Wilco: Wilco (the Song)
One of the best things about writing for this blog is that it has given me an outlet to use music as a way to write about myself, my family, my friends and my opinions—and not only about music. I get to write about whatever the hell I want, as long as I can tie it to the theme, no matter how tenuously. And I’m glad that today, in addition to a little personal self-reflection, I get to write about one of my favorite bands.
Wilco is definitely in my top 5. And yet, I’ve never actually written about a Wilco song on this blog. I’ve mentioned them often, and I’ve written about Golden Smog and former member Jay Bennett, and even a whole piece on Jeff Tweedy’s stage banter. So, when I started to narrow down the possibilities for this piece, upon reflection, I decided to finally discuss this band, and their self-referential song, “Wilco (The Song)” from, yes, Wilco (The Album). I’m heading into a bit of a Wilco period now, because I’ve committed to write a thing or two about them for my other blogging home, but I’m not on deadline there, so this comes first.
I think that any sort of artist has to have enough ego to believe that what he or she produces would be interesting to other people. Sure, there are stories about great artists who were unknown until their hidden work surfaced after death, but I think that it is a fair generalization. The belief that your work would interest others, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be arrogant. Many great musicians, painters, writers, etc. seem to be relatively humble, and based on what I’ve read about him, Jeff Tweedy appears to be one of those guys. Clearly, he has enough confidence to have gone from the new kid, barely able to play his instrument and booking gigs for his friend’s brothers’ band, to the leader, primary songwriter and front man of one of the most well-respected, analyzed and popular rock bands of its era. And yet, so much of Tweedy’s music, with Wilco and otherwise, is mysterious and to a great degree appears to be distanced from his life. So often in Wilco’s music, even the most emotional songs are not simple confessionals, but seem to be written for a character or filled with odd metaphors. And for the most part, he appears to have kept his personal life relatively simple and private (if you count having footage of your family in a documentary and touring with your son, relatively simple and private). What I’m trying to say, is that he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants the spotlight on him, although he does seem, now, comfortable in that spotlight.
There’s a part of me that wishes I was more like that. And not only that I wish that I could write music, play and sing as well as Tweedy, but I can’t, and I’ve accepted that. I’ve always had opinions about music, but except for that brief period from 1979-1982 when I got to opine to a small audience on a college radio station in central New Jersey, my opinions were shared only with friends and family. I’ve also always thought that I was a good writer, but since college, my only writing of note was a law review article and a bunch of legal papers, which only rarely allowed me to show any sort of creativity.
A few years ago, I took some fiction writing classes with an excellent teacher, and he encouraged me to write, which I did, until time, money and a feeling that I was repeating myself ended my participation. But the positive reactions that I got from the other members of my class, the teacher, and my family, made me feel good. And, for a short time, that was it. I didn’t have the confidence that what I was writing was anywhere good enough to try to have published. Then, I started reading music blogs. Some of them are incredible, and others, frankly are dull and poorly written. But I really liked one called Star Maker Machine. Good writers writing about interesting music. One day, I saw that the blog was looking for writers. I inquired, wrote a piece which was published and then became a regular contributor. The positive feedback that I received encouraged me to write more, and to begin writing for Cover Me, where I also have gotten encouragement and praise. So, yeah, I have enough of an ego now, that I think that my writing is worthy of being read by others. But I’m still afraid to try to do anything other than to write for free blogs, in part because I feel that doing more would require more work, research and rigor than I think I’m willing to do, and in part because I’m worried that I will fail. Which is why I give enormous credit to those of my friends who write, perform or make art for all or part of their living.
So, the question at hand, is, why would the popular but unassuming Wilco, led by the popular but unassuming Jeff Tweedy, put out an album called Wilco (the Album) and lead it off with “Wilco (the Song)”? My take on it was that the band was having a little bit of fun with its audience, which takes the band very seriously. It is clearly tongue in cheek, as if it was actually necessary to make it clear that the song was a song, the album was an album, and later, the tour was, yes, Wilco (the Tour) (where I purchased Wilco (the Tote)).
Then there are the lyrics. Essentially, they say that you shouldn’t worry about your problems, because, hey, Wilco will love you, and that will fix everything. I take that to be a mocking of the band’s celebrity and power that fits more into the self-deprecating humor that Tweedy is known for, and to me, explains the title. I found an interview in which he discussed the fact that Wilco (the Album) was meant to be more fun and lighthearted than its immediate predecessors, with the goofy cover of a camel’s birthday party as further evidence, and the song was not only meant as somewhat of a lark, but also as a way of reintroducing the band, after some instability. Ultimately, Tweedy said, “we struggled with a lot of other titles that felt more exemplary of what the music was. But nothing else felt quite so succinct."
So, while the song is self-referential, it may not be completely self-reflective. Unless it is.