Symbology and Myth in Marina City

The cover artwork of Wilco's 2002 album Yankee...

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I’m breaking the usual format this week to provide a special Music Monday post (which in this case is more my thoughts tangentially related to the music and not the music itself) that’s been brewing in my head the last couple of days. The Week in Preview will come tomorrow, with regular posts to follow.

I was looking through the Wilco tag on Tumblr on a lazy Saturday evening when I found this.

An absolutely stunning picture of Marina City, or as Bestest Friend Ever Kelly Cordray put it, “the Wilco towers,” referring to the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, one of the greatest albums of the 2000s and easily my favorite album to this point in my life. I ended up coming back to this picture, again and again, for the next few hours, studying the contour of the buildings and simply being mesmerized by the picture itself. When I was talking about this with Kelly, she thought they were just buildings. And really, they are – as much as they seem abstract, almost mystical, people live there, and work there, and (in the lower portion of the buildings) park their cars there. Life goes on there just as life goes on in the former psychiatric ward in which I live. But to me, the towers of Marina City represent so much more.

How can a picture of a place I’ve never been encompass so much feeling? It’s kind of easy for Chicago to be that place, a city ever so eloquently described by Carl Sandburg (emphasis mine):

Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

It’s a city with myriad neighborhoods, enough lore to rival New York, and like all cities, constantly at war with itself. It’s a town that reveres its hot dogs and its steak sandwiches. It has a flag that commands respect and wonder, and with it (and quite possibly from it), creates a sense of civic pride rivaled by few metropolises in the world. As was noted on Roman Mars’s fantastic design podcast 99% Invisible, when a Chicago police officer dies, it’s the city’s, not the national flag on their casket. And yet the most important component of the myth of Chicago is that it’s a place personally unexplored and relatively as far as the moon itself, and thus infinite in its potential.

But it’s more to it than that – more than just another great city, another potential place to escape and move forth – Marina City is as equally connected to the myth of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, my myth of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as it is with the myth of Chicago. Obviously, on its surface, its connection is as all albums are connected to their cover, the nostalgia that comes into picking up the packaging, thumbing through the liner notes, combing over the lyrics to make sure you’ve got that line right in your head. (For the record, I love that in the YHF liner notes, it says that “Wilco is/was” the band – even in verb tense agreement, the album has such eternality.) When I first heard the album, about two and a half years ago, was a turning point in my adolescence, a point when I began to emotionally and academically mature, when I really came to develop the ability to be passionate about things – not in the way of the fleeting but intense passions of childhood, but of genuine, lifelong affinities – and when I came to connect with and understand people, and make truly meaningful friendships.

But at the core, for me, the music of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, both melodically and lyrically, has become a story in and of itself – one of love and its loss (and the garish beauty of love’s futility), and of truths hidden in the chaos of everyday life. And with those themes, Marina City remains at the center of the album – not just in the tall buildings shaking in “Jesus, Etc.”, but through all the songs. The aural landscape of the album can really just be walking about the towers and along the shores of the Chicago River, ruminating the thoughts humans like us think.

I wonder if YHF would resonate for me as much if the cover were different (as discussed in this video done by the AV Club), or if I found it at a different point in my life. As Jeff Tweedy himself alluded to at the first of Wilco’s Central Park concerts this fall, for those who heard it when it was first put out by the band in 2001 (particularly New Yorkers), the album could have been a way to reflect upon September 11th, 2001, or if the timeline were misconstrued, seen as a response to that day’s proceedings. But I discovered Wilco, and YHF, years later. In the end, it’s become for me what all great music of youth becomes: a symbol of personal change, an agent of discussion on what it means to be adult, and over time, a source of what was and what might still be.


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