PRINT September 2002



IT’S A GREAT AMERICAN STORY, late-capitalist style. Scruffy heartland band (Wilco) makes its best record (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) amid internal strife and shakeouts (two members fired); submits master tapes to its record label (Reprise, a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner); receives deafening silence (two weeks without any response), followed by demands for changes (due to “lack of commercial potential”). Then, when bandleader (Jeff Tweedy) refuses to rerecord the songs, label exec (David Kahne, then acting head of Reprise) unceremoniously shows band the back door. Band leaves label with unusual perks of canceled debts and ownership of master tapes, is courted vigorously by other labels, and finally signs with Nonesuch (another subsidiary of AOL Time Warner), who release the record in April 2002 and watch it debut on the Billboard album chart at number thirteen, the band’s strongest commercial showing by far. It is a saga, as Jay Farrar, Tweedy’s former bandmate in pioneers Uncle Tupelo, once sang, “of people chasing money” (Reprise’s new guard of bean-counting execs fixated on disposable hit singles) “and money getting away” (Wilco is poised to increase sales with each album over the course of a long career—not to mention the delicious fact that AOL Time Warner paid for the same record twice).

This is the tale that photographer Sam Jones serendipitously caught while shooting his recently released Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Aside from the requisite “deep” sequences of the band walking meaningfully along the lake in Chicago, Jones’s black-and-white film does a nice unpretentious job of capturing nice unpretentious guys making an extraordinary record under circumstances that have become, in today’s music business, all too ordinary. The film opens in early 2001, just after the axing of longtime drummer Ken Coomer, and finds the band recording YHF tracks at its loft studio in Chicago. Beyond affording Wilco obsessives an intimate look at the band’s creative process, these scenes are nesting porn for bedsit musicians, depicting an ideal musical workspace with vintage guitars lining the walls, retro keyboards stacked on the floor, no timesheets logging billable studio hours, and best of all, no A&R reps hovering over the mixing board.

We then follow Tweedy on a solo acoustic tour, witness a Wilco sound check, and return to Chicago for the final mixdown of YHF, where simmering tensions flare between Tweedy and co-songwriter/producer Jay Bennett, who as resident techie is in charge of mixing the record. A dreadlocked teddy bear with an unctuous manner, Bennett is shown engaging in an epically passive aggressive argument with Tweedy over the intro of a YHF song. Laconic and stone-faced, Tweedy responds to this communication breakdown by going to the bathroom, where, on camera, he vomits Diet Coke and explains that frequent migraines have plagued him since childhood. Meanwhile, on the sound track, a solo recording of Tweedy singing the grim folk standard “Sugar Baby” plays, its refrain of “Said all I can say / Done all I can do / And I can’t make a living with you” mocking Bennett’s imminent departure from the band.

Jones and his film crew already had more than they had bargained for with this soap opera, but they were also on hand for the band’s standoff with Reprise, having arrived to do an interview with Wilco’s manager only to catch the fateful phone call that would ultimately lead to the termination of the band’s contract. Surprisingly, the ensuing brouhaha is given relatively little play in the film, a directorial decision Jones chalks up to his desire to “make a good film that’s entertaining, not some serious music industry diatribe.” But while the film will undoubtedly be entertaining for Wilco fans, its workmanlike nature is unlikely to convert newcomers. Coincidentally, I had felt this way about Wilco’s earlier albums, which, while indisputably solid, struck me as alternative-rock Tom Petty.

Fortunately for Jones’s film and the band itself, YHF is anything but workmanlike. Though its songs are troubled by noise, found sounds, and offbeat arrangements (if you know Tom Waits’s corpus, the transition from A.M. to YHF is analogous to that from Closing Time to Bone Machine), YHF boasts the most memorable melodies of the band’s career. It also contains many chilling, uncanny 9/11 resonances, beginning with the fact that Reprise’s scheduled release date for the record was September 11, 2001. From its cover image of twin towers to lyrics like “I would like to salute / the ashes of American flags”; “tall buildings shake / voices escape singing sad sad songs”; and, from the song “War on War,” “moving forward through flaming doors / you have to lose / you have to learn how to die / if you wanna be alive”; YHF captures the mood of post-9/11 America in ways Tweedy couldn’t have foreseen when first hatching these songs in 1999.

A testament to Tweedy’s well-known radio fixation, the title Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (and the sample of an ambiguously accented woman intoning its three words during the coda of “Poor Places”) was lifted, uncredited, from The Conet Project, four CDs of eerie recordings of shortwave “numbers stations that broadcast coded messages to intelligence agents in NATO’s phonetic alphabet. These recordings have an unmistakable cold war vibe (they date back to the ’70s), so it’s poetically appropriate, during our similarly indefinable, paranoid, and possibly endless “war on terrorism,” that YHF takes its name from them. To this day, numbers stations transmit encrypted commands to undercover operatives. With any luck, YHF will serve a similar function for younger bands, junior A&R reps at major labels, and disgruntled music fans around the world—telling those who can decode the message to salute the ashes of American corporate earnings reports and start rebuilding from the ground up.

Andrew Hultkrans is editor in chief of Bookforum.