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Wilco's First Masterpiece, 'Being There,' Turns 20

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 31, 2016 2:12PM

Wilco mid-'90s press photo

For people who have gown up with Wilco, it may be difficult to truly appreciate the quantum leap forward Being There represented in the band's artistic progression when it was released on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1996.

My history with some of the personnel on that album went back a ways. In college one of my neighbors was related to Mike Heidorn—Uncle Tupelo's original drummer—so I had been following Jeff Tweedy's work since his earlier days with that band.

When Uncle Tupelo was still a going concern, I fell squarely in the camp that thought Jay Farrar was the band's brain, while Tweedy supplied the poppier inclinations of that group's work. I know it sounds trite, but Farrar was Lennon to Tweedy's McCartney in my musical shorthand at the time. When Uncle Tupelo disbanded, and Tweedy took most of the band's latter-era lineup with him to record Wilco's debut, A.M., the results were pleasing, but hardly groundbreaking: a mixture of classic rock leanings with a (forgive me for trotting this out) alt-country edge.

So in the fall of 1996, I was sitting in Danny's Tavern on Dickens—at the time more of a punk/indie bar in what was then a pretty sketchy part of Chicago called Bucktown—when the bartender threw in a promo he received of Wilco's sophomore effort. I almost fell off my barstool as the opening track "Misunderstood" slowly unspooled. Here was a mini epic filled with longing that grew into an explosive cacophony of sound, carrying an emotional weight that was completely unexpected from Tweedy's vocal delivery. As the album progressed, it drew me deeper and deeper into its thrall, mixing elements of the pop-country that had endeared A.M. to the WXRT crowd at the band's genesis, with other songs that skipped across genres.

I begged the bartender to dub me a tape and he graciously did the next day, so I spent weeks with the album glued to the spools of my Walkman as I made my way to and from different bars and parties. In retrospect I still believe one thing that pushed this leap was the growing influence of multi-instrumentalist and musical savant Jay Bennett, but when measured against the albums that followed, it's clear that this is Tweedy's show from start to finish.

Even seemingly throwaway moves, like a track recorded twice—once as a raging rocker and again as a Beach Boys-ian reinterpretation—had purpose. "Outtasite (Outta Mind)"/"Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" is still in high rotation when the band performs live today. It seemed like a gimmick at the time, but it showed Wilco's interest in reinterpreting their own work—constantly striving to find the best way to present a song—and in this case there were two best ways, so why not include both?

Being There was released as a double CD: Disc one was the "rocker" and disc two the more introspective set. And at a time when most groups were using the CD format to overstuff releases with wall-to-wall music, Wilco forced the listener to physically interact with the format in order to experience the whole album. Let's face it: Being There could fit on a single disc, but Wilco wanted you to hear it as two song cycles. There needs to be a break. And the band, even at this early point, was intent on delivering their music in the manner they thought served the work best as a whole. Again, this was unusual, especially for what was at the time a pretty minor-league band. But that move, and their expansive musical direction in general, would quickly prove the band's instinct were right.

Being There landed well with both critics and fans, selling far better than their debut. Perversely this would cause the band headaches down the road, as Tweedy and a roster that would slowly change over time before solidifying into today's line-up, would butt heads with label bosses over the band's musical direction—a battle memorably captured in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco. We all know who won that battle in the long run.

So now Wilco is firmly established as both critical darlings and a sure thing with their still-growing fanbase. I have great respect and admiration for the band's subsequent work, but nothing they do will hit me as hard as Being There did. Considering the staggering growth the record represented, how could it?