Trails and Tribulations
If Jeff Tweedy’s songs were entirely about himself on “Being There,” the terrific new album by his band, Wilco, he wouldn’t be anywhere.
A recurring theme that lends this 19-track, double-CD release some of its shape and cohesion is the nagging feeling that developing an obsession for playing rock ‘n’ roll is like falling into a deep hole.
As Wilco’s front man and primary songwriter, Tweedy tunes his expressively dusty voice (and his stylistic borrowings from the Rolling Stones, Replacements and country rock) to many a song about not being there.
Success lies “there,” but his bedraggled first-person narrators don’t seem to have the map; “there” is where love and belonging reside, but Tweedy’s protagonists remain physically apart or emotionally detached from their hearts’ objects.
Having become a husband and a father since the 1995 release of Wilco’s much-praised but commercially unspectacular debut album, “A.M.,” Tweedy, 29, sings a lot, not surprisingly, about separation and the price of striving along the rock ‘n’ roll trail.
The album’s opening song, “Misunderstood,” introduces us to a misfit, ne’er-do-well musician and raises the question of burnout: The conditional “if” looms large as Tweedy’s narrator asks somebody--himself, perhaps?--"if you still love rock ‘n’ roll.”
By the album’s middle, on “Sunken Treasure,” Tweedy sings morosely: “Music is my savior, but I was lamed by rock ‘n’ roll / I was maimed by rock ‘n’ roll / I was tamed by rock ‘n’ roll.”
Even the savior part proves false: In the last verse of the boozy, desperately rollicking finale, “Dreamer in My Dreams,” Tweedy puts his poor, suffering rocker persona out of his misery by having him swing for the last time--from a garage beam by a belt rigged as a noose.
The real Tweedy, belt presumably buckled safely around his waist, was standing at a phone booth on a Dallas street corner Wednesday, trying to concentrate on questions and answers while traffic roared past and a loose poodle yapped nearby.
“I’m definitely not suicidal, if anybody cares,” Tweedy said with a laugh, when “Dreamer in My Dreams” came up. He said one line from the album he especially wants listeners to keep in mind is the one that goes, “Babe, you’ve been taking me way too seriously.”
But he also acknowledges that the songs on “Being There” sort through some important actual passages in his life.
“I did think a lot about how monomaniacal I’ve been about music my whole life,” said Tweedy, who grew up in small-town Illinois and began to get national attention after the 1990 debut of his previous band, Uncle Tupelo.
“I definitely have gone through a period where I thought, ‘Well, this is just the stupidest thing anybody could do.’ I still maintain that the amount of importance rock ‘n’ roll and pop culture has grown to . . . It’s just funny,” he said. “I think it’s really interesting how many people there are that have just given their lives to it.”
He added: “I was kind of relieved when I found out my wife was pregnant. I had something real to think about. One of the [meanings of the album title] is that I would love being there [at home] all the time.”
If Tweedy and his wife, Sue Miller, truly thought that rock ‘n’ roll were a path to ruin and unreality, they probably wouldn’t be making Lounge Ax, the Chicago venue she owns, double as little Spencer’s playpen.
“She has an office above the club with a play area. He meets [music] people every day, touring bands coming through. Everybody wants to hold him. He gets so much affection, it’s amazing. I think it’s a great thing. He’s not going to be freaked out by people.”
Unlike his dad, Tweedy added with a laugh. He admits that he doesn’t find it easy to hobnob with fans, fearful that he won’t be able to satisfy their demands and expectations.
One new-album track, “The Lonely 1,” deals ambivalently with the emotional ties that music forges between performers and fans. The fan in the song takes solace from a particularly sad song called “The Lonely One,” and thinks he knows the singer by his song.
“When I was writing the song, I had more of a cynical attitude” about the character’s devotion, Tweedy said. “It’s really flattering and exciting and nice, and I appreciate it” when actual Wilco fans (or fans of his entertaining side band, Golden Smog) feel a connection to him.
“But it also makes me sad sometimes,” he said. “I’m not comfortable, and I can’t give people much of what they want [if they want] to hang out.” At the same time, he added, a fan’s commitment is essential if music is to achieve its purpose.
“Music doesn’t work, art doesn’t work, if it doesn’t communicate something. The other half of communication is the audience. Fifty percent of the power of a live performance, or of a record working, is on the [audience] end of it. At the same time, a lot of people [use music to] live their lives vicariously.”
Besides Tweedy, who plays guitar and sometimes plunks a banjo, Wilco features former Uncle Tupelo drummer Ken Coomer, bassist John Stirratt, Jay Bennett on keyboards and guitar, and new member Bob Egan on slide and pedal-steel guitars.
“A.M.” has sold 64,000 copies by SoundScan’s count. When “Being There” grew in the studio from a planned normal-length disc into an artistically well-justified double album, Tweedy knew Wilco’s sales record would not justify a double-CD price.
“It’s not a real good idea for a band with [no hits] to have something in the stores that costs $30.” So the band and its label, Reprise, worked out a deal whereby Wilco would sacrifice some royalties, the record company would shave its profit margin, packaging costs would be kept down with a paper-not-plastic CD sleeve, and buyers would pay single-disc prices for a two-CD release (albeit one that, at 76 minutes, conceivably could have fit on a single disc).
So far the returns are good: “Being There” already has sold 16,000 copies since its late-October release.
“Yep, gotta go pick out my summer home now,” Tweedy quipped.
Possible rewards aside, his outlook on the rock ‘n’ roll life has brightened compared with the period when all the misgivings voiced on “Being There” poured out.
“I don’t know if it’s because of the music, or just growing up, but I feel a little better overall,” he said. “I’m in a rock band. What else am I gonna do? Just enjoy it. If you’re in a rock band, go ahead and rock.”
* Wilco and Handsome Family play Sunday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $12.50-$14.50. (714) 496-8930.