conduct theever evolving Wilco/Son Volt debate. Mimi had thought she was hedging towardSon Volt, but now she's wavering.

"Didn'tthey make you just want to dance?" she gushes.

Oneperson in no creative quandary whatsoever is Jo Tweedy. Browsing through thefamily snapshots she's brought to show her son, one in particular grabs hereye. It features Jeff holding baby Spencer.

"Look.He is beautiful."

Withoutexplaining whether she refers to her son or grandson, she asks: "So didyou like Uncle Tupelo also? Did you prefer it when they played rock 'n' roll orcountry?"

Um,well, I always thought it was nice the way they managed to find room for both.

"Hmm.I always preferred the rock 'n' roll myself. I still do."

Threegenerations of Tweedy eyes twinkle.

"Wilco'sone of the healthiest bands in the world," says Jeff. "That's ourclaim to fame. We don't give a s--t about the music - we just have a goodrelationship!"

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