Playing God
Wilco: Being There

wilco’s 1996 sophomore effort Being There radically expanded on the punky alt-country formula of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s previous outfit, Uncle Tupelo, as well as the more pop-minded Wilco debut, 1995’s A.M.. A sprawling 19-track double album that showed the band capable of the sort of widescreen, abstract pop soundscapes to be found on later efforts such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, Being There nonetheless—as with most double albums—is an easy target to be consolidated into one concise LP. So I have decided to pare it down from a four-sider to a two-sider, and I think it is a stronger album for it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Being There as it is—but I seldom find myself playing the whole thing through, whereas I do find myself playing the cuts I selected below more often than the ones I left off.

Being There is also a bit of a concept album, although sort of a fuzzy one—you can certainly enjoy the album as a collection of songs easily enough without “getting” it, but it is there if you look. Roughly speaking, the songs seem to illustrate the experience of being in a band on the road and how it affects one’s art and relationships and life in general. So in paring this down, that concept may get a bit lost. But then again, I think my edit rocks a bit harder, so it seems like an even trade to me. And so, with that in mind...

01. Monday
The parallels between Being There and the Rolling Stones’ classic Exile On Main St. are many—double album, country/blues influence, etc. And so I begin my version of Being There with the most Stonesy cut here, including drug references, driving Keef-esque riffs, and an Exile-style horn section. It also rocks like a mother and hence is a great opening track.

02. Outtasite (Outta Mind)
On the original Being There, “Monday” and this cut appear back-to-back and make for a dynamic 1-2 punch, only as tracks 3 and 4 respectively. So no reason to mess with what works, except to move it to the front of the running order where it can have maximum impact. This is a riff-tastic cut, and probably the catchiest tune on here. It also appears on the original version of the album twice—this version, then later as “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” in acoustic mode. While both are great, there’s only room for one on my Being There, and the crunchy power pop version wins the day. I toyed briefly with the idea of putting one first and one last, but soon thought better of it, as there is a better natural closer. Maybe I would hide “Outta Mind” as an unlisted bonus track or something though. Or even better, as a free one-sided 7-inch giveaway single in the LP, just like the good old days.

03. Someday Soon
Slowing things down and mellowing them out a bit with a bit of Beach Boys influenced, laid back good feeling, full of optimism and some great backing harmony vocals. Pretty light fare then, but after the bombastic opening pair, a much needed respite.

04. Kingpin
A longtime live favorite for the band, this had to make the cut if only to give it reason to stay in my ideal mythical setlist. A rolling, swampy, bluesy sort of a number that changes the pace yet again, keeping the listener guessing a bit as to the direction of the album, but still firmly in the country/blues/pop hybrid that has come before (and will come after).

05. Why Would You Wanna Live
The dreamiest-sounding cut here, let by a subtly pounding piano/bass/guitar rhythm thing (you can’t even really call it a melody) then followed by a tempo-shifting chorus and some stellar, crystalline guitar fills. Another tempo shift, another style conquered, and nothing repeated yet—a drawback to the original running order to some extent.

06. Dreamer In My Dreams
In my retro little brain, I still think of albums up until a certain point in time as being sequenced like LPs, with side one closers and side two openers taking on special significance. And so, on my Being There, this seven minute fiddle-led romp-and-shout—which closes the actual double—is a perfect ending for side one. It ends things on an energetic note, giving the listener that impulse to hear more on the flip side. Plus, this did always strike me as a bit of a throwaway to close such an ambitious-minded album. I mean, you give me “Sunken Treasure” and “Misunderstood” and the like, and you close with this? It just always struck me wrong, but in an abbreviated running order, and with “sides” to deal with, it does still have its place as a closer. Just not the “big” closer, if you get what I mean.

01. Sunken Treasure
Another six-minute-plus cut, this time in slow motion compared to “Dreamer”—and I find it always good to start a side two with something that is either short and attention-grabbing, or long and intense. This is certainly the latter, and the line “I was maimed by rock n roll” always makes me smile for some reason. Autobiographical to some extent, this carries the emotional weight to make you want to move further in.

02. I Got You (At The End Of The Century)
This tune always struck me as a dumbed-down 70s FM radio kind of rocker, but who doesn’t love those? Plus, side two sort of needed something crunchy. And after the self-analysis lyric at the end of “Sunken Treasure” (“I was saved by rock n roll”), well, you could hardly follow it with anything else.

03. Forget The Flowers
A nod back to Tweedy’s days in Uncle Tupelo, this tale of heartbreak and FTD is simple and effortless-sounding to a degree, but sits nicely next to the rocker that proceeds it and the thoughtful slowie that follows it. Clever lyrics, too. Of all the “countryfied” numbers on Being There, this is the one I always find myself humming a few days after I play it.

04. The Lonely 1
A plaintive ballad with strings and atmosphere, a portrait of the solitude, of performing for hundreds (or thousands) of people and yet somehow still feeling totally alone. A tough sentiment to get right in a song, and Tweedy nails it here with an elegant simplicity. This song is pretty much the embodiment of the “concept” of the original album, and so I could hardly get rid of it, could I? And who is the “lonely 1” anyway? Is it the performer on stage? Or the loved one at home he is missing? Brilliant and moving.

05. Blasting Fonda
(single b-side, Feeling Minnesota Soundtrack) This slow, heartbreaking track, thrown away on a Cameron Diaz/Keanu Reeves soundtrack in the US and relegated to a single b-side in Europe, adds an old-style tack piano and a wavering vocal to accentuate that feeling of distance and loneliness. I always thought this track deserved better than what it got, so here it is on my personal edit of Being There. Before the chaos of my closer, it seems like a good respite, and I liked placing it next to “The Lonely 1” as well—they’re both slow and slightly distant sounding, but in very different ways. Bookend ballads can work if they are good tracks, and these both are.

06. Misunderstood
Simply put, this is an epic and for my money, one of the best recordings Wilco have made to this point. Hence, it could have landed many places in the running order. The original Being There runs it first, and I can’t really argue with that—except after this, everything else seems to be a bit of a letdown in intensity. It could have stood near the middle, as a centerpiece as well, either closing side one or opening side two. But I chose to put it here, as the closer because, well, nothing can really follow this. Plus I really liked the idea of Tweedy screaming over the noise at the end of the track, “I’d like to thank you all/for nothing/I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all” and then the repeated slam of guitars and drums and noises and voice (“NOTHING!!! NOTHING!!! NOTHING!!!!”) bringing the whole album crashing down in a heap, leaving you breathless, feeling like you were just punched in the chest. Plus, it is sort of a perverse way of thanking the audience of listening/buying your record, and I am a fan of that sort of gallows humor. The kind of song that makes you want to get up and play it all over again, just so you can experience that closing impact one more time. And isn’t that the whole point of good sequencing—getting you to play the album again?

By: Todd Hutlock
Published on: 2005-03-28
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