Sunken Treasure (Or, The Unabridged Pocket Guide To Lightning)

January 28th, 2007

I want to be Jeff Tweedy when I grow up.

I don’t hide my reverence. I’ve recorded his’s songs more than any single songwriter’s (save maybe REM). I’ve covered “I’m Always In Love,” “A Shot In The Arm,” and “California Stars” (which is really Billy Bragg and Wilco covering Woody Guthrie) on three separate albums, and plan on recording “How To Fight Loneliness” for my forthcoming “Live At Rockwood Music Hall” CD.

I ordered his “Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest” DVD after work on Wednesday. For fifteen bucks you get the DVD plus access to 24 MP3s. I was so eager to get my hands on Tweedy’s solo acoustic performances (presumably of higher fidelity than the “Live At Lounge Axe” tracks that surfaced online a few years ago), that I paid twenty bucks for next day delivery.

I mentioned my excitement about the Wilco front man’s new DVD/CD to Nadas’ front man Jason Walsmith on Thursday afternoon.

“He’s married with kids but still manages to be a heartbreakingly staggering genius,” I said.

“Yeah,” Jason replied, “But he does have that whole drug addiction thing going on.”

Tweedy’s recent (and well-chronicled) rehab notwithstanding, he consistently rolls out lyrics and melodies that dazzle me on the first listen, grow with me through the fiftieth, and floor me on the five hundredth. Songs like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “Handshake Drugs,” and “Jesus, etc” absolutely knock my socks off. They are simple, and smart, full of curiosity and insight, anger and pain.

Take the DVD’s title track. I first heard the song, “Sunken Treasure,” on the aforementioned Lounge Axe bootlegs. Accompanied by just an acoustic guitar, he wails, “I am so! I am so! Out of tune.” Then he refrains with a twist: a soul-crushing punch line. “I am so! Out of tune… with you.”

It’s Tweedy’s coda, though, that piqued my interest as I listened (and listened, and listened, and listened) this weekend.

Music is my savior
I was maimed by rock and roll
I was tamed by rock and roll
I got my name from rock and roll

I’ve been a singer as long as I can remember. In high school, rock and roll became part of my identity. It fit my psyche: dark and light, depressed and obsessed, always seeking approval, always wondering, and always looking for meaning. It fit my style: denim, Chucks, Camel Lights. And it fit my creative impulses. Songs gave shape to my thoughts and fears. They were something to pour over, and pour myself into. College cemented it. I loved being on stage, but loathed being in the audience. First thing I did when I graduated? Recorded a solo album.

It’s been a strange story arch ever since. I’ve been releasing records since I was nineteen. It’s tough to tally a number. Many were recorded prior to independent CD replication went mainstream. Bunches of them never made or have barely seen the light of day (though most of those tracks will be released as “Besides” in the coming months).

The major releases, though, are easy to spot, and easy to catagorize. “Bloom” (my first CD), “Out Of Your Head” (which I released within a year of moving to New York), and “The Deluxe EP” (aka the ill-fated “Jackie Chan EP”) are all borderline embarrassing. By “Deluxe,” I’d tried everything: slick music videos, celebrity name-dropping, leather pants, green lamé, and fingernail polish. With the demise of my band of the time, Benjamin Wagner Deluxe, I thought about giving up.

I persisted, though. I found bassist Tony Macelli through The Village Voice. He helped me form a bolder, better, more nimble band. With “Crash Site,” then, I began to settle into myself. And I think you can hear it. The advent of my thirties, a long distance relationship, plenty of Xanax, and a great producer (Kevin Anthony) brought great inspiration and great results. I’m proud of that era. “Almost Home” and “Love & Other Indoor Games” are sonically and lyrically cohesive, at once harrowing and uplifting (for me anyway).

When Kevin Anthony moved to Minneapolis, then, it should have been the end. Enter The Nadas. They took me under their collective wings, shared their bus, their audience, and helped make “Heartland” something really special.

Which brings me here: nine o’clock on a clear and cold Sunday night. I’m listening to Tweedy perform “In A Future Age,” and considering one simple, undisputable fact: I got my name from rock and roll.

For twenty years I have been standing in front of a microphone with a wall of amplifiers behind me and a handful of strangers in front of me. I have been electrocuted and bloodied, adored and mocked. I have passed out and puked, scissor kicked and tripped, duck walked and ducked flying bottles. I have crashed and soared in equal measure.

For twenty years, the words and music that I have written and performed have come to define me, to give me my name. Even now, at thirty-five, I am greeted with the same familiar, half-hearted inquiry, “Still doin’ the music?”

Now, though, I’m on the edge of a great change. I am willingly babysitting my nephews. I am eagerly pricing engagement rings. And I am enthusiastically searching apartment listings — two bedrooms, of course; I need one for my recording equipment.

I dug through my kitchen closet — the place where I stash my skateboard, camping gear, old photos and master tapes — this afternoon. I threw away a box full of “Out Of Your Head” and “Deluxe EP” CDs. I sorted through rejected press photos, and tossed the extraneous. Afterwards, I felt a little bit better, a little bit lighter.

This clean sweeping, house keeping, everything-must-go feeling is pervasive these days. The 30-track “Besides” CD, a collection of unreleased recordings that Nadas’ bassist Jon Locker is mastering for me, is a direct result. So is the forthcoming “Live At Rockwood Music Hall” CD. I keep the potential track listings for those releases — currently slated for a future age — on a yellow Stickie on the desktop of my Powerbook. There is a third sticky there, too: a track listing for “The Best Of The Morning Mix. And there’s a fourth, the title of what might come to be my next brand-new, full-length CD.

But not yet. Which is the point of the previous
1, 065 words. Right now, in the immortal (and oft-quoted) words of Morrisey, is all about “Repackage, reissue, repurpose, re-evaluate the star.”

Re-evaluate.

Who are you? What matters to you? What do you do?

And what’s in a name, anyway?