Wax Stories #5: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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I can’t be the only one with strong ties to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. There’s so many stories I connect with this album. The physical vinyl LP was given to me with several on Christmas Eve of 2011 by Kristin the night I proposed (I’ll do a separate blog later on detailing all of these records and tell that story). There was also the time I avoided listening to “Jesus, Etc.” for a year after Nate sent me the mp3 because I thought the title sounded sacrilegious and then it went on to become my favorite song of all time. But I always come back to one particularly unremarkable night in my car when I think about this album: the elusive night drive.

It was my sophomore year of college and I was living at home during winter break. I had just gotten off the ferry in Bremerton after seeing Devendra Banhart play at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle. The show got out late and the ferry ride took about an hour so by the time I arrived at the terminal it was already 2 a.m. I made my way to the underground parking lot praying I didn’t get a ticket. I was late on my way to the ferry earlier in the day so I didn’t have time to pay for parking and still make the boat – so I unwisely decided to take the risk of getting a parking ticket. As I walked toward my car I sighed relief as I saw no envelope in my windshield.

At this time I was driving a 1985 Nissan 300 ZX. As I mentioned in my Grand Ole Party blog, I’m not a car nut – but I loved this car. It was charcoal gray, had two doors, and featured a futuristic digital dash display (that often lied to me about my gas tank). The car had a lot of issues and my dad helped me keep it going for a long time. He originally bought it from a coworker as a project car but once I gave it a spin it bewitched me. Everyone I came across told me that my car looked like it would be my car. I played my first gigs hauling instruments in the small backseat, took it on some of my first dates, got lost on many trips around Seattle by myself in it, and almost died a few times in it when the acceleration lulled out (much to my future wife’s terror a few times – sorry, Kristin). My dad put in a new CD player in the car before I got my license. The first song I listened to in the car when I finally could drive alone was “Hell Yes” by Beck off of Guero, but Wilco has been in my cars pretty much from the first week of driving through now.

I turned on the ignition and punk noise blasted from the aging speakers. I ejected the disc – The Divorce’s There Will Be Blood Tonight, and searched through my middle console for the right music to fit the mood. My car was always messy so I’d have to sift through dozens of unmarked mix CDs and busted jewel cases to find what I wanted. I finally settled on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I wonder how the night might have felt differently if I’d left in The Divorce or just put in some random mix. In either case, Jeff Tweedy was going to soundtrack me through a introspective, heist feeling that would result in vague revelations and zero theft.

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I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

I pulled out of the parking lot and down the road, focusing hard to not make any stupid turns. I’m notorious for having a terrible sense of direction, even in places I’m familiar with. Eventually I was spit out near Callow Avenue in downtown Bremerton. At a stop light, I looked into a parking lot in front of a strip mall where a church I used to attend once met. Feeling nostalgic, I briefly considered pulling into a parking space to look at the empty room but noticed someone else was already there doing exactly that. Instead I drove on. I took a left on Callow and passed some of my favorite old haunts and venues that I used to play shows at – namely The Charleston as well as the The Artists For Freedom and Unity Gallery. I laughed to myself as I took a look at Elmo’s Adult Book Store. At this point I start to think I should right down all of these thoughts I was having when I got home (which I did in a scattered Facebook note).

Kamera

I continued down the road and hoped on the highway. Large sections of Highway 16 are not lit very well, so at night there’s this looming darkness that adds to the solitude when you’re on the road alone. Hardly anyone drives this late around here. Whereas when I’m driving in the city I get flustered, highway driving always puts me at ease. I let my thoughts wander just enough so I can still keep focus. I run through different ideas about music, writing, and relationships that all seem revolutionary until I forget them immediately when I reach my exit.

Radio Cure

I took the Sedgwick Exit, passing a Shari’s hexagon and the golden arches. As my car climbed up the hill I remembered a hitchhiker I saw the night before at this spot. I started to regret not picking him up. Was it the safer choice? Am I a bad person for assuming the worst in people? There is something wrong with me. I began to wonder if I stress to much about trying to be a good person and put unrealistic expectations on myself.

War On War

I drove by an abandoned gas station across from Fred Meyer. For some reason whenever I see this place I remember when my mom would take me here on my way to school in Kindergarten to buy my lunch. I loved the Oatmeal Raisin “Grandma’s Cookies.” Now the building is vacant. But tonight there are a bunch of cars parked in front of it with their lights on. I may not be the best judge, but it looked like something sketchy was going down. I briefly considered pulling through the parking lot to catch a glimpse of what was happening. I also consider calling the police to let them know of the suspicious activity. In the end, I do neither. There is something wrong with me.

Jesus, Etc.

I decided after this that I was going to take the long way home, which really meant go out of my way to make the trip longer. It was an impulse more than a plan. And by impulse I mean hunger. I was really craving some Taco Bell. I’d become accustomed to late night Taco Bell or 7/11 runs with friends. To me, going to grab fast food at two in the morning wasn’t a big deal at all. Though in this moment I wonder if I’m really making healthy choices, but quickly disregard that thought as silly.

As “Jesus, Etc.” played, I started to think about “the state of contemporary music” and got myself t into a self entitled fury. Then I started to feel like an asshole. Who really cares what I think? In the end my opinion doesn’t really have much weight on what the masses should like. What right do I have to be legitimately concerned about music – like it’s some sort of maternal (or paternal) instinct? I chalked it up to me being a pretentious hipster asshole and make not to try and not be a pretentious hipster asshole.

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Ashes of American Flags

I pulled up to the Taco Bell on Mile Hill only to find all of the lights off. I thought, “maybe it’s still open and they just turned off most of the lights to save energy or something.” I decided to go through the drive-thru anyway. I was sure that Taco Bell was open till 3 a.m. Going through the dark pathway was haunting. The noise at the end of “Ashes of American Flags” played as I drove. The menu lights were off and the street lamps were dark. I got out as fast as I could. Some sort of paranoia told me I needed to leave. I was ashamed at how terrified I was.

Heavy Metal Drummer

I was still hungry.

A part of me wanted to get into some sort of mischief, but it was really unlikely that I would. The only place that I could think of that would be open with greasy, ready-to-eat food was a convenience store. My route changed to AM/PM. I drove down the hill to the AM/PM and pulled in to the parking lot and spot a souped up, red sports car (the make I didn’t try to identify, but it noted to myself that it looked stupid). A guy sat in it with who I assume is his girlfriend. He began revving his engine at me. I laughed to himself. I could tell he was trying to impress his lady friend. Obviously calling out me and my unwashed, dirty Nissan is going to be a panty dropper. But in my head I played out the situation as something else. Maybe he mistook me for someone else. Someone he had a grudge against and he was waiting for me to come out of the store so he can make his attack. I began to become a short-lived inside joke with myself as I walked into the store and picked up a cheeseburger that’s been there for who knows how long.

I’m The Man Who Loves You

As I stepped out of the store I saw Mr. Red Car Doucebag still sitting with his engine on at the opposite side of the parking lot.

“Maybe I wasn’t being so absurd after all…,” I thought.

Everything then seemed so cinematic. I began to imagine that he wanted to race me. Maybe he had thought my car was actually a racing beast that I hid under a layer of grime so people wouldn’t bother me. I’ve always had an active imagination.

I quickly hoped into my car and rushed to the opposite exit of the parking lot. “I’m The Man Who Loves You” is booming in my speakers and I could not think of a better get away song in that moment. I was smiling to myself as I pulled on to Jackson Avenue. I had gotten away. Then the realizations came. He didn’t want to race me. He probably didn’t even notice you. I then started thinking how stupid it was all going to sound when I went home to write it down.

Poor Places

I kept quiet as I continued driving. I decided it was finally time to go home. Every once and a while I would wonder if Mr. Red Car Douchebag was still following me, maybe keeping his distance. He wasn’t.

Reservations

I pulled in to my driveway as the last song comes on. I know this could be the dramatic finale I need to cap the story. Jeff Tweedy says so many beautiful things in this song that I know will give me so much to think about with love, desperation, and longing. I sat in my car for the first minute of the song but then I decided it was too much. I couldn’t contrive more out of this evening. You can’t force something to be organic. So I turned off my car.

I walked to the porch, turning the key carefully to not alarm my dogs who would in turn wake up my dad. I can’t remember, but they probably did end up barking. I made my way upstairs and climbed into bed and pulled out my laptop. I wrote down my ridiculous stream of consciousness and pressed publish, awaiting what my friends might say. At the moment I thought it was brilliant, but I suspected others wouldn’t think so. I also suspected I wouldn’t think so as time went on as well. Everything about this drive felt so important to me. The music felt important to me.

Three years later I’m still not sure it means something at all, but I can’t listen to this album without thinking about it.

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Previous Wax Story: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

Next Week: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

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Wax Stories #1: U2 – “War” / INXS – “Shabooh Shoobah”

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It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly drew me to vinyl records. The whole vinyl resurgence hadn’t really become a “thing” yet in 2005, at least not in Kitsap. Vaguely I recall my friend Amanda mentioning in passing that music sounds better on vinyl. I think there was just something cool and fascinating about vinyl. At the time I was really heavy into P2P Sharing platforms (ahem…pirating) like Kazaa and Limewire but still found way more satisfaction opening up a CD case and going through all the album artwork and notes. I was just beginning to fall in love with music at 15; buying records was the first step to a “full on relationship.”

My family has always loved going to junk shops and antique stores (Sorry Macklemore, I’m OG). I can recall going through furniture aisles with my mom, clothes and fabric sections with my grandmother, and sifting through every junk bin in the building with my grandfather. The fact that I found my first record player at a vintage mall wasn’t fate, it was just a matter of time. At Great Prospects in Port Orchard I spotted my future Technics SL-1900 a few weeks before purchasing it. I had seen a few record players around before that, but this was the first one that grabbed me. It was sleek – all black, modern looking. I assumed it was incredibly high quality just by its appearance. I worked out a deal with my mom that summer to exchange a few days of yard work for the turntable. After I did my part, she drove me over to Great Prospects. I worried it’d already be sold and we were too late, but I was in luck.

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I picked up the turntable and a pair of cheap $10 speakers (I only remember the price because I kept the highlighter pink tag on them for years) and headed toward the counter. Right near the register was a display of records. I figured it wouldn’t make much sense to have a player with nothing to play on it. I sifted through the bins, going through a lot of Christmas albums and Barbara Streisand Compilations, and looked for anything that I thought would sound good.

First I spotted U2’s War. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb had just came out in 2004 and was constantly in my CD player. I had just begun listening to their back catalog after some recommendations and history lessons about the band from my dad. I took out War and inspected the track list. Side A, Song 1: “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Sold. I loved that song and that was enough for me to justify buying it without knowing any of the other songs on the album.

I thought this was a solid enough purchase and almost called it quits on my first digging expedition until I saw INXS’ Shabooh Shoobah. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I was only familiar because my family was really into the “American Idol” rock-rip-off reality show “Rockstar: INXS.” The show featured the remaining members of the band seeking a new lead vocalist to replace the deceased Michael Hutchence. I thought this was the coolest show to ever be on t.v. Every week I could hear people sing not just INXS songs, but also other real rock songs with songs by real rock bands like Queen, Nirvana, and Creed (my tastes were still being developed – see my dissection of Chad Kroeger). Regardless, I had just started going through INXS’ discography as well and idolized them as “one of the few, great 80s groups.” I wasn’t really familiar with the songs on Shabooh Shoobah (I was mostly hoping to find “Kick”) but as the season finale was coming up in a few weeks, it only felt appropriate to pick this one up too.

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After making my decisions, we paid for my new gear at the register and headed home. It was summer and our house always would get blistering hot due to our lack of shade. My godfather Tony (who’ll likely come up a few times in this blog series) was living with us at the time as he tried to overcome his alcoholism. We set up my record player in the living room so I could learn how to use it. Tony got me paranoid about the records warping because of the heat and instructed me to keep them out of sunlight. I took note. I plugged in the record player, connected the speakers, and set War Side A on the mat and lifted the needle. I was ready to hear music in a way I never had before. Instead, I heard nothing. My mom and Tony laughed – we had forgotten that we needed a pre-amp for this to work. I put my ear close to the needle on the wax and faintly I could here the snare lead in of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It was quiet, but it was there.

We went back to Great Prospects and picked up a cheap pre-amp and I got myself set up in my room. Late that night, when I would usually be on the computer chatting with my friends or writing back and forth with my Internet friends on message boards, I stayed in my room and played each record back-to-back till 3 a.m. I played it quietly because my parents were sleeping in their room and Tony’s room was right next to mine. Even though one of the speakers kept cutting out and the volume was so low that there was probably not discernible difference from my mp3s, I swore it sounded so much better than anything I’d ever heard before.

I favored “Seconds” and “New Year’s Day” on War most of the night, as I followed the lyrics over and over again in the gate fold. The burn marks and bent edges of the cover made me wonder who had it before me and if they had been a big U2 fan like I was. I’d eventually quote “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in a fake presidential speech for class the next school year, only to have a senior guy remind me it was an Irish protest song and not about American policies (that was the day I decided to never go into politics). “Don’t Change” on Shabooh Shoobah slowly became one of my favorite songs of all time (especially after my favorite contestant on “Rockstar: INXS” sang it, but later I appreciated it more for its composition and mantra). I still spin these records every now and again, though much more rarely as my collection has expanded. As far as beginnings go, these two were a wonderful start to something that would carry on with me for longer than I expected.

Next Week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Wondering what “Wax Stories” is all about? Read my introduction post.

 

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