"A judge in that hotbed of liberal godlessness, Arkansas, recently decided that atheists have just as much right to publicly discuss their ideas as theists. Isn’t that nice? So of course the local newspapers have to put up a poll to find out how unhappy that makes their subscribers."
“Misunderstood” – Wilco (Words/music: Jeff Tweedy and Peter Laughner, available on Being There, Reprise 1996)
When we start to frame this decade in music, particularly after we have some distance from it, Wilco’s narrative will be one that will represent the decade in many ways. At the turn of the century, Wilco was a quirky band caught between the “power pop” and “alt-country” genre sections at the local record store. By the end of the decade, the record store is on its last legs and Wilco stands as widely respected, alternative “powerhouse” teetering on the mainstream. In the years between, Wilco was the underdog screwed over by major label restructuring, the phoenix reborn as a mix of experimentalism and traditionalism, a band struck with personal and interpersonal strife, and a growing reputation as a live juggernaut. While it’s a bit of a generalization, Jeff Tweedy went from virtual obscurity to cult worship to voice of the indie establishment. This, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg, as Wilco lends itself to a discussion of the changing technology in the music industry (form streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot without a label contract to all of the bonus materials offered with each record and DVD), the gentrification of indie rock, and the formation of a new blueprint for success outside of the mainstream.
All of this to say that the past decade will ultimately be known as the decade that Wilco got weird and got popular. Like most thumbnail sketches, it’s reductionist logic, but in this case it’s neglecting a significant part of the band’s catalog. Wilco’s “weirdness,” for lack of a better word, goes through 1999’s subtly dark Summerteeth and (at least) back to “Misunderstood.” On Being There, an album that generally stays close to its country and blues-rock roots, “Misunderstood” provides a strange introduction. The guitars sound watery at times, gnarled at other points, and fuzzed out when neither of those descriptors fit. Amidst this haze of guitar, Jeff Tweedy sits at the center of it. With all the chaos around him, Tweedy alternates between G and D chords, quotes an obscure Midwestern punk band, and tosses off lyrics of suburban frustration, paranoia, and existential angst. Five years later, Tweedy would be lauded for an album full of weird sounds, tales of broken communication, and a darkly melodic streak. However, in 1996, “Misunderstood” was the first harbinger, both of Tweedy’s potential as songwriter and of the internal demons that nearly silenced his pen. In 2009, after their most straightforward record since, well, Being There, it’s easy to peg Tweedy and his band as complacent, but hearing the way Tweedy still barks out the final line in “Misunderstood,” especially when he hangs on “nothing” like a broken record, that the same creative mind that brought the spotlight in the early part of the decade was always there. If nothing else, tracing Wilco’s past only suggests that many turns remain in their path before Tweedy becomes entirely understood. I’m excited to see what story he writes this decade.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank GOD! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
From FB: If you go to this web site, www.LetsSayThanks.com you can pick out a thank you card and Xerox will print it and it will be sent to a soldier that is currently serving overseas. You can’t pick out who gets it, but it will go to a member of the armed services.
It’s free and only takes a few seconds. If you give nothing else this Holiday season, give your support. Please share.
“Humanists don’t deny the significance of God, but rather consider God to be the most influential literary character ever created.”—June Sawyers, Booklist review of book Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe