Some of us got to see Wilco play at Coney Island last night. I’m happy to report that they remain one of the best live acts out there, with more than a little jaw-dropping virtuosity, inventive heart-on-your-sleeve songwriting and, yes, genuine showmanship. They connect! The new material came off well, and they kept the noodling to a minimum (Impossible Germany = bad, Spiders = good). Jeff Tweedy seemed to be in particularly good spirits, cracking some great jokes and reminding me of the recent NY Times interview with him:

Unlike the rock trope that only chronic agony produces important music, the absence of mayhem has been good for the work, [Tweedy] says.

“I was never at my best when I was at my worst,” he said, looking out the window as his sons — Spencer and Sam, 9 — bounce and laugh on a diving board. “When I did do good stuff in the past, it was because I was able to transcend the parts of my being that weren’t healthy.”

Mr. Tweedy has a Midwestern lack of pretension that is easy to be around, but he is a less than voluble interview, not because he doesn’t try to answer questions, but precisely because he does. He cares about being understood but struggles to explain himself because, as all writers will tell you, happy is nice, but happy is hard to explain.

“I suppose because everything about my life is better, markedly so, I’m a significantly happier person — well, I’m not being very eloquent about it,” he said, pausing, and then continued: “Having a solid base allows you to look at darker things and actually think about them. I debate people about this suffering myth, this tortured artist stuff, and they almost never buy it.”

It’s a fascinating topic, the relationship between art and suffering. I’m often tempted to claim that it contains echoes of a theology of the cross: suffering being the means of redemption artistically or something like that. Or to paraphrase Tweedy, God is at His best when we are at our worst.

Certainly the artist needs to be familiar with his/her own pain in order to connect with the pain of others. But it would seem that rock musicians, in order to really connect (or really produce), need to be in pain as well. This is just an observation – I can certainly think of plenty of counter examples – and I would love to hear other people’s thoughts. I only know that at the last few Wilco shows I’ve attended, the songs that blow me away are always the ones from A Ghost Is Born, the album Tweedy wrote when he was in his worst shape. In other words, I tend to agree with the critics in practice, even though I want to (and do) believe that there’s some truth in Tweedy’s claims.

Sixteen Favorite Wilco Songs

  1. Reservations
  2. Hummingbird
  3. Remember the Mountain Bed
  4. Pieholden Suite
  5. Kicking Television
  6. Venus Stopped the Train
  7. Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard
  8. Forget the Flowers
  9. Summer Teeth
  10. Cars Can’t Escape
  11. Hell is Chrome
  12. Ashes of American Flags
  13. She’s a Jar
  14. At Least That’s What You Said
  15. You Are My Face
  16. Candy Floss