Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary
Daniel Cook Johnson readily admits that creating a song-by-song encyclopedia about his favorite band was a spectacularly geeky endeavor.
The project has its origins in the few years Johnson spent writing about one Wilco song per week for the now-defunct content farm Examiner.com. Eventually, he found he had enough material to start joking with friends about putting together a book called Wilcopedia.
“Somewhere along the line, though, I was like, ‘Why not? That might be pretty cool.’ I’ve got encyclopedias for Bob Dylan and the Beatles,” Johnson says.
It took the North Raleigh resident several years of working in the evenings, listening to every Wilco bootleg he could find and scouring magazines and message boards for tidbits of insight. As a film buff and a music collector, Johnson is familiar with the compulsion to learn everything about a movie, book, or album, but the eight-hour stretches at his computer often made him question whether it was worth it.
“Of course, I would get discouraged,” he says. “Relatively few people get published, and I was like, ‘What if I’m wasting years of my life on this?’ But something made me think that it would be appealing to fans. I love this kind of reference; I love that some fan is going to read the Wilcopedia and find out there’s some demo on a bootleg they ought to track down.”
Wilcopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to the Music of America’s Best Band was published in September by Jawbone Press, an independent, London-based publisher of music and pop-culture books. Song by song, the book tracks Jeff Tweedy and company—who are touring their new album, Ode to Joy, through Cary with Soccer Mommy on October 16—from their origins in alt-country band Uncle Tupelo and through influential albums A.M. (1995), Being There (1996), Summerteeth (1999), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001), and onward, all the way up to Schmilco (2016). The book is impressively detailed, neglecting no B-side or bonus track. Super-fans will drink up the minutiae; casual readers will learn more about Wilco than they ever bargained for.
Johnson, who is fifty years old, was born in Chapel Hill. He works part-time at Barnes & Noble and The Rialto Theatre, and he writes about film screenings for The News & Observer. He first heard Wilco’s debut album, A.M., while working at a CD store in 1995.
“I didn’t it pay it too much mind at first, but somewhere in that first listen, the songwriting struck me,” he says. “Then I kind of drifted away from them, because I was listening to a lot of music, getting all these promos.”
Johnson wasn’t totally hooked until the band’s second album, Being There, came out the following year. He came to consider Wilco an amalgam of his musical interests, a band at the intersection of Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground.
“There’s just something behind the cinema of Jeff Tweedy’s voice,” Johnson says. “There’s this self-deprecation and sincerity. A couple of albums down the line, that earnestness dissolved into abstraction, but initially, I liked how simple it was; it was like a really sweet little Neil Young song. But I loved that they progressed from there. It was a quantum leap from Being There to Summerteeth, and yet another to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They really kept me engaged, going from this simple country-folk-rock band to something a lot more elaborate.”
Johnson has remained a devoted listener but recognizes that some have not. In promoting Wilcopedia, which he’ll discuss at Schoolkids Records on October 11 (with moderator Doug McMillan of The Connells), he has encountered a faction of fans who believe that Wilco peaked in the late ‘90s.
He sees their point—the late guitarist and producer Jay Bennett was still in the lineup back then, and the sound has evolved into something much different. Though each of Wilco’s albums have grown on Johnson eventually, he’s still warming up to Ode to Joy, which just came out October 4.
“It took some listens, as it has with several other Wilco albums, but I have been digging Ode to Joy more and more,” he says. “It’s subdued and mostly whispered, with strangely spare orchestration, but there are solid Tweedy songs there, and some wonderfully restrained performances by his band mates, particularly drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline. I’m already working on my entry for the album for future editions of Wilcopedia.”
Johnson didn’t try to get the band involved with Wilcopedia, preferring to write it entirely from the fan perspective. But he sometimes questioned that approach. Even for a self-described “geeky collector,” perhaps he’d gone too deep into the Wilco-verse on his own.
That feeling disappeared, Johnson says, when Wilco’s camp requested several copies of the book for their office loft, and he heard that the band’s manager personally handed one to Tweedy. His passion project was validated.
“It’s pretty cool that the guy I’ve written so much about has a copy,” he says. “Even if he doesn’t read it and just puts it on a table somewhere, he knows about it.”
Daniel Cook Johnson
Schoolkids Records, Raleigh
An Excerpt from Wilcopedia on “The Lonely 1”
Who this lovely, haunting acoustic song, which comes towards the end of the band’s second album, Being There (1996), is about is one of the biggest mysteries in all of Wilco folklore.
Many feel that the narrator’s rock idol in “The Lonely 1” is Paul Westerberg of The Replacements, one of Tweedy’s biggest influences. This theory makes sense when considering the lines about writing in his idol’s defense to critics’ pans (Westerberg got a lot of crap from critics over the softer, poppy direction his band took on their last couple of albums), getting home from the show to check the machine for messages (a possible reference to Westerberg’s song “Answering Machine,” from the ’Mats’ 1984 album Let It Be), and the fact that Westerberg has a song called “If Only You Were Lonely.”
But the Austin American-Statesman’s Michael Corcoran wrote in 1996 that “Tweedy swears [the song] is not about” Westerberg, and others have suggested the song’s subject could be Neil Young, another idol of Tweedy’s, whom Uncle Tupelo often covered, and with whom Wilco later toured.
Another repeated theory is that the song is about Jay Farrar, Tweedy’s former partner in Uncle Tupelo, whom Tweedy once idolized, but he has also denied this rumor. As far as Tweedy himself is concerned, the song has just two characters: “The rock star and the fan, and that’s all it is to me.” Explaining the song to Music Monitor’s Melissa Adams in 1996, he continued, “Music means something different to everybody, and the stars are different to everybody.” —Daniel Cook Johnson