BY JONATHAN VALANIA
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
That was written by William Carlos Williams, an American poet. Best I can tell, he was talking about the significance of insignificance, that little things truly do mean a lot—like if you could surf the past in a time machine and you did something as small as, say, kicking a stone in the Stone Age, it could send a ripple through the entire fabric of history. Everything after could be slightly different. You might even erase yourself from existence.
I bring this up because this is a story about American poets, who will be referred to hereafter as the rock band Wilco. And this is a story filled with insignificance: business deals, personnel changes, communication breakdowns, creative dysfunction and small personal failures. Basically, a lot of red wheelbarrows in the rain that so much depends upon. Not the least of which is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I’m pretty sure will be remembered one day as great American poetry in thought and word and sound and action. If 1999’s Summerteeth was Wilco’s Pet Sounds, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is its Smile—American beauty edged in transcendental weirdness and giddy invention. YHF is the smoking gun in the case for Wilco being the new Great American Band—a torch-passing tradition that stretches from prime R.E.M. to the Band to Bob Dylan, who got it from Woody Guthrie, who picked it up from Carl Sandburg, who had it passed to him by Walt Whitman.
The wonderment of this artistic triumph is made all the more remarkable by the fact it happened at a time when Wilco—perhaps the last group we’ll be able to refer to as “a great underground major-label rock band”—was completely reinventing itself in public. First, the drummer was asked to leave. Then, the band’s label asked the band to leave. Finally, the guitar player was asked to leave. How and why all these things happened depends on whom you ask. That’s the thing about these red wheelbarrows upon which so much depends.
In the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s bitter split in 1994, Jay Farrar went on to form Son Volt; Jeff Tweedy started Wilco. A.M., Wilco’s 1995 debut, sounds like Uncle Tupelo minus Farrar, which was pretty much the case. All of that changed when Jay Bennett, formerly of Midwest power-popsters Titanic Love Affair, joined the band shortly after the completion of A.M. Bennett brought with him a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of rock music, and his creative partnership with Tweedy opened a lot of new doors, enough to fill the two CDs that would make up Being There. On the back cover of the album is a photograph of disembodied hands hovering over the keys of a piano. This would prove to be a prophetic image: Wilco was about to make a great leap forward artistically.
Although Bennett was hired on as a guitar player, Tweedy was delighted to learn he could also play piano. Tweedy started writing with piano voicings in mind, something he’d never done before. At every tour stop, they would comb junk shops and music stores for esoteric keyboards: modular synthesizers, moogs, mellotrons, theremins. They would doodle endlessly, searching for strange new textures onto which they could project the songs that would eventually become Summerteeth. The Pet Sounds boxed set was released around this time, and it, too, was closely studied.
Tweedy also began to rethink the way he approached lyrics, questioning his insistence on writing in the conversational voice. He relaxed his rule against committing lyrics to paper: If you couldn’t remember it, it wasn’t worth singing in the first place. “I used to want to write songs that anybody could sing, but then I started to think it was OK to write songs that only sound right when I sing them,” says Tweedy.
He began to realize mysterious things happened in the spaces between words, and that when you arranged them in certain ways, you could create magnetic fields of deep suggestiveness. He experimented with collage and cut-up techniques, snipping words out of newspapers and magazines, tossing them in a hat and drawing them randomly to see what sentences they made. He would write a page of lyrics, then switch all the nouns and verbs. To break up the boredom on the road, Wilco and crew would participate in an old surrealist word game called cadavre exquis (“exquisite corpse”). A typewriter would be set up in the back of the bus, and whenever someone felt like it, he could go back and type a sentence. The one rule: You could only see the sentence typed by the person before you; all the rest were kept covered. Some of this accidental poetry would make it into songs, such as the line “Please beware, the quiet front yard,” from Summerteeth’s “She’s A Jar.”
Marriage and fatherhood had deepened Tweedy’s perspective. He learned to quiet his mind in the hours he would sit by his son Spencer’s bedside, waiting for him to fall asleep. “I really just started reading six years ago,” says Tweedy. “It’s not like I didn’t read before, but now I actually finish books. I’ve finished more books in the last six years than I did in the preceding 28 years of my life.” Books like The Making Of A Poem: A Norton Anthology Of Poetic Forms and The Anxiety Of Influence: A Theory Of Poetry by Harold Bloom. Beckett novels. Books about Dadaism, surrealism and minimalism. It was obvious to anyone who was paying attention that Tweedy was becoming something extremely rare in rock ‘n’ roll: a poet. MORE