Today is Flag Day, a national “holiday” of sorts meant to honor the adoption of the stars and stripes as our nation’s standard. I don’t have much to say about all that, except to use the fact as a pretext for today’s song, from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002). The song, on an album released in the year following the attacks on 9/11/01, had a great deal of urgency and poignancy, even if it was composed and recorded before that landmark event.
In any case, it’s obviously not a stridently topical song. In fact, its relation to its moment is largely one of matching its mood to those very tense and chastened and overwrought days, something I did more or less instinctively in 2003 when I first heard the record. The song’s immediate concern is the singer brooding on his own state of mind as he withdraws cash from an ATM. Or rather, he uses the interaction with the cash machine to reflect on his own state, a state in which “diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes” stand for minor addictions—like cash itself. It’s a stark opening in its everydayness, and the everydayness is what the singer is having trouble dealing with. “I’m down on my hands and knees / Everytime I hear a doorbell ring.” There’s a feeling of paranoia there, but also a kind of shambling agoraphobia and disassociation. The song in many ways is simply a representation of the overt self-consciousness of the speaker, including a comment on how he feels when he hears himself sing.
And no wonder. That voice is so strained, stretched to what feels like a limit of communication. Tweedy delivers, in the sound of his singing, a kind of nails on a chalkboard feel, a quavering mess of anxiety. The unease is best found in the bathos of “All my lies are always wishes / I know I would die if I could come back new.” A very great articulation of a very deep malaise. The idea that one lies against the world—or, as poets, against time (earlier Tweedy muses “I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck”)—for the sake of a wish that things were better will take us far into the kind of desperate sacrifice for the sake of wish-fulfillment that was swallowing the country in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster. Tweedy, I suspect, only means to express his own view that he lies from a wish to change or to make his situation seem better, and that, if death could bring that change, he would be willing to die, to be reborn as something better. Sacrifice for the sake of wish-fulfillment and a kind of immortality through sacrifice is the note that makes the song considerably relevant to its moment.
Paranoia, a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a desperate longing to make it better, by lies if necessary. Sounds like the early 2000s to me. “We want a good life with a nose for things / The fresh wind and bright sky to endure my suffering.” The conditions of existence are never what we would like them to be, and Tweedy’s song registers that with its very ragged delivery matched with a recording that seems to placate us at times with sweetly delivered embellishments, only to become overwhelmed by distortion and dissonance in the song’s close.
The closing verse: “I would like to salute / Ashes of American flags / And all the fallen leaves / Filling up shopping bags” is one of the best statements capturing the days of the clean-up of the obliterated towers and the flurry of flag-waving that led us into a war that produced still more casualties. Ashes of American flags, of course, brings to mind the burning of flags as a protest against the Vietnam War and, since Tweedy is singing this before the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan began, that’s the idea we should be thinking of, I assume. Saluting the ashes is not the same as saluting the flags, so that he seems to be saluting the act of burning the flag, or, perhaps, the residue that remains after that defiant, symbolic act. But, in the context of the death and destruction in New York, the ashes of the fallen Americans become a referent even as we might want to burn some of the flag-waving jingoism that intoxicated almost the entire country. And those fallen leaves filling up shopping bags—besides a great image that joins the “blight man was born for” with endless consumerism (the American way)—can’t help but remind us of fallen soldiers filling up body bags. The salute here is to the casualties, recognizing that death—whether for one’s country or while simply going about one’s normal everyday business—is the nature of things, caught up with fallen leaves and everything else that falls, such as confidence in the economy, our leaders, our institutions and the very emblems we use to stand for the state of our union with the State. In the end, even flags are fragile and flammable.
Oh, speaking of tomorrow, how will it ever come?