For my friends and I back then, Wilco was The Only Band That Mattered. We spun their albums at get-togethers, debated which half of the Being There double album was better, and even drove to far flung cities -from Milwaukee to Carbondale- to see them in concert. Wilco really meant something to me in a way that no musical group had meant since I was a high schooler blasting Nirvana in my room, and which no other band has ever, or could ever, mean to me since. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a daily presence in my life from 2002 to 2004. Back in those CD days I took it with me to Germany during my archival research year, and every eerily quiet German Sunday morning would play it right after I woke up, a comforting reminder of home while I was living alone an ocean away. When A Ghost Is Born came out I acquired it immediately, and treated my first listen almost like a religious ritual. I could hardly wait to hear what mysteries lurked in its grooves, what revelations it had to offer me. When the band soon appeared on Austin City Limits I used my roommate's newfangled TiVo to record it, and watched it with a friend with the kind of hero-worshipping anticipation that one would think I had long outgrown.
It was both strange and exciting to still have those teenage feelings as an adult, feelings that are all but lost to me now after almost a decade of life outside of grad school. My graduate school years were actually some of the happiest in my life, since I was surrounded by an amazing group of people who were like a second family to me. We were a family of choice, with shared interests and touchstones, Wilco being one of the most important. It wasn't fun surviving on a TA's stipend, but the money for a sixer of mid-priced beer and cheap pizza consumed in someone's basement wasn't that hard to come by. Pleasures were simple, mostly because we just wanted to share each other's company.
It was great to be reunited with some of those friends again, since we've been scattered to the four winds and have taken on all kinds of responsibilities, from children to being heads of history departments. It was also a sad reminder that there are parts of my soul that have gone dormant since I graduated. I still listen to new music, and I like a lot of it, but nothing has matched the experience I had in 2002 seeing Wilco live and feeling transported out of myself for two hours. As much as I love any new music today, I do not have people around who share that love, and certainly not with the fervency of that old community. Perhaps it's just me getting older, but I suspect it's more than that. In the words of "Heavy Metal Drummer"'s chorus, "I miss the innocence I've known."