Saturday, August 6, 2011

"A Joyous Fuck You" - Wilco's Westerberg Years

Modern day Wilco is an industry unto itself. It's got everything from a sandwich shop to themed mittens to action figures. Also, they make music. The current incarnation of the band with Mikael Jorgenson, Pat Sansone, Glen Kotche and Nels Cline joining founding members John Stirrat and Jeff Tweedy has become known for it's impressive skill, passion and professionalism. That last word is key. Wilco's most recent albums have been immaculate and its concerts are love letters to fans where the audience can help choose setlists which are always strong on breadth and depth and are generally at least two hours long.

Those nattering naybobs of negativism who decry the so-called "dad rock" (though I reject the term on principle and merit) of today's Wilco still have much they can take from the band. During the mid-to-late 90's, especially the time touring around Being There, Wilco was a rock band in the mold of midwestern alternative OG's, The Replacements. Seemingly a second away from careening off the cliff at any minute, this incarnation of the ever-shapeshifting band took the classic ingredients of youth, pressure, talent and booze to create angry, sometimes-alienating but always compelling rock n' roll.

Jay Bennett
Lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy was clearly a longtime fan of The Replacements. Tweedy's mixture of pop, punk and country took some obvious cues from the 'Mats Paul Westerberg. Indeed, Tweedy's breakout song from his first band, Uncle Tupelo was described by Pitchfork as a synthesis of the entire album Tim. By 1996, however, Tweedy was fronting his own band and facing pressures and demons that would lead him even further down the Replacements path of crass, drunken and often unbelievably inspired music-making.

Tweedy has always chafed at expectations but after his years in Uncle Tupelo and Wilco's radio countryish 1995 debut album A.M., most people had pretty much pegged the band as a meat-and-potatoes Americana rock group. So when Wilco took the stage at the CMJ festival after Johnny Cash, audience members were shocked to see Tweedy lead his band through a Black Flag-like rendition of the country ballad "Passenger Side" and debut sometime abrasive new material. As the audience got angrier, Tweedy started taunted them, inviting their hate. Then-guitarist Jay Bennett described it as "a joyous fuck you."

The Replacements, smoking the the elevator
The Being There sessions saw Wilco continue down the path first blazed by the Replacements. Tweedy emulated Westerberg's fondness for amped-up Rolling Stones songs in "Monday" and "Dreamer In My Dreams" and anthemic rave-ups in "Outta Mind, Outta Site". The bleary after-the-party ennui of "Swingin' Party" makes an appearance with lines about "drugs we can't afford not to take" in "Red-Eyed And Blue". Wilco also aped The Replacements' habit of switching instruments onstage for several songs on the new album, most notably the opener. "Misunderstood" is the best song that Paul Westerberg never wrote, with beery, heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics about growing up and feeling out of place. But Wilco took this balladry and fuck-all instrumentation and turned them into cathartic noise at the end of the song, pointing towards future masterworks such as "Via Chicago" and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

The Replacements were notorious for consuming massive amounts of alcohol (and other substances) on tour and always delivering, without exaggeration either the best or worst performance you've ever seen on any given night. On the Being There tour, Wilco lived up to this precedent as well, as Greg Kot describes in his book Learning How To Die:
The band came unglued with prankster grins: Tweedy tweaking a dinner-theater crowd in Atlanta by jumping into a table setting...; Bennett igniting food fights by emptying the contents of a backstage deli tray into the crowd...; Tweedy diving like a deranged Iggy Pop into the crowd and returning to the stage missing his shirt and a shoe; the roadie... emerging for encores in capes and aluminum headdresses to sing bombastic versions of "Ziggy Stardust", "War Pigs" or "Immigrant Song" while the members traded instruments, Replacements-style.
During this era Wilco managed to piss off record execs, Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg, their own manager and audiences across the world. They even alienated groupies, according to Kot who recounts a time when their bus was stopped by a group of women on the road. When they boarded the bus they found the band sloppy drunk and still in drag from their Halloween show. The ladies, a bit shocked, complained that they thought this was Waylon Jennings' tour bus and promptly exited.

So if you hear people moaning about the "safeness" of modern Wilco just remember that the current maturity was hard-won. Behind every Feist collaboration and soft ballad is the experience of partying harder than you've ever done all across the world. From the sound of it, they were something to see.

Don't believe me? Below we've got some highlights including the demented verision of "Passenger Side" and a sloppy but loving take on the 'Mats "Color Me Impressed".

"Misunderstood" - Wilco
"Red-Eyed And Blue" - Wilco
"Passenger Side [Live]" - Wilco
"Color Me Impressed [The Replacements]" - Wilco

You can buy Wilco's albums at their website. Their upcoming album The Whole Love is gonna be a Libra, you can pre-order it here.


  1. Sansone, not Samsone.

    Otherwise, fucking good job. I like your conclusion.

  2. An editor's son should know better too...