“Thems Got Ears, Let Them Hear”

Wilco guitarsThere are moments that come along in your life and you know when it’s arrived that nothing will ever be the same for you. Everything has changed and you can feel it in your mind, your Soul, your bones. There’s that first time undressing together and the way your sensory faculties took it all with perfect clarity, despite the boozy aura of romance that makes your brain feel like it’s swirling about in your cranium. There’s the realization that crushed hope when the second plane hit another tower and, instantly, it was clear that terror would reign the skies that day (and for the next 100 years). There’s that moment when a second child, a girl, brings joyful and uncontrollable tears to a father as she takes those first breaths of life.

I had arrived in San Francisco to conduct a weeklong meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Being a huge fan of live music, I asked the video production guys where I could go to hear some great rock-n-roll before flying out the next day. Twelve hours later, I found myself standing in front of a stage at the Great American Music Hall, and a pasty-faced Jeff Tweedy from Wilco walked on stage and the roar of his ardent fans shook the walls of this turn-of-the-century vaudeville theater turned concert hall.  There was no band, only an array of 6 or 8 acoustic guitars to his back and a harmonica hanging about his neck. There was the energy in that room, the earnest lyrics coupled with a sometimes shy and uncomfortable voice, the simple and sweet sound of that guitar filling our minds, and a yearning that the music never end. We, the audience, all felt so lucky and hip because we were getting a sneak listen to new Wilco material that was unpublished as the band searched for a new record company to distribute the album that would become Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  That show, that night, that Moment changed everything for me and my writing style, and here are some of the reasons why – (my top 10 Wilco songs):

  1. Jolly Banker – a remake of a Woody Guthrie song which he wrote amidst the Great Depression. Wilco thought it appropriate to revamp it in this recession to remind people what capitalism looks like when it’s allowed to run amok with people’s livelihood. Wilco’s approach was like, Hey, man, if you can’t afford to pay for the song right now, download it for free anyhow, and when you’re wallet is a little fuller, then come back and drop some $$$ in the virtual tip jar.
  2. Reservations – it was an amazing and haunting performance.Tweedy played this song @ the Hall, and silly as it was at the time to think this way because she was far away with a life in Mexico, Edith filled my mind.
  3. A Shot In the Arm – Wow, I’ve written a lot of poems with this song playing in the background.
  4. I’m Always In Love – ditto. Great imagery, infectious melody and a genuinely feel good song about the mysterious pull of the human heart, molded by God.
  5. via Chicago – heartache, like joy, is vital in learning how to love fully and selflessly the next time one is afforded another opportunity at it.
  6. Far, Far Away – this one, my Edith & I have to waltz to one day; I was so enamored by her when Manuel and I were still only friends. And I dig this Wilco era when they really enjoyed swinging their country.alt vibes around!!!
  7. Outtasite (Outta Mind) – what a fantastic rocker of a song! Again, you gotta dig this early country.alt Wilco having a good time in their roots rock skin.
  8. I Must Be High – man, I remember seeing this album on the shelf @ Waterloo Records way back in 1995. I took a listen but, ironically, I was not impressed so I put it back and moved on. Funny!!!
  9. Theologians – “Theologians, they don’t know nothing about my Soul. I’m an ocean. I am all emotion. I am a cherry ghost.”
  10. California Stars – Woody Guthrie left a trove of unrecorded songs, so Wilco and Englishman troubadour Billy Bragg created music for them and called the album Mermaid Avenue. This song, too, really, really changed and secured my writing voice as one to be rooted in the tradition of the Romantics but infused with the strength of the awakened Orwellian proletariat. Plus, it always reminds me of my trip to Yosemite with my bro, Julian.

That’s the list and some of the reasons why I consider Tweedy, along with Neil Young and Steve Earle, as one of the most important songwriters in my time. There was a moment in the show @ the Great American Music Hall in which the music and the night transformed into a transcendental experience. And I’ve never felt the same since.


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