“Midwestern sarcasm, when it’s done correctly, can be a thing of rare beauty,” Jeff Tweedy observes in his new memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). He’s referring to a duo of former high-school classmates that he unluckily encounters while dining with his family during a trip back to his hometown in southern Illinois. They have just asked the founder of Wilco whether he’s still playing in his “little band,” which prompts to Tweedy to chuckle at his teenaged self, who once dreamed of playing rock and roll as a way of sticking it to these very people. Only now, as an adult, has he finally realized that jocks and cheerleaders don’t consider “indie rock success” to be success at all.
Of course, he’s not just calling out condescending small-town folk. Tweedy himself is a master of that very same dry, truth-smuggling derision. The tone that carries through Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) — wry, prickly, self-deprecating, a touch misanthropic — will be familiar to anyone who pays attention to Tweedy’s interviews or between-song patter at shows. While Tweedy scans as a quintessential middle-aged sad-sack singer-songwriter, he’s increasingly come to carry himself on-stage like an observational stand-up comic who happens to also be a defining alt-country icon. A few months ago, I caught one of the solo gigs he played ahead of his forthcoming solo album, Warm, and I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at an actual comedian in a very long time. For Tweedy, an unwanted request for “California Stars” or “Passenger Side” is an invitation to riff acerbically on the absurdity of being a touring musician who has survived band break-ups, industry shake-ups, and all kinds of mental and emotional screw-ups for nearly 30 years.
It’s no wonder, then, that Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) reads more like a collection of humorously confessional essays by David Sedaris than a conventional rock memoir. Instead of dwelling on the familiar “sex, drugs and rock and roll” tales that typically round out these books, Tweedy sticks with more relatable adolescent misadventures from the middle-American wasteland, like the time in third grade when he claimed to classmates that he wrote and recorded the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run. (“I think I’ve heard this on the radio,” he recalls one kid insisting, to which he replies: “Probably. It is pretty popular.”) For Tweedy, imagining himself as the guy on that tape was as crucial as learning how to play guitar or write songs.
Unlike most famous musicians, he seems self-aware about his place in the universe and the overall ridiculousness of his vocation. Tweedy, a Grammy winner, muses that the industry honor is like being an athlete who made it “to the Olympics and found out they award medals to the best athletes in the world but also to people who have really awesome fake Chinese symbol tattoos.” A frequent theme Tweedy has hit upon in interviews over the years is his disdain for the mythology of artists, which he elaborates upon in Let’s Go by demystifying his own process. Anyone who pores over the lyrics of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is misguided, he suggests. “Melody is king,” he writes. “I believe that melody, more than lyrics, is what does all the heavy lifting emotionally.” He also disputes the tortured genius narrative, pointing specifically to his older brother Steve, a mentor figure who subsequently was sidetracked from being an artist by personal demons.
Ultimately, it’s boring old hard work that most determines who makes it and who doesn’t. “The people who seem the most like geniuses are not geniuses. They’re just more comfortable with failing,” Tweedy concludes. “They try more and they try harder than other people, and so they stumble onto more songs.”
The most fascinating parts of Let’s Go for diehards will be Tweedy’s recollections of “the Jay’s” — Jay Farrar from Uncle Tupelo and Jay Bennett from the “classic” late ’90s lineup of Wilco. I suspect Tweedy’s staunch distaste for “tortured genius” stories stems in part, at least subconsciously, from what has been projected by fans onto Tweedy’s fraught relationships with both men.
Regarding Farrar, Tweedy depicts the arc of their relationship — which seems to have ended with the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo in 1994 — not unlike a typical boyhood friendship that inevitably fizzles at the onset of adulthood. Tweedy was attracted to the talented yet taciturn Farrar because he was the only other guy at his school who liked punk rock. But as their band gained a small but passionate following, that common bond was eventually overwhelmed by their contrasting personalities.