Thursday, October 9, 2008

kick-ass songs of the '90s: wilco, "misunderstood" (the '90s, pt. 3)

For a while, Wilco was my favorite band.

REM had held that position from 1983 on, but 1998's Up, the first in a series of snoozefests, left them vulnerable. In '99, Wilco released Summerteeth, their third long-player. Wilco's first two albums were terrific, especially 1996's double-disc Being There. But Summerteeth not only represented continued growth and exploration from an already-stellar band, there was something about the way Jeff Tweedy was expressing his own struggles with identity and adulthood that resonated deeply with me. "A Shot in the Arm"'s refrains of "something in my veins / bloodier than blood" and "what you once were isn't what you wanna be / anymore" hit me right where I was living.

It was a symbolic moment of the first order when later in '99, I saw Wilco open for REM at northern Ohio's Blossom Amphitheater, a coincidental passing of the "Miles' favorite band" laurels. As if that wasn't enough, during Wilco's set, the band brought out a birthday cupcake for Jeff Tweedy, and someone onstage - Jay Bennett, John Stirratt? - said it was his 32nd, which meant that he was a fellow 1967 baby. Yup, me, Tweedy, and Kurt Cobain - bumper crop, eh?

Not that sharing the same year of birth ensures fellowship; if it did, school would have been a lot easier. But knowing this small fact about Mr. Tweedy made me feel like it wasn't coincidence that Jeff was feeling the same things at the same time I was feeling them, or, from what I could tell from interviews and the music itself, that he seemed to have a lot of the same experiences and perspectives as me.

Even though Summerteeth was and is my pick of the Wilco litter, I'm reaching back to Being There for the song that belongs in the "kick-ass songs of the '90s" series: "Misunderstood."

The leadoff track of Being There, "Misunderstood" begins with 45 seconds of instrumental mayhem: Nashville's Own Ken Coomer driving the drumkit forward as an ominous undertow of guitar feedback emanates from Tweedy and multi-instrumentalists Jay Bennett and Max Johnston.

Then, almost abruptly, it's piano, acoustic guitar, and Jeff Tweedy's voice, solemn, wistful:

When you're back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you're so misunderstood

You're so misunderstood

A lot of Being There is about being a music fan, and/or maybe a musician (later on the album, "The Lonely 1" captures the fan/musician relationship in exacting, heartwrenching beauty). It's hard to tell what's going on lyrically sometimes, as Tweedy cagily shifts perspectives, not just from song to song, but within an individual song. "Misunderstood" is no exception:

It's only a quarter to three
Reflecting off of your CD

You're looking at a picture of me
You're staring at a picture of me

Is the "you" a fan of Tweedy's? An old friend or lover? Is Tweedy narrating this song, or a character? Like a lot of my favorite music and art, the ambiguity forces the listener to do some interpretation of their own, which also results in the listener investing in the song in a way that wholly straightforward narration can't match.

After Tweedy quotes some telling Peter Laughner lines ("take the guitar player for a ride / 'cos he ain't never been satisfied"), the feedback, which has been bubbling under the acoustic interlude all along, surges front and center, threatening to tear the song apart. But after a few seconds, it recedes, leaving Tweedy' plaintive voice once again exposed:

There's a fortune inside your head
When all you touch turns to lead

You think you might just crawl back in bed

With the fortune inside your head

I know you're just a mama's boy
You're positively unemployed

So misunderstood

So misunderstood

As that last "misunderstood" slips out, now the song cashes in the tension that's been building for over four minutes: Coomer's drums roll and cymbals crash, the electric guitar trio reconvenes, and as the crescendo mounts, Tweedy has to shout to be heard:

I know you've got a god-shaped hole
You're bleeding out your heart full of soul

And then the third-person narration turns into something crueler and uglier, a messy explosion that's equal parts anger at the world and self-loathing. And guess what? It's not third-person any more, no sirree.

I'd like to thank you all for nothing
I'd like to thank you all for nothing at all

I'd like to thank you all for nothing

And then the whole band hits each of the next words in unison, drums and vocals and guitar and god knows what else all punching together, each "nothing" a sledgehammer blow, pulverizing everyone and everything in their path:

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all
Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all

And then there's nothing at all, or nearly so: nothing but ruins anyway, shards of feedback falling to the floor, as the wounded basic riff of the song somehow still is ticking along somewhere in the wreckage.

Wilco's live performances of this song were often exercises in confrontation between artist and audience. The raucous feedback and Tweedy looking dead at the audience, screaming "I'd like to thank you all for nothing!" - and often extending the number of "nothing!"s far beyond the studio version - created a palpable tension in the room, providing a direct challenge to an audience that seemingly was expecting something more convivial. And when the band performed in front of half-indifferent audiences, as was more common before their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot / I Am Trying To Break Your Heart canonization, those bracing "nothing! nothing! nothing! nothing at all!"s carried extra venom.

I wanted to link a YouTube performance of the Bennett / Johnston / Coomer lineup doing "Misunderstood," but all the ones I could find are from the more recent Nels Cline / Pat Sansome / Glenn Kotche era. While all three of the latter-day gentlemen are probably better musicians than the guys they replaced, I think Wilco was more ferocious and raw in its prior lineup.

Nevertheless, I'm linking a "Misunderstood" from a 2007 show, and it's a good performance which will get across some of what I'm talking about. (And the guy singing along at the beginning either shuts up or gets drowned out pretty quickly, never fear.) But to me, this is a shade too smooth and ornate, and, as my friend doug might opine, "needs more demons."

[edit as of 7/11/2009]
Just found this version of "Misunderstood" on YouTube, posted after Jay Bennett's death. While this version doesn't have the three-guitar gonzo finale that I remember from the '99-'02 shows, it's splendid, it's got the right lineup and it's far more what I was after. Hopefully it also illustrates some of the aforementioned differences between that Wilco and present-day Wilco.

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