in “heavy metal drummer,” jeff tweedy & wilco are always in love.
Wilco’s masterpiece pop song “Heavy Metal Drummer,” from the celebrated 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is about many things: youth, aging, sincerity, taste, immediacy, distance, summertime, bleached blond hair, double kick bass drum pedals, sweet smell of pot smoke, the pleasures of listening, the pleasures of watching someone else listening, the pleasures of the cover song, the noticing of desire, the meaning of bliss.
It is a song about heavy metal that is not a heavy metal song. A nostalgic reverie that streaks past the past into a glorious dad-rock future. A sincere missive to an ironic appreciation. A shiny shiny pants fable about dudes in Kabuki makeup and outrageous platforms. A jealous gaze upon even oneself one day thrashing out devil’s triads on stage in front of the adoring crowd. A love letter to a fan, maybe to fandom itself.
It starts with a tinny, off-kilter drum machine fill that gives way to a propulsive trap-drum beat worthy of a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Ringing mixolydian chords circle around and around, flowing out over the landing in the summer, by the water, absorbed into the reefer wafting out over the Twainian Chuck Berry riffage of foggy Mississippi River riverbanks. It ends with a looping mystic crystal revelation of bubbling postlapsarian glitter glow, the chords leaving behind a gurgling spin of fairy dust that spirals out over the caked makeup faces, abandoned cracked plastic beer cups, and cigarette butts at the concert ending.
In between, classical music masks Kiss tunes, but it can’t quite drown out the sound. Maybe one can indeed Rock and Roll All Nite, and party every day to boot. Maybe one can achieve eternal youth. There is a mish-mashing of taste levels into a new holistic aesthetic of the American beautiful, a midwestern sublime. Grimy, Detroit Rock City arrives in St. Louis metro-area grind. There it meets oracular individual epiphany combined with collective euphoria. I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get stoned. There is imitation and originality. Cover songs leading to original insights. Roll over Beethoven. At the landing, it’s summertime and the living is easy. Somewhere in there: crickets.
What “Heavy Metal Drummer” might be most about, however—the secret that unlocks the song—is love: love forming, love in motion, love’s foolishness, love’s serious power, love is king. In this case the object of love is the heavy metal drummer. Maybe the object of affection is also an older man’s glance back to a moment of youthful happiness suspended in time. Yet these objects of love are but sticks twirling in the air. They are not the actual subject of the song. The actual subject is the feeling of falling in love itself. Falling in love with music, with a location, with a memory, with the hum of human time, with the things that make us tick. “She fell in love with the drummer. Another and another. She fell in love.”
What matters is not that the woman, whom the song’s narrator is watching intently, fell in love with the heavy metal drummer. The drummer is ridiculous in his shiny shiny pants and bleached blond hair, mugging for the crowd. What matters is not even that the narrator himself is in love with the woman. While he is clearly enamored of her, he is even more amazed and entranced by her capacity to fall in love with falling in love. “She fell in love with the drummer. Another and another. She fell in love.”
Fittingly, the adolescent female fan is the song’s protagonist. She is the rock star of rock music. It is her desire that unlocks the body and moves the singer to dance. For she does not merely fall in love with just one drummer. She falls in love with all of them, in sequence, one after another, perfect pop products, authentic rock cover band members in the association of the great American teenager. They pass through town to perform at the landing in the summer. She finds the key to why the music matters.
It is the heavy metal’s drummer’s fate to be but the vehicle, revving away with two feet on the double kick drums, for this desire, which the singer shares in via the woman he is keenly watching. Or maybe they—the two listeners—are, in a sense, the double kick drums, at least metaphorically speaking. Either way, we might say that this is the musician’s fate: to be the vessel for desire, player being played. Music is the alchemical catalyzer of the perception of falling in love. We miss the innocence we have known. But the knowledge is better, way better. So says the backup vocalist (bassist John Stirratt) in the chorus of “Heavy Metal Drummer” when he affirmatively gasps, in falsetto joy, at the insight.
The song pommels onward, chords churning, rotating, turning, form the root to the dominant, the major to the minor to the major again. We are refreshed in the memory of falling in love, touching that feeling again, feeling it in ourselves, seeing it in others, bringing it into the present. Music carries love forward, across time. The song recovers love by letting us miss it. Then the music fades out, kissing off.