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American Curmudgeon: On Jeff Tweedy

The Wilco frontman has just written one of the best and most revealing memoirs in years

Jeff Tweedy playing guitar Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Some time around the end of the century, Jeff Tweedy was browsing through a record store when he came across a CD called The Conet Project, a compilation of, in his words, “Cold War–era spy transmissions sent over old-school shortwave radios.” This was the sort of thing that sounded cool to Tweedy in the late 1990s, so he bought it and listened to it the whole way home. “The voices were so eerie,” he writes in his candid new memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), “like long-dead ghosts trying one more time to make contact but not really sure anymore how to use language or even who they’d been trying to reach in the first place.”

Tweedy listened to The Conet Project constantly, the way normal people would a pop song. It reminded him a little bit of himself when he tried to talk to other people. “Most of the conversations I’ve been involved in during my adult life are just slightly less awkward versions of The Conet Project,” he writes. “I’ve been to dinner parties and other social situations where I can’t even pretend to get with the small talk.” It also reminded him of the loose thematic thread tying together some new songs he’d been kicking around in his head. “Yankee … hotel … foxtrot,” garbled one of the British ghost-voices on his car stereo. “Yankee … hotel … foxtrot.”

A year or so later, in an exchange forever immortalized in Sam Jones’s 2002 Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Tweedy was backstage at one of his solo shows, trying and failing to explain to some chipper music industry people what his band’s long-awaited fourth record was going to sound like. Tweedy is searching in vain for words; everyone around him is making and laughing at terrible jokes. When he says there are a lot of tape loops, someone kids: Are you making a Wilco album or a Tricky album? People chuckle, so he goes on, to prove he’s serious: “It’s got a lot of drums and … holes. Holes in the songs.” “So, is Courtney Love in there?” someone blurts out. Again everyone but Tweedy laughs. “A lot of big open spaces between what’s supposed to be … the music part,” he says. “I don’t know.” He walks away.

For reasons that should by now be apparent, Jeff Tweedy never struck me as the candid-memoir type. In fact, whatever the exact opposite of the candid-memoir type is? He struck me as that. Although I have been listening to his music for 20 years, he’s always felt like an enigma. And that has always sort of felt like the point—here was this ambling, mumbling, Sour Patch–voiced guy who’d much rather put his life into oblique lyrical metaphors than say anything about it outright. The closest he’d ever come to a statement of self was “I am an American aquarium drinker”—and as gorgeous a lyric it is, I am still not sure what the hell it means. Even in Jones’s documentary, which is generally considered (incorrectly, Tweedy would like you to know in his book) the most revealing document about Wilco, Tweedy comes off as a little prickly, withholding, and slyly deliberate in what he chooses to share. It might seem like a lot—infamously, he lets the cameras follow him into the bathroom to film him vomit from his habitual migraines—but the closer you watch the more he recedes. “There is no sunken treasure,” he insists in one of the songs he performs in the film, “rumored to be wrapped inside my ribs, in a sea black with ink.”

It is very likely you don’t need to read a book about Jeff Tweedy to know how the story of that fourth album ends: The label, Reprise, did not hear a hit when it finally got its hands on a copy, and dropped Wilco from their deal because the label did not believe them to be commercially viable. And so back in 2001, long before it was the sort of thing people did, Wilco streamed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on their website for free. A staggering number of people discovered this record inspired by secret shortwave messages and the impossible necessity of human communication. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—eventually, correctly—became one of the most acclaimed and beloved rock records of the new century.

Of course, that’s not where the Wilco story ends. And neither is the release of their first and only album to win a Grammy, the stark, modernist A Ghost Is Born, though that’s the end point of the best book so far about Wilco, Greg Kot’s 2004 band history Wilco: Learning How to Die. Tweedy’s memoir, though, suggests that 2004 wasn’t an ending for the band so much as a turning point, and a time during which much more was going on than appeared on the surface. Namely: Tweedy was so depressed and debilitated by panic attacks and taking so much Vicodin that he constantly believed he was going to die before the record was even finished. “I mean that in all seriousness,” he writes. “I thought I was going to die. Every song we recorded seemed likely to be my last. Every note felt final.” If he overdosed, he writes with jarring frankness, “A Ghost Is Born would be a gift to my kids, who could turn to it when they were older and put together the pieces of me a little bit more than I’d been able to put myself together for them in real time.”

We’re far from evasive mumbles here. Let’s Go is a warts-and-all addiction memoir, but luckily it is much more than that, too. It’s also a genuinely moving ode to his wife and two sons (one of whom, Spencer, is the drummer in his side project Tweedy), and an impassioned and often quite funny firsthand account of a music geek’s coming of age within the Our Band Could Be Your Life canon—at one point, D. Boon sells Tweedy a Minutemen T-shirt; later, he watches the Replacements from a “kiddie corral” at an all-ages club with a floor that almost collapses under the enthusiasm. It is also a welcome invitation to consider Wilco as something stranger, deeper, and more barbed than what they now seem to be in our collective consciousness: the hipster ambassadors of “dad rock,” fronted by a guy who has had several walk-on (amble-on?) roles in Portlandia. Wilco is not (quite) that band. Because, do not forget, that Wilco is also a band helmed by a guy who once touched the same dollar bills as D. Boon and who almost died falling through the floor at a Replacements gig. Maimed, and then tamed, by rock ’n’ roll.

Tweedy grew up in a small, wood-framed house in Southern Illinois, at a time when records could still bear the scars of the early battles fought just to hear them. He still has a copy of London Calling with a cover indented from his thumbnail where, as a 10-year-old, he laboriously peeled off the “Parental Advisory” sticker so his mom would let him buy the LP. (It took several different trips to Target, over the span of several weeks; he’d hide it in a secret place in the store and go back to his work each time.) His copy of Public Image Ltd.’s The Flowers of Romance still has a scratch from the time he put it on during Christmas dinner and his dad yanked the needle off the record so forcefully—“Boy, are you trying to kill me?”—that it left a mark.

As these things happen, there was one other misfit in his freshman English class who liked the Sex Pistols, and his name was Jay Farrar. They formed a band and toyed with a few different names, none of which stuck until a friend of the band’s drew a cartoon character inspired by it—an unofficial mascot. “It was an old, fat Elvis Presley,” Tweedy writes, “but a version of him that never became the King. He’s drinking beer, wearing bunny slippers, and sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner. He’s the Elvis who squandered his gifts, never left Tupelo, and just drinks cheap beer in his mobile home every night.”

The image was goofy—the guys were all still in high school, after all—but it was also a little haunting, and it sketched just the kind of lives Tweedy and Farrar, defiantly, did not want to lead. They knew so many guys like that, maybe even their own uncles and fathers and grandfathers included. The point of Uncle Tupelo was that they weren’t going to be “Uncle Tupelo,” the Elvis who spent his life wasting away in Belleville.

And it worked like a magic trick, until it didn’t. Their first record, No Depression, was such a landmark that it eventually spawned the name of a subgenre of alternative country music and a magazine. They made three more, one of which was produced by Peter Buck from R.E.M., the last of which was on a major label. They opened for Johnny Cash. (“I don’t remember saying much,” Tweedy writes. “What was there to say to Johnny Cash? It was like talking to the Empire State Building or a bald eagle.”) But tension between Farrar (who played guitar and sang most of the band’s most famous songs) and Tweedy (bass and sometime vocalist) became constant; by the early 1990s, their egos were on a never-ending bumper car ride. And so in 1994, right after releasing their acclaimed fourth album Anodyne, Farrar pulled perhaps the last power move he had left. He broke up the band.

You can boil down everything you need to know about the difference between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar (as songwriters, at least) to how you read that iconic A.P. Carter line that inspired their first album and became a mantra for Uncle Tupelo: “I’m goin’ where there’s no depression.” Farrar, like Carter, meant capital-D Depression. “He was always zoomed out by a power of ten to a height that outlined the edges of a big picture I could never quite make out from where I stood,” Tweedy writes. “I don’t remember feeling as negative about where we lived until I met Jay and we started writing songs, and he wrote about factory towns and unemployment and alcoholism and things like that. I mean, he wasn’t wrong, Belleville was a depressed community economically and psychologically.” But Tweedy’s muse, and his scourge, was more lowercase-d depression. That was not the sort of thing it was easy for a boy from Belleville, Illinois, to figure out, so it might have taken him writing with someone who saw things differently to start piecing it together. “I had plenty of internal torment and self-doubt, but very little of it was directed outward, looking for someone else to blame,” he writes. “I wasn’t looking at the community around me and thinking, ‘This town is a cancer that’s eating us all alive.’ Even early on I was more likely to believe that if something feels bad, it must be my fault.”

In a roundabout way, Farrar deserves some credit for my favorite Wilco album, the sprawling, double-disc statement of purpose Being There. There was natural competition between the two bands that formed from Uncle Tupelo’s ashes, Farrar’s Son Volt and Tweedy’s Wilco. (For a contemporary comparison, imagine the Oasis vs. Blur battle—if, sure, only about 10 percent as many people cared—but if Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn had been in a band together since high school.)

Farrar had won Round 1 with Son Volt’s debut album Trace; Wilco’s first record, A.M., was decent but sounded a little vague, light-hearted, and flimsy given the expectations. Now the gloves were off. Tweedy had just written a new song that captured the punk spirit of his roots, so much so that when they played it in the studio they would pass their instruments to the right every take, because fuck competence and fuck stability. He wanted every song to feel like it was on “shifting sands,” because that was how it felt to be in his body and his mind. “Misunderstood” is six and a half minutes long, and it is perfect; since it knows this, during its final 60 seconds it self-immolates like a burnout with nothing else to do: “I’d like to thank you all for NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING AT ALL,” Tweedy hollers till he’s hoarse. There were still 18 more songs after that, and an alarming percentage of them were just as good.

Being There,” he writes, “the first album we recorded with Jay Bennett, is the light going off in my head of ‘I don’t have to limit myself to the musical interests that Jay Farrar and I had in common.’ It was a real epiphany.” But yes—enter: another Jay. Although Tweedy had hired Jay Bennett just to play guitar in Wilco, he got more than he bargained for—which turned out to be a blessing and then a curse. “I loved his willingness to try anything [in the studio], to fuck things up with me,” Tweedy writes of Bennett. “He was also happy and willing to dig in with me to find ways to subvert classic song structures. We complemented each other well in this regard; he approached songs like an architect and I approached them like a wrecking ball.”

Sounds exciting, but that’s maybe not the way I’d describe a sustainable creative partnership. After the clashes with Farrar, Tweedy wasn’t exactly looking to be in another band with two different frontmen, and by the time Sam Jones showed up to the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions with his camera crew, Bennett’s firing felt inevitable. “A circle needs a center,” Tweedy infamously told Bennett in the documentary. But the way Tweedy tells it in Let’s Go (with the clarity of hindsight, of course), one reason he parted ways with Bennett was to stay clean. He’d quit painkillers around that time (only temporarily, it would turn out), but Bennett was still using heavily, getting packages full of pills FedExed to Wilco’s studio. “I was scared for him,” Tweedy admits, “but I was even more terrified for myself because I was just learning how much danger I was in and how hard it was going to be to stay healthy. So it was a selfish move. It was about self-preservation. I fired Bennett from Wilco because I knew if I didn’t, I would probably die. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s really not.”

Bennett wasn’t as lucky; he overdosed on fentanyl in 2009, at the age of 45. His relationship with Tweedy and the band never recovered. Just weeks before he died, he sued Wilco for $50,000 worth of back royalties.

Shortly after Wilco completed its fifth album, A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy suffered what he describes as “a serious mental collapse.” He had attempted to quit painkillers and all other medication cold turkey; as a result he lost 30 pounds at a frightening speed and “stopped being able to function.” He ended up in the emergency room, and then a dual-diagnosis clinic (“basically a mental hospital that also treats addiction”), and then a halfway house for a little while after that. Off painkillers, he was a little bit scared that he’d never be able to make music again, but there were reassuring signs. One afternoon in the laundry room of the halfway house, he was playing around on a guitar, “just trying to see if I still know how to do it.” He was playing “Muzzle of Bees,” the knottily pretty acoustic number on A Ghost Is Born. An older man about his dad’s age had been quietly watching. “You know what, son?” he said, “You’ve got something special. I don’t know what it is, but you’ve got it, and you need to do something with it. … The only thing you’re lacking is confidence.”

One thing I appreciate about this very entertaining book by Jeff Tweedy is that it does not argue with the fact that, at times, Jeff Tweedy can be kind of a dick. Let’s Go is written in the language of therapy and recovery, but it’s also colorful and at times bracingly clear-sighted about its author’s failures and past. “I get it when Wilco fans are still angry at me about Jay Bennett,” he writes. “I don’t like it, but I understand. They don’t think Wilco is as good now as it was when Jay Bennett was still in the band, because he’s on all of the Wilco albums that mean the most to them.”

Although I do understand why Tweedy and Bennett were a volatile combination that could no longer exist together in a band, I have at times been one of those people who missed the volatility, who preferred the early records. I still can’t claim to be a fan of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, the first record the band made after Tweedy got clean, but after reading Let’s Go I certainly understand it more as a necessary part of the band’s trajectory, especially given that it led to more adventurous records like 2011’s The Whole Love and 2015’s Star Wars. “In a lot of ways I can see it now as a fairly typical recovery-themed record,” Tweedy writes of Sky Blue Sky. “‘Either Way’ is basically a rewording of the Serenity Prayer for crying out loud. It’s an important record for me in that regard. I think letting down my guard and getting things off my chest in a more humble and plainspoken manner helped me reset an idea of myself as a creative person. Leaving behind as many of the myths surrounding suffering and art as I possibly could was the only path forward.”

Perhaps the cruelest firing in Wilco was not Bennett but when Tweedy axed drummer Ken Coomer because he’d met a more experimentally inclined percussionist named Glenn Kotche; instead of delivering the news himself, Tweedy had the band’s manager call Coomer to tell him he was being replaced. “I wish I had done it differently,” Tweedy writes. “It was stupid of me. It shut down any opportunity I might’ve had to talk to him for too many years. I still don’t think he likes me very much, and I don’t blame him.”

There is certainly a reading of this story that blames Tweedy for being egotistical, opinionated, or difficult to work with. But to prefer that story would also be to prefer records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and maybe Wilco in general, not to exist in the same uncompromising way. To get things to sound as close to the music in your head and on such a grand scale as Tweedy did on records like YHF, Being There, and even A Ghost Is Born requires a level of curmudgeonliness, a willingness to be the only person in the room not laughing at the dumb jokes. It’s an odd combination of tenderness and fuck-you punk spirit—maybe he learned it from the Clash. “London Calling wasn’t a dangerous attempt to burn everything down that had come before,” he reflects, on that record with the stubborn cover sticker. “If it was dangerous at all, it was because it dared to have ambition. It wasn’t nihilistic at all. In fact, it was daring in how sincerely and unabashedly it was begging everyone to care more, not less.”

In their own way, that’s what Jeff Tweedy’s songs are usually trying to do, too. They can be beautiful but they’ve also got those holes, those scars, those gaping wrecking-ball dents, all of which speak to the immense difficulty but absolute necessity of trying to make anything beautiful at all. They let off firecracker blasts that illuminate the darkest parts of the mind. It can feel claustrophobic in the brain, in the body, yes. But music’s greatest power, Tweedy writes, comes when it can make the person listening to it or playing it “lose the burden of self and be put back together as a part of something bigger, or other.” Sounds like a transmission worth sharing.


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