the unofficial uncle tupelo archives
By Jennifer Gleach, photos by Dawn Radke
"I don't even know exactly," I said to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, "why it is that I like your band so much."
"That's your problem," Jay replied with his steady mystic grin. "You gotta deal with that."
See, I sent myself on a snipehunt: I fooled myself into thinking that I could find the answers to what matters. It's an imaginary prey, chasing down the insides of songs that you know by heart. And I am not a rock and roll writer, I'm just a curious girl.
This is a story about Uncle Tupelo - a rockin' little band from Belleville, IL on tour with their new album called Anodyne. I first heard them a couple of years ago when I was still working at Millenium. Somebody pulled this LP out of the new release pile: No Depression. The cover had that pebbly smooth texture, straightforward blue-black typeface, burnt sienna band above a blurry gray photo. Irresistible. "What's with the Folkways look?" somebody asked and we played it and liked it and I forgot about it for a year - maybe because I was depressed. But I kept hearing that song in my head while riding my bike. "I'm going where, there's no depression, to a better land, that's free from care." They'd covered an old Carter Family tune. One day I saw that burnt sienna peeking out of a defect return pile and I rescued it. I couldn't just let it go back to Rockville; I took that baby home. And I'm hooked, snagged like a salmon in mid-leap, caught.
So, I'm sitting in a pizza by the slice shop in Vancouver, B.C. pondering the irony of my being able to take this trip because of leaving Escape from New York Pizza and then ending up with an only halfway decent slice of pesto for gosh sakes - but that's another story. A girl in bell-bottoms is dancing slow and dreamy near the cash register to "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" It's vaguely creepy. Three's no big table so the band is scattered but I get lucky and sit with Jeff who I know (from meeting them after the show last February at Belmont's) to be the more talkative half of those Farrar/Tweedy songwriting credits. How am I having dinner with the band? I had intended to see all three shows, write a story about being a fan, and leave it at that. But, I saw Jeff after the LaLuna show and he said he remembered me from last time and the idea began to hatch that I was brave enough to really do it. Well, I asked the road manager if could do a story for a paper called Snipehunt out of Portland. "No way - we were just telling snipehunt stories in the van driving here - when do you want to do it?" This was in Seattle, before the show and then it was Monday and my friend in Bellingham drove us across the border and I waited for them finish soundcheck and... I show Jeff the questions I've figured out to be interesting to me. He smiles as he's reading - I take that to be a good sign. He looks up and tells me those are some heavy questions but we can start with information. Information, he says, is a good place to start. So we talk about interviews, the press in general, what makes a record good and the nature of "selling out." He mentions Lester Bangs - who I know I've heard of but momentarily confuse in my heady with Lester Maddux. Jeez, dumb me. But Jeff explains how he now finds Lester Bangs' writing about the Clash to be more inspiring than the band itself. Naturally, I go to a bookstore the next day and find the thing so I can see what he means; he's kinda right. What's great here is that I remember an interview in which Jeff made a similar comment comparing songs about Jesus favorably with the actual church type faith. I understand that the complexities of peoples' responses to glory intrigue him because after all it is the very thing I'm trying to pin down.
We talk about how music is just something to listen to: it either pulls the trigger in your soul or not. And if you try too hard (like me) to analyze why, you're nuts. And, you can't just like something more cause people tell you it's cool or revolutionary or venerate things like Robert Johnson in that hotel room too much cause - as Jeff says - "those guys were pretty crass, they were in it for the money too, you know." "Yeah, because they didn't have any," I say. Folk music comes from folks at the bottom (that includes punk). You can't put a label on the kind of passion that comes with wanting to get out, needing to be strong in the face of boredom, corruption, desperate living and loneliness.
Talking to someone whose musical influences range from Black Flag to Lefty Frizell I see the connections Uncle Tupelo have honed musically through the language of hurt and I understand Jeff reluctance to dig at what makes a thing real or not. Things just are. And, sadly enough, sometimes the most pure ragemakers who come from nothing are most vulnerable to the color of money. Henry Rollins has a theory about music getting more and more watered down in recent years as bands look closer and closer behind them for inspiration, stealing, whatever it is when new music styles come out of old. We agree that this makes sense and Jeff reiterates the commitment he and Jay feel toward older music, music released before indie this and retro derivative that. As Jay later says, with so many great re-issues why even buy new records?
So, first awkward but okay interaction over, I proceed with the guys back to the club. As on the way to find food, they stop and look in the downtown shop windows, especially at shoes. Bob the road manager eyes a groovy pair of green and black Chuck Taylors and Jeff assures him you can find them in Chicago. We all seem to notice that Vancouver feels weird; things are too slow and busy at the same time. Like the dancing girl in the restaurant - things don't seem to fit. The usual big city torn people, bright lights and commerce meets the gutter but unreal feeling. A guy on the corner mutters "skunkweed" as we pass. We see the line of kids waiting to get in: Soul Asylum is headlining and it shows. I never did find out how Uncle Tupelo got this gig in the middle of their own tour. Inside, we split up and I find a seat with Jay in a quiet corner out front to try to talk. He brings us beers from backstage and opens them with his Swiss Army knife. I show him the questions but I'm not surprised when we sort of stall at conversation. This is truly one of the most inside himself people I've ever met. I get the impression he'd just as soon make his music and leave it at that - if I have all these questions about meanings and I think he can answer them why don't I just listen to the songs more? It reminds me of how I hated writing book reports 'cause I didn't want to prove I'd read the book; maybe he doesn't like proving he's behind those lyrics. So, this glory coin has a few different sides. If you're effective in your art, you are going to answer to peoples' affections for you. I guess it's just plain old life; those wise enough to create some kind of meaningful response to the mess around them end up in the mess too. I console myself with the thought that it probably isn't just me. Maybe he's a poet, in the truest sense of that once noble word. Or hell, maybe he's just a stoner, what do I know? And there's Jeff at the top of the stairs.
"Oh, good," he says. "I was afraid for a minute we'd lost you."
Well, then we just had a regular time talking about bands and clothes and, you know, stuff. They both really like the Texas Instruments and don't understand the extra wide pants deal. They saw and enjoyed Hazel, and met Rebecca Gates somewhere - maybe because Brian Paulson produced both Manos and Anodyne. Jay doesn't remember the Spinane's so Jeff explains: "It's this chick with a guitar, she sings and some guy drums behind her. She's got balls." This is a compliment. We discuss the alternative thing, "grunge approved" K-Mart clothes (we all know that's where those clothes came from in the first place), the No Alternative cd (which includes their cover of CCR's "Effigy") and the national pastime of "our" nation - thrifting. I tell them about my recent excursion to Spokane and finding not only just one cruiser in three days but practically no young people in the thrift stores. That's what's wrong there maybe - the youth can't take over 'til they are literally wearing the former seats of power. Jays says that's how it is in Belleville too - the kids just want to go to the mall so he and Jeff always score great stuff. They saw a Value Village from the van and were bewildered by the whole department store thrift idea. We agreed that any store affiliated with a church or charity was better than the independent second hand stores. I asked about day jobs and Jeff said at one point when the band was just getting started he worked simultaneously in a record store, a guitar shop and a liquor store. "I had a discount on everything I needed." He says later when you see him with a beer bottle now it's just to spit in. He quit drinking awhile back and plans to quit tobacco on New Year's - his first resolution ever, he says. So, it's time for them to go backstage and I realize I've forgotten that I get to watch them do what drew me to them in the first place.
I sit in the balcony of the Commodore. It's one of those refurbished old ballrooms, all burgundy and gold velvety backdrop for beer neon. The crowd is mixed - some cross armed pouters merely waiting for Soul Asylum, some UT fans dancing and mouthing the words - telling their friends - see, see, I told you they were great, and of course a bunch of pretty people standing around drinking and laughing with one eye over their should cause it is till a bar and there are babes aplenty. From this lofty vantage point I take the opportunity to collect my thoughts, and watch the band a little more objectively. It's great to be down front and see their faces but sometimes when you back up you can see the painting better.
Uncle Tupelo play a solid set, marred only by it's brevity since they are the opening act. As in Portland and Seattle, they concentrate on Anodyne. The sound is great, sparkly sharp and clear. The Seattle show suffers in comparison - the biggest problem there seemed to stem from an exceptionally drunk young man who bellowed "tupelooooohh" repeatedly throughout their performance and grabbed each band member as they approached the stage and then again as they left of the encore - calling both Jay and Jeff "God" and genuflecting. Not good energy, to say the least. But, if you have to compare Vancouver to Portland, well, let's just say that though the opening bands proved less than satisfying in my opinion, and there was a mighty long wait before they took the stage, Uncle Tupelo rocked LaLuna. The set included a number of tracks from earlier albums, standout of which for me was "Sandusky," an instrumental from March 16-20. Two terrific covers, "Willin'" and "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" plus one of their singles "Sauget Wind" amplified the rightness of all the other songs. These guys play with such conviction and strength. So, here's the part where I try to describe how they actually sound - like a good little rock critic.
The touring band consists of Jeff and Jay being the front men, singing and playing guitars. Jeff trades off on bass and guitars with John Stirratt, and Ken Coomer plays drums. Last but definitely not least, Max Johnston plays mandolin, lap steel, fiddle, and banjo. His place in the band cannot be overstated. Though he's young and almost palpably shy, when he plays he is right on the money. He is a big part of why Uncle Tupelo now sound "more country" if you have to say it that way. More accurately, the addition of John and Max made it possible for the band to record totally live - eliminating the need for the overdubbing they'd resorted to in the past trying to get the sound they wanted from themselves and about 7 or 8 instruments. And, it just follows that they would want tour this way too. They still carry about a dozen or more guitars on the road though. There is a prt of me that misses the giant waaahh of distortion that I heard more of at last year's show when they were still mostly a trio (Max played on some songs). But this - this is a mature, streamlined, powerful, beautiful band reflecting the growth and change evident in the records.
Labels just won't do it, they don't matter, so forget them. Just picture it. Picture rough, dirty sidewalks and crooked alleys melding with bleak broken shacks on a hillside. Picture engine chugging machinery at work under a breeze wafting through bare winter branches. Picture water running over rocks and say to yourself sturdy and delicate, sturdy and delicate. Harmonies slide around through thrash crash and lacy melodies. Rhythms play stoplight challenge, swing like a bent gate and then stomp relentless like a train. Sad old ragged ordinary words turn into poetry with the scrawling ache of their voices and the lilting grind of guitars. Above it all float the strains of fiddle or mandolin swirling the tune like cream in coffee.
The lyrics point you in the direction of a story without a drawing a detailed map; they speak of universal truths in cryptic specifics - leaving room for your own story to fill in and blend. The mountain of life's mess and mystery might be overwhelming but here are songs for toeholes - handgrips for climbing. You can step safely here. It's just plain honest music. So there.
"We've Been Had" is a great example. It is a rollicking kick-ass ode to cynicism, to finding out that "every star that shines in the back of your mind is just waiting for its cover to be blown." Back to Jeff talking about the Clash - he says that he used to just listen to the record but now he help picturing them in the studio, with headphones, practicing and getting it just right. The romance has gone out of the marriage. I understand this about rock bands; I know about having a crush on someone and then finding out they're a jerk or a loser. And, I suppose after three shows in three days by a band that I love - I should be wondering when the blossom will fade. I don't know, it doesn't feel like it will. I've been this deep a fan with Dylan and maybe a couple of others but this is the first time I've ever felt driven to follow someone. Three days seems paltry compared to Deadheads but jeepers I've got more sense than that. I mean, even my most favorite local bands I have to take a break from sometimes.
Thinking about all the band that my friends and I rave over, all the sentimental favorites and mysteriously inspiring and the soured flirtations - it occurs to me that what makes one group matter over another is simply chemistry -- a compound is formed and the two parts that were you and music can't be separated in your mind. It's protons and electrons, baby. They give you something that you needed to find, the something that you would have never found somewhere but it happened to be them who not only echoed your experience but led you round the corner. How can I not love them - this band that makes me dance, howl along, and - look up the words in the dictionary every once in awhile? See, for all their straight talk, Uncle Tupelo have also given me two new fun words - the first is caroms - to strike and rebound. This is a pool term but I think it nicely describes the sensation of liking a band and telling all your friends. Boom, they hit me over the head, maybe they'll do the same for you. They use it singing about an earthquake in "New Madrid." Seems this scientist guy predicted a reoccurrence of an old time disaster by where they live and it never came. Jeff wrote the song, he told me, about a guy who maybe wishes it had - maybe he fell for a lady scientist or just needs something to happen.
The other word the led me to is anodyne (conveniently between ankh and anxiety) - a medicine that relieves or allays pain…soothing to the mind and feelings. These guys sing about families and relationships that maybe can't be resolved, the anger and pain that is hard to control. But in the country tradition and the punk explosion, that hurt is expelled through song. The irrepressible longing, the blues that live in anyone who has to put up with just being human, gets called out. When you can take that emptiness from your own self and align it with the saddest wail or the fiercest guitar than you can relish the yearning for its own sake, take it out and kick it around the way it pummels you inside. We all need this medicine, it's good stuff, men. It's rock and roll.
I guess I should say that I went backstage and hung out while Soul Asylum played; they were really loud and most of the guys stayed back in this little room with the door shut against the sound. Winona Ryder was there and she taught us this gross-out slumber party game called "would you rather." I got to talk more with Jeff and it was all very glamorous of course, but I'm glad to be home. If these guys lived in my town we might very well be friends but they don't and it's okay that way. With all the people in the world that I could someday meet by chance I enjoyed this orchestrated conversation for what it wad and for the memory that it will be.
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