Album: Being There (1996)
Key lyric: “When you’re back in your old neighborhood/the cigarettes taste so good/but you’re so misunderstood.”
“Misunderstood” is the alpha and omega of Wilco songs, the holy grail. Some may prefer Jeff Tweedy’s more surrealistic masterpieces over the relative simplicity of “Misunderstood,” the six-and-a-half minute dirge that kicks off Being There. But it’s the song that best sums up the Wilco ethos, and created the inroads for the band’s later sonic and emotional triumphs. Before the stunning accomplishments of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there was this song to make you believe in the power of this band. And if you were listening right, it was all about you.
It’s a song that identifies with the outsider and the downtrodden. In brief brush strokes, Tweedy paints a picture of a dreamer being choked to death by encroaching age and the dullness of small town life. His youthful ideals have all morphed into memories, except for one; he “still loves rock and roll.” He’s got little to do, a lack of concrete goals, and a fortune inside of his head that won’t come out. The girl he loves, he’s hurt, but he doesn’t know why. Pretty much everything sucks.
In the last verse, Tweedy brings the punk rock attitude and left over hurt, hurt that’s been brimming under the surface in the preceding verses. “I’d like to THANK YOU ALL FOR NOTHING,” he explodes. “I’d like to thank you all for NOTHING AT ALL.” The tantrum over, the guitars fall out of tune and the song crawls to its conclusion, followed by the balm of “Far Far Away,” — the sound of truck stops at dawn — which coaxes you into the rest of the record. It’s a brilliant one-two punch on a five star album, the band’s first of many. All of the characters in the songs that follow — Choo-Choo Charlie with the pretty good band in “Monday;” the jaded lover he addresses in “Outta Site (Outta Mind)” — you can imagine inhabiting the same world as “Misunderstood.”
Musically, “Misunderstood” has been compared to the Velvet Underground’s long-form freakout “Heroin” for the cathartic ride it takes you on. It’s a stroll through two seasick chords, with intermittent squalls of violence, where guitars and drums rain down on you like a panic attack.
The arrangement makes the song, and took Wilco from being just another traditional roots rock band to being Wilco for the first time. The rest of the album was a more evolved version of the Uncle Tupelo sound — the songs utilized the same guitar licks and piano parts as the Rolling Stones, Big Star, etc.
“Misunderstood” was something else entirely. It was avant-garde roots rock. The band’s penchant for restless experimentalism starts here. The sonic balance was achieved by everyone trying on someone else’s instrument — drummer Ken Coomer played guitar; bassist John Stirratt played violin, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston handled bass duties, and Jay Bennett played the drums.
The “thank you all” ending, which Tweedy has honed into a weapon in concert, is seemingly aimed at the unfair world and the people who populate his “old neighborhood.” It could also be read as an angsty comment on his career so far, after his difficult years in Uncle Tupelo in the shadow of Jay Farrar, and the disappointing reception of Wilco’s debut album. According to Greg Kot’s book “Learning To Die,” the line “you know you’re just a mama’s boy” was something Farrar said to Tweedy the day Uncle Tupelo broke up. After years of having his songs be considered lightweight in comparison to Farrar’s, Tweedy knew he had to step up to the plate and write something amazing. “Misunderstood” was that song.
In a way, the refrain was also a way of letting the fans know that he didn’t care what you thought of the band’s bold new musical direction. Whether you were coming along for the ride or not, Tweedy was going to do what he wanted to do, regardless. And that’s what he’s done ever since.
photo: A church in Belleville, Illinois, Tweedy’s hometown.
Here’s the full Top 20:
- “Ashes of American Flags”
- “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”
- “A Shot In The Arm”
- “New Madrid”
- “Heavy Metal Drummer”
- “Jesus, Etc.”
- “Please Tell My Brother”
- “Remember the Mountain Bed”
- “Laminated Cat”
- “Sunken Treasure”
- “Wilco (The Song)”
- “Impossible Germany”
- “I Can’t Keep From Talking”
- “She’s A Jar”
- “That’s Not The Issue”
- “The Long Cut”