Balancing art, sanity and conventions
by Charlie Danoff
Four important questions to consider and which we're return to later:
- Are drugs and a suffering mind necessary for art?
- Is conflict essential for art?
- Could something direct, stripped of code be art?
- Can happy people create great art?
To definitively answer these four questions, I give you items A, B and C.
- A: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (YHF] (2002)
- B: A Ghost is Born (AGIB] (2004)
- C: Sky Blue Sky (SBS] (2007)
From 1999 to 2007, Jeff Tweedy, Wilco's singer/leader/writer, went from a depressed drug addict, working with a guitarist he could not stand to a clean, responsible father with a comfortable band. Along the way, his music got worse. Listening to him, especially considering how he thinks his latest album is his best yet, his answers to those questions would be: no, no, yes and yes.
You know that old cliche about artists? How they have to lead these insane lives fueled by irresponsible substance abuse and hedonistic sex, sacrificing friends, family, love and personal well being whilst visiting all points on the emotional spectrum. They endure suffering and ecstasy all in the name of their art. Well, Jeff Tweedy does not buy "this myth that you have to suffer for art."1 He has, "always been rigid in [his] hatred of the stereotype of the debauched, tortured artist."2 Hearing him say these things, echoing the same sentiments before and after his dark period, is perplexing, as his life and art seem to be a Johnnie Cochran-esque defense of the cliche.
In late 1999, after the Summerteeth tour and as he dug the holes to hold seeds of YHF, Tweedy described himself as such: "I was kind of out of it, not just because of drugs, but from being morbidly depressed and sad, and if anything, drugs were a symptom of it, wanting to find some way to be functional, not necessarily to get high."3 Mixing a heavy dose of depression with a splash of migraine headaches, sprinkling painkillers mixed with cigarettes on top and cooking in obesity, he cooked up a concoction of "Yeah I'm lost/And no it's not OK"4 and "I am trying to break your heart/But still I'd be lying if I said it wasn't easy." 5
The addictions and mental illnesses continued through the writing and recording of A Ghost Is Born: "I was in such an altered state making A Ghost is Born. Not just in terms of drugs- that wasn't even the half of it. That was really just to be kind of normal. You know, it was a very difficult time with depression and panic for me." 6 That time around, the output of the diseased mind unsurprisingly included an audience with Mephistopheles, along with a visit to Hades "where everything was clean/So precise and towering" and a narrator who "was welcomed with open arms." 7
Following the recording of AGIB Tweedy spent some time in rehab for both mental illness and addiction. It did the trick. As of 2007, he was healthy- he hadn't even had a cigarette in two years and actually runs regularly to exercise. 8 As opposed to lying to9 or being abused by10 his girl, the clean Tweedy's narrator croons "On and on and on we'll be together yeah." 11 Clearly sober Jeff's work is slightly happier than old Jeff's.
In addition to Tweedy's internal world changes, Wilco's external world radically shifted. Out went producer Jim O'Rourke and multii-instrumentalist LeRoy Bach Jay Bennett; in came Mikael Jorgensen, Pat Sansone and Nels Cline. While O'Rourke and Bach left on their own accord, Bennett was kicked out. The rift between Jay and his band mates is eerily apparent on Sam Jones' Wilco documentary. During a debate over the lead-in to "Heavy Metal Drummer," Bennett argues12 seemingly for argument's sake as Tweedy uses a variety of tactics to try and move on – the recording studio cost was $1,000/day - eventually breaking for a bathroom visit to vomit. Everyone else is silent and the exchange is painful to watch.
But even there, where Bennett seems like the bad guy, he was not being an ass because he did not care about the music. It was more of a different philosophy towards constructing an album. Bennett claimed "[Tweedy] saw records in terms of how songs were sequenced and how they fit together, whereas that didn't matter nearly as much to me;" 13 thus, the disagreement over "Heavy Metal Drummer's" transition.
Furthermore, as Greg Kot – who wrote a book on the band with their cooperation - points out, "The songs for Foxtrot had been recorded on four different tape mediums, opening up a maze of possibilities that only Bennett could readily untangle."14 Bennett was merely considering more options than Tweedy or the others on a higher level of subtlety.
Nevertheless, Bennett committed Wilco-member-suicide over the course of YHF, taking on too many responsibilities because he "thought Summerteeth was missing something" and wanted "to avoid that happening again."15 In pursuit of his vision he burned too many bridges and sacrificed his spot. On his way out, Bennett opined that for fear of following his fate, the rest of the Wilco band members "don't want to step outside their little... scripted role." 16
John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche are the only people Bennett played with still active in Wilco. Yet, studying them and the rest of Wilco's current incarnation, while Jay was clearly biased when he said that, he seems to be correct. Bassist Stirratt is the sole member (besides Tweedy) to be with the band since the beginning. He's seen the band through all its evolutions. One point where he did disagree with the direction Jeff and Bennett were going was the overdubbing on Summerteeth.
Stirratt felt that the "beautification process became a plague," and the original demos "achieved more of the essence of the songs." 17 Yet he admits "nobody in the band stepped up to stop the madness." 18 Those facts make it tough to believe Tweedy when he says "The way I characterize it is I look to him for approval," 19 when speaking about his and Stirratt's creative relationship. Clearly that was not the case, if Stirratt cold not even listen to the entire Summerteeth album after it came out. 20
One man noticed a similar problem with YHF before it was released, and, unlike Stirratt, did not keep quiet. He "took away 80 percent of the noise on the record, which is the reverse of what people expect of me." 21 That man was Jim O'Rourke. He had the courage to stand up to what Tweedy and Bennett gave him, and the result was a version of YHF Tweedy ultimately liked more, despite the radical changes. O'Rourke then, was clearly willing to do what needed to be done for a work to achieve its full potential, unlike others. O'Rourke also mixed the incredible AGIB, but not SBS, only doing a string arrangement.
Drummer Kotche's role can be seen as he describes his contribution on YHF: "I was more concerned with making this imaginary place or percussive landscape for the lyrics to live in." 22 His job is not to change or shape the lyrics themselves, but to give them musical life.
Keyboarder Mikael Jorgensen has said that he is "fortunate to be in a position to offer my musical ideas in a venue where they're invited," but because "it's ultimately Jeff's vision" and there's a "lack of confidence," where Jorgensen finds that he "censor[s] [him]self more than [he] should," out of deference to his boss.23
Nels Cline said the recording of SBS was "was rewarding, relaxed, and fruitful." 24 Pat Sansone echoed similar sentiments, "A lot of the stuff was recorded live. It was really easy, actually." 25
Band members such as these who do not create tension and are less worried about input than "being part of the moment"26 as Stirratt put it, who're willing to sacrifice ego and personal attention to do what serves the song are invaluable and necessary for a successful band. If everybody is always challenging, then progress is impossible as no one will ever agree, but by the same token, if no one challenges the progress which is made can be weaker.
Bennett would openly challenge Tweedy. As former longtime roadie Jonathan Parker put it, "Unlike the other guys in the band, Jay was not afraid to push it." While the band may be more "comfortable with itself as a collaborative environment," 27 comfort and excellence in anything do not usually mix.
Take a look at the greatest modern sports dynasty, another Chicago legend, the 1990's Bulls. Michael Jordan hated the man that built one of the greatest teams of all time around him, Jerry Krause. 28 There were many reasons built up over the years for these problems, one being that he traded MJ's best friend, Charles Oakley, for the center, Bill Cartwright. Soon afterwards, the Bulls started the title run. If Krause had been worried about MJ being comfortable, he never would of made the deal, and his Airness without the titles would never be regarded as the greatest of all time.
Or, take a friend of an alcoholic who is pissing their life away. If that person is worried about his pal being comfortable, he'll take him out to the bar and buy the first round. Should he wish for his buddy to live up to his potential, he will risk the friendship and take him to AA?
The bottom line is that it takes a lot of courage to say 'fuck you' to someone, for their own good. Especially someone as gifted as Tweedy. Bennett and O'Rourke were not afraid to say what they thought, and as a result, one of the most important American rock album of the 21st century, YHF, was conceived.
Now that the differing inputs into the music over the eight years have been established, a comparison of the output is necessary to answer the introduction's questions. YHF is like a pasta dish with fabulous, home made noodles covered outrageously with white cheese vodka sauce, chicken and diced peppers. With the same lyrical weight, minus the electronic sizzle, AGIB is a simpler course with the same noodles, just served with fine olive oil with perhaps a sprinkle of parmesan and crushed black pepper. SBS is some convenience store noodles microwaved and put in a bowl.
YHF and AGIB are chalk full of metaphors, similes, other highfalutin' literary devices and a bunch of stuff that just doesn't seem to make sense: "Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I've never seen," 29 as an example from the former and "Chambers of chains/With red plastic mouths/The inside of outside" from the latter.
The music co-habited with these words, matching them in its surprises, incomprehensibility and at times painful nature. Think of end of "Poor Places," with the indecipherable noises and the repetition of some unknown person saying "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Or in the infamous twelve minute drone at the end of "Less Than You Think."
Characterizing his approach to SBS Tweedy remarked, "'I'm not going to worry about putting anything in code or using semaphore or symbolizing lyrics or anything.' Just come straight out and say, 'Hey I think I wanna tell you something.' That's kind of scary, you know? But I think it was a worthwhile thing to do." 30 Thus the lack of sonic psychedelia on the record and lyrics such as "Either way/I'm gonna stay/Right for you." 31
Art's merit differs by the audience. For me, bad art is a creation that does not force me to pay attention; while good art has led to me delaying and even canceling trips to the bathroom for fear of missing seconds. Applying this clear cut criterion to Wilco's work, something like "What am I gonna do when I run out of shirts to fold?" 32 while beautiful in its clarity and simplicity, will not give me pause from a conversation I may be having. Whereas, "I'm an ocean/I'm all emotion/I'm a cherry ghost," 33 will cause me to gleefully wet my pants.
Reacting to criticism of the album's direct nature he was going for, Tweedy said "I think the simplest explanation is that people are a lot more insecure dismissing something they don't understand... I think the most impenetrable works of art have always been held up and propped up with the most ridiculous amount of acclaim." 34 He then goes on to mention Finnegan's Wake, and how he "liked it on a lot of levels" but "didn't understand it." 35
Fair enough but consider another writer. In the early 20th century, Virginia Woolf, writer of seemingly impenetrable tomes like Mrs. Dalloway, was a member of the modern artistic movement that stretched across all mediums. To simplify and generalize, one of its hallmarks can be seen in painting. Moving from representational (i.e. direct) work to more abstract (i.e. put in code) images.
Regarding the same trend in literature, Mrs. Woolf wrote her thoughts down, comparing the action driven books written strictly to the novel's defined convention and her own stream-of-consciousness work, which is to say 'I'm going to create a one sentence paragraph because that is more true to life' or: "Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." 36
My main problem with SBS is that it strikes me as a "series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged." It starts "Either way/I'm gonna stay/Right for you"37 and finishes "On and on we'll be together yeah"38 in the same unambiguous spot, with a narrator in blissful love with his possible soul mate.
Look at even the most seemingly direct song off of YHF, "Heavy Metal Drummer." On a purely literal level, it appears to be about yearning for days gone by and their lost innocence, playing in a metal cover band, where drugs were free of consequences. "I miss the innocence I've known/Playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned."
Then, there is also the angle Greg Kot points out39 that, perhaps the chorus "She fell in love with the drummer" is echoing Tweedy's own thoughts around the time it was written when he was just getting to know the man who would be his new drummer: Glenn Kotche.
Tweedy himself however said it was about his own youth not as a heavy metal drummer but as a punk guy who "would sit there and scoff and feel superior to all the heavy-metal bar bands with the big hair and the spandex." "So who was losing? Me. I was. Those guys were getting laid, they were deluding themselves into thinking they were gonna be huge stars, and they were living. I was dead. I was staring into my drink." 40
Personally, I don't appreciate artists discussing what "their work is about," as often they themselves cannot know and it is a reductive exercise, by limiting the scope of possibilities, Tweedy's analysis here still goes to show how deep and impenetrable that song is. Does the fact I never in a million years would have figured that out make "Heavy Metal Drummer" any less incredible?
Even though I may not have understood the song, it still affected me deeply and still does to this day. Despite Tweedy's comments on Finnegans Wake, art does not need to be 100% comprehended on a conscious level to be powerful.
Even Tweedy himself has acknowledged this fact in a roundabout way. Speaking about the AGIB songs, written in a dark period, he was worried about singing them live and connecting with them. As it turned out, "I found it the opposite. [It was] very comforting that most of those songs were way ahead of me and had reached some sort of understanding about the world that I hadn't become aware of yet." 41 If the creator himself did not initially understand the truths written indirectly about the "semi-transparent envelope" in his work, does that make them worse? No.
In the end, it turns out that I am a liar. Despite all my words and mental wrangling, I do not have any definitive answers to the original questions like I said I would. What I can say for certain is that SBS is not a bad album. It simply is not great art and does not reach the near perfection of AGIB and the seeming perfection of YHF. That established, I do respect that Tweedy was honest with his new record and said what he needed to say as opposed to catering to what people wanted from him. I do not agree with his comments about the new record relative to his past work, or some of his latest views on weighing art's merits, but I am happy he is still writing new music.
Perhaps the best way to get some final insight into the original questions is by looking into the past. Another American writer and rocker, who changed styles and band mates time and again released a record at the height of his popularity, after quitting cigarettes, avoiding conflict and taking more responsibility of his family life that was a departure from his earlier work and panned by some for its simple nature and being too happy. 42
That was Bob Dylan and the record was 1969's Nashville Skyline. He has called it his best album43 as Tweedy calls SBS. 44 If Dylan could keep making music for forty plus years later, perhaps the answers to my original questions are: no, no, yes and yes.
Of course, some Dylan fans might disagree with that. Until Tweedy stops writing, there will be no definitive answers for him. If we have not yet seen him fully realize his potential, he will strike a death blow to the tortured artist mystique, while proving that happiness does not salt the soil of immortal art, but that it is the water that gives its plants life.
1. Jason Crock: "Interview: Wilco" (Pitchfork, May 7, 2007)
2. Chuck Klosterman, Chuck Klosterman IV (Scribner, 2007), pg. 150
3. Greg Kot Wilco: Learning How to Die (Broadway, 2004), pg. 174
4. YHF: "Kamera"
5. YHF: "I am Trying to Break Your Heart"
7. AGIB: "Hell is Chrome"
9. YHF: "Reservations"
10. AGIB: "At Least That's What You Said"
11. SBS: "On and On"
12. Sam Jones: I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, DVD
13. Kot, 197
14. Kot, 196
15. Kot, 196
16. Sam Jones: I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (Plexifilm, 2003)
17. Kot, 159
18. Kot, 158
19. Kot, 171
20. Kot, 159
21. Kot, 199
22. Wilco The Wilco Book (Picturebox, 2004), 106
23. Ibid, 109
24. Nels Cline website
25. Scott Bolohan "No Tweedy, No Problem" (Depaulia)- thanks to Wikipedia "Autumn Defense" article for the link.
26. The Wilco Book, 30
28. Roland Lazenby Big Nuts (HoopsHype.com NBA Blogs, Oct 9, 2008)
29. YHF: "Radio Cure"
31. SBS: "Either Way"
32. SBS: Hate it Here
33. AGIB: Theologians
34. Joshua Klein: "Jeff Tweedy" (Playboy, 2007)
36. Virginia Woolf: The Common Reader (Harvest, 2002)
37. SBS: "Either Way"
38. SBS: "On and On and On"
39. Kot, 185
40. Klosterman, 152
42. Wikipedia: Nashville Skyline
43. Paul Nelson Nashville Skyline review (Rolling Stone, May 31, 1969)
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