Radio Cure

Triumph of the Wilco: Book chronicles the fall and rise of a supposedly unmarketable album.

Wilco's record-company woes are explored in Greg - Kot's new book, Learning How to Die.
Wilco's record-company woes are explored in Greg Kot's new book, Learning How to Die.
Greg Kot didn't set out to document the decline of the music industry. The Chicago Tribune music critic was preparing to write a book about Wilco, the erstwhile alt-country outfit that's evolved into America's best and most complex rock band, when a funny thing happened on the way to the story: In the summer of 2001, Wilco's fourth album was rejected by the record company because of its far-from-commercial sound.

"It's a symbolic story of what's happening in our culture," says Kot. "It's more than just this band getting kicked around by its label and kicking back. It's about everything that's been happening in the culture in the last 10 years, with the consolidation of the record industry and the narrowing definition of what commercial music is. It's a window to a much larger story."

Ostensibly, the book -- Wilco: Learning How to Die -- is the tale of hard-working guys who made an album that was considered too risky and challenging by an executive at their label. What it eventually becomes, however, is an indictment of an industry so obsessed with the bottom line that creativity is stifled. Wilco's plight "gave other bands courage to do stuff without labels being involved," says Kot. "It opened up possibilities, where some bands are starting to realize that they don't need the majors."

Reprise Records freed the band from its contract, and it was immediately signed to Nonesuch, which released the album six months after it was pulled from Reprise's schedule (ironically, both labels fall under the Warner Bros. umbrella). The album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, turned out to be one of the finest aural achievements of the decade. And, to the delight of fans everywhere, it had a respectable debut and run on the charts and became Wilco's best-selling CD. "The band was painted in these really heroic terms," says Kot. "It was a massive victory for them. And Warner Bros. looked like boobs."

Tons of ink was spilled over the little band that took on the big, bad record company. There was even a movie about the tumultuous making of the album, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. But Kot, a longtime friend and champion of the band, got there first, he claims. "I sort of feel that I wrote the story," he says. "I was working on it when that stuff was going down. I basically spent six weeks, every day, on the phone with somebody from Wilco or somebody from Warner Bros. when the record was in this weird limbo status."

Besides, he says, there's enough drama to go around. With constant lineup shifts, fights for artistic integrity, and records that consistently challenge listeners, Wilco's weathered its share of personal and public tempests over the past decade. "Their story is part of the music," says Kot. "I don't think there's any doubt that, [with] a band that is making different albums over the course of its career, there is going to be some really ruthless decisions that have to be made."