“Once I thought, without a doubt, I had it all figured out,” Jeff Tweedy of Wilco sings on “Solitaire,” a standout track off Wilco (the album). Yeah, I could have picked a hundred or so other lines by Tweedy to highlight here—that’s what makes writing about his words so difficult. But, that’s the one that speaks loud and clear to me today. Because about eight years ago, Jeff Tweedy taught me that, when it comes to music, you never have it all figured out.
And I figured out a long time ago that Neil Young is my songwriting hero—that will likely never change, and that is fine. But, I was once convinced that he was the only songwriter whose words would ever mean anything to me; his albums were all I listened to—particularly Zuma, Sleeps with Angels, On the Beach, and Harvest Moon—for a few years. Everything else, it seemed, was not up to par, which I’ve now found to be the worst mistake you can make when trying to find new music. When you start looking for something better, or something that is exactly is supposed to sound like something you already love, you are already trapped.
Jeff Tweedy’s words released me from that line of thinking.
The first Wilco song I ever heard was “Misunderstood,” and it’s what broke me away (just enough) from my Neil Young obsession. It was the lead “track” on a cassette tape that my cousin Peri had mailed me just a few months before I graduated college, and I was immediately floored. I remember listening to “Misunderstood” at least ten times the night I finally let the tape roll; I rewound the hell out of it (remember when it took some effort to put a song on repeat?), which I am sure annoyed the hell out of my roommates. In no time, I was singing along to something other than Young’s “Cortez the Killer” or “Ambulance Blues.” “Misunderstood” was the only song I thought of for weeks.
“When you’re back in your old neighborhood,” Tweedy sang, “you’re so misunderstood, so misunderstood.” In that period of my life, each day brought a different question. Would I get a job? Would I have to go back home and live with my parents? Would anything start to make sense? Finally, another songwriter was saying things that rang true—“You’re honest when you’re telling a lie,” “You know you’re just a momma’s boy/ positively unemployed,” “Short on long term goals,” and finally, “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all.”
Well, I’d like to thank Jeff Tweedy for writing “Misunderstood.” Most of all, I’d like to thank him for always staying in the moment; to me, he’s a songwriter who doesn’t seem to care if the next song he writes is better than the one he just finished. If you’ve listened to all of Wilco’s albums, you might agree.
Many people have told me that whenever Wilco opens a show with “Misunderstood,” you know you’re in for a special performance. This has happened for me a few times, and in that moment, I always think back to the cassette tape that changed my life. And even though I don’t have a tape player that works anymore, I still religiously listen to “Misunderstood” and Jeff Tweedy’s words. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
He said it: “There’s nothing nostalgic about Wilco. There’s nothing nostalgic about anything. I don’t find it to be important at all. I would think that what we’re talking about and what I’m really describing is more being honest with yourself about language and using it to say who you are. Each musician has to kind of make that contribution to a recording. I don’t really think that it’s about nostalgia.”