An abandoned Meijer super-store crumbles off the Brice Road exit in Columbus, Ohio. It sprawls across a crusty blanket of cracked black-top, in which weeds slump towards the sun, disintegrating, a decaying relic that attests to the overreaching sprawl that recently doomed sections of expanding Midwestern suburbs.
For three months last year–the three months of my spring quarter for senior year in college–I worked in there. I cleaned mold, sliced and prepared boxes full of women’s beauty products, moved shopping carts and splintered wood pallets to help set up Limited Brands’ annual sample sale for its associates. It was tough, routinized work. Forty hours a week, up at 5:30 a.m. every weekday morning to haul ass across 35 miles of the I-270 outerbelt to make it by 7 a.m.
A few things helped me through: the $10-per-hour salary, paid under the table; tins of Grizzly mint pouches that I’d pop open cavalierly in between sorting candles and g-strings; and a 10,000-song iPod that opened up the metaphorical roof to far-flung day-dreaming in between two-hour breaks and the closing whistle. Among those 10,000 songs Wilco’s 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot featured prominently among the cutting and slicing and scrubbing while the building broke down around me.
Before this year, I’d never actually seen the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. It’s always been within my proverbial cultural sphere, but I’d never gotten around to pushing play on the 92-minute film.
The crux of the doc–which you can watch at the end of this article–is this: a beloved alt-country band sets out to create something it had never made before among inter-group tension, record label cat-fights and lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s battle with migraines. It’s great drama, really.
If you think about Wilco up until that point, they had a surprisingly eclectic discography. The band formed from the remains of Tweedy’s St. Louis outfit Uncle Tupelo, a band that wouldn’t be out of place on a Whiskeytown tour. Wilco’s first three albums, A.M., Being There and Summerteeth, showcased a mix of the alt-country sound that was Uncle Tupelo’s aesthetic and pop-leaning staples that comprised vast portions of Summerteeth.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot signaled a noticeable departure from that former sound. Much like Radiohead’s evolution from OK Computer to Kid A, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot honed in on the sounds of isolation, concocting odd song transitions with nothing more than failed radio signals and dissonant scuzz. Listeners can get the entirety of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the disarmingly beautiful “Poor Places”: buoyed by acoustic guitar, the song eventually collapses into itself by the end.
Not surprisingly, the band’s label, Reprise, f*cking hated it*. Multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett–who would be dismissed from the band shortly after recording wrapped–loathed how his influence had been shunted. Tweedy was losing a battle with himself. Supposedly it’s this mythos (which, again, you’ll see in the film) that made the album bigger than it was, but when the background so appropriately matches the music, and when music is best when it exactly conveys what an artist is going through at the time, then Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stands by itself as a great album. And if we know anything as music fans, nothing sounds more appealing than the sound of collapse.
High Fest fell on Saturday, April 22, 2012. Palmer Fest was that next weekend, followed by Mom’s Weekend, High Fest and the last halcyon weekends of the final quarter ever in Ohio University’s history.
I made it to High Fest. The other fest weekends, though–what Ohio University students live and die for, drink and celebrate towards, my reprieve from anything that concerned the world outside Appalachian Ohio for three years–I didn’t show. AJ texted me about coming for Palmer Fest, but I couldn’t. It was the weekend of the sample sale. I needed money to fund a move to New York, and I couldn’t pass up the salary and tips from lugging peoples’ swollen plastic bags of products to their cars.
I gashed my thumb with a box cutter. The violet drops of blood lapped onto my phone’s screen like tree sap as I texted AJ back my answer. Wiping it clean, I went back to work. Rich, my boss, needed five semis full of old grocery carts unloaded, untangled and pushed to the store’s dusty entrance. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s “Heavy Metal Drummer” came up on the iPod.
“And I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands, I used to go see on the landing in the summer.
She fell in love with a drummer, she fell in love with a drummer, she fell in love.”
The schools of wily and stubborn carts curved like boomerangs as a few other guys and I maneuvered them through rows and rows of Limited Brands products. Each step taken, another dollar earned, more seconds of the track ticked off.
“She fell in love with a drummer, another then another, she fell in love.”
Excuse the naivety of a 22-year-old, but life’s a balancing act between planning and the spontaneous. Setting yourself up for the future–getting a degree, doing the networking and making money to support yourself and that future–are crucial. But chaos is just around every corner, the unforeseen waiting with a billy club to bludgeon your spine.
* — Ironically, a smaller subsidiary of Warner Bros., Nonesuch, which is owned by Warner Bros. like Reprise, eventually picked up the album and released it.