Wilco's Being There is one of those albums that was tailor-made for Napster's Source Material treatment. The double-disc set is a ramshackle song cycle about all things rock 'n' roll: rock fandom, growing up on rock, rock as livelihood and so on. Even when Jeff Tweedy -- using as he does that deadpan croon that makes you think he's either bored or stoned or both -- rhapsodizes on the struggles of love and romance, he views them through the prism of ... the rock.
A big part of this hyper self-awareness is the way Being There wears its influences on its sleeves. The thing is littered with lyrical allusions and sonic references, as if it's a kind of Masonic Bible for rock 'n' roll: if decoded properly, it will open up a secret history. This is something I discovered not long after the record dropped in the fall of '96. I was a senior at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo back then. I was also a record store clerk "in the middle of awkward musical transitions," according to old pal and author Bryan Charles (who chronicled our college days in his Wowee Zowee book for Continuum's 33 1/3 series -- Wilco are also mentioned). Moreover, I had "disowned the traditional in favor of screeching free-form noise." Thus, Being There's American rock vibe was the last thing my antennae were attuned to at the time.
But two other close friends, Steve and Rob, big Wilco fans whose tastes I genuinely dug, got me hooked regardless. As the autumn turned into one of the Midwest's harshest winters in decades, I used Rob's Escort GT to run errands quite a lot, and the discs were always in the car. Every time I borrowed it I worked on this decoding process: the lines in "Misunderstood" were lifted from punk icon Peter Laughner's "Amphetamine" ("Take the guitar layer for a ride ..."); there was a nod to Pink Floyd in "Far, Far Away" ("... on the dark side of the moon"); and "Hotel California" had turned into the "Hotel Arizona," where they made the band "wanna feel like stars." This process has never stopped, in fact. Through the years I've discovered more, like the way the fiddle jam "Dreamer in My Dreams" is surely a brazen reimaging of the Sir Douglas Quintet deep cut "Funky Side of Your Mind," or how "Kingpin" and Bert Jansch's "Open Up the Watergate (Let the Sunshine In)" share the exact same slinky groove.
Obviously, my decoding at some point slips into abject projection -- not unlike the eight-year-old me who was convinced playing his vinyl copy of Shout at the Devil produced backward-masked Satanic messages. Then again, that's exactly the kind of fanaticism Being There demands of its listeners.
Now on to a few other points ...
In terms of bigger-picture aesthetic issues, I love what Tweedy and the band ultimately achieved on Being There: a modern and utterly non-retro (thank you) interpretation of classic rock. They took all the great music they grew up worshiping (from The Stones and Little Feat to The Eagles and Neil Young) and filtered it through heady sonic ideas gleaned from fellow Midwesterners such as The Flaming Lips, Red Red Meat and Souled American. I'm talking about stuff like feedback as ambient texture, electro-acoustic warmth/space and the use of all manner of novel instrumentation. On top of all this, Being There can also be framed as belonging to the American power-pop tradition that has its roots in the mighty Big Star, particularly the band's debut, #1 Record, on which they strike an uncanny balance between The Move and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
But enough is enough. Between the albums below and my 52-track Source Material: Wilco, Being There playlist, you, like me, will be busy for decades to come.