Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Wilcopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to the Music of America's Best Band'

Daniel Cook Johnson's 'Wilcopedia.'
Daniel Cook Johnson's 'Wilcopedia.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"Lately you've been taking me way too seriously," sang Jeff Tweedy in 1996 ("Don't Forget the Flowers," Being There). Yet fast-forward 23 years, and here we all are, taking his band Wilco more seriously than ever.

Whether they're "America's best band," as the subtitle of Daniel Cook Johnson's new book Wilcopedia has it, is of course a matter of judgment, but they're certainly one of America's most-loved bands. The book celebrates Wilco's 25th anniversary, and in the quarter-century since they emerged in the Uncle Tupelo split (Jay Farrar, the other leading light of that band, went on to found Son Volt), it's hard to think of another guitar-based band to emerge with a stronger claim on the title.

If Uncle Tupelo crystallized alt country, and arguably Americana more broadly, it's Wilco who demonstrated how a contemporary band could incorporate the warmth of roots music and the swagger of the blues into finely-textured sonic landscapes that stand among the most fascinating and urgent albums of their time. Go to SXSW and find a band who tour with an acoustic guitar, and you'll likely find them in some form of artistic debt to Wilco.

So, there's no question that the band are worthy of the encyclopedic treatment. Bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd get books like this all the time; Johnson didn't want to wait until Wilco dissolve to write a song-by-song guide. After all, given how the band continue to thrive, none of us may be around to see the day they break up.

Johnson's book is, unapologetically, a fan's passion project. While it's hard to imagine the band objecting to such a generous-spirited book, they weren't involved in its writing. Johnson drew on various sources, from band biographies to the kind of detailed notes fans trade online, to tell the concise story behind every track in Wilco's catalog.

It's unclear whether the book was completed before Jeff Tweedy's superb new memoir was published, but at any rate, the kind of personal topics Tweedy touches on aren't Johnson's focus. "Wilcopedia is about the music, man," the author writes.

There's certainly plenty of it: to date, Wilco have released ten studio albums, not including the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg. Johnson also delves into documentaries and concert films; Tweedy's songs from the earlier Uncle Tupelo discography; and even an entire chapter's worth of songs Wilco have been known to cover. He keeps it concise, though, with the paperback landing at an accessible 320 pages.

For the most part it's organized chronologically, and superfans will of course read it cover to cover. It's also good, though, for fans like me: people who know a lot of Wilco's music and have given plenty of spins to albums like A.M. (1995), Summerteeth (1999), and the epochal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001), yet haven't quite kept up with all of the band's more recent albums, collaborations, and lineup changes.

Johnson provides a pithy introduction to every album before running through the track list in order. He's particularly attentive to which songs have featured most often in various set lists, and will tell you which songs on each LP are the live rarities. He also goes through any outtakes, B-sides, or bonus tracks that have emerged on associated releases for each album.

Wilcopedia is a sturdy reference that may inspire some re-listens (or first-time listens), but probably won't have you texting your Wilco fan friends with wow trivia moments. Maybe the most surprising thing I learned wasn't even about Wilco: it was the fact that the Replacements once covered Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," the shipwreck story that Wilco performed with help from Low and Richard Thompson in Duluth in 2013.

Wilco are known locally for their Duluth association (Mayor Don Ness gave them a key to the city in 2012), and Johnson helps tease out some additional local connections. Beyond Tweedy's Replacements fandom, did you know that the first time Wilco played Uncle Tupelo's "Gun" — the Jeff Tweedy song widely seen to mark his emergence as a powerful songwriter — was at the 7th St Entry in 1994? Or that the first time Tweedy ever publicly played a song written for Wilco (versus Uncle Tupelo) was as part of a show with the supergroup Golden Smog at the Uptown Bar (R.I.P.) that same year, when he pulled out "Passenger Side"? Or that "Jesus, Etc." features St. Paul violinist Jessy Greene, who joined Wilco for the song's live debut at First Avenue in 2001? Or that "If I Ever Was a Child" (Schmilco, 2016), possibly Wilco's best-known post-Foxtrot song, made its live debut in Moorhead, Minnesota the year it was released?

The book does have some intriguing revelations about some of the band's best-known songs, and the lesser-known ones too. Johnson quotes Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora as calling "California Stars" one of her father's "great songs," an appreciation she gained only after Wilco's Tweedy and Jay Bennett wrote and performed a melody for it. He notes there's an "R-rated" version of "Heavy Metal Drummer," with some lines about a fan flashing the eponymous musician, that Tweedy only sings live.

"Impossible Germany" (Sky Blue Sky, 2007) was on a stack of unsatisfactory tracks until guitar hero Nels Cline joined the band and Wilco turned it into an epic standby of their live set. What do the lyrics mean? Even Tweedy hardly even knows, he said when the record came out. "The only lines that mean anything to me anymore are, 'Are you still listening,' or 'Now I know someone's listening,' and here's what I want to listen to and it's a guitar solo."

One nifty Easter egg Johnson uncovers is a Beatles homage on the sunny Summerteeth track "I'm Always in Love." On "I Am the Walrus," a chorus sings, "Got one, got one, everybody's got one!" That's often misheard as "Smoke pot, smoke pot, everybody smoke pot," so over the "Always in Love" bridge, Bennett and bassist John Stirratt chant exactly that.

Learn more about Wilco's Sky Blue Sky Festival giveaway — and tell us what your favorite Wilco songs are! On Saturday, Bill DeVille and Mac Wilson will count 'em down.

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