Music Features

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 11 Years On

Below is my introductory chapter for a book proposal I submitted to Continuum's 33 1/3 Classic Album series.  Naturally it was roundly rejected, but even though it may lack some polish I think it had some decent ideas that are worth throwing out onto the internets for consideration.   

. . .

A man bends over a toilet bowl, retching.  We watch him from above, shameless voyeurs gawking at a moment most would rather keep private.  The man, a musician, has just been having an exceedingly frustrating argument with a fellow band member over the details of a tape edit and he seems to have made it to the stall without a second to spare, a cameraman following hot on his heels. He wipes his mouth and, in a revealing gesture of courtesy, rolls up some toilet paper and carefully cleans the seat.  "When I was a kid I used to throw up twenty times and get dehydrated and have to go in the hospital," he tells us, revealing that the stress of the fight has triggered a chronic problem.  In fact, the man has suffered his entire life from frequent migraines and mood disorders that would eventually land him in the hospital.  The snippet of sound under dispute is a swirling, dissonant vortex of strings and voices, and it feels like a short leap to interpret it as an outward manifestation of his own pain and anxiety.  That's where much of the music he was making would start, but not where it would end.

The man puking up his guts is Jeff Tweedy, his band is Wilco, and the movie is "I am Trying to Break Your Heart," a chronicle of the making of their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  In one of those strange synchronicities that sometimes happen in pop music, director Sam Jones was present on the first day of tracking for the record in Wilco's Chicago loft, there to document what was to become the most glaring conflict between art and commerce in recent rock history.   Because of the film, which was well received, and subsequent interviews with Tweedy and other band members, the details of this conflict are well documented and well known.  In 2001, after much painstaking writing, recording, re-recording, overdubbing and mixing, Wilco handed the record to label honchos at Reprise Records, a division of entertainment behemoth AOL Time Warner, who quickly pronounced it unfit for consumption by unsuspecting, god-fearing American citizens, and refused to release it.  This being the best music the band had set to tape and encoded in ones and zeroes, Tweedy et al were quite perplexed but undeterred.  They steadfastly refused to make any changes and offered to buy the album from the label (yes kids, that’s really the way it works) in order to shop it around to another label for release.  There followed a bizarre series of business decisions that still defy adequate explanation.  Rather than accept any payment for the product Wilco produced but they financed and owned, Reprise proposed a counter offer: take the record for free and let some other label make a few bucks off of it.  Finding this to be a better deal than shelling out the fifty grand they had originally suggested, the band agreed and took the album to market.  The lucky winner of the bidding battle that ensued turned out to be Nonesuch Records, a small subsidiary of a giant entertainment behemoth called - you guessed it - AOL Time Warner. 

If you didn't already know you could probably predict the rest.  As if it were a tale written by some Hollywood hack, Wilco then goes on to release YHF to nearly universal acclaim, moves almost as many units as all their previous records combined, and become heroes to fans of independent music or alternative rock or whatever it is they are calling that genre of music that doesn't sell very well and that most people, if they'd been exposed to it all (which they probably hadn't) would dismiss with a simple characterization like, "it's depressing."  This is grandly ironic because this story, which has all the mythological appeal of the contest between David and Goliath (and don't forget, the Bible sold like gangbusters) is almost certainly destined to be known to a relatively small, insular cross section of the public at large; I call it Indieworld.  It’s defined as that minority of the music-consuming public that considers itself discerning, reads record reviews, hypes new bands, and shakes its head in disbelief at the blissful ignorance of everyone else who has never heard of Animal Collective.  What the inhabitants of Indieworld often forget is that this is not 1967, and grand artistic statements in pop music are no longer the common cultural currency of ordinary people.  The mainstream is as cluttered with detritus as it has ever been, and the pace of modern media is so lightning fast that few can stop to catch their breath much less make a real emotional investment.  In short, nobody cares.

So why bother writing this book?  For one thing, there's much, much more to this story beyond the contractual maneuvers of artists and record companies.  Great pop can just be fun and exciting, but great art must go further.  Ideally it should speak to some deep truth, or resonate with emotions and feelings we all share.  Sometimes art can reflect what it feels like to live in a certain place at a certain time, like how The Waste Land bridged the divide between the old regime and the western world now in tatters after World War I, or how Gravity's Rainbow locked into the paranoia modern man felt dominated by institutions he couldn't see or comprehend.  This capacity is not limited to great literature.  Think of Edvard Munch's The Scream, or Mahler's 9th Symphony, both of which seem to look with dread upon the chaotic century to come.  Perhaps times of great change provide a fertile ground out of which these powerful works spring, or maybe we make the connections ourselves, trying to make sense out of what has moved us so mysteriously.  Either way, Mahler's 9th is no longer just the composer's farewell to life.  In his 1973 Harvard Lectures, Leonard Bernstein elaborated on how the symphony's final movement foresaw the death of millions: “Ours is the century of death, and Mahler is its musical prophet.”

The art that really endures tends to expand outward from the personal to the universal.  In pop music, one need only think of the Beatles early hit I Want to Hold Your Hand.  Even today, a young adolescent first encountering this song might be thrilled at the excitement of the performance and the simple, earnest declaration of the lyric.  Then later, as she learns about the extraordinary social, political, and cultural changes that took place in the early sixties, she can see how the odd chord change from D to E minor to B minor represented a world of widening possibility, and how the falsetto cry on the word “hand” signaled a new freedom that everyone was supposed to share, not just white guys with crewcuts.   Not that a young Lennon or McCartney thought about any of this, sitting “eyeball to eyeball” at the piano in Jane Asher’s music room.   And in a similar way, Tweedy and co-writer Jay Bennett most likely translated their own personal struggles into the tortured music on YHF, but that music then took on a life of its own, becoming a miniature portrait of its own time.


Chalk it up to Millenarianism, but maybe it was inevitable that the period around the year 2001 would be transformative, or at least some kind of hinge upon which history would swing.  Economic activity in the US during the 1990s, spurred on by dot com fever, hummed along at a healthy pace, modest by post-war historical standards, but powerful as an engine for creating service sector jobs.  The pace of job creation was so strong that the increasing demand for labor actually led to a rising standard of living across all income levels, a rare occurrence after 1970.  When the bubble popped in March of 2000, that engine ran out of gas.  Astute observers who had watched a Reagan boom and bust, then an internet boom and bust, realized something ominous that would sink in with ordinary Americans only a decade later - that the US economy now seemed to be dependent on bubbles and credit to support consumption, and without major investment in manufacturing, buying things had been elevated to the status of patriotic duty.

The Web, of course, was a catalyst for much more than just economic growth.  As bandwith expanded year after year it eventually became possible for people to exchange large amounts of data online.  At the same time, use of the mp3 format to encode digital music became widespread.  This algorithm allowed large music files to be compressed to a size small enough to be shared conveniently among people with reasonably fast Internet connection speeds.   In 1999, taking advantage of this confluence of events, Shawn Fanning, John Fanning, and Sean Parker founded Napster, a peer to peer file sharing service that rapidly became a platform for the mass exchange of music files.  Record companies got a quick glimpse of their dismal future and pounced; Napster was shut down by the courts in 2001, but the genie was out of the bottle.   Sales of CDs peaked in 2000 and have plummeted ever since, largely due to rampant file sharing. 

This trend was part of a larger information explosion that came with the spread of the Internet.  It’s hard to fathom all the benefits that have been reaped by scientists, researchers and journalists having instant access to the most up to date information in their respective fields.  But for the layperson, the past twenty years have brought a constant onslaught on the brain’s natural ability to filter out useless data in order to prevent what Alvin Toffler called “Information Overload," where the individual experiences difficulty understanding issues and making decisions in the presence of too much information.  This has given rise to a kind of mass schizophrenia, where huge swaths of people can no longer agree on the same set of facts as a picture of reality, instead clinging on to misinformation long after it has been discredited.  (The idea that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks is a prime example.)    In the United States this has led to increased political polarization and a fragmenting of shared cultural experiences. 

Yet while technology was shifting allegiances, redistributing wealth, and transforming the modes of communication in western economies, the rest of the world was still adjusting to what George Bush the First labeled the “new world order."  The collapse of the Soviet Union created a huge power vacuum in key strategic regions around the world, as if one side of a vigorous tug of war had suddenly let go of the rope.  The Middle East and Central Asia were some of the most profoundly affected areas, since the local power centers had been mainly puppets of the Great Powers for two centuries, and had more recently become entangled in a battle over control of strategic oil reserves between the US and Russia.  This culminated in the Soviets' disastrous intervention in Afghanistan which had the dual impact of precipitating their fall as well as, with copious American assistance, spawning a movement of radicalized jihadists vowing to fight the invading infidels to the death - a movement which soon coalesced and took the name Al Qaeda. 


In one way or another, all of these historical shifts and more are encompassed by YHF.  This story, the story of this book, is how a rock record can swallow up and, at least in the imagination, even give birth to the world that called it into existence.  It is the paradox of prophecy that it seems to warn us of approaching danger while simultaneously making its arrival inevitable.  And so it was that in the summer of 2001, when Wilco finally completed work on the album and sent it to Reprise for what they assumed would be their enthusiastic support and promotion, they optimistically set the release date for a Tuesday in the fall.  Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would begin its public life on September 11.