Wilco's Jeff Tweedy: Author! Auteur!

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy: Author! Auteur!

Written by Wayne Robins

Wilco's front man has a new album and book almost all the time


Let's Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording With Wilco, Etc., (2018)

World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music (2023)

Cousin: Album by Wilco, 2023.

Starship CasualJeff Tweedy's Substack

For me to go out on a winter Saturday night to see a concert has become a rare thing, but we did go to see Wilco at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn in February 2016. What I remember of it was that the band was great, played the whole Star Wars album, including my fave songs from from that era, "Random Name Generator," and "The Joke Explained." "RNG" was one of this rock band's few actual high energy-by-definition "rock 'n' roll" performances; "The Joke Explained" is like a reverse engineered Dylan song. But according to Setlist FM they did not play the rocking encore I hoped for, "Standing O," from The Whole Love (2011). It is my go to Wilco song when I need a lift. The arteries of the song course with adrenaline, but its mind is sad:

I turn my mood on a dime
I'm finally off of my back
I come from a long, long line
I mope and I cry and attack
No standing o, o

And there was a detachment between the band and the audience that made me feel awkward. Everyone was on their phones, or taking pictures with their phones, or selfies with their phones. There wasn't the bond between band and audience that would make a young concert-goer, perhaps just starting to learn guitar, to be inspired the way Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy was by his forebears, seeing the Replacements, for example, as a 14-year-old in a St. Louis club near his home in Belleville, Ill.

Wilco is considered the great Chicago band of our era, owners of The Loft, the musical magnetic North Pole of the midwest. Their masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was recorded there. Released free on the Wilco website in 2001, while the band extricated itself from Warner's Reprise label, only for the album to surface and thrive on Warner's smaller, curiously curatorial Nonesuch label under the guidance of then-president (and now chairman emeritus) Robert Hurwitz. Pitchfork, then still Chicago-based, gave it a 10 out of 10.

"He wasn't raised in Chicago, like Billy Corgan or Dennis DeYoung," said our savvy midwestern correspondent and former Sun-Times music journalist Don McCleese. "He didn't move there until after Uncle Tupelo. But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and everything since is definitely part of the Chicago musical mythos. He has a Chicago work ethic and a very Chicago wife, so I'd say their sons are Chicago purebred."

But he is not one for local small talk, especially if you want to talk about Chicago’s summer obsession, the Cubs. In Let’s Go, he rants:

“Every time somebody asks me, “How ’bout the Cubs?” I want to respond with “yeah, the Cubs, they’re going to die someday. Do you ever think about that? All of them. All of them. Rizzo. Bryant. The one with the goatee. The other ones. The entire team. Some of them probably soon, you don’t know. They could be dying right now while we’re sitting here making conversation about baseball. Death is lurking.”

Wilco's new album, Cousin, is not necessarily Wilco at its best, but as always has some memorable songs: opener “Infinite Surprise” is top of the game, the title tune an interesting chemistry lesson. The chemistry comes from the hiring of Cate Le Bon, the Welsh singer-songwriter, to produce the record. Original and offbeat, she brings some of the space noise that longtime associate and sometime band member Jim O'Rourke did/does as engineer, mixer, and musician, sounds that allow what is essentially folk-rock allow Wilco to be commingled by some with Radiohead as avatars of 21st century “art rock.” When Tweedy uses strings or effects on a record, for example, they have to be appropriate to "a doom-dabbling, 50-year-old, borderline misanthrope, nap enthusiast." One of my favorite songs from Cousin is "Evicted" in which Tweedy reduces his soft-boiled self-critical lyric style to hash-oil essence: " I'm evicted/From your heart/I deserve it."


Tweedy wrote that line about being a borderline misanthrope in Let's Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording With Wilco, Etc., (2018). Since then, he has had two more books published: How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back (2020), which I have not read, and World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music (2023), released earlier this month. He also started a Substack, Starship Casual, to which I am a paid subscriber and elicited a "like" for my comment on a song called "Having a Hard Time" (subtitle of the post: "Unreleased sadness"). I've since realized that there have been 89 comments, and Jeff Tweedy (or his social media/Substack manager) has "liked" every single one. Don't let the hubris bite.

Tweedy was once a rock musician and songwriter who dabbled in prose. Now, it's fair to consider him an author who is also a rock musician. Which is the side hustle and which is the main gig are all mixed up, which is nice because Tweedy writes in an attractive, occasionally repetitious ("Geez, man" as go-to phrase; stories intermingled) prose, self-deprecating to the point that he is often quite hard on himself. Though in the intro to the memoir he says there will be no drug or rehab stories, he follows that up with a "just kidding!" because otherwise, as he wrote, it would be like a Keith Richards memoir without the heroin. (Wilco also released a double-album, Cruel Country, in 2022. I’m still playing catch-up.)

Tweedy's impulse to chase the dream and fight off migraines, panic attacks, and prescription drugs, began in Belleville, on the other side of Illinois, closer to St. Louis. Tweedy writes about his life in Belleville, where his dad was a railroad man who sang loud and well when he drank too much, which was often. Jeff was close to his encouraging mom, who sometimes made him feel awkward with her own boundary-edging candor. I wrote a little about Tweedy's Belleville on this link, where I dreamed about writing and performing “Born to Run” with Lee Harvey Oswald, because Tweedy had talked about telling people when he was in third grade that he wrote and sang it.

The "Etc." in the memoir would be his frenemy Jay Farrar and the band that put them both on the map, Uncle Tupelo (1987-1994). Their influential debut album, No Depression, became the title of the "house"magazine of the Americana indie rock movement, and Uncle Tupelo the root of that hard to define, you-know-it-when-you-hear-it roots-folk-rock style, with a trace of olde country music. (There is also a fraught relationship with Jay Bennett, in Wilco from 1994-2001, who died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2009.)

World Within a Song is like the next chapter of Tweedy's ongoing memoir. Here are some highlights from the selections:

"Who Loves the Sun" from Loaded, by the Velvet Underground, recounts when Loose Fur, a spinoff trio of Tweedy, Wilco's genius drummer Glenn Kotche, and Chicago's studio wizard Jim O'Rourke, played a show in NYC and Lou Reed was in audience. Tweedy writes as a fan: "For a brief moment, at least, he was aware of my existence...We never met, and I'm pretty okay with that, considering how awful his reputation was when it came to making people feel like sh*t...it also sidesteps the likelihood that he might have called me a schmuck or made me cry with a withering stare...to a lot of us, Lou Reed represents the triumph of form over beauty, ideas over sentiment, honesty over bullshi*, vision over acceptance..."

There are also dark backlighted anecdotes that stand alone from songs, not unlike the Dylan book. In the late 1990s, Tweedy was invited to John Cale's home to write songs with him. Cale's idea: put a recipe to music. "Me, smart person, suggesting the banana pancake recipe located near the front of Gravity's Rainbow," Tweedy writes. "Which I was familiar with because it fell within the zone of pages I had read before eventually giving up on the rest of the book, something that happened at least seven or eight times. Playing acoustic guitar while John Cale read aloud with his Welsh accent, which was totally familiar to me from his records... peel more bananas, slice lengthwise... Still feeling like this is more made up or dreamed than real. No evidence it ever happened... but it did."

[During the COVID lockdown, I made it all the way through Gravity's Rainbow on my 10th or 11th try – I felt duty bound, since one of my former students who I had turned on to Pynchon began signing his emails "Slothrop," and I didn't want to be a fraud. A funny thing happened to the original paperback I bought: the further I got into the book, the larger the chunks of paper broke away from the binding. When I finished reading it, there was no book left to read. Maybe that’s what it’s about!]

The Beatles: the only chapter not a song, but about the idea of the Beatles on Tweedy: "The scale of magical structure they built is unattainable, but the sandbox is still full of the same sand – we're all allowed to build with the same material."

R.E.M.: "Radio Free Europe": "These were our thoughts – our confused internal dialogues – our wild curiosity, muffled by the slight embarrassment of our own earnestness being sung back to us. At the time it didn't even feel like the band themselves knew what to make of it all. And their bewilderment fed our relief in them."

Bon Jovi "Wanted Dead or Alive": "Bon Jovi possesses the type of arrogance that compels one to swing for the fences every time one steps to the plate... every song is angling to be a world-changing anthem. It's completely alien to me. ... This song sucks and you should not like it." Tweedy is no fan of New Jersey arena rock: He dislikes Bruce Springsteen, even though in his memoir he told his third-grade classmates in 1975 that he wrote and sang "Born to Run."

In high school, a girlfriend took him to see Springsteen, the Who, and John Cougar circa 1982 at a St. Louis arena. From the memoir: "It all sounded so bad to me. I wasn't just bored; I hated those shows. I felt sad afterward. Nothing about the experience was exciting to me."

The Replacements: "God Damn Job": In both books, Tweedy writes about the impact of being 14, to see X (with Exene Cervenka and John Doe) and opening act the Replacements at a club at which those under drinking age were limited to an area known as "the Kiddie Korner." Paul Westerberg falls off the stage, face first, but keeps singing and playing. Tweedy realizes, "The only thing worse than needing a job is having one...The self-liberation directly in front of my eyes. I am free – as long as this exists – this feeling – this moment where nothing else in in the world matters. This is where I will choose to live."

"I Will Always Love You." Any version. "I don't like this song. I think it stinks... Doesn't matter who sings it. It fries my nerves... I think I have a tough time with extra syllables being added to long notes in general." He's tried to like it, because Dolly Parton wrote it, and Tweedy knows it's un-American, as well as un-Americana, to criticize Dolly. "She wrote that song and 'Jolene' the same day... All I'm saying is that 'Jolene' was enough work for one day." The opposition to the multisyllabic single-syllable in song is echo'd in my lifelong disinclination toward Mariah Carey.

John Cage: 4'33" "I doubt that I would have ever thought about songs quite the way that I do without this bold, misunderstood, even more often maligned, colossally important artistic gesture." Found at the music library at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, while not going to classes, Tweedy writes, "I came to this music like an early rock n roll pioneer – by being dumbstruck with curiosity enough to feel compelled to find more at any cost. Picture me sneaking out of Bible studies class... listening to a piano bench squeak and some coconuts being cracked open with a hot microphone." It's a good thing Tweedy went (in theory) to SIU Edwardsville. If he'd gone to Harvard, his band might have been Weezer.

Television "Little Johnny Jewel": the ROIR cassette live version, heard as Wilco's van raced across Oklahoma first SXSW appearance at Austin's Liberty Lunch. "After ingesting a mismanaged amount of pot cookies," he goes to a place beyond paranoia into ego death, becomes convinced that if the cassette ever stopped playing he would die... "psychotic not stupid." Years later, Tweedy ran into Television's Richard Lloyd and tells him about how "LJJ simultaneously ripped me apart and held me together." Lloyd replied: "That's nothing! I once spent a month convinced my radiator was playing 'Over Under Sideways Down,' by the Yardbirds!" They laughed, then shrugged, understood they "were lucky to be alive."

"History Lesson – Part Two" by the Minutemen. Its influence on Uncle Tupelo was enormous. The opening line of this song was nabbed by Michael Azerrad for his influential and highly regarded book about the punk underground: "Our band could be your life/Real names'd be proof/Me and Mike Watt played for years/Punk rock changed our lives." Shortly after singing those words, D. Boon of the Minutemen died when his van crashed in the desert. Tweedy writes that the Minutemen, miles musically from Wilco or Uncle Tupelo's sound, shared a brotherhood of spirit.

"What we wanted to be: sonically, we were informed by then; lyrically emboldened, but beyond all of the artistic influence, the Minutemen, speed punks from San Pedro, CA, was how they did it: Start your own band. Get in the van. What are you waiting for? It was an easy ethos to embrace. It was altrusitic and human scaled. Be honest!" The song was played by Uncle Tupelo in rehearsals, and thinking back to the friendship he and Jay Farrar shared, "part of me will always just be 'playin' guitar with Jay. And I doubt that there'd be much to share here in this book without this song and a friendship that mirrored its wisdom."

Farrar's post-Wilco band Son Volt have been important keepers of the flame. Son Volt's latest, Day of the Doug, (2023) is a tribute to Texas hippie mainstay, Doug Sahm. I wonder if Tweedy's words are a kind of invitation, diplomatic outreach to get back, somewhere, for some reason. They could do it for world peace. They could do it for global warming, to address the fentanyl crisis, support gun control. Son Volt/Uncle Tupelo/Wilco benefit shows, St. Louis, Chicago, Belleville, Ill. Stranger things have happened. Plenty of "standing o's." Do these things ever work out? I'm not sure it's a good idea. I'm just tossing it out there.

This article originally appeared in Wayne Robins’ Substack and is used here by permission. Wayne’s Words columnist Wayne Robins teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, and writes the Critical Conditions Substack, https://waynerobins.substack.com/.
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