My back pages: Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy on why he wrote a book

by Russell Baillie / 10 May, 2019
Jeff Tweedy: “I like book people. I love books. I really hit it off with a lot of bookstore employees.” Photo/Getty Images

Jeff Tweedy: “I like book people. I love books. I really hit it off with a lot of bookstore employees.” Photo/Getty Images

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Jeff Tweedy doesn’t read rock memoirs but that didn’t stop him writing one. Now, the leader of respected American band Wilco brings his acclaimed autobiography to the Auckland Writers Festival.

It takes one to know one. Occasionally, you’ll see a dust-jacket quote from great American writer George Saunders endorsing other authors. But when it comes to songwriter Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco, the celebrated short-story writer and Man Booker Prize-winner for Lincoln in the Bardo goes a little further.

Saunders wrote the liner notes to Tweedy’s new solo album Warm, released to coincide with the musician’s autobiography Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. Those “notes”, actually a 1500-word essay, were published in the New Yorker. It wasn’t his first hat-tip to the 51-year-old leader of Wilco, a group whose 25 years have made them a rarity – a US band from the 1990s that has survived, thrived and progressed. Even if they are exponents of, as Tweedy jokes early in his book, “sad mid-tempo rock”.

In early 2016, when the New York Times Magazine ran a piece entitled “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going”, Saunders wrote an ode to Wilco’s One Sunday Morning, a dreamy 12-minute track about a father, son and religion, which he says he listened to obsessively as the turmoils of the Trump era began.

More recently, between gigs on Tweedy’s current solo US tour, Saunders has acted as moderator at speaking events for the memoir.

Their mutual appreciation society had a slightly absurd start. Saunders was a Wilco fan. Tweedy was a Saunders fan. They met and befriended each other backstage on The Colbert Report during the satirical chat-show’s 2014 finale, where other guests included Barry Manilow, Henry Kissinger and the Cookie Monster.

Saunders has become Tweedy’s literary cheerleader: “Jeff is our great, wry, American consolation poet,” he writes in those liner notes. “To see him play is to find yourself in a crowd of people being actively consoled – being moved, reassured, validated, made to feel like part of a dynamic aural friendship.”

“I don’t know how I got so lucky but I consider myself very lucky to have George as a friend,” Tweedy tells the Listener from Austin, Texas, where he’s on that tour, from which, in May, he makes a detour to an appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival, where Saunders appeared two years ago. Apart from book events, there has been at least one other notable Tweedy-Saunders crossover. The musician was a voice on the audiobook of Lincoln in the Bardo. So were a lot of people.

“To be honest, I can’t remember the name of the character off the top of my head,” Tweedy says with a laugh. For the record, he played Captain William Prince, one of 170 or so speaking parts.

Performing at the 2015 Shaky Knees Music Festival. Photo/Getty

Now, as an author himself (he also released a book of poetry in 2004), Tweedy has been dividing his time between the worlds of music and publishing. “It’s really kind of an extension of my normal world. … I like book people. I love books. I really hit it off with a lot of bookstore employees. They’re not that different from record-store clerks, which is what I am at heart.”

Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) recalls his own brief time as a teenager behind the counter of a record shop in St Louis in the 1980s. Mostly, the book is a disarmingly frank, funny and affecting story of his family life, his career, his early noughties addiction to prescription painkillers and time in rehab, his seemingly restless creative life.

The memoir came about, says Tweedy, when his name kept coming up as part of a surge of publisher interest in veteran alternative-rock figures after books by Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.

Since 2016 album Schmilco, Wilco has been in hiatus. This has been to allow drummer Glenn Kotche to be with his wife, Miiri, after she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Finland.

“We saw it as an opportunity to kind of honour her. Everybody in the band does so much outside Wilco, so nobody’s really sat around and done nothing. It just seemed like a good opportunity to go away for a while.”

If that time and the book deal gave Tweedy the opportunity to write a memoir, what was the motive? “I considered it a challenge. I did have discussions with my family – if it made any sense to do it. It was my kids who convinced me there were some aspects of my story that are pretty universal and are worthwhile to share, especially regarding addiction and creativity and things that are maybe broader than just the specifics of my work. So, that’s kind of what made me feel like it was a worthwhile thing to do.”

And so Tweedy began writing. It was an adjustment and he admits he cheated on some of it – he’d talk to a friend (not Saunders) about his memories, record the conversation, transcribe and edit.

“Wrapping my head around the notion of writing prose versus what my general inclination is to write distilled language in poetry and lyrics, it took me a while to figure out they are sort of photo-negatives of each other.”

Tweedy’s book is essentially a series of conversations – mainly a long, one-sided one with the reader. Occasionally, he brings in others, who comment on what’s been written so far. When it comes to the early days of seeing his future wife, Sue “Susie” Miller, whom he met when she ran a music venue in Wilco’s hometown of Chicago, it becomes a romantic graphic novel for a few pages.

When he’s writing about his addiction and rehabilitation, it becomes a conversation between the pair about his perceptions of his behaviour and hers. There’s another conversation with his elder son, Spencer, about their relationship, what he thinks his father should write about and the music they’ve made together.

Soulmates: Tweedy devotes a chapter of his memoir to his production of albums for Mavis Staples. Photo/Alamy

Soulmates: Tweedy devotes a chapter of his memoir to his production of albums for Mavis Staples. Photo/Alamy

There’s no blow-by-blow account of the tours or many albums he’s made in first band, Americana pioneers Uncle Tupelo, then Wilco, or more recently solo. Producing soul-gospel veteran Mavis Staples on two albums, one of which won her a Grammy, gets a chapter, though.

The book recalls that when Wilco won their only Grammy from seven nominations in multiple genres (in 2004 for A Ghost is Born for alternative rock album), they were away on tour and, after a quick toast, they played another show. When Tweedy and band had attended the ceremony in 1998, when Mermaid Avenue, their album of Woody Guthrie songs with Billy Bragg, was up for best folk album, not only did they not win, Puff Daddy and his entourage mistook Tweedy for an usher and took the programmes he was holding for his bandmates outside the bathroom. Maybe he just didn’t belong.

Tweedy also ponders the various rock’n’roll dramas of his life, such as the mid-90s break-up of Uncle Tupelo, when the group’s co-founder, Jay Farrar, announced he couldn’t stand working with Tweedy, his one-time schoolmate, any more. He also addresses the firing of Jay Bennett in the wake of Wilco’s 2001 pivotal, experimental and breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bennett died of an overdose in 2009. “I fired Jay Bennett from Wilco because I knew if I didn’t, I would probably die,” he writes about having another addict in the band.

“I didn’t approach [the sections about] either one of those guys with any score to settle in my mind,” he tells the Listener. “That’s not how I feel. The thing I was happiest about was that I could answer some questions that no one ever asked me about my relationship with them and tell some of the stories that are positive and how much affection I have for both of those guys and how much they changed my life and helped me grow … those are things that people over the years haven’t seemed to be as interested in as their drama, you know?

“I didn’t want to participate in my own mythologising.”

You might come for the rock memoir but the reflections on Tweedy’s life before and beyond his bands are the heart of the book. He writes vividly about growing up as the youngest of four in Belleville, a crumbling city in the south-west corner of Illinois, near St Louis, where his hard-drinking father, Bob, and an older brother worked on the railroad. His mother, JoAnn, indulged him, even when records by the Clash and Ramones started blasting out of his teenage bedroom. Later, there are scenes from hospital corridors when Susie undergoes treatment for cancer (she’s fine now, he writes). There’s a heartbreaking account of being at his father’s bedside when he died in 2017, receiving instructions for his headstone to be inscribed with On and On and On, the title of a Wilco song Tweedy wrote for his dad after JoAnn died.

There’s also much evidence that, despite his frequent absences on tour and his guilt for being away, Tweedy is a dedicated family man. With both his sons being raised in Susie’s Jewish faith, when younger son Sammy objected to going to Hebrew school, Tweedy studied with him and converted to Judaism. Yes, that meant the traditional procedure.

“It was more involved than I thought it would be on a number of levels,” he writes, “including a level that required a mohel, a storage closet, and sharp object. You’ll be able to read all about it in my follow-up book, Leave Them Wanting Less.”

“Yeah, I used to joke with my family that we should all be on the same team when the shit goes down,” Tweedy says, chuckling down the line about converting. “But I think it was more about just wanting to commit to my children’s experience of the world.”

And, as the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen might attest, it’s a pretty good club for songwriters, too.“It’s got a lot of impressive members, that’s for sure, that club.”

If Let’s Go doesn’t read like many rock memoirs, there’s possibly a reason for that. Its writer doesn’t read rock memoirs. “I don’t know, for some reason I’m allergic to them. I just can’t bring myself to care.”

Sure, in his early days he read plenty of autobiographies and books analysing Dylan lyrics. Sometimes they had a strange effect. “Like when I was a kid, if I read a book about Picasso, I’d start wearing a beret for a f---ing month or something. It’s just too much for me.”

He’s glad he’s finished his and about the reaction to it so far. “I’ve even gotten some pretty positive feedback from people that aren’t big fans of the band or my music – like my neighbours.”

After he’s finished autographing books, it will be back to Wilco. The band is hosting its biennial Solid Sound music and arts festival in June at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and there is an 11th studio album due later this year.

And, although he’s written a reflective memoir, Tweedy doesn’t necessarily think the band’s best work is behind them. “I feel like Wilco’s reached the point where we could, if we wanted to, become a nostalgia act and not really concern ourselves with putting a lot of new material out into the world and kind of coast on the goodwill that’s been generated around the band for a long time.

“But I don’t want to. I don’t think that’s a very satisfying way to be in a band … We should really strive for something artistically gratifying and challenging and we should look to make something that has purpose and meaning. Otherwise I think it’s pointless.

“So, I’m pretty invigorated by it. I’m invigorated by that challenge of being a band that have a long history dragging behind us that you compete against. We can’t make a record in a vacuum any more. Our records are coming out in the context of our other records. I just don’t want to fake it, you know?”

Jeff Tweedy appears at the Auckland Writers Festival gala night on May 16 and a special event with a musical performance on May 17.

This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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