Used Books, New Music and Wilco

WicoBooks. It’s a weakness. While sometimes I can nurse one for a week or two, at other times I devour them by the handful as if they were M&Ms. Or baby carrots…in tribute to a healthier lifestyle. They do tend to take up a lot of room, especially since I prefer the weight and heft of a hardcover, and it’s possibly the only media format that I want and hope to keep off of an electronic device. So I have some bookshelves, and I use crates and plastic bins to hold the rest.

This week I decided to thin the herd. A bunch. Lots. Have you tried to do that lately? When I carted a few hundred downtown last summer to The Strand, one of Manhattan’s largest, oldest and best bookstores, they sniffed through them and plucked out three for the keeping. Feeling generous, I told them with a smile that I’d be pleased to donate the rest. They laughed. I left with them.

Not wanting to suffer the same humiliation, this time I called my local library. Almost every library these days have “friends”…folks who take in ‘gently used’ books and sell them at the occasional book fair or in small dark and musty rooms…all in hope of raising money so they can buy new ones, or it goes to local community programs. I like that idea.

We have lots of libraries in our area. The first one I called told me that they were booked up…try again next year. The second said I was two weeks too late, but offered a list of other possible candidates. It became clear after a few calls that the friends of libraries didn’t need nor want my books. The friends have too many friends. But on a much happier note, I discovered a local women’s club that accepts and distributes them throughout the county, to homeless shelters, safe houses and halfway homes. Places where people don’t have many resources, and might enjoy the intellectual stimulation that words on paper can offer.

As I pulled up to the drop off zone, I was greeted by a large sign that talked a bit about what the organization did, and then they added this note: Please Leave Only Recent Fiction And No Text Books. Now that was a line that stumped me. Describe ‘recent’. One could assume that Capote, Hemingway, Kerouac and Twain were recent, compared to Cavendish, Defoe or Malory. Or perhaps they were inundated with too many books by those mass paperback authors such as James Patterson or Stephen King, who seem to release new books every month. It boggled my mind.

So I left everything there. Figured they would sort it out. I’ll do another run next week.

I’ve been enjoying the latest release from Bonnie “Prince” Billy called Singer’s Grave – A Sea of Tongues. Turns out that it’s not new at all, as it features a reworking of nine tunes that appeared on his Wolfroy Goes To Town album from a few years back. However, for those of you who enjoy the more country side of (what do you call him…Bonnie, Prince, Billy or Will), especially when he was doing all those Palace albums, this will likely be a treat. With the addition of gospel singers the McCrary Sisters and Earl’s nephew Chris Scruggs on mandolin and uke, it’s a solid offering from one of the more strange but talented men I’ve come across. Whatever you call him.

Another interesting album comes out on a UK label called Ample Play Records and is titled This Is The Young Sinclairs. Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains’ community of Roanoke Virginia, YS comes out of the Magic Twig Community; like-minded musicians operating their own recording studio, deep in the woods where they have produced and engineered all their recordings. A sort of sixties-garage/jingle-jangle band sound, often with a twelve string guitar at the center of the mix, this sextet has been releasing CD-Rs, cassettes and vinyl since 2005. This particular release, via download and vinyl, is a compilation and sample of odds and ends.

Although it’s been twenty years or so since they’ve been around, I’ve only seen Wilco twice. The first time was this past summer at the Newport Festival where they failed to hold my attention beyond a few songs, and last week in the middle of a three-night run at the famed Capitol Theater in Port Chester. It was a much more captivating experience, but less so for the music and more for the spectacle and smell of money in the air. Wilco is one, well-oiled machine.

Although I own almost everything Wilco has released minus the Roadcase stuff, here’s a little secret: I don’t listen to most of their music. I gravitate to stuff like the Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg, the quieter songs like I’m featuring here, and sometimes the audio download from Tweedy’s mostly-solo DVD Sunken Treasure. When the band gets too loud, I shut down. 

But honestly…I thought I was supposed to love Wilco.

If you liked Uncle Tupelo and read No Depression and told people you were into alt-country, didn’t you also have to worship Jeff Tweedy as well? Had I been wiser back in 1996, I might not have missed a Peter Blackstock article/interview he published in Issue #5 that would have explained it all for me.

Here’s an excerpt: “In the back of my mind, I was still wanting Uncle Tupelo fans to like me,” Tweedy says of the days that followed the UT split in June 1994. “That wasn’t a thought that I allowed myself to say out loud; I just kind of recognized it later. And that’s not really me. I never dug that whole somber approach to making music. I think it’s bullshit. I think it should be fun. Music is entertainment. It can be serious, it can be sad, but for the most part, I want to feel better, and I want to feel good when I’m doing it.”

Twenty years later, entertainment is exactly what Wilco shows are about. A mostly-male audience of thirty and forty-somethings, they seem to know every song, every lyric and respond as you would expect a well-schooled classic rock audience to behave…cheering in the right places, laughing at the stage patter, holding up lighters or cell phones. (A personal note to Nels and Jeff: Changing out your guitars for every single song was really annoying. Buy a Snark tuner for $12.95, fire the guitar techs, and stick to one or two per show.)

While they now gross in excess of ten million a year in ticket sales, they also have a kick ass website that creates community involvement with their fan base, and they sell merchandise that varies from the usual apparel and posters to dog collars, baby stuff and beverage coasters.

And Tweedy has zero issues with licensing music as often and whenever he can. Last year in a Chicago Sun Times post, he said :“I think about telling my dad, who worked for 46 years on the railroad, ‘Somebody offered me $100,000 to put my song in a movie, and I said no because it’s a stupid movie.’ He would want to kill me,” Tweedy says. “The idea of selling out is only understandable to people of privilege.”

So you not get the wrong idea, all of this is simpatico with me. In fact, I think it’s damn smart to run your art like a business, because it is. There’s some lessons to be learned here. And with all the baggage the man might carry, I’m guessing that these days Tweedy’s retirement portfolio is looking just fine.