When Wilco Came To See Us On The 3rd Of July
The spiral had started. Wilco taking us into the back pages of a troubled journal. Heavy stuff for young ears, for sure. The only thing that made it easier as a father to let us remain in our seats was the fact that the kids were transfixed by the music itself and most of the mental torment in the lyrics was going unnoticed for a while longer, anyway.
Case in point: the next song, How To Fight Loneliness, sounded like a smooth cruise down the Ventura Highway musically in contrast to Tweedy’s outpatient-in-a-subway-car words of advice. Jay Bennett showed us all what the guitar break on the Eagles Hotel California would’ve been like if played from the heart rather than for the charts. It was beautiful.
Wilco’s own hotel song: Hotel Arizona was next. Tweedy’s take on road life and the mixed blessings of some level of success was played pretty close to stock, complete with its doo doo doodadoo chorus until we arrived at the final lines:
Hello? Can you hear me?
Hello? That’s all there is that’s all there is
The song exploded into a beautiful moment of Leslie-cabinet swirl and tube-amp crunch, all sweet ache the singer could’ve just as easily been standing on the surface of the moon rather than sitting on a hotel bed with a disconnected phone to his ear. The music rose to the arched ceiling of the Opera House and then settled on all of us.
The girls had grown up to Wilco’s first album, A.M. the perfect soundtrack for a single Dad. Maybe they’d grown up too much to it; I began to wonder about that when I heard Cassie one time matter-of-factly say, Oh, Dad and Mom had some issues which, with a waggle of her then-6-year-old fingers was meant to explain the dissolution of our marriage. That would be the first song on side two of your cassette of A.M., Dad: That’s Not The Issue, whose joyful banjo breaks and bouncy chicken picking help to ease the sting of the lyrics tale of breakup. Is it a good thing that a 6-year-olds understanding of her parents’ divorce can be summed up in a song? Featuring a banjo ?
I can’t answer that question; but it does help to show that the girls knew A.M. pretty well. And it does help to explain why my daughter, caught up in the spirit of things that night at the Camden Opera House, joined the rest of the crowd in shouting out requests. There’s a moment lodged in my memory forever: Cassie leaning out over the rail of the balcony and yelling, I Must Be High! Scarred for life? I don’t think so.
I’m not saying that anyone on the stage heard Cassie’s request there was certainly no huddling amongst the band, and Tweedy had yet to utter a word over the mic between songs but suddenly they were roaring into that song, in all its ragged-but-right glory. Cassie looked like the little kid who’s clapped her hands and made a red balloon appear out of thin air slightly stunned, but happy amazed at her own powers of suggestion.
The band played I Must Be High pretty close to the album arrangement rocking in and back out of it in about 3 minutes. The crowd roared.
But what’s this? Ken Coomer is climbing out from behind his drum kit while Stirratt and Bennett unsling their axes from their shoulders and Leroy Bach waves to the crowd. Tweedy at the mic, shading his eyes with one hand: Thanks a lot. It’s hard to see you we’ll see you later.
Wow. The girls both looked at me: is that it? They’ll do an encore, I assured them, as the crowd clapped and stomped for the band to return. As it turned out, there was much more to come. Almost more than we bargained for.
Jeff Tweedy was the first one back out on the stage, strapping on his acoustic Gibson and striding over to the mic while the rest of the band took their places. (He speaks again! Has he cleared the snakes out of his head? Right .) Thanks a lot, he said over the applause. Things quieted down a little: We don’t get up this way very often the crowd roared again. Tweedy shielded his eyes: The lights blinding us it’s really hard to tell if you’re enjoying yourselves And we all, of course, roared.
But Tweedy had left us by then, head down and tucked into the gentle strums of Summerteeth’s She’s A Jar. Things were about to get really weird.
If you didn’t listen to the words of She’s A Jar, you could just glide on its simple beauty: nicely woven acoustic guitar and piano with a sweet harmonica part straight out of Neil Young’s Harvest songbook. And that’s where we left it that night better not to pay attention to the last lines, delivered as all that sweet background music sweeps to a finish:
She’s a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser
A pretty war
With feelings hid
You know she begs me
Not to hit her
Where did that come from? No matter; ignore it move on. The band did, sort of. Leroy Bach laid down a bed of ominous thunder-like piano, out which came the happy-go-lucky keyboard riff of Shot In The Arm. John Stirratt drove the beat, leaning hard into the mic as he backed Tweedy on the choruses. Falling-down-the-stairs piano between verses, with Coomer taking us out with massive drum rolls and cymbal crashes. Again, it was better to feel the music than listen to the words: sleepless nights, desperate feelings, talking ashtrays allrighty, then. Were okay.
Back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
Jess head snapped around and she locked eyes with me. Those first couple of Tweedy lines were like hearing the warning tones before the shark attack in Jaws or watching the movie camera stalk the unsuspecting silhouette in the shower you know there’s about to be blood. Jess had marveled over the bad craziness of Being There’s lead-off song, Misunderstood, for a long time but it’s one thing to listen, another to witness.
The studio version was a piece of work: walls of crashing instruments (at times, everyone trading off and hammering on something that they didn’t normally play), tracks woven in and out with the sound panning from left to right and back again one could imagine the effect similar to voices inside a tortured head. There were no studio effects to be had that night no tape loops or synth tracks to fall back on the madness was all created by hand. It was sort of like having a seat with a view of an open kitchen and getting to watch the chef at work. Savage guitar squawk; pounding piano; drums rolling in and receding, rolling in and receding and then back to the verse, ever so gentle except Tweedy’s character is melting down as the lyric unwinds.
Another wall of sound, then Tweedy’s J-45 emerges, a wham/wham/wham strum that slowly builds in intensity as we climb the final spiral. When Tweedy launches into the last verse, the sweet sadness is gone, beaten up and tossed aside by a madman Iggy Pop in full punk scream:
I know you’ve got a god-shaped hole
You’re bleeding out your heart full of soul
You’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood
At that point, I had both girls by the hand we were all watching the stage with a fascination usually reserved for private peeks at wrecks on the highway. Tweedy let go of his guitar and clutched the mic stand with both hands as he nose-dived into the final lines:
I’d like to thank you all for nothing
I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all
I’d like to thank you all for nothing
And now the whole band was focused on nothing else in the world except those two syllables, pounding them out so hard that you felt it right through your body and knew your breathing had picked up the rhythm, too, and so had your heart and so had everything:
Tweedy was gone, lost in the song, lost in the madness of the character. He suddenly lurched toward the edge of the stage, knocking over a monitor as he dragged the mic stand with him. The vocal was now just an overloaded bellow:
It felt as if we were being pounded with those two heartbeats. There was no leaning casually over the rail we were flattened against the backs of our seats. The situation had turned a corner from being weirdly fascinating to scary how can this end? Will it end?
Nothing at all
And suddenly the tension was broken, Tweedy staggering back from the mic looking dazed and lost. The rest of the band appeared stunned by what they’d just created they wavered momentarily, then brought the song to an end in a big crashing heap. Stage manager Jonathan Parker scurried out to right the overturned monitor, weaving around Tweedy, who seemed oblivious to his presence. There was a pause we all took a breath, and both girls sort of grinned at me, looking for reassurance, hand squeezes, and hugs and then out of the mental wreckage of the moment crawled a light and bouncy little Mermaid Avenue ditty, Hesitating Beauty.
Wait a minute how did we get here? Tweedy, haven shaken off the demons, was now crooning Woody’s love song to Nora Lee and the band was happily churning along, playing at a talent show at the country fair madness or genius? Don’t think about it don’t think about it everything’s fine just fine.
Hesitating Beauty bounced to its conclusion before we knew it and with a quick Thanks again good night from Tweedy, the band was gone again. More? Would there be more? Could there be more?
The houselights stayed down it seemed that there was still more to come. Sure enough, back they came after a much shorter break no words, just Tweedy and Bennett immediately plugging in and beginning a herky-jerky guitar weave that swayed into what we would come to know as I’m The Man Who Loves You. Tonight, though, once the song ended (after a forever Ken Coomer drum roll and the guitars finally giving up their honking, squealing riff) Tweedy announced, That was a new song first time we’ve played it in front of people I think it’s gonna be called Laminated Cat.
That brings a roar from the crowd a treat just for us! and the pre-break weirdness was totally dispersed. Off they tore into A.M.s Casino Queen and Jay Bennett took the wheel. Big crunchy Gibson chords and fills ballooned the walls of the Opera House outward; Bennett took off sideways in a crazy, lurching, off-balance dance that took him to his knees, where he remained, still wailing away at his 335. The music eased enough for Tweedy to dart to the mic: Jay just had knee surgery he’s giving it a good test tonight. Head down, dreads hanging down over his bright red guitar, Bennett was oblivious to Tweedy’s comment as the crowd began clapping along in time to the riff he was hammering away at.
Hold on: things were happening Bennett pushed the beat into a hoe-down stomp, immediately picked up by the rest of the band; we all found our inner hillbilly for a moment then things broke down and the mad scientist began flinging out Jimmy Page-like flurries and strange yowls bowels-of-the-earth bass rumbles angry bee keyboard swirls random drum rolls no thread, no riff, no groove WHAM! Out of nowhere, the band explodes into Led Zeppelins Immigrant Song as Jonathan Parker leaps into the spotlight to grab the mic, Robert Plant fright wig and all. Echoed howls, churning guitars there was never a more unlikely Plant imitator, nor a better one all camp and drama; crash/bang and its over Tweedy reclaims the mic with what may be his only smile of the night and a Thank you, Jonathan.
The music hardly pauses; Bennett is off on a familiar riff the intro to the Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again? Yes it is; Leroy Bach playing Chopsticks as the momentum builds; John Stirratt makes a wild John Entwistle run down the bass neck and suddenly
We don’t talk much
But you’re such a good talker
The momentum carried us right into Outtasite (Outtamind), played to 3-minute garage band perfection, with the music gliding back into a fading reprise of the Who riff. The band looks exhausted; everyone in the house is on their feet. They’ve done it they brought us back safe and sound and we’ve ended with some good-time rock and roll and this must be the end whoa hang on; turns out there’s to be one more blast of Woody weirdness with Hoodoo Voodoo.
Ragged guitars weave over the sing-song vocal total happy/crazy nonsense words the earlier blackness had totally blown out the windows into the cooling night air. The music almost stops then lunges into a double-time tear … and then it’s over. The house lights come up as Tweedy waves to the crowd. Good night, he says, then walks off the stage.
That was it. There was nothing left.
Both girls sat still in their seats, gazing down toward the stage. They looked like they had just gotten off a particularly wild but exhilarating amusement park ride. (Step right up folks! Ride the Wilcorama! Soar into the outer limits of sheer rocknroll joy, and then plunge face-first into the blackest depths of mental breakdown! Have your ticket in your hand before it’s too late!)
Cassie was the first to look away, hugging my arm. That was cool, she grinned. Jess continued to watch the crew clear the stage: the coiling up of the cables, the breakdown of the stands, the red lights of the amps blinking off. What do you think? I asked her as Cass and I rose to our feet. She took one last look at the stage, shook her head, and stood up. Wow, was all she said. I didn’t ask her about the headshake. We headed for home.
By all reports, the band was treated like the hometown baseball team that had just nailed the county title: one of the Main Street eateries next to the Opera House kept their kitchen and bar open for the whole Wilco gang a good time was reportedly had by all. All who attended, that is.
As the 3rd of July became the 4th, the midnight air in Camden, ME was perfect: salty and cool just right for walking with a light jacket over a t-shirt. A single figure could be seen – head down, shoulders hunched, smoking walking down the Main Street sidewalk, cutting onto Bayview Street, heading toward the harbor. Jeff Tweedy, electing not to join the festivities with the rest of the crew, had checked in on his wife and newborn son Sam aboard the tour bus, and then struck off alone on a wind-down walk under the stars. No one else shared the moment; he paced the waterfront by himself.
When we heard about the post-show activities from a friend who used to run a record shop in Camden, it was almost a relief to hear that Tweedy needed to walk things off let’s face it: if someone had popped out of the turmoil of Misunderstood to remind us all to check out the merchandise table for the new Thank You All For Nothing t-shirts and key chains! then you’d have to question what you were seeing. As it was, it was almost easier to accept the fact that Jeff Tweedy had just opened up his heart and soul to us all; he and his band had played their living guts out in a little hall on the coast of Maine; and the experience wasn’t something he could just flip a switch and turn off.
The next morning, we were up fairly early for having been out late the night before. I fixed breakfast while the girls showered and dressed; they were headed back to their mom’s home on Deer Isle a good two hours drive away. This would truly be a first: Jess would be driving Cassie back herself in her old Crayola-green Volvo. It was truly a strange feeling to walk out onto the lawn barefoot, and see them to the car, knowing that I was staying home and they were leaving.
Heading in the other direction would be the Wilco tour bus, the bands next gig being at Bank of America Pavilion in Boston, MA on the 5th.
Do you think every shows like that? asked Jess, tossing her backpack into the backseat. I mean, that was pretty
Intense? I offered.
Awesome, was Cassie’s word.
Both, grinned Jess. Pretty powerful stuff.
Yes, it was. So was waving goodbye to my daughters for the first time that I wasn’t the one doing the leaving.
I went back in the house and, also for the first time ever, didn’t immediately turn the stereo on and up. The music from the night before was still in my head and I wanted to just let it play.
Was every show like that? I doubted it. At that moment (years before the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary movie and Wilco cover stories in most major music magazines), none of us knew just how bad Jeff Tweedy’s demons were but it didn’t seem possible that you could gouge such a big hole out of your inner self night after night and keep on going. What made that night so intense? Was it just something that needed to happen; a safety valve from the weirdness of touring? Or maybe the small venue and positive crowd made for a comfortable setting and the band knew they could let it all hang out and be safe?
Sitting there on the afternoon of July 4th, 2000, I couldn’t have given you an answer.
Sitting here on the afternoon of July 4th, 2008, I still can’t.