Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reading Rainbow: Wilco: Learning How To Die by Greg Kot

Obviously one is probably going to be a Wilco fan if he or she is going to dive into this book.  As one who could be qualified as such, the book is pretty damn pleasing. 

For those of you whom the author's name does not ring a bell, Greg Kot is the co-host of music talk show, Sound Opinions, and the music critic at the Chicago Tribune.  If you are familiar with his work, then you would not be shocked to find that Wilco: Learning How To Die is a thoughtful look at Wilco as one of the bands that sprang forth from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo to become one of the most critically acclaimed rock bands of this past decade.

Learning How To Die essentially begins with Jeff Tweedy's childhood quickly getting into his work with Jay Farrar, first in The Primatives which eventually became Uncle Tupelo.  It is interesting to see the portrait painted of the unsure young Jeff Tweedy, and the elucidation of the dynamic between Tweedy and Farrar helps to frame the earlier Wilco releases, especially A.M.

From there, Kot works through the demise of Uncle Tupelo and through the early years of Wilco, showing Tweedy in many shades, not all of them flattering.  Flattering or not, though, Tweedy the Figure is a compelling one, and this makes for an interesting character study of sorts.  

Now most Wilco fans have seen the Sam Jones documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and as such already have a pretty strong working knowledge as to what went into the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, one could reasonably make the leap and assume that the last 50 or 60 pages of the book would be re-covering familiar ground.  Fortunately, Learning How To Die actually brings a little clarity to what had been a somewhat surprising and glossed over departure of a key figure in Wilco's rise, Jay Bennett.  In the film, Bennett is suddenly at odds with Jeff Tweedy in the mixing stages, and then he's out of the band.  Kot's painstaking work shows that Bennett had kind of been losing it in the studio, and that much of what Jim O'Rourke has been accused of doing by Wilco alt-country purists was actually off base.  Bennett had been layering track upon track upon track of material in the studio, and O'Rourke helped Tweedy strip down Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to its bare essentials.  The rest of the band's relief at Bennett's dismissal is also driven home. 

Wilco: Learning How To Die is a very quick read, and one that any serious Wilco fan should read, as Kot works in more than his fair share of music criticism, which is obviously his bread and butter.  His countless hours of interviewing and seemingly boundless access to the band make for an absurdly candid look at the band, warts and all.

(Weird video with a ludicrous intro/segue to follow)


Big Hatt said...

Definitely gonna read this. I own I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and have always wanted a little more reliable intel on the Bennett departure. It was obvious there was a lot we weren't seeing in the movie.

I've heard some borderline revolting things about Tweedy from the early years, and it certainly seems like Farrar got screwed a little. It's possible Tweedy is a real slimer. But I loves me some Wilco, so I've been forced to ignore that for the most part.

My favorite album: Being There.

Old Man Duggan said...

I think you'll find Farrar didn't get screwed in the least. Great book.

I'm a YHF man.

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