Wilco: For Dads About to Rock, We Salute You

[Ariel Kitch]

Part One: Kids and Kidsmoke

Wilco will always be too traditional for those who want them to be weird, and too weird for those who want them to be traditional. For all the hype about its sonic experiments, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot can still break your heart into twin towers mainly because of Jeff Tweedy’s arresting songs. Yet to certain hipsters—call them peasants with their Pitchforks—Tweedy has since become the archetypal boring dad, leading a mythical genre known as dad rock.

Tweedy does seems like a devoted dad. This July, he smiled warmly when his son (heavy metal drummer Spencer) came onstage in Berkeley dressed like one of the Fleet Foxes. But the haters are getting ugly. Vice offered Wilco fans the sensitive advice that “you might as well sterilize yourselves, because if you have kids they are guaranteed to be assholes too.” Reviewing this year’s Wilco (The Album) the Village Voice trash-talked Tweedy as “a pale father of two” who makes music for white people to relax.

The notion that “dad rock” is a bad thing brings out the fighting side of me. I am a pale father of two. I wash dishes and mow the lawn, though not particularly well. I find myself trying to “balance fun with crushing depression,” just like Tweedy. Despite the occasional bad haircut or twelve-minute migraine, Tweedy has special gifts. He channels the Replacements and the Carter Family. He croaks strange poetry in gorgeously cranky second-generation Dylanisms. He hallucinates about spiders doing tax returns to the tune of Can’s “Mother Sky.” If Wilco is the new “normal,” my life is a David Lynch movie.

Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”

Part Two: So Misunderstood

wilco-camelI wish I’d been a fly on the wall in the meeting brainstorming the cover art for Wilco’s new eponymous disc, destined to be known as The Camel Album:

Record executive: “Jeff, we’ve got a problem. People are starting to think you’re a tired fossil who has no rock and roll fun.”

Tweedy: “Wait, I’ve got it! Let’s give them a fez-wearing camel with an enormous birthday cake! And let’s have the photo shoot at Mader’s Restaurant in Milwaukee, home of the Schnitzelbank drinking song! Beer-loving Lutherans will love us once again, especially once they discover that Bon Iver is really the Unabomber.”

I love that, after getting lambasted with the “dad rock” label, Wilco chose to use a children’s birthday party theme on the cover. Despite more ups and downs than the camel, Wilco (The Album) is a truckload of fun for dads of all ages. Once in a while, as with Sky Blue Sky, it could use one of Tweedy’s frenemies named Jay — Jay Farrar, or the sadly departed Jay Bennett — to give Tweedy a kick in the pants and keep things moving. The album won’t bring back the Neil Young Country of Being There, the lush chamber pop of Summerteeth, or the fractured anthems of Foxtrot. But it draws memorably from all the Wilcos we have known, as well as a few of their heroes. Here’s a sampling of the new tracks, with accompanying sermonette and source material:

Waiting for My Van

The taut, chunky guitars plugging along at the start of “Wilco (The Song)” reveal it as a dad-friendly reworking of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man.” But rather than going to Lexington and 125th to buy drugs, like Lou Reed, Tweedy sounds more like he’s on the prowl for a neighborhood featuring tree-lined streets and an excellent school system. Pure genius. But it gets better. He refers to his own band in the song, like he’s in Wang Chung telling everybody to wang chung tonight. And instead of trying to break your heart, he throws out warm fuzzies. “Wilco will love ya, baby,” he intones, like he’s Telly Savalas. And who among us doesn’t need a dad-friendly hybrid of the Velvet Underground, Wang Chung and Telly Savalas?

Wilco, “Wilco (The Song)”

Velvet Underground, “Waiting for the Man”

Bull Black Volvo

Those who think Tweedy is now only serving happy meals should listen to “Bull Black Nova,” The Album’s chilly melodrama in the tradition of “Via Chicago” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Tweedy and superlative lead guitarist Nels Cline build a high-wire frenzy that sounds like a lost track from Television’s Marquee Moon. But Television’s Cadillac pulled into the graveyard in different times, when General Motors wasn’t yet a public works program. There’s nothing remotely dad rock about a Chevy Nova, which probably doesn’t even have airbags. I want Tweedy to write his next murder mystery about my Volvo V70 station wagon.

Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”

Television, “Marquee Moon”

Bastards of Old

“You Never Know” is shimmering power pop in Wilco’s Summerteeth tradition, sounding like Big Star playing something from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Then the lyrics kick in, and they deserve a hallowed place in the dad rock hall of fame: “Come on children, you’re acting like children/ Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.” As I blurted out to my six year-old girl last week: “Will you please stop acting like a child?” Wilco gets it, and I feel so validated.

(The flip side of the “You Never Know” seven-inch single is Unlikely Japan, a version of Sky’s “Impossible Germany” that sounds more like a Foxtrot outtake).

Wilco, “You Never Know”

George Harrison, “What is Life”

Wilco (The Duet)

Jeff launches into lullaby mode on “You and I,” proving those crib-side crooning sessions with his boys weren’t in vain. Then, faster than you can count to four, Canadian mathematician Leslie Feist joins in for a little game of She & Him, with Feist playing the role of Zooey Deschanel while Tweedy turns into Matt Ward. A shade too cute, but it’s dad-tastic!

Wilco (with Feist), “You and I”

She and Him, “This is Not a Test”

Part Three: A Can of Spiders

Spiders are singing in the salty breeze
Spiders are filling out tax returns
Spinning out webs of deductions and melodies
On a private beach in Michigan

Why can’t they wish their kisses good
Why do they miss when their kisses should
Fly like winging birds fighting for the keys
On a private beach in Michigan

This recent rash of kidsmoke
All these telescopic poems
It’s good to be alone

Wilco, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”

Can, “Mother Sky”

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.

One thought on “Wilco: For Dads About to Rock, We Salute You

  1. OMG, Can made music videos? Too much, man.

    Brilliant piece. Pulling in the VU, George Harrison, Television comparisons really puts Wilco in perspective for me (though as much as I enjoy Wilco I’m not convinced they rise to the level of those predecessors musically).

    Still grappling with tax returns, need to look into getting me some of those spiders.

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