Music

Jeff Tweedy Put Family Above Wilco In His Funny And Heartfelt Memoir

Whitten Sabbitini

“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.

Readers of Greg Kot’s Wilco: Learning How To Die will recognize the pivotal scene that Tweedy recounts in Let’s Go, when he confronts Farrar in their dumpy Belleville apartment at the end of the Anodyne tour.

“Why do you hate me?” a wounded Tweedy demands.

“You have no idea what it’s like to stand onstage with somebody every night who loves himself as much as you do,” Farrar shoots back, according to Tweedy. (In Kot’s book, Tweedy also claims that Farrar called him a “mama’s boy,” an insult later referenced in Wilco’s “Misunderstood.”)

The section about Jay Bennett covers fresher, and rawer, ground. Tweedy’s former guitarist and songwriting partner is a “sweet and funny and talented” man undone by drugs, ego, and insecurity. “He approached songs like an architect and I approached them like a wrecking ball,” he notes, though their partnership took a bad turn during the fateful sessions for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, when Tweedy says Bennett felt compelled to overstate his role in the band for filmmaker Sam Jones’ cameras. “He started pitting people against one another, whispering rumors and stoking paranoia,” Tweedy says, insisting that Jones’ film, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, failed to accurately capture the true essence of the sessions.

Worse, Tweedy came to see Bennett as a bad influence stoking his own burgeoning addiction to pills, which finally boiled over a few years later during the making of A Ghost Is Born. “I fired Bennett from Wilco because I knew if I didn’t, I would probably die,” he writes. “That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s really not.”

Some Wilco fans — particularly those who feel that the band went into decline after Bennett’s acrimonious departure — will no doubt view Let’s Go as Tweedy throwing his old bandmate under the bus. (Bennett died in 2009 from an accidental overdose.) But what’s striking about the book is how Tweedy traces his own evolution from a kid obsessed with music to a father and husband who puts family above all else, including Wilco.

As much time as he spends writing about Farrar and Bennett, or even more lasting bandmates like John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche, Tweedy reflects most affectionately on his musical connection with son, Spencer, noting that in recent years Wilco songs have started first as sketches with Spencer before being passed along to the band.

While Tweedy doesn’t diminish the value of Wilco at this point in his life, it’s also clearly no longer a focal point in the way it once was. “There are only three people I’ve committed myself to completely for the rest of my life: Susie, Spencer, and Sammy,” he writes, referring to his wife and two sons. “Everybody else, we’ll take it day to day.”

Near the end of Let’s Go, Tweedy mentions Warm as a kind of companion piece to the book. “I’ve imagined you sitting across from me, interested in what I might have to say,” he addresses to an imaginary reader. “Now I have a whole batch of songs like that, too. Maybe the first songs I’ve ever written with the intention of telling someone something I want them to know about myself.”

Since Tweedy’s invites such comparisons, it’s tempting to read “Don’t Forget” as a reflection on his father’s death in 2017, specifically a reference to a last-minute drive to his bedside that Tweedy writes about movingly in the book. And then there’s “Having Been Is No Way To Be,” a straight-forward rebuke to fans who romanticize Tweedy’s drug-addled past, which is also candidly de-mythologized in the book. “Now people say
, ‘What drugs did you take?’ 
/ And ‘Why don’t you start taking them again?’ / What difference would it ever make to them? / But they’re not my friends
 / And if I was dead
 / What difference would it ever make to them If I got high?”

While Tweedy suggests that the process of reflecting on his life for the book is what prompted the new album, I wonder if his recent music in fact initially prompted him to write a memoir. As it is, Warm seems less directly tied to the book than the other albums he’s made in the past several years: Sukierae, his 2014 collaboration with Spencer; as well as Wilco’s Star Wars (2015) and Schmilco (2016). Sonically, Tweedy has pared back considerably in recent years, both from the noisy excursions of the early ’00s and the lush retro-rock of the late ’00s and early ’10s. Tweedy’s recent music is muted, intimate, almost whispery, like a private serenity prayer.

On Warm, it’s as if Tweedy is singing to the tight circle of immediate family members that make up the most vital foundations of his life, and no one else. “All my life / I’ve played a part,” he sings in the lightly shambling “Bombs Away.” “I’m taking a moment to apologize / I should have done more.”

If he’s constricted his life to only the barest essentials, huddling into the coziness that closeness provides, he’s also reduced his music accordingly, playing all the instruments himself on Warm, save for Spencer’s drums. It’s an album that seems almost deliberately constructed to not dazzle upon first listen, or even at a particular stage of life. Only those that have similarly come to rely upon the sturdiness of family will fully appreciate the album’s Zen-like intensity. It is, as he says, a thing of rare beauty.

Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) is out today via Dutton. Get it here. Warm is out 11/30 via dBpm Records Inc. Get it here.

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