Happy 20th Birthday to Being There! Remind me to buy you a drink when you turn 21 next year.
In 1994 Uncle Tupelo, the alt-country group led by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, broke up. Jay formed Son Volt and Jeff formed the Wilco. That same year, both bands released their first albums, Trace and AM. In many ways Son Volt’s Trace was the more groundbreaking album. AM, though it had its strong moments, was really just a lighthearted piece of country roots music and did not excite Was there hope for Jeff Tweedy’s musical career? Wilco’s album Being There, released in 1996 answered that question with a resounding YES!
I believe Being There is their strongest album, most likely in part because of how the songs have evolved over the years at live shows. But these aren’t just good live tracks, Being There is also an incredibly complex double album where almost every song could have been a single. You hear all of Tweedy’s influences really come alive on this record.
The album opens with the track “Misunderstood” which sounds almost like a back-alley mugging at the intro. The reason it sounds like such a mess is likely because just for fun, the members decided to switch instruments to see what it sounded like. The track resembles Nebraska era Bruce Springsteen at certain points and due to many of the lyrics, such as “I’d like to thank you for nothing, nothing at all” is assumed to have been written about Farrar. But that is just the beginning. On “Forget the Flowers”, you get vibes of the Grateful Dead. On “Monday”, you get vibes from the Beatles. You also get some killer traditional rockers like “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and some great light folk beauties like “Sunken Treasure”.
Personally, I never understood the label of Wilco as the “American Radiohead” but Being There certainly plays to that narrative. Being There is the perfect compromise between the beautiful Dylan-like melodies of Tweedy’s songwriting and brilliant experimentation of the collective band he formed. Over the years, when you see what Wilco accomplished and with the addition of musicians like Glenn Kotche on drums and Nels Cline on guitar, you understand that Being There was the start of this adventure for the band.
While Farrar may have maintained his status as a great country songwriter, it’s clear that the reason it took longer for Tweedy was because unlike Farrar, he was searching for something new and different and he pretty much knocked it out of the park with Being There. We would like to wish happy 20th anniversary to our friends from Wilco, and a thank you for their unwavering support of Headcount and democracy. The release of Being There is a historic moment in rock music we will never forget.