Volume 3, Issue 98: Impossible Germany
"This is what love is for. To be out of place."
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“Impossible Germany” is the best Wilco song, and I think it might be the best possible Wilco song. Wilco has professionally recorded 135 songs—I’ve used all 135 of them as titles for the last 135 newsletters; this is the last one, so I have to come up with a new naming convention for the next one—and I’m not sure they’ll ever top that one. In his essential Wilco biography Sunken Treasure, writer Tim Grierson, who has also been known to appear on a podcast from time to time, writes:
The six-minute track starts off as blissful, melancholy soft rock, reminiscent of peak-period Fleetwood Mac. But then, rather seamlessly, Tweedy, Sansone and Cline’s guitars start to take over — not forcefully or ostentatiously, but moving to the foreground to illustrate the lyric of contended and committed love. At first all three guitars work in unison, but soon Cline’s instrument solos expressively while the others serve as a dazzling counterpoint. … “Impossible Germany” turns guitar byplay into a romantic courtship, expressing the complexity of long-term love with a gracefulness that Wilco had never before exhibited.
I am a much bigger Wilco fan now than I was when I first heard that song, and that song is one of the primary reasons why. (It led to a deep dive and ultimate obsession that led to me naming 135 freaking newsletters after their songs.) Wilco has many great songs, but that one feels touched by the immortal. It’s the one that, when it pops up on your playlist, you have to stop everything else you’re doing. It almost transcends the band itself. It’s the one that will last forever.
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers has always said his one perfect song is “The Living Bubba,” and in the 2009 documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending, he describes writing the song with awe and even confusion: “I just happened to be standing there when that one was beamed down from the cosmos. I feel like I had nothing to do with it.” He says he doesn’t even remember writing it. It just happened. He was just the guy standing there when it did.
Any artist is always searching for that one, true, pure thing—the great one they’ll always be remembered for—and most will go their entire life without finding it. Steven Soderbergh is still one of the most exciting, talented filmmakers on the planet, but as many great movies as he has made, he himself has admitted he’s still searching for his masterpiece and will probably never find it. (Out of Sight is close. I think this is what he was trying to do with Che.) Steven Spielberg said a few years ago that he expects to be on his deathbed thinking about how he never got a single movie exactly perfect; Spike Lee has hinted at something similar. I’d argue each of them has actually had their perfect pure thing that’ll live forever—Spielberg has several options, but I’d guess Raiders of the Lost Ark is the one we send in the space capsule, and Do the Right Thing looks more and more each year like one of the most important movies ever made—but that’s the point, isn’t it? Even when you’ve made that perfect thing, you always feel there’s something more perfect, something more lasting. You’re always trying to make the next thing the best thing.
There are different strategies to find that perfect thing. Prince put out, like, six albums a year; Jane Campion makes a movie every 12 years. Susan Orlean comes down from the mountaintop and grants us a brilliant feature every couple of years and then heads back up there; Roger Ebert wrote all day every day and was out reviewing Step Up sequels and Red Dawn reboots in the very last months of his life. The goal is the same, though: To, one day, get it exactly right.
But that’s the goal of anything, right? One of the many by-products of the pandemic has been a renewed appreciation for days where everything just goes right—or, at the very least, nothing goes wrong. And these moments happen constantly, if we can see them. A day where the kids are happy and goofing off with each other. A meal shared with close friends. A gathering with a shared purpose. A quiet moment of connection.
Larger ambitions can seem silly, or beside the point. Why are you looking to some indefinite point in the future when there’s small perfections happening all around you, all the time? I’ve struggled with this in the past. But the pandemic has helped clarify perspective.
You can find that immortality in the present, right in front of you, if you look closely enough. One of the reasons I’m constantly writing, whether it’s the newsletter, the work I do for publications, or the novel (the last one or the next one), is that I’m trying to hit that groove, to happen to be standing there when something is beamed down from the cosmos. Inspiration happens during the act of creation, not before, Ebert wrote. To make something lasting, you have to be making something. But as I get older, I’ve started to realize that we are making things all the time, whether we’re writing or singing or painting or just living every day the best we can, wading through all the muck. And that perfect thing is always both just out of our grasp and also right there in our pocket. Striving to find the perfect thing in the future makes you miss perfect things in the present.
“Impossible Germany” is the perfect Wilco song; it might just be a perfect song. But perfection is fleeting, and its own curse. As we close the book on Wilco songs in this newsletter, it’s worth noting that even though Jeff Tweedy and his bandmates wrote that perfect song, and they acknowledge that it is a perfect song, they have of course not stopped. Tweedy is out there constantly writing songs—he even puts them on his own Substack! Like, every day! He even did an incredible Bowie cover last week!—and he will never stop, because even if you’ve done something perfect, you still have more to do.
The cosmos might not beam something down to you ever again. But it also might tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be a song, or a book, or a movie, or anything. It can just be one of those perfect little life moments that pop up when you least expect them. The trick isn’t constantly searching for them. The trick is to make sure you’re always open to them. The trick is to make sure you’re still standing there when they arrive. There’s nothing more important than to know someone’s listening.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
My Big Annual Georgia Football Piece, Previewing the National Title Game, Medium. I try to write one of these every year. Here is this one.
No School Is Going to Stay Closed For Long, Medium. Nor should it.
Antonio Brown and the Specter of CTE, New York. We all thought about it.
Your Friday Five for January 3-7, Medium. The quickest way possible to wrap up the week.
The Long Game With LZ and Leitch, talking college football and athletes on social media, and then speaking with New York’s David Wallace-Wells about Omicron and sports.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, the big huge national title game preview.
Grierson & Leitch, no show this week, but you need to listen to Dorkfest if you haven’t yet.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“The Pitiless Excellence of The Lost Daughter,” Alison Willmore, Vulture. The Lost Daughter, currently available on Netflix, is a terrific movie that has inspired some terrific writing, not least of which was this review of it by Willmore, who entered the pantheon of critics I read every word of several years ago. She nails this just like I assumed she would.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Before You Gotta Go,” Courtney Barnett. I’ve been listening to her new album a ton, and this song sums up what I like so much about it: It’s sad, and wistful, and true, but also very kind and compassionate. It makes me feel better about things.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
I am in Mattoon and went to a Mattoon High School basketball game last night. (We lost, to Charleston, of all teams.) Found this gem on the wall.
Also, my son had a basketball game this morning, and he and his teammates vowed that if they won, they would carry the Cobra mascot (played by my other son) onto the court. They won. And thus this:
That might be one of those perfect little moments right there.
Have a great weekend, all.