Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Tom Schick and Mark Greenberg
It was the day after my birthday and nobody had gotten me a thing. Just treated myself to a rental car and an early morning drive into Chicago. The weather was a piece of shit on this early September day, the cirrus clouds forming and moving in weird, clumping patterns until they turned into something otherwise and began to piss out the gray rains they'd stored for god knows how long. Everything had cleared up mostly by the time I arrived in just north and east of the Loop, or it's at least where it felt like I'd been directed. There was a conspicuously available parking space in a residential neighborhood - near a church and an elementary school and a dry cleaning establishment - about three blocks away, so the car I'd just met hours before was paralleled there for a few hours. As you get closer to the Wilco Loft - the one that we saw so much of in Sam Jones' documentary film "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" - the smell of what you imagine might be the best chicken ever to be had, gets stronger and stronger. You feel like it will be on your skin and in your hair for days and it's not all bad. You wonder if they eat there a lot, but you think that they might go for great soups and salads more often than rotisserie chicken. These are all just hunches about Wilco, America's band.
The directory on the outside of the warehouse building has typewritten names next to buttons and their floor simply says, "Foxtrot." You stop questioning if you're in the right place anymore. Ascending the steps in the concrete stairway, you can hear the very familiar sound and as you get closer, you begin to make out Jeff Tweedy's voice. The door opens and you immediately comprehend where you are, but you feel like an intruder, even though you've been invited. Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, organist Mikael Jorgensen, guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone couldn't be kinder or more personable, but you feel like you're intruding on something that comes close to being a mythological band, in many ways. It feels partly wrong that you're drinking their spectacularly tasting coffee and snagging handfuls out of their bag of tortilla chips because you shouldn't be here, peering behind the curtain. You shouldn't be looking at the prized autographed photos of Bob Newhart and Don Rickles, both made out to who we're led to believe are each comedian's biggest fans. There are bunk beds and desks and more privately owned musical equipment than you've ever seen - all of it used to make and perform some of this generation's finest collections of songs.
When you think about Wilco, it's nearly impossible not to start with Tweedy and that voice. He's surrounded himself with some of the best players in the world - guys like the effortlessly phenomenal Stirratt, the every-dude genius in Kotche, the versatile Sansone, the flawless Jorgensen and a guitarist like Cline, who even when he "clams" a note, it's a masterstroke - but it nearly always begins with his words and the way they sound when he half-smiles, half-grimaces them out in that wonderfully raspy way of his. "Whole Love" is another stunning chapter of Tweedy getting himself caught up in all of the vagaries of the heart and the mind and all of the ways that things get painful and only sometimes turn beautiful. He reminds us of a passage from Barry Hannah's novel, "Ray," in which Hannah writes, "Americans have never been consistent. They represent gentleness and rage together. One lesson we as Americans must learn is to get used to the contrarieties in our hearts and learn to live with them." The character that gave the soliloquy in a speech is then seen thinking about himself and it seems to be where many of Tweedy's characters come from. Hannah writes, "I am infected with every disease I ever tried to cure. I am a vicious nightmare of illnesses." "Born Alone," features Tweedy singing, "I have heard the war and worry of the gospel/Ferried fast across the void/I have married broken spoke charging smoke wheels/Spit and swallowed opioid/I am the driver at the wheel of the horror/Marching circles at the gate/Mine eyes have seen/The fury so flattered by fate," and there are illnesses within, always being battled. We all fight our problems, the ones that gnaw at our ankles and get into our bloodstreams. They slow us down and they speed us up and all that we can do about them is to acknowledge that they're ours. They belong to us and we can still get along happily if we try our hardest to make it through. Wilco has taught us that. We owe them a lot. We shouldn't have drank their coffee or eaten their chips. We should have brought them a few of those tasty chickens from across the street. Next time, if they'll have us.