Aging with the Band: Wilco and the Intersection of Mythologies

On lost love, recovery, and music at Solid Sound 2019.

[Editor’s Note: this story’s brackets signify footnotes.]

I’m driving a stolen ’04 Jetta [1], wondering what my grandfather would have thought of me in a Third Reich sedan. By the time he was my age, he already had two kids and led the Battle of the Reichswald. [2] All my kids are someone else’s, and I battle mostly creditors and addictions—alcohol, codependency (or is it inter-dependency?), depression, mortality, rom-coms, sad, slow, suffocating country songs about the unrequited and empty bottles and the Midwest. Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby. 

North Adams, Massachusetts, birthplace of Doris Day’s husband. Canada Day [3] weekend—only the second without Gord [4]. Run Route 2, winding weird, licking the banks of the Deerfield River, passing ghosts of 1950s family summer camps and skeletons of motor inns, reaching toward the Berkshires. North Adams is New England—abandoned mills are museums of contemporary art [5] or opioid dens. Populations peaked a century ago, but generations hold on to the idea of an America that is no longer available, but still promised. Saw The National here the year I bet on June 11 for Ann to give birth, during an encore of “Slow Show”—“You know I dreamed about you / For twenty-nine years / before I saw you” [6]—but Felix came on the twenty-third, and three years in I babysit sometimes but he can’t get down with Wilco. Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby. 

Not sure the first time I saw Wilco. Apocryphy suggests it was at Sala Rossa [7] in the early aughts. Magnolia Electric Co. opened. The room soaked in summer. Bodies lithe and eager, sweating smoke and Cinqante [8]. I fell in love. She had a Russian name and a knife in her boot. We danced in humidity’s wake until the music stopped and started again, and stopped and started again, and the lights came back on. There’s no record of Magnolia Electric Co. opening for Jeff Tweedy and co. The Romanov, yes, but maybe not the romance. 

Age and memory and drink pander to narratives retold by filled ashtrays that said “You were up all night.” But I have seen the band. They weave in and out of my mythology, mark time and years in lyrics, live and loved. And love. Being There was the soundtrack to 1997 as I followed Kara to Vancouver, a continent away from everything. She stayed. Has a kid, and a divorce, like mine. summerteeth played in a rental car on a drive to Seattle with Innis and Chloe—after we dropped out of film school in 1999—where Chloe [9] auditioned for LAMDA. [10] She’s a rock star now. Plays to her own crowds—lithe and eager. 

North Adams is New England—abandoned mills are museums of contemporary art or opioid dens. Populations peaked a century ago, but generations hold on to the idea of an America that is no longer available, but still promised.

In 2001, as the world and I fell apart, I had an affair with a woman who burned me Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A Ghost Is Born drove me to Montreal, where I would begin a life as a writer and a decade of error. Nick [11] and I started a band called The Mason-Dixon Distillery with a rasped recording of my struggling through “Remember the Mountain Bed” on the backend of a bender. I had a column for IndieWire called “Kicking Television.” I saw Wilco in the midst of a Toronto summer, with Dylan and MMJ where I ran into Nikki, who I hadn’t seen in twelve years, who looked twelve years older, while my mirror lied. She texted me to make-out on the lawn, but my phone was off because I can’t be distracted during “Jesus, Etc.” And I had to fly to Montreal in the early hours to do a podcast [12] because 2014. And I’m bad with backwards. 

Schmilco [13] was the last gift my ex-wife gave me, escaped at last to Solid Sound in 2017, where I had most of my last drinks. Two years later I’m back, twenty-two months sober, and everyone is old. I’m old too, but not real good at it. Joe’s Field is littered in folding lawn chairs, strollers, and dudes who look like me—notions of aesthetic singularity destroyed. Courtney Barnett has me in love with her after two chords. I only really know her from the Kurt Vile album and a song about breakfast that reminds me of David Berman, who I can’t bring myself to call Purple Mountains, but Barnett is what would happen if Joan Jett fucked a Ramone but not Dee Dee. 

Courtney Barnett

Friday night closes with Wilco Karaoke [14] as fans perform fugues with Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen, Pat Sansone, and Nels Cline—who I saw shred the Starfish Room in Vancouver in 1997 (probably?)—with the guy who fucked my girlfriend. People say I mention that too much, but they weren’t in the room—where I walked in with Mike Watt and said, “I’m here to see you,” and he replied, “Good for you” in baritone and Wattspiel. Cline and I are much older now, but both in Massachusetts for the weekend, and I bet he has RRSPs. [15]

So these fuguing fans headline the Berkshires’ best bar band for ten thousand, and it’s weird to be in the crowd for the biggest moment of ten people’s lives, when we’re rarely in the crowd for our own. Wilco does three encores—and if I wasn’t there by myself I’d tell someone about the time in Barrie at Mosport Park Neil Young did three encores and the house lights came up and we all headed up the hill to unmarked cabs to campsites and the organ kicked in for a twenty-minute “Like a Hurricane”; again, I’m not sure that ever happened, but I do know for sure that Joe [16] pushed me into a urinal at the campsite because that was his bit then—and they finish with “Late Greats,” which was the intro music to that podcast [17] (“You can’t hear it on the radio / You can’t hear it anywhere you go”), though I wanted Constantines’ “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright)” (“It’s hard not to surrender / To the bold and comely words / What sway the bloody-minded / What hang above the graceless herd”) but, whatever. And usually I don’t remember the encore, so there’s that. And I drove home because sobriety. I haven’t Ubered or Lyfted since. 

Saturday is the kind of hot that Republicans don’t believe in. I meet up with one of two friends in the state I live in—Vermont, not self-doubt. He’s the kind of guy I should be, but forgot to become. He’s there with his wife and four kids named for Paul Thomas Anderson films. I think, “Maybe I should marry that one—or someone—and come back in 2021 with her or them and her kid or a kid.” Forty-two suggests I would make a fine thirty-five. I could adult. Adult troubles me. I could love. Love troubles me. Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby

In 2001, as the world and I fell apart, I had an affair with a woman who burned me Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A Ghost Is Born drove me to Montreal, where I would begin a life as a writer and a decade of error.

Ohmme loves you, too, and tears apart a courtyard while two millennials detect hops and lavender in their IPAs, but I always liked how they gave me a false sense of confidence, but could no longer manage the hangovers or guilt. The Minus 5 are two parts plus one REM, Jack Black’s uncle, [18] and a drummer that slays. Steve Wynn joins them, and again, I’m reminded there’s two Steve Wynns, one that owns casinos and fathered a kid with Liz Hurley and this guy, and I wonder not just how I know that, but why I keep knowing it. Down with Wilco was among the last physical CDs I bought. And Richard Buckner’s Impasse. And the second New Pornographers album. At that place on Bank Street in Ottawa, [19] across from that other place [20] where the girl who burned me A Ghost Is Born (and The Anniversary’s Your Majesty. Remember The Anniversary?) painted as Maintain Theta [21] sang “Gramma hit Grandpa so hard / She kicked and she put up a fuss / But if a man must go then go he must” and I thought I loved her, but really didn’t know at all what that was. 

At Joe’s Field, a dude named Brendan has lent me out a corner of his tarp so I can maintain safe space in the sea of lawn chairs at war with simple geometry (geography?). A guy from San Diego pulls out two bags of tea and I’m down for Earl Grey [22] even in the heat, but turns out it’s just pot and me-in-my-teens/twenties/thirties sighs. His daughters are twenty-two and keep leaving the grounds to drink cheap in the parking lot and I think, “Fuck Viagra, give me a pill that makes me feel immortal as I did at twenty-two all the time,” but then remember the opioid crisis and buy another bottled water for four bucks plus the guilt of that island of plastic the size of Texas in the Pacific. [23]

Jeff Tweedy and Cate Le Bon

Cate Le Bon is not related to Simon Le Bon, which is disappointing to me but probably not so much to her, whose voice shakes the grounds in all its Welshy goodness and I goosebump, though feel robbed of a clever cover of “Hungry Like the Wolf.” The guy with PTA kids turned me onto The Feelies in anticipation of their Saturday night set. He said, “Listen to them in a shitty car on a great stereo,” which is why I stole the Jetta—and he was right. They’re tight in a way I don’t think bands are tight anymore even though jeans are, but I don’t get hip-hop so what the fuck do I know about anymore? 

But Wilco. Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby. This must’ve been what it was like to see The Band unshackled from Dylan. Or The Dead before John Mayer. Old, young—we danced, as Jerry suggested, “Like waves against the bandstand, dancers broke.” My first drink was because I was afraid to dance in high school. Three beers took care of that. But three became seven became gin became Jack became other, and high school was long in the rearview mirror, but there were so many out there still willing to dance—Gord [24] taught me how, spastic and unfettered, rebellion in free. There’s great joy in sober release, in the confidence of a drunk man without the regret and apology of tomorrow. And left to my own devices, I would never dance again, and left to those same devices I lean toward Wilco’s quiet side, Tweedy solo at folk fests, singing Handsome Family covers, but here in the dark and back then in the distance, on the underside of the moonlight’s dance floor, give me more, keep trying to break my heart, twist those chords like Neil. “It’s better to burn out / than to fade away,” but old man, you’re seventy-three and rusted and ain’t that better than death? 

Wilco

Art and excess are inextricably linked. The narrative of the musician is often mottled in episodes of bacchanal sometimes ending in recovery, sometimes in death, occasionally in masterpieces, always in folklore. The mythology of the rock star revels in revelry and lacks in consequence, and lives similarly in fandom: What is a show without the influence of influences? We grow up with bands, we grow out of bands, we emulate bands—aesthetically, ideologically, politically, and abusively. We remember the depths and dregs more than fête. I know where I was when Cobain died, but not when Nevermind [25] went platinum. Festival further embodies free spirit—from the moment Chip Monck warned of the brown acid to Lollapalooza’s etymology of extraordinary and unusual—excess on- and off-stage is matched in the mosh pits, campsites, and sing-alongs of summer music festivals, but without the apology of celebrity. What of those of us in the crowd who tried to keep up, without the resources for recovery or promise of resurrection? 

I like that Tweedy is clean and sober, that he talks about depression, about his dad sobering up at eighty-one. I like examples of artistry absent of excess. I like Tweedy on stage after the rain lets up and the Sunday fades toward Monday, singing that Dylan song The Band does better with me and everybody. And either Solid Sound is different, or we are, or I am. Or this is just getting older. And maybe it’s finally time to admit that’s OK, and “Any day now / any day now / I shall be released.” FL


1 Not really stolen. Borrowed. But I grew up on Hunter S. Thompson, and he would’ve stolen a car to cover a music festival. I almost got a tattoo of the Ralph Steadman sketch of Raoul Duke from the cover of Fear & Loathing. Also almost got a tattoo of a lightbulb bottle I stole from a Wilco poster. 

2 Major General DC Spry was a senior Canadian Army officer who commanded the Third Canadian Infantry Division during Operation Veritable in World War II. I knew him as “Papa.” He taught me never to use the word “neat.”

3 Canada Day (Fête du Canada) is the national day of Canada. It’s like the Fourth of July but with free healthcare and less gun violence.

4 Downie.

5 MASS MoCA, host of the bi-annual Wilco curated and headlined Solid Sound Festival.

6 Afterwards, at a McDonald’s, I made my best joke ever, strolling up to the counter and asking, “So, what’s good here?”

7 Montreal’s best live music venue where I actually did see Songs: Ohia, and Silver Jews, and Constantines, and Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. A Pharmacists’ brother is one of my favorite writers, Kevin Canty. Another Canty brother is in Fugazi. Cantys are mad talented.

8 Labatt 50, the beer of Canadian hipsterism. It’s our Pabst. I miss it, a bit.

9 Formerly of the band Battant, now solo under the name C.A.R. Mad talented.

10 London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. I know David Suchet went there. I don’t know why I know that, though.

11 Nick McArthur, author of Short Accounts of Tragic Occurrences (DC Books, 2009). Also mad talented.

12 Kaufman & Spry. Ran for ten episodes. Paul Langlois did a Beatles’ song for us once. We drank 10:30 a.m. beers and he called cigarettes “darts” and told a story about driving along Tragically Hip Way in Kingston and running into Doug Gilmour and we couldn’t have been more Canadian in that moment if we had poured maple syrup into a Tim Horton’s double-double watching Wayne & Shuster while ice fishing. 

13 Tweedy apologized at least three times for playing songs off the album during his three-day run on Joe’s Field. It was weird. Like the time I saw Wilco open for Neil Young in Montreal and he kicked off their last song with, “This is it, you’re all here to see Neil anyway.”

14 Why not Wilcaraoke? Or Karailco?

15 401ks for Canadians. I think. My mum has recurring nightmares that I have no retirement savings. My nightmares are more austere.

16 Joe is quite successful now and probably wouldn’t want his identity revealed here. I’ve been trying to get him to run for office in Canada for a long time, but he likes golf too much. Maybe I just want a sweet speech writing gig.

17 Kaufman doesn’t talk to me anymore. I think I broke the Bro Code. We’re the “Mike and the Mad Dog” of early-century Montreal podcasting.

18 Kurt Bloch, whose stage presence (in a full suit and 100˚F heat) made Jack Black’s performances seem reserved.

19 Songbird?

20 It’s a The Works Burger now. They have a cheeseburger with peanut butter on it. This is why we have obesity while the Third World has starvation.

21 Under-celebrated early-aughts Ottawa band featuring Yannick Tremblay and Andy Black. I went to Yan and Sheri’s wedding, put a broom in their tree the night before to ward off the promise of storm, barbecued burgers in a light divined rain after the caterers bolted. The bride and groom arrived by canoe, turned off the microphone for their vows. Always liked that. The next morning, the first of my friends to have kids had a kid. Zavier to Jena and JP. It was also the last August I was in love, which is a whole other footnote, but it’s only just July now. 

22 I quit coffee in 2013 while living in the woods in Wakefield, Quebec, pop. four hundred—down the river from where Yan and Sheri canuptuialed—but a great music venue, The Black Sheep. I like quitting things and live music. 

23 The Great Pacific garbage patch. 

24 Downie. Don’t know Downie? You’re not Canadian. Read this.

25 When you google Nevermind the first result is somebody named Dennis Lloyd. Nirvana is third. It’s enough to make you drink.

Newsletter

We won’t spam you. Promise.