(Several months ago Jeff Leven, whose byline you’ll recognize if you’re a Paste reader, and I were discussing music and that of young fandom. Leven told me a great story, from his college days in the ’90s, related to Wilco, the power of an album, meeting your idols…and the days of fax machines. With ‘Wilco (The Album’) now on shelves, Leven decided to share his tale here on AD. Enjoy)
The Fabulous Satellite Lounge in Houston, Texas scurried at the frayed edges of Austin’s shadow. Literally on the wrong side of the tracks on the deader side of downtown’s outermost sprawl, it was housed in what I was always told was an old bank building. Rockefeller’s – the upmarket showcase club next door – lived in relative opulence in what used to be the bank lobby, while the Satellite, was, unequivocally, what used to be the vault. Décor consisted of a few oil lights spiraling against the concrete, and the bar ate half of the ample floor space. If my teenage bedroom was the cauldron where my obsession with music was concocted, for a time the Satellite was one of my most consistent markets for new ingredients. In a town where the glint of new oil money had slapped fresh varnish across the face of the innumerable strip malls that sprung out of the prairie mile-by-mile across an astounding radius, the Satellite was soulfully dank, that slight bit lonesome and thrillingly almost urban. It wasn’t a scene per se – there was a mild teenage punk rock scrum at a few venues well up the street. The classic Townes n’ blues scene had all but died, only to occasionally revisit Rockefeller’s for $50 a ticket. The Geto Boys were about at their peak but well off my radar. Occasionally you’d catch Billy Gibbons buying floppies at the Compuserve near the Galleria. But most of the time you’d drive and drive through the humid wall of air blaring Rush’s “Subdivisions” on KLOL and wondering how a trio of Canadians had so well figured out a place where they undoubtedly had never spent more than a week. So when the Satellite stumbled into its mid 90s alt country booking jag, it was a slapdash stroke of small “d” destiny.
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As a kid learning to play a relative bad blues rock guitar, I always had a special affinity for the twangier edge of the hard rock and alternative scenes. The Black Crowes’ first two albums lead me into a space where I had at least a passing familiarity with the Jayhawks, and then a glancing few looks at Son Volt’s “Drown” video on MTV of all places got me to a show at the Satellite. It was 21 and up and I went with a group of about six 17 and 18 year old guys. We were mostly sliding by on the Satellite’s relaxed door policy until the four foot seven guy got to the door and called the whole scheme into question. After a bit of begging and pleading and loudly protesting the fact that half of us had already paid, we cut a deal whereby X’s on our hands and a promise to stay seated at the one and only booth in the room where they could keep an eye on us got us around both law and policy. At least until we walked in on Son Volt’s sound check only to get immediately kicked out by a surly Farrar. Our privileges were thankfully reinstated when the doors finally reopened and I spent the rest of the night nervously watching my friends try to rub off their X’s and slink to the bar while I looked at my watch and hoped Jay would get to “Tear-Stained Eye” before the bouncers caught wind of it all. On the tiny stage, Farrar’s lack of movement wasn’t as palpable as it would later be and with the allure of the nearly forbidden blending with the concrete heft of the room and the overwhelming ricochet of an over-amped PA it was actually damn near heart-skipping amazing. Enough so to commend the purchase of the issue of No Depression with the band on the cover and to launch me down the reedy road of alt country fandom.
By the time I got to college in Central Jersey a year later, the doors were blowing off the musical cloister geography and the dial-up modem had earlier conspired to contain me in. In the first months of college, I had fallen head over heels for the Replacements, whose scruffy majesty spoke to pretty much everything about the time of joy, freedom and fear that was college’s tripstep into early adulthood. My long preexisting thing for the Clash was finding weird echoes in the Waco Brothers, and the discovery of Stranger’s Almanac in WPRB’s throw-away bin lead me back to the Satellite the next summer break where Whiskeytown’s Ryan Adams (with Wandscher on board no less) utterly charmed a crowd of about eight people on a Wednesday night into a confused awe. My Stones taste had shifted from Hot Rocks to Exile, and I even found Faces records to convince me that Rod Stewart wasn’t always crappy light rock. All of this together lead me to buy the copy of Being There I had half-listened to when the invite from the guy in the dorm room next door came to trek into New York to catch them at Irving Plaza in February of 1997.
It was enthralling. Squeezing up into the front rows I just spun in the kinetic energy of Tweedy and Jay Bennett as they shoved and kicked each other while belting out guitar solos in every direction. They harrumphed through Jeff’s share of Anodyne and then jammed like lost Skynyrd refugees on a drawn out “Casino Queen.” They mentioned Dimetapp before saying something cool about the statute of liberty play and then the closed the night with a Motown cover. It was all flannel and Telecasters and classic rock guys playing a bastardized version of country and I was eating it up. Tweedy handed the backstage deli tray to the crowd and encouraged us to throw it at him. I nearly landed a cold cut between his eyes but for a quick duck and a flash of teasing eye contact. The music was great, but there was also a warmth to their presence, an easy humor, the joy of having made an accomplished album that they could now stretch three different ways without being too precious. There was showmanship – Farrar’s austerity replaced in Jeff’s life by the simple joy of a “Kingpin” singalong… “livin’ in…Hoboken!” I showed up slightly tipsy and came home all hopped on adrenaline, singing “Forget the Flowers” for most of the train ride home. With the Replacements defunct, Wilco had become my favorite living band.
Meanwhile, college was making it increasingly clear to me that my future had to lie in the music business. I was writing for the snarky alternative weekly, DJing at the radio station, and on my way to booking shows both for the school and for my pseudo-fraternity and most of my disposable income was going to shows in NY and Philly and periodic raids on the Princeton Record Exchange. The trick was figuring out a point of entry. With no particular connections and no particular leads to any connections, the best and only path seemed to be a more direct frontal assault. Given that my guitar playing had stayed iffy, it was clear that the “business” for me would inevitably mean the business end of the business, but I still wanted to in some way view things from the artist’s side of the equation. So it occurred to me that the thing to do would be to fax my favorite band out of the blue and ask if they needed a roadie the summer of my junior year. That band was Wilco, and that fax went to manager Tony Margherita’s office in the early spring of 1999.
I’m sure it’s in a box somewhere but I can’t remember exactly what it said. It was on the Word fax template and I sent it from Kinko’s. The gist of it was that I was absolutely sure that I wanted to be in the music business but it was important to me to see things from the artist’s perspective. So I suggested that I work for the band that summer doing whatever it was that needed to be done. I offered to live in the band’s loft or else find a place and was basically willing to do it for the cost of rent or less or best offer. I said something that sounded eloquent at the time about my regard for the band and my sense from their website (admittedly one of the best run in the early days of the Internet) that they were the sort of band where a familial vibe truly existed and a novice like me might be welcomed and thoughtfully initiated.
After a week of checking my voicemail like a maniac, it became clear that a follow-up call was probably a good idea, and when I got through to the assistant I was passed over to “JP,” the band’s then-ubertech (apparently known for his Elvis impressions at the band’s annual blowouts at Tweedy’s wife’s club Lounge Ax). With a chuckle in his voice, JP told me that, well, yeah actually they did get my fax and they were somewhat interested and why don’t I come out to the pair of Irving Plaza shows at the end of April. I floated around campus for the intervening few weeks and got to Irving Plaza nice and early the afternoon of the first show.
I maybe should have been scared, but I was too much in awe of the thing. For all my nights at shows, it was always at some remove. The guys in bands I knew were all bands that were nothing like a band that would ever play a room like that. I had read about these guys. I had researched the Peter Laughner reference in “So Misunderstood.” I knew that “The Lonely 1” might be about Paul Westerberg and that if I could write like that it might be the type of thing I might imagine writing about Jeff Tweedy. There was gear sprawled across the floor and Jay Bennett – oh my God that’s Jay Bennett – was climbing into the back of a Hammond organ and fixing gear. There were guitars…everywhere! In what I in retrospect identified as an early fissure in the band (of the kind that would later be captured on I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), a member of the crew joking asked in a fake newscaster voice “is Wilco holding Jay Bennett back?” while Jay jammed away to get his levels. Leroy Bach played a cool funk riff and as JP tuned Tweedy’s ancient twelve-string he beamed about the upcoming US dates with REM and played the intro to “Pretty Persuasion.” I chuckled, “Is Wilco holding JP back?” I was joking with rock stars, dude. Or at least their roadies. I had a VIP pass – like a for-real one that let me into that little area where the dressing room connected to the upstairs balcony. I had listened to Summerteeth non-stop since I bought it and carefully, carefully scrutinized the Les Paul with the double string benders that Bennett played on “E.L.T.” from three feet away! The tour manager told me to hang for a bit and I watched the band soundcheck, glance casually at me with less menace than Farrar had a few years before when I crashed his soundcheck, and then they retired to the dressing room while I parked out the front of the house with instructions to head to the VIP area when the show was over (I had asked the tour manager about three times where and when).
While the show lacked the balls-out bravado of the Being There set nearly two years before, a complex beauty had been added to the energy. The new songs came alive as breathing organisms onstage, and the band’s proficiency grew atop the bed of their still-existent chemistry. I very visibly mouthed the words in the front few rows. I tried to make eye contact thinking that might help in this audition. If it was an audition…I mean it seemed like they wanted me since they invited me to hang and all. Afterwards I hustled up and met the band. Bach mostly blew me off with a rude aftertaste, Bennett somewhat disappeared, Coomer was not unfriendly and but not really friendly either, just a big wooly bear, and John Stiratt was the nicest guy you could imagine. Tweedy was shyly eating takeout but did his best to make conversation – “so, you’re the guy who sent he fax,” he smiled. The band all shook my hand, shuttled off and I hustled doubletime to show JP that I could help with guitars. Some greasy guy who I pegged for a label dude made jokes about me needing kneepads when I mentioned I wanted to get into the music business, and the tour manager seemed still bemused by my presence underfoot. Tony Margherita was harshly quiet, but after seeing him sing along to “Via Chicago” with his eyes closed at the side of the stage, I figured I could give him a pass for just about anything short of punching me out. After a few minutes of real roadie-ing (with the band playing the next night, not much had to move), the night’s job was done and I headed back home, ready for the next round the next night, scarcely able to sleep with the excitement of it all.
Coming again at show time, I sensed a bit more frigidity from the entourage but ignored it, downed a few beers, again occupied the front row, and then when it was time to head to the VIP Lounge, I got sidetracked. Ryan Adams was walking out as I was walking in. By this time in my musical life, Stranger’s Almanac had completely become the soundtrack to a stroke of girl problems and extended beer-infused wallowing with my roommates. So I had to talk to him. “Mr. Adams,” I said (yes, I called him Mr. Adams), “I’m sure you hear this a lot, but I had my heart broken recently and I’ve found that listening to ‘Avenues’ is the only thing that helps.” Taken aback, he brightened up, grabbed my hand and said “thanks, man. Here, come have a drink.” Pulling up to the bar I ordered a round and he brought me back to his table where James Iha and a stunning blonde sat. “This is the girl I wrote it for,” he told me (pointing to the girl, not Iha). After having me repeat what I said to him for her benefit (a check he undoubtedly cashed later that night), he told me the story of how they met – she was the receptionist at the label and after hearing his voice all the time they finally started talking enough that a few dates ensued. Next, he and (in grunts) James told me about the album they were currently working on which Ryan assured me I’d love because it was about love songs and being in love. As they gathered up to go hit the town, I said my goodbyes, parted ways and headed over to see JP again. Pneumonia came out a few years later after several delays, but in the interim I think the girl had become the inspiration for most of Heartbreaker and had catalyzed Adams’ exile from NY to LA.
That night the band had already left and so all that was left was for me to check in with JP, give him my student government business card (ouch), and ask that he call me. I hustled home beaming from my encounter with not one but two of my favorite artists in the space of two days, and promptly started booking a summer in the Northwestern dorm. In my head the audition had gone great and the future was cables and amplifiers as far as the eye could see. As the weeks came and went and JP, Tony or his office’s call never came and mine were never returned, my plans seemed ever shakier. The week before the Northwestern deposit was due I somehow forced JP onto the phone. Maybe I’ve blocked out the details of the conversation, but the upshot was “no.” I pulled my room registration, scrambled to find a job at home or on campus or something, and tried to save the summer.
In the stinging aftermath, I racked my brain for an explanation. On a visceral level I had maybe picked up enough body language and was just perceptive enough in my cluelessness to absorb the notion that maybe my favorite rock band didn’t need a slobbering fan hovering over them for a full summer, geeking out with naïve and wide-eyed surprise at every rock n’ roll thing that happened and generally getting in the way. I was a late bloomer and maturity came in fits and starts during those years. The wounding shame of having been far too uncool and blown my audition lead another part of my mind towards the rationalization that REM’s decision to invite the band to Europe made the financial arrangement of bringing another body impossible. The latter explanation became my public one, a version I always only half-believed but still to this day occasionally deploy when the topic presents itself. Maybe it was both or neither, maybe the “audition” was less an audition than a two night fantasy-camp reward for a fan ballsy and clueless enough to fax his favorite band asking for a job.
For a time I was bitter and placed the band on my darkest shit list alongside The Mighty Mighty Bosstones who had brazenly canceled their appearance at our school’s spring concert (the first major event I had ever tried to book) the spring before only to flake on the rescheduling Dickey Barrett promised to our promoter multiple times on the phone. It was with no small glee that I watched the Bosstones’ fifteen minutes screech to an abrupt halt as the bastards’ career went down in flames, even though I now somewhat know (and really do like) Nate Albert and even grudgingly enjoyed Dickey on Indie 103. But the truth was with Wilco I couldn’t stay that mad that long, even if the aftertaste of sour grapes still partially clung to my mouth. As the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot circus played through and Coomer and Bennett got their walking papers, I sensed that the turmoil in the band whose early symptoms I might have seen was perhaps more complex than I had given it credit for. Having seen the band years before with Billy Bragg (who they apparently later fell out with) at the Guinness Fleadh Festival on Randall’s Island I later spent some time with blues phenom Corey Harris, who guested on the Mermaid Avenue sessions and harrumphed with a mix of humor and impatience about both Tweedy and Bennett strutting around “thinking they were Bob Dylan.”
I went to law school as a vehicle to get into the music business and, in the mean time, I went to subsequent Wilco shows primed to be frustrated. But I still went. I caught a Boston gig during the YHF era, panned it in the law school paper (my parents, who may still be mad at Wilco, found the article online and cheered), and then took my then-girlfriend-now-wife to see them and others at Newport. I bought A Ghost Is Born and liked a lot of it, even though I never quite figured out which parts were Mikael’s. Live, the band had finally canned Leroy Bach (although he later – impressively – toured with Iron & Wine) and were starting to creep out of the shoe-staring noise rock pomposity that marked some of the YHF shows. Somewhere along the way JP got fired and the band’s team continued to evolve. Meanwhile, as Wilco became more Shellac than Gram Parsons, the alt country scene had hit the skids. Stirratt’s sister and erstwhile brother-in-law had folded Blue Mountain, Golden Smog stopped convening for a time, and the movement’s more generic mainstream relatives in the Wallflowers and Counting Crows had fallen off the charts. An era had ended and I never got my internship.
Years later I caught one of Jay Bennett’s solo shows at the Mercury in NYC and couldn’t resist the temptation to ask if he remembered the situation. With some flash of recognition, he claimed to. “What happened?” I asked. “I don’t know man, that was probably Jeff and Tony’s thing – they made those kinds of decisions,” and he shot me a look that said “if you think you had it bad…”
Recently, Jay’s death shook me a bit. Even in my glancing moments with him, the depth of his artistry and his emotional investment in his music was overwhelmingly apparent. In the same way that Max Johnston was the glue that held Anodyne together, Bennett was the secret weapon in my favorite Wilco records. While Wilco may have been too small for both him and Jeff, and his later career was not as visible, Jay Bennett was amazing just waking up every day as Jay Bennett. He will be deeply missed.
But as time elapsed I found that I learned a hard lesson well. A decade later I’m a music attorney. I still write for fun on the side, am still a fan, but crashing and burning with Wilco maybe helped socialize me in the complex dance that is interaction with the famous (or at least those that you might otherwise admire from afar). I’ve learned to play it a lot cooler and sublimate the geekier edge of my fanly awe into a more casually enthusiastic basic respect for those who craft music well, and I try to channel it all in the service of representing artists big and small. While there still a handful of names that would give me butterflies were they announced on my call waiting, I now quite frequently talk casually with a mix of artists, some of whom have sold hundreds of times more records than Wilco, others of whom Wilco might themselves admire artistically, and it has gotten more immeasurably more natural with time. In that sense, Wilco slammed some of the experience I had hoped to get on the road home into two days and a summer’s rejection. It prepared me for some of the scrap and hassle of the music business and woke me up a bit to the reality of life behind the curtain. I still feel a little weird watching Almost Famous and wondering what could have been, but on balance I look back with something more like a chuckle, even if full explanation and closure never did, and never may, present itself. Oddly, for all the artists I’ve worked with or all the people that work with artists I’ve worked with, I’ve never really found myself meaningfully crossing paths with the Wilco camp. Ken Coomer produced some songs for an artist that my buddy managed, but otherwise it’s all still three degrees of separation.
Still, here I am writing about it on a blog named after a line from a Wilco song. And here I am seeing still seeing Wilco shows, most recent last week at the Wiltern. Like Ryan Adams in his Cardinals cycle or the later Marc Ford-era Black Crowes, as they approached the Sky Blue Sky era, the band in moments sounded like they hit the Grateful Dead stretch in their career where they dabble in languid guitar jams and gradually dilute the tighter songs. But now the band seems to be coming full circle. While Nels Cline in Wilco still sometimes feels like Holger Czukay crashing the Byrds, the other night the show at the Wiltern had that old trace of humor and ended with the one-two punch of “I Got You (At The End of A Century),” and “Monday.” And I was transported back to that first magical night just over twelve (!) years ago, when the crash of guitars and a bounding Tweedy made rock n’ roll feel real and made me want to find ways to become ever more a part of it. As many times as I’ve wanted to thank them all for nothing, nothing, nothing at all, there’s still a party there that I ought to go to, if I still love rock n’ roll. And I still love rock n’ roll a lot, particularly Wilco’s brand of it, twelve years and one near miss later. words/ Jeff Leven
Related: Wilco :: Wilco (The Album)