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MOTIVATIONAL MUSINGS: ‘What you once were isn’t what you want to be anymore’

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My wife and I went out on a rare midweek date this week to see a band that’s intricately tied to my addiction and recovery story.

For those of you with no background, Wilco developed out of the breakup of the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, one of the groups that gets a lot of credit for coming up with the blueprint of what we today know as Americana. Guitarist and singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco, which sounded like an Uncle Tupelo knock-off on the band’s first album, “A.M.,” but then began to evolve into something greater. Something “weirder,” as casual music fans might say.

I didn’t find out until years later that my addiction and Jeff’s were on parallel paths headed toward the bottom. I liked “A.M.” OK, thought “Being There” was a fantastic record and fell in love with “Summerteeth,” which was released in March 1999. I've been an unabashed Wilco fan ever since, and while every record has a misstep or two, I can't think of a single one on "Summerteeth." I got that record at a time in my life when I was circling the drain, clinging desperately to the sides, feet flailing over a black abyss. I think, in some ways, Tweedy was feeling the same thing.

I remember listening to it on the way to Nashville's River Stages festival that fall, where I vaguely recall some amazing sets — Lucinda Williams, Dickey Betts, Steve Earle, The V-Roys, Cheap Trick and Hole among them. But I remember "A Shot In the Arm," the record’s third song, clanging around my skull like a warning klaxon, even as the music of other bands filled my ears that day. Aside from Courtney Love kicking an overzealous fan in the face and me getting really drunk, I don’t remember much about that festival, but I do remember driving home, listening to “A Shot in the Arm,” over and over again as the early morning sun threw orange light over the Middle Tennessee landscape and my heart feeling more alone than it ever had, even though I had just spent a weekend with friends seeing live music.

The lyrics, man ... they got through in a way nothing else previously had.

The imagery ... the full ashtray, the harsh morning light streaming through smoke-stained windows, the weight of a thousand worlds on his shoulder while she sleeps in the other room in a slow-growing salt stain of tears ... the nostalgia of falling in love and the soul-crushing regret of its end, a mirror to what I had been through the previous year ... it was a glimpse at a person I didn't recognize, in a place I didn't want to be.

I kept coming back to that song, over and over and over again, even as the next year started to unravel in ways I can't articulate that truly captures the degradation, dereliction and desperation that is life under the overhead sodium lights of a gas station bathroom at 3 a.m., digging around in a scarred arm to find a vein that'll take a load.

I don't know why it took me another three years after that record came out to get to the outro, but it's a mantra that I keep close, ever since I woke up in a greasy film of detox sweat at Peninsula Hospital almost 17 years ago and realized that I had been muttering it in my sleep.

"What you once were isn't what you want to be anymore ..."

In all the days that have come and gone since then, all of the lyrics and words that have tumbled from Tweedy's mouth and that band's incredible catalog of songs, that's the one that means the most. It is, without being overly melodramatic, the refrain by which all others are found wanting, written in fire across the recessed cobwebs of the mind where memory fades and pain dulls.

"What you once were isn't what you want to be anymore ..."

They didn’t play it at The Bijou Theatre on Wednesday night, but that’s OK. These days, Tweedy is clean and sober, and I can’t help but feel something of a connection to him beyond mere fanboy adoration. These days, I can listen to “A Shot in the Arm,” and it’s taken on a completely different meaning than it once did. The howling chorus no longer haunts me, and the closing lines are still a personal mantra that I hang onto every day.

We all do, if we’re living this program. And even if we’re not, it’s the message we impart to those in our care.

“What you once were isn’t what you want to be anymore …”

Sing it one more time, Jeff. Sing it for all of us.

Here’s your Friday motivation, friends.