The word “limbo,” what does it mean? A word for a liminal state between places—earth and heaven, say—it’s supposed to indicate a sort of anteroom to paradise. You have to stay there till Christ frees you because you were good but you weren’t baptized (babies) or you were good but had the misfortune to live before Christ came (the patriarchs, for instance). It’s not the same as Purgatory, which is for regular people who just need to atone enough to move on. Limbo, though, has a catchier sound than Purgatory, so it’s easy to use the word for that space of purgation. The place you’re stuck in till “something” saves you and you can move on.
That’s the way I felt from about January 2001 till early 2009. You might ask what was happening in that span of time. The answer is easy: W. was inaugurated in January 2001 and left office in January 2009. Those eight years of his reign were years waiting for something to save us, collectively. Nothing did. Anyway, that was also the time when I was working on a big writing project, revising over and over so as to remain in limbo, so to speak. It was like treading a wheel, except that there was forward progress.
My 40s, which otherwise were good, took place in a period it still irks me to think about. For part of that time I was still expanding the CD collection by getting stuff I had on vinyl only. Five CDs in the changer was the typical way to listen and I was bored by records. Now, I rarely listen to music from that time as it’s only on CD. So I have to make an effort to go “back to limbo” and its music.
One of the key albums of that time was Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), which I first heard probably in the spring of 2003, so it’s right there in the heart of Limbo 1, since my 1st draft was completed in 2003, and that’s when Kajsa graduated college. So, yeah, Limbo, phase 1, could be said to last through her Baltimore years. A time when we both came into some new music, but much of that was music new to us that had actually been around for a long time. In some cases, it was new to CD.
In picking today’s song, I listened to YHF again. And a damn good album it is. It’s the album that really broke things open for Wilco, which had been, till then, for the most part, a descendant of “classic rock.” Peppy songs, marked by touches from the Neil Young songbook, The Band, and others strong in my system of things. Just not anything major. YHF is major.
“Kamera,” with its brisk, easygoing sound, is a favorite. It feels sunny and bright—like today—but the lyrics belie that buzz. “Phone my family / Tell them I’m lost on the sidewalk / And no it’s not OK.” That’s got something of the “limbo” quality right there. Everything seemed fine on the surface but there’s was something definitely “not OK” that was eating away at things. “Which lies I’ve been hiding / Which echoes belong”—that has the tug toward some of those darker undercurrents, and maybe even the kind of dissociation that we can be glad to hear given an upbeat tune.
It’s that background guitar that buoys us creating that sense of “echoes” that keep a parallel melody going, almost. And synths, like they used to sound! “I’m counting on / A heart I know by heart / To walk me through this war / Memories distort.” Yeah, the Iraq War is one of those things “not OK” that’s in the background (remember “Mission Accomplished”?), and when the background voices start singing “tell them I’m lost” we can start to feel a slight edge of desperation creeping into Tweedy’s always anxious voice.
And yet it’s hard to hear this song as real cry for help. It strikes me more as someone playing with that idea. Like: I might lose it at any minute, but, for now, I can still declaim this little ditty about it. In any case, this album does mark the time I’m aiming at when I mention Limbo 1. I’ve taken a stab at some other songs from those days but not in any abundance. Part of that has to do with not being very present then, if you know what I mean. “Counting on a heart I know by heart” might mean yourself, or at least I was then engaged in deciding “which echoes belong,” but the echoes I was listening for came from way back there in 1978. Thirty years gone by the time Limbo 2 ended. It’s harder to claim the heart of Limbo—I just don’t know it or its songs “by heart”—but this LP gets us back there.