Cult of Personality: Jeff Tweedy vs. Alt-Country

Cult of Personality

Jeff Tweedy’s family feud with alt.country

By Phil Wise

Obsession is a funny thing. It can be as powerful as a smoking habit and as enveloping as the priesthood. It often elicits behavior as extreme as the lifetime smoker stuffing cigarette butts into his tracheal hole or a monk protesting injustice by dousing himself with gas and setting himself ablaze. Obsession can show you the way to enlightenment through discipline or mask you with blinders that block out your mania. When that obsession turns on its muse, you’ve got the makings of a stalker and they are a dangerous breed.

No Depression fans, as the group of people who love all things “alt.country” (from out of tune fiddles to overalls) are commonly called, are a rabid bunch and not to be taken lightly. They take sides. They’re more polarized than Cubs and Sox fans, Democrats and Republicans, or Sammy and Diamond Dave disciples. The most ardent of them are a proud group who revel in their cult status and the fact that they’re the only people in the world who know who Gillian Welch is. They’re not exclusionary though and welcome newbies with a zeal that rivals that of a born again Christian or Amway distributor. To join their ranks is a warm experience shared over tasty beers and homespun music. But eventually you’ll be called upon to state your allegiance and your answer will forever mark you in their yellow eyes.

It may come up at a hip party in Chicago’s Logan Square, Wicker Park having fallen from grace with the invasion of Starbucks and MTV. Or perhaps at the fantastic Hideout on Wabansia, the scene of some of the best alt.country shows in the city and host to the Bloodshot Records 5th Anniversary Block Party. You may see someone wearing a Whiskeytown shirt and strike up a conversation. You’ll both agree that former Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams’ solo debut Heartbreaker is genius. You’ll affably debate the merits of Lucinda William’s recently released Essence, but agree that Car Wheels on a Dirt Road was your favorite. You’ll dazzle him with your fervent love of the Outlaws and agree that Gram Parsons was not only “the shit,” but also the architect of the modern alternative country movement, with ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith garnering an honorable mention.

You’re getting along famously and promising to burn stacks of Doug Sahm and Will Oldham boots for each other when the question comes: What do you think of Summer Teeth?

This is it. The alt.country equivalent of the pro-life/pro-choice question. The division in the alt.country world is wide, insipid and sometimes violent. I’ve seen No Depressioners come to blows more than once over this album and its creators Wilco.

Hard-liners are vehement in their rejection of Wilco singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s departure from the alt.country ranks and often heckle him at solo shows, trying to incite the diminutive singer to react. He sometimes does with biting humor that always finds its way to No Depression magazine and various Wilco/Uncle Tupelo chat rooms. The verbal fencing sometimes gets ugly and often just serves to further alienate Tweedy’s wayward flock.

It wasn’t always this way

Tweedy’s first group, Uncle Tupelo, had a deeply committed fan base who reeled in disbelief upon the group’s breakup in 1994. But they took the release of Wilco’s debut A.M. (and former Uncle Tupelo co-songwriter Jay Farrar’s Trace under the Son Volt moniker) as confirmation that Tweedy would stay the course and promote their rallying cry against modern “Nashville” country and the despised pop music clogging the airwaves. They even tolerated Tweedy’s experimentation on the group’s follow-up Being There, mainly because of the soft pedal steel touches like those found on the heartbreaking “Far Far Away” or the raucous roadhouse stomp like “Dreamer of my Dreams.” But they sent warnings through bulletin boards and listservs that any more diversion would not be tolerated.

The warnings seemed to be heeded with Wilco’s work on the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with British folky and protest singer Billy Bragg. There was a return to folk arrangements and the back porch, beer-drinking gaiety Wilco perfected on A.M. It was most notably found on the breakout single from the first Mermaid Avenue with the lilting “California Stars.” The defiant Tweedy still dabbled in pop with “Hoodoo Voodoo” and “Secret of the Sea,” but for the most part followed Bragg’s lead. This may be due to the fact that Wilco was called in on the project some time after Bragg had initiated it.

Push comes to shove

Then came the release of 1998’s Summer Teeth, which cast aside all but the subtlest country influences. Awash in keyboards, kettledrums and Brian Wilson-esque arrangements, Summer Teeth stood in stark contrast to what had become the “Wilco sound,” or rather that of the insurgent country stalwarts.

Tweedy’s solo shows, which had grown considerably on the success of the Mermaid Avenue projects and Wilco’s increasing profile, also started to attract boisterous heckles from the disenchanted. The most ardent No Depressioners turned on Tweedy with shouts of “Judas!” just as Bob Dylan’s fans had with his turn to electric guitars some 30 years before. In chatrooms, bulletin boards, listservs and fans sites, Tweedy was put on trial for crimes against God and alt.country.

Compatriots in a Yankee Hotel

The alienation of Tweedy’s original fan base has done little to dissuade him from further experimentation. The heckles and attempts to pigeonhole hole him have actually done nothing to bring him back into the insurgent country fold. In fact, it may have driven him over the edge and into the arms of noise-pop vanguard Jim O’Rourke, who produced mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s anxiously anticipated fourth album. A partnership like this likely sends chills down the spine of No Depressioners as they imagine an album devoid of song structure and brimming with buzzes, whistles and pops.

But they might be surprised when (and if) they hear the album when it (and if) finally comes out. While it’s by no means a return to Wilco’s simple country-rock beginnings, it does have more of the elements that put Tweedy and Co. on the map: beautiful violins, subtle pedal steel and stark acoustic accompaniment. It remains to be seen whether this new album will win back those O.T.’s (Original Tweedy-heads), but they’d be doing themselves a favor by dropping their criteria and listening to the music. It beats a restraining order and 200 hours of community service.

Fuck Viacom

Relating to the post directly below this one. . .

“We will do with the Internet what we did with cable”

—Sumner M. Redstone

Chairman of the Board & CEO, Viacom Inc.

Chairman of the Board & CEO, National Amusements Inc.

(In a radio commercial for the New York Stock Exchange)

That’s “Viacom” as in, to quote from its site: “the CBS Network, MTV Networks, BET, Showtime Networks, Infinity Broadcasting, TDI Worldwide and Infinity Outdoor, Paramount Pictures, Paramount Television, Paramount Parks, UPN, Blockbuster, Simon & Schuster, and theatrical exhibition operations in North America and abroad. The company’s Internet businesses include the MTVi Group, the CBS Internet Group, and Nickelodeon Online. Viacom also owns a half-interest in the Comedy Central cable channel.”

The “National Amusements” part is less well known. But as the “official” word has it: “National Amusements, Inc., a closely held corporation which operates approximately 1,300 motion picture screens in the U.S., the U.K., and South America, is the parent company of Viacom.”

Re-read the opening quote.

Watched TV lately?

Fuck Ticketmaster

Relating to a conversation I had this weekend…

(Fuck Barry Diller)

Some homies and I were talking this weekend about who we would be willing to pay $30 to see these days. (I think $30 is a magic number because that’s what the top-dollar tours cost when I was in high school, but the specific dollar amount is irrelevant.) We only came up with about two artists; who they were escapes me right now. (I know we did agree that if David Lee Roth toured with Van Halen, we’d go, but that’s beside the point.) Inevitably, when this topic came up, much ranting and raving about Ticketmaster ensued. Of course, we all know that Ticketmaster does us with no vaseline. The question is, why do we still pay? Is it really worth it to go see a live gig if we’re paying what usually amounts to a minimum 40% surcharge?

Consider: Wilco is my favorite national touring act right now. I’ve seen them enough times over the past few years that it’s difficult to remember to establish an accurate count, but the number is over five. They are playing on Oct. 5 here in Detroit. Tickets cost $17. That would normally be a no-brainer, right? After all, $17 is less than the cost of four beers at a show. But the problem is, the venue they’re playing at has no box office, so I’d be stuck buying tickets from Ticketmaster.

And how much does that $17 ticket cost if I go to Ticketmaster’s Web site and buy it there? That’ll be $26.45, thank you very much sir may I please have another? (For those not too quick with a calculator, that’s a 55.6% service charge—none of which is going to the venue, by the way.)

Now someone please tell me how that’s more of a “convenience” than buying the ticket at the club on one of the several odd occasions that I will actually be there hanging out between now and October? Better yet, explain to me why any of you are willing to buy a Ticketmaster ticket to another event, period. I, for one, am hereby swearing off any and all Ticketmaster events. There’s enough cool stuff to do in this world without giving my cash to this monopoly.

Not a Music-Related Post, but an important one just the same

Not a Music-Related Post, but an important one just the same

By Phil Wise

The right to protect sources is second only to the right to free speech in the media. It is essential that investigative reporters protect their sources in order to provide information that people would otherwise keep to themselves out of fear. This is standard practice and accepted in the United States. Why then is this reporter in jail for refusing to hand over notes to the FBI about a case she’s been following? If you care about truth in reporting and free speech then you need to read this article.

http://www.msnbc.com/news/619488.asp

Salongate

I just read a plea from John Dean for me to pay for “Salon Premium.” I and the rest of the GloNo crew are guilty of spending hours reading their stuff, me without so much as clicking on a single ad there. Ever.

Yeah, I admit it: I use the Internet and I don’t pay. From reading articles to downloading music and software to getting directions to whatever godforsaken village in Indiana I need to drive to for a work assignment. (I even used to use free dialup access until I got a cable modem; I never looked at their ads either.) Bottom line is that I use this media and I don’t pay. I do, however, subscribe to a bunch of awful car magazines and pay to buy other glossy rags on the newsstands, even an occasional daily fishwrap (ugh!), and of course I still buy CDs if only for the convenience of not having to collate and burn my own.

So I ask myself, “Why?” Why am I not willing to pay for Internet content? I don’t know.

What is the future of the Internet media?

I don’t know that either. But for some reason, I’m just not going to give Salon thirty bucks.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts…

Digging up Kurt Cobain

Kurt CobainIn an article in the recent Music Issue of the New Yorker, Robert Christgau reviews Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R. Cross, a new biography of Kurt Cobain. It sounds like it’s a pretty well-researched book and apparently the author had access to Cobain’s “drawings, journals, and numerous unsent letters.”

Christgau mainly praises the book, but he voices two complaints. First, Cross “inadvertently shortchanges” the music of Nirvana by concentrating too much on the life and history parts of the story. And second, it sounds like Cross might have worked a little too hard “augmenting the already plentiful evidence of Cobain’s attraction to stardom,” and didn’t spend enough time trying to figure out the alienated punk philosophy that states that mainstream = shit:

Unlike the indie-rock ideologues Cobain so admired, Cross doesn’t believe that rock’s aesthetic value stands in inverse proportion to its mass appeal. Neither do I, but his argument might have been sharpened if he’d spent more time with the opposition: people like Calvin Johnson, the doyen of indie rock in Olympia, Washington, where Cobain moved to live with his first serious girlfriend; Tobi Vail, the riot-grrrl theorist who became Cobain’s second girlfriend; Steve Albini, who produced “Nevermind” ‘s followup, the raw, cold, edgy “In Utero”; and Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, the owners of Nirvana’s first label, the Seattle-based Sub Pop.

Of course, everybody knows it’s not cool to want to be a rock star. You’ve got to create art because it’s just bursting out of you, and you can’t hold it inside anymore, right? Well, apparently that’s not how it was for Kurt Cobain. He actually practiced his guitar. A lot.

So I’m not sure what that really means to anybody. But it’s fairly obvious that he ended up hating being famous. He blew his own head off. It’s better to burn out than to fade away, right? Well, maybe the heroin had something to do with it too. “The official version of Cobain’s heroin addiction described it as off and on, spurred by chronic stomach pain,” writes Christgau. “Cross establishes that this story was a coverup. Cobain was a big-time junkie for all but a few stray weeks of his season in the public eye…”

I remember when I found out that Kurt Cobain was dead that I knew that everybody was going to end up blaming it on the drugs. But I was convinced it was the pressures of fame that did him in. That seemed a lot cooler to me when I was 22. More punk rock for sure. Taking a stand against the Man right up to the end. But now I’m not so sure. Both explanations (fame and/or drugs) seem pretty lame to me now. As the character Nate said in the season finale of “Six Feet Under,” people have to die to make life seem more important. Well, so what do we do with that?

Cheap Trick at the Double Door: We’re All Alright

Cheap Trick at the Double Door, Chicago

By Phil Wise

In the past year I’ve seen the two groups most associated with power pop. One developed the archetype in the 60s with songs like “Can’t Explain” and “Glow Girl” and the other perfected it in the 70s with “Surrender” and “The Dream Police.” Now, I saw both of these groups well after what would be considered their prime, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they were still viable performing an art form so tied to youth in their 50s and 60s. Is power pop only the domain of the young?

Cheap Trick played an unannounced, invitation-only show last night at the Double Door in Chicago to a crowd of around 300. I, along with GLONO founder Jake Brown, was on that guest list and we made our way to Wicker Park expecting rehashed old tunes from the 70s from face-lifted has-beens in their 50s. Perhaps a spotting of the nefarious Real World cast would inject a bit of youth into this most perplexing of oldies tours.

But what we found was a group at its best; rocking and sweating, not to the oldies, but to an entire set of new material, fresh with power chords and youthful lyrics that would make Dave Grohl cry.

Cheap Trick took the stage at 8:30 sharp and rocked for over two hours, showcasing new material that would officially debut in their upcoming tour. Despite the fact that drummer Bun E. Carlos was enjoying his first show back with the band after back surgery, the group pushed comfortably through a set of original material that spanned a range of sounds from their proto-punk beginnings to their sappy “Flame” sound of the mid-80s. To see a 50-something Rick Nielsen hopping around and slashing out riffs like a 19-year old Rivers Cuomo was truly inspiring. The energy and enthusiasm was apparent in ¾ of the band, if not in lead singer Robin Zander himself, who seemed a bit nervous at times struggling with lyrics he hasn’t yet memorized and looking eerily like Kurt Cobain.

Cheap Trick perfected the sound that has stood as the blue print to current pretenders like Blink 182, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World and Foo Fighters. And tonight they reclaimed their rights to Raise Hell in a sweaty club on a Monday night like thousands of bands mimicking their sound across the country.

Marshall Crenshaw: Before the Whole Thing Crumbles to the Ground

Marshall Crenshaw at The Ark, 15 August:

Before the Whole Thing Crumbles to the Ground

“Thank God there are some people here.”

With those words, Marshall Crenshaw sat down on a stool with an acoustic guitar on the stage of The Ark. There were, oh, maybe 200 people there, many of whom paid $17.50 to hear a man whose career should have been made solely on the basis of “Cynical Girl.” But consider the number of people on-site. Consider the fact that Crenshaw was essentially playing to a home-town crowd (his mom and dad were in the audience: “My mom and dad are here tonight,” he announced during his encore [“A standing-O at The Ark. . . I’ll have to add that to my list of. . .accomplishments.”], adding, “I guess I wouldn’t be here tonight if it wasn’t for them”). Consider “Someday, Someway.” Consider “Little Wild One (No.5)” (“I recorded the demo for that in a basement in Ann Arbor.”). Consider that he stated that his forthcoming live disc, “I’ve Suffered for My Art. . .Now It’s Your Turn,” is being handled by Borders, which is headquartered a couple blocks away from The Ark, and based on the applause that the Borders reference generated, it was clear that a not-insignificant portion of the crowd probably didn’t pony up the full price of a ticket.

“Thank God there are some people here”?!?!?

If there is any indication that musical success is a matter of marketing, then the fact that a man who has been working it on vinyl since 1981 and who has crafted some of the best pop, period, is playing to that size crowd nails it. (I saw Crenshaw perform once before, in a bar in Royal Oak, in the early ’70s—and the crowd was about the same, but we were there for the drinks; the entertainment was secondary for our reason for being there, but it became a hell of a lot more memorable than the Stroh’s.)

Like probably many of you, I’ve had this sense that if a musician “makes it,” as in becoming exceedingly popular, that musician has somehow become less—sold out, or something. Which is probably asinine and is certainly elitist. Even cynical. But the only way that I can justify the lack of appreciation for Crenshaw is to cop to the notion that the taste of the masses is a mess.

The man was produced by people including Steve Lillywhite and T-Bone Burnett. He had the wit to put out a single, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” accompanied by The Handsome, Ruthless & Stupid Band—he played all of the instruments. He included in his set at The Ark rockabilly curios “The Girl on Death Row” and “Endless Sleep,” both from ’59. Talking about writing “He’s a Dime a Dozen Guy,” he cracked that he had heard “Livin’ La Vita Loca” while driving and then “followed a rule of songwriters,” “When in doubt, steal from Desmond Child.” A rule of songwriters with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

The guy is far too clever for his own good.

II

Fame Is A Whore; She’s Nobody’s Mistress

In retrospect, the foregoing is wrong. Crenshaw is not too clever for his own good. He is simply clever.

Do I—or anyone else—want to go see a performer who is standing on a stage in a big auditorium such that he or she appears to be about the size of a Coke bottle, or do I want to be in a place where I grab a seat and actually see the guy?

Does Crenshaw, or any other musician, want to play in a mammoth hall with the acoustical properties of a cave?

It is unfortunate that I have fallen into the trap of believing that success for performers equates to mass popularity—if the person isn’t on the radio ad nauseum, if his or her mug isn’t on the cover of Rolling Stone or People or whatever, if the recording isn’t touted in the Best Buy supplement, then that person hasn’t arrived. Which is nonsense.

After writing the first half of this piece, I did some checking on Crenshaw’s career. He has bookings running over the next several months. Not stadia, but various clubs in the U.S. and even in Japan.

Presumably, Crenshaw is working as much as he needs to be working. He is clearly concentrating on his music (over the years, his recordings have gotten better without losing the freshness that is quintessential to his sound). He is not, evidently, worried about the trappings that are now associated with “Rock Stardom.” (Oddly enough, the start of the whole rock stardom phenomenon can be associated with the Beatles, and Crenshaw actually played as Lennon in “Beatlemania” for a couple of years before actually forming a band. Crenshaw quit what was probably a pretty lucrative, certain gig to take a flyer at his own music.)

As I think about what he is up to, I think about what goes on at this site. So at the risk of coming off as self-serving (and trust me, I am not talking about me but about the others who make this all possible and who keep me honest with their work), let me use GloNo as an example. Although it is proclaimed in the box on the upper left-hand corner of this page “If we were professionals we wouldn’t be here,” it seems to me that the level of thought and writing on this page tends to be of a quality that far surpasses what would be acceptable for so-called “professional” musical/cultural analysis. The mainstream wouldn’t accept it.

Don’t be misled. There is no correlation between popularity and what’s necessarily good. Sometimes it happens (arguably the Beatles are an example). More often than not that’s not the case. Focus on the performance, the words, the quality of the work. At the end, that’s all that matters.

A very funny article about Mariah Carey…

A very funny article about Mariah Carey…

The fine folks over at Whatever-Dude have posted an insightful critique of Mariah Carey’s career, boobs and personality titled, Mariah’s Theme: An Unholy Shriek of Death. Check it out.

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Rock and roll can change your life.