Aquarium Drinkers Anonymous

After attending one of the album’s 20th anniversary shows, filmmaker David Wexler looks back on the legacy of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

I used to love LimeWire. I never used Napster, but LimeWire was a short-lived service where you could search for music (and pretty obscure music at that) and download the tunes. Different files would work and play better than others, and it took a certain skill to become a LimeWire Master, but it was a way for me and my fellow music lovers to share, digest and discover.

Hard to believe there was a time and a place when Spotify was just a nonsense word, and Apple focused primarily on selling computers, but this was the beginning of the new millennium. This was two or three years before Facebook, and social media wasn’t social media. This was a time when most homes had landlines, and cell phones weren’t cameras. This was around the time I fell in love with Wilco.

David Wexler (center) with friends, while a student at UW Madison. (Photo courtesy David Wexler.)

First and foremost, I would have to blame my friend Erica, who was from Chicago. (Our claim to fame was once leaving a concert at Aragon Ballroom, five miles north of downtown, and making it back for Bar Time – the witching hour when watering holes and nightclubs would begin to close, and students from UW Madison would congregate onto State Street, searching for more debauchery.) Having been born and raised in New York City, I wasn’t sure how I would get on continuing my studies in the Midwest. I would wind up loving it. Loving traveling all around to the Twin Cities, Chicago, Milwaukee, and especially loving the city of Madison. A city teeming with culture; a place where I learned to fall in love with music, and film, in a deeper way than I ever thought possible.

Erica knew a lot about music, and she knew even more about Wilco – they were from her hometown (she always bragged about this). At that time, I had some of their tracks on LimeWire. I think B-Sides (the cool record shop) was sold out of their first three albums, A.M., Being There and Summerteeth, and I wouldn’t have even thought about trying to order a CD from Amazon. I don’t even know if that was a feasible option yet. It was either from LimeWire, or Wilco’s website, that I first unearthed the 11 tracks that made up their masterpiece.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s fourth album – their breakthrough record, the critical and commercial slam-dunk that catapulted them to indie rock gurus and alt-rock darlings – celebrated its New York City run of 20th Anniversary shows this past month. Five shows at the United Palace in Washington Heights. The venue is like a cathedral; an old picturehouse that is kept in immaculate condition – a time machine. The perfect venue for this trip back to the early oughts. Wilco blasted through the record (a headphone album, if ever there was one), making sure to include each and every bit of sonic texture and tomfoolery that pops and buzzes its way through the 51:51 run time. It is a really quiet album, and it is a really loud album. It is a really sad album, and it is a really happy album. It is a really simple album, and it is a really difficult album. Finishing the set seemed to be just as confusing (in a great way), overwhelming and exhausting for Jeff Tweedy, the frontman and prog-rock poster boy who beamed ear to ear from under his scruff when it was all over. Finally, he could release for a three-song encore (classily dedicated to Jay Bennett, who passed away in 2009). The rift between Bennett and Tweedy is well-known, and well-documented, but the impact Bennett had in making YHF is evident watching the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart – an excellent piece that chronicles the band’s exhaustive efforts to finish and release an album deemed too weird for their label at the time. Spoiler alert (sort of, as this was 20-plus years ago…): Wilco got dropped by their label, released the album on their website, and six months later signed with Nonesuch Records – which is where Erica and I come back into the story…

So, Erica and I were out at a bar, I believe Angelic’s, once a small brewery and tap house in Madison, Wisconsin. We were very familiar with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but to listen to it in 2002 (six months later), on CD, was super important for two reasons. One, this was the official release, and two, it was now semi-removed from its 9/11 lore – how would it hold up on its own? It held up. And it holds up amazingly well to this day. It is not only a great album, but also a great statement. The songs themselves seem to be based around familiar song structures. There is something comforting, folky, alternative, yet incredibly (for lack of a better word) simple about these songs, at least on the surface. It could have been a comforting, warm album. If it was that album, it could have been a great Americana album. But instead, this remarkable band had the foresight to take what we knew about music (and quite frankly, culture) and then sort of deconstruct it and then reconstruct it in the most beautiful way possible. The arrangements, the tape hiss, the screeching, the drum patterns with seemingly impossible-to-replicate tempos (though Wilco’s amazing drummer, Glenn Kotche, replicated himself perfectly that night in Washington Heights!)…it was like a century’s worth of everything put into a blender to act as an energy shake for this next century.

Wilco playing live in New York at one of their 20th anniversary Yankee Hotel Foxtrot shows. (Photo by Charles Harris.)

Amazingly, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was first released a week to the day after 9/11. It joins William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, and Explosions in the Sky’s Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever (and many, many more pieces of art plagued, or at least somewhat mystified, by this strange, horrible time in America). YHF even a bit more so – Marina Towers, a Chicago landmark, featured on the front cover, is eerily reminiscent of the Twin Towers. Song titles like “Ashes of American Flags” seemed psychically spot on as news footage of American flags unearthed in the terrible rubble permeated television screens. Lyrics about buildings shaking and towers scraping the sky…all a bit too real/surreal. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the anniversary was first commemorated in New York City before the band continued the shows in its hometown of Chicago.

As an audience member that first night, I found the silence at the conclusion deafening – the stage lights at the end eerily echoed the memorial light beams that jut up into the heavens from Downtown Manhattan each anniversary. These stage lights, emanating into the crowd at the end, leaving the band obscured in the shadows. The Marina Towers-esque sconces hanging above the band in the darkness, once again. I think everyone took a deep breath when those transposed 51 minutes and 51 seconds droned off into oblivion. It was a cap on a very important album, in a very packed house, by a very important band.

Wilco on stage at their first YHF anniversary show, as seen by David Wexler.

There were moments, especially towards the end of the show, when Tweedy was almost shaking his head, letting his head drop; like, overwhelmed, beside himself. It seemed like he may have finally been able to digest what this all meant – the album, this moment – but, at the same time, maybe he never will. After the standing ovations, and encores, and subsequent bows (and more standing ovations), the lights went up and it was shocking to see peers and fans without face coverings, and a general public (hopefully) ready to enjoy a summer out of the shadows once again. A lot of big bands are celebrating seminal albums and important anniversaries this year – and a lot has changed in the past two decades or so. We’ve been plagued by terrorist attacks, recessions, wars, a pandemic, and culture has morphed from the analogue to a sometimes horrifying digital extreme. All of this is compiled into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as if the disc (and anniversary shows) weren’t so much a circle, but an orb – better still, a crystal ball. But both the album and subsequent stage show are also about love, and redemption, and about being there. The album opens with the line “I am an American Aquarium Drinker”… maybe I am too. Maybe we all are.

David Wexler is President of Cinema 59 Productions, based out of New York City. Prior to his feature films Evil Weed, The Stand Up, Anchors, Turtle Island, Vigilante and Last Supper, he had success in television with a show he produced and created for MTV called College Life. David’s film Motorcycle Drive By was an official selection of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and most recently his film Disintegration Loops was an official selection of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.