I miss the innocence I’ve known
playing KISS covers beautiful and stoned
There is a moment in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film about Wilco in which Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy sits on a bus with his young son and sings “Heavy Metal Drummer”, the two of them patting out the beat on their laps oblivious to the world as it glides along behind them.
Tweedy has been through a lot by this point in the film, dealing with grown-up problems like fractured friendships, legal battles and high expectations at work. The lad, sucker in mouth, provides a moment of serenity and escape, taking Dad back to what it’s all about: beauty, creativity, connection.
The film is about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot which, Pal, I would like to submit as an addition to our series on perfect albums. (Hell of an idea, by the way, and you got us off to an excellent start with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album of sweet, pretty country rock songs that sounds like it was recorded over a few beers and joints in Jeff Tweedy’s garage, and then sent to a distant planet to be mixed and engineered by aliens. It is a strange, beautiful, haunting trip; a collection of folk songs built, in the words of the band, on a “sonic landscape”. Simple songs turned inside out and backwards with feedback, loops, beeps, bops and whizzles to create something utterly strange and unique.
It’s one of those albums that periodically calls to me, like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Love’s Forever Changes. Albums that sound like nothing else. Albums that, when a certain mood strikes, creep out of the rabbit hole and demand to be heard.
As a lyricist, Tweedy manages to make no sense and perfect sense at the same time. Here’s the opening verse of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”:
I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’m hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you?
On the one hand, what the hell is an American aquarium drinker, and how exactly does one assassin down the avenue?
On the other hand, why fuss over the details? As a whole, these lines paint a picture we all recognize: pain, regret, hiding in plain sight, walking dangerously close to the edge… We’ve all been this guy or known this guy at some point.
Tweedy isn’t always inscrutable. Sometimes he makes himself crystal clear, usually on the lines he chooses to repeat again and again:
From “I’m the Man Who Loves You”:
If I could you know I would just hold your hand and you’d understand
I’m the man who loves you
I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you
And from “Radio Cure”, the sludgiest, druggiest song on a sludgy, druggy album:
Oh distance has no way of making love understandable
If that all sounds very bleak it’s because it is. But it also isn’t. There’s hope and optimism all throughout. This is the sound of a man with miles behind him, going through a dark tunnel but seeing the light at the end. A man who knows you have to go through the bad stuff to emerge better.
“You have to die/if you want to want to be alive”, he sings on “War on War”, one of the jauntier numbers.
For me, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album for grown-ups. But grown-ups who still know how to think like a kid. It’s full of “seen it all” aged weariness and youthful, experimental exuberance. Just as you came to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as an adult, Pal, so did I come to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And the experience was better for it.
It all comes together in the sweet nostalgia of “Heavy Metal Drummer”, in which Tweedy pines for teenage days when the hassles and triumphs of life were still some vague future and all that really mattered was the present: beer, girls and “those heavy metal bands we used to go see on the landing in the summer.”
This summer, Tweedy is touring with his son Spencer, who is now 18 and is a drummer. What a great collaboration – the old and the young – both, I’m sure, learning from each other as they go.
Pal, you and I are going to see the father and the son at The Urban Roots Festival in Toronto on July 6. I’m not sure what to expect but I can’t wait to see what they do together. Of one thing I am sure: they ought to do one hell of a version of “Heavy Metal Drummer.”