Daniel Cook Johnson: Wilcopedia

Back in the day, encyclopaedias were essential household items and were often flogged door to door by sales people intent on educating the masses (or making a quick buck – even disgraced tycoon Robert Maxwell had a go). Use of these voluminous hardbacks has mostly now been replaced with online encyclopaedia Wikipedia and the internet more generally, with an army of experts, both professional and amateur, often working for free to provide content. Some fans have even created a dedicated set of Wikipedia-like pages on their favourite band, for example the Hold Steady Wiki.

Wilcopedia, by Daniel Cook Johnson, has its roots in the writer’s “side-gig” as a contributor for examiner.com, where he posted regularly about Wilco, the American rock band led by Jeff Tweedy. Sensibly Cook saw this as a starting point for this impressive compendium on all things Wilco. The book is “part reference guide, part history, part critical overview”, and with its wealth of facts, “encyclopaedia” is indeed an appropriate categorisation. Johnson’s approach is to focus on Wilco’s songs as opposed to any of the personal history – there are a number of books which already consider the history of the band and its members: Greg Kot’s Wilco: Learning HowTo Die (2004), Tim Grierson’s Wilco: Sunken Treasure (2012), and more recently, Tweedy’s memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) (2018); Johnson wisely says in the introduction that he wanted to stay away from “gossipy or personal sidelines…unless they are touched on in various songs.”

This approach works well, with Wilcopedia as a labyrinth of information and pointers about this great band and their songs. The book is split up into sections on what came before Wilco (“in the beginning, there was Uncle Tupelo” 1987-1994), the past and present band members (“Wilco, the Personnel”), as well as live releases, and film and tv appearances. However most of the book is devoted to the songs themselves, album by album. Johnson approaches this chronologically, with No Depression, March 16-20, 1992, Anodyne and 83/93 An Anthology covered sequentially for the Uncle Tupelo years; then there’s A.M., Being There and Mermaid Avenue for 1994-1998, Summerteeth, Mermaid Avenue Vol II, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and A Ghost Is Born for 1999-2004, Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the album) for 2005-2010 and The Whole Love, Mermaid Avenue Vol. III, Star Wars and Schmilco in respect of 2011- 2016.

Johnson’s commentary on each song is well-researched and interesting. He tells us about the inception of the songs, how/where they were recorded, what the critics and band think, and whether the songs have been favoured in concert through consideration of interviews and live versions, with an impressive array of cross-referencing. A few examples: “Jesus, etc.” (from the 2002 acclaimed album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) has been played by the band almost eight hundred performances from 2001 to 2016, and more than a hundred times either in solo acoustic sets by Jeff Tweedy or as part of the band Tweedy; the title of the song derives from co-writer Jay Bennett’s “lazy, late-night CD labelling”. “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” (from 2011’s The Whole Love) is a ten verse, twelve minute song that has been played live more than eighty times since September 2011. The version on vinyl is two minutes longer than on CD. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley (or her boyfriend) is featured in the title, with critics theorizing why (you can read about these theories further in the book).

Tweedy himself certainly understands what it is to be a music fan, which is why a book like this, with a healthy mix of information, trivia and insight, makes perfect sense. “When you perform, it’s so intense/when the critics pan, I write in your defence/I understand I’m just a fan, I’m just a fan”, Tweedy sang in “The Lonely 1” on 1996’s Being There. Johnson sees this song as “one of the biggest mysteries in all of Wilco folklore”: he goes on to consider who could be the rock idol in the song (perhaps Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, Neil Young, or even Uncle Tupelo’s Jay Farrar).

Wilcopedia provides a relatively complete picture of the band by discussing some of the changes in line-up, as well as deluxe editions, the box set Alpha Mike Foxtrot, live records and EPs. There is a section on Wilco’s cover songs over the years  which is helpful to illustrate some of Wilco’s influences (Big Star, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons), and unlikely performances (Abba’s “Waterloo” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”).

Johnson is aware that hardcore fans may find omissions, but this will always be the case for a book of this nature, and particularly the case for a band like Wilco who have such a devout, sometimes rabid, following. However it’s difficult to find fault with this first edition of the book.

Of further note is the impressive design and printing, with a great colour insert of photos and album covers. Wilco fans are also well served by an alphabetical song by song podcast, Alpha Bravo Charlie, which provides further analysis, but as much as we like podcasts, having a tangible book to read is a pleasure.

Tweedy once declared that “books, they all know they’re not worth reading”; the history of these particular complicated lyrics is in itself complicated, but our recommendation here is simple; this one is worth your time, however you want to read it; front to back, back to front or song by song, Wilcopedia is an essential purchase for Wilco lovers.

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Publisher: Jawbone Press
Publication Date: 13 SEP 2019