‘Ashes of American Flags’ (Jay Bennett, Jeff Tweedy)
Following the tracks, “War on War” and “Jesus, Etc.,” on Wilco’s 2001 album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the dramatically building “Ashes of American Flags” can be seen as the peak of the album’s songs that bring the tragic events of 9/11 to mind.
In this slow-starter, which appears on the surface to be about cosmic indifference, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy sings about basic needs like Diet Coke, cigarettes and wanting a “good life, with a nose for things.” He then speak-sings “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags” in what constitutes the song’s chorus. The track dissolves into white noise at its close.
It’s the emotional centerpiece to an album that is arguably the most significant record of the band’s career.
In his 2018 memoir, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back),” Tweedy writes, “I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much of the imagery from ‘Ashes of American Flags’ is sprinkled throughout the first 150 pages of [Henry Miller’s] “Tropic of Cancer.” None of it is in the same order or context as the song, but the language is almost all there.”
Tweedy first played the abstract track at the Lounge Ax in Chicago, in October 1999. In his solo acoustic rendition, it was a skeletal three-minute folk song, but in the hands of Wilco it became an orchestral art-rock epic.
The fadeout at the end, with “Ashes of American Flags” disintegrating into the following track, “Heavy Metal Drummer,” was at the root of the infamous argument between the song’s co-writers, Bennett and Tweedy, that’s captured in Sam Jones’ documentary about the making of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” 2002’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
In a 2005 radio interview broadcast on FM4 Heartbeat in Vienna, Tweedy told host Robert Rotifer, “There was a conceptual element to that — there was a thread as far as ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ is kind of the commodity of the record. It’s the pop music; the track that could be considered a product. And ‘Ashes of American Flags’ is a set of lyrics that’s trying to introspect what is the nature of a product. You know, how much power does it really have over me? Is the cash machine evil, or is it blue and green? You know, trying to look at things microscopically down to molecules of a flag that’s been burnt.”
“Ashes of American Flags” also served as the title of Wilco’s live 2009 DVD, which kicks off with a superlative version of the sad-core opus filmed at the soundcheck of the band’s show at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla. ,on March 8, 2008.
Surprisingly, though, the song has only been played live by Wilco around 300 times in total; it’s poppier partner “Heavy Metal Drummer,” by contrast, has been performed over 700 times.