Knowing What It’s Like: Why Jeff Tweedy’s “Warm” Made Me Cry

jeff tweedy_warm

WARM. Credit: dBpm Records

This isn’t an album review. This a story about a person who was curled up on a couch, severely sleep-deprived, full of anxiety about life and death, listening to Jeff Tweedy’s Warm for the first time.

I’ve written about Wilco before. About how their music and Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics are one of the few things in the world that makes me feel tethered to it, not alien. About how one of their songs, lyrics I have tattooed on my body, saved my life in a not-quite-metaphorical way.

It sounds odd to say, but I forgot that I’m probably always going to be a little bit in need of saving until I started listening to Warm.

Warm is mostly a quiet record, more folk heavy than rock, with songs built around the acoustic guitar. And it’s easy to listen to, until it punches you in the gut.

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How Would I Know That This Could Be My Fate

Trigger warning: I talk about suicide in this. And to anyone reading this who knows me and thinks they should worry about me — I’m fine. Really. 

From the Euphoria Morning album artwork. 1999.

I was sad when I heard that David Bowie died. I felt blind-sided when Prince died. It just is sad when people who make music and art that reaches a lot of people die, because collectively we lose something that made existence better.

Thursday, when I heard that Chris Cornell died I felt my stomach drop, but when I found out that it was a suicide, something inside of me broke.

Obviously I didn’t know Cornell. I have no idea what he was like as a person. But I’ve loved his music since I was young. Superunknown and Down on the Upside are two of the most formidable albums for my emotional development, and I continued to follow Cornell’s career, even through Audioslave. I was listening to Euphoria Morning just last week (I still had it on cassette).

But this isn’t about his musical impact. It’s about what I got out of his words.

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A Love Letter to Wilco

Last Sunday, I was sitting in DAR Constitution Hall waiting for Wilco to come on stage.

I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Wilco perform. But this was the first time I saw them play “Sunken Treasure.” Or at least, it was the first time since last spring when I lapsed into a funk so deep that the only music I could stand to listen to for a solid month was Being There. For a while, I could only listen to the first disk, but then for a time I could only listen to “Sunken Treasure” on repeat.

But there is no sunken treasure
Rumored to be
Wrapped inside my ribs
In a sea black with ink

I don’t know if this kind of thing happens to other people. I don’t know what other people mean when they say they feel alone.

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If I Had Someone Else’s Voice

Music is an extraordinarily important part of my life. I’ve never been good at creating music myself, but I need it around me all the time and I’ve always been drawn to musical people. I have dance parties to bad ’80s songs in my kitchen. I like going on road trips by myself, because I turn them into massive sing-a-longs. I associate certain songs with certain people, and I like being able to connect to people through shared musical taste.

But it’s more than that.

I realized something recently about my relationship to music, and I wondered if it held true for other people. Then I read this quote from Frank Ocean: “When you’re happy, you enjoy the music, but when you’re sad, you understand the lyrics.”

And that’s exactly it. I usually connect most strongly to music, and particularly to lyrics, when I’m struggling.

Case in point:

Good News for People Who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse was released on April 6, 2004.

A Ghost is Born by Wilco was released on June 22, 2004.

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes was released on January 24, 2005.

I feel like if you listen to these three albums, you’ll know who I am. And you’ll probably know me better than you would from years of conversation or spending any amount of time with me. I’m in “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now.” I’m in “Hummingbird.” I’m in “World at Large.”

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Inside Your Showroom Doors

I had the unfortunate occurrence of seeing Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” video while at the gym the other day. I’d post a clip of it, but I can’t bring myself to.

The chorus of this “song” is as follows:
“Come here, rude boy, boy, can you get it up?
Come here, rude boy, boy, is you big enough?
Take it, take it, baby, baby, take it, take it, love me, love me”

It gets more blatant.

Now, I have no problem with vulgarity, that’s not my issue with this lyrical atrocity. My problem is that it’s just not interesting. It doesn’t challenge the listener. It doesn’t evoke any type of feeling, except maybe for the delusional souls who think they have a chance at sleeping with Rihanna. Not to mention it’s not musically redeeming, either.

Now, I’m not saying that any of the songs I am going to mention are wonderful examples of brilliant songwriting,[1] but I’m just saying that at least there is some attempt at metaphor. Not to mention melody.

“You got the peaches I got the cream
Sweet to taste saccharine”
~ “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard

“Rubbin’ sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite”
~ “Afternoon Delight” by Starland Vocal Band

And, in the slightly more subtle department:

“If she’s put together fine
And she’s readin’ my mind
I can’t stop, I can’t stop myself
Lightning is striking again”
~ “Lightning Strikes” by Lou Christie

Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” is possibly the most innuendo laden song I’ve ever heard:

“I want to be your sledgehammer
Why don’t you call my name
Oh let me be your sledgehammer
This will be my testimony
Show me round your fruitcage
Cause I will be your honey bee
Open up your fruitcage
Where the fruit is as sweet as can be”

And then, there’s Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin’s entire discography is about sex. Really, if it’s not about LOTR,[2] it’s about sex. Here’s the tip of the iceberg in “Trampled Underfoot”:

“Trouble-free transmission, helps your oil’s flow
Mama, let me pump your gas, mama, let me do it all

Dig that heavy metal, underneath your hood
Baby, I could work all night, believe I’ve got the perfect tools”[3]

On second thought, maybe bad metaphor isn’t really any better than no metaphor.

[1]Peter Gabriel being the obvious exception.
[2]That’s Lord of the Rings, for you unenlightened folks.
[3]Also, the song from which this entry title comes.

Hope I Die Before I Get Old

I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth…

Let me first of all say that I love The Who. I think they are one of the greatest rock bands of all time. No one, absolutely no one, sounds like The Who. They are on my mind recently because they are playing in the Superbowl Halftime Show this year, despite the fact that their rhythm section is dead.

When Keith Moon died in 1978 the band continued for a few years, but it wasn’t the same. Partial reunions have taken place since then, and they released another studio album a few years ago after John Entwistle’s death in 2003, but they’re really just Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey now.

I know that when Pete Townshend left The Who in the early 80s, he told the remaining members that they could continue on with The Who name. Part of me thinks that is very noble and the right thing to do.

But, part of me thinks it’d be like Paul and Ringo performing under “The Beatles” name.

I guess the difference is that John and George both died after The Beatles broke up.

Whether you like their music or not, one of the things I admire about the remaining members of Led Zeppelin, is that when John Bonham died, they stopped: “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” They’ve done a few reunion shows since then, but nothing significant, because it’s not the same.

I know that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter. I know that it’s none of my business. If the living members of The Who are okay with it, then they are the only ones whose opinion matters. I guess I just don’t want people to forget Keith Moon and John Entwistle. I don’t want my generation to think that the men performing at halftime show fully embody one of the most powerful and creative rock bands of all time.