Been There: In His New Memoir, Wilco Leader Jeff Tweedy Shares Stories About His Personal And Creative Lives

Tweedy's appearance in Cincinnati this week to promote 'Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc.' is one of only six stops on his book tour

click to enlarge Jeff Tweedy - Photo: Whitten Sabbatini
Photo: Whitten Sabbatini
Jeff Tweedy
“I don’t know — when are you supposed to write a memoir?”

That is the simple answer to why — and why now — longtime Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy was interested in writing Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., which was published Nov. 13 by Penguin Random House. (Tweedy discusses the book 7 p.m. Friday at Walnut Hills High School.)

“Somebody asked me if I was interested in writing a book,” Tweedy says by phone from his home on the north side of Chicago. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. Let me think about it.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’ I thought it might be kind of an interesting challenge. I’m 51 years old now. Maybe it’s a good halfway point, a way to mark that.”

Tweedy and his work with Wilco, one of the enduringly vital Rock bands of the last 20 years, has been dissected and discussed by a fan base as loyal as anyone’s. Add to that the smaller but no less fervent following of Tweedy’s first band, Uncle Tupelo, and he’s been a figure on the musical landscape for nearly three decades.

Yet Tweedy is uncommonly low key and down to earth for a guy who has created some of the most revered music of the era, and Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) reflects that lack of pretension in ways both obvious and unexpected.

The “Etc.” in the book’s subtitle includes the most intriguing and heartfelt aspects of the memoir: The impact Tweedy’s family has had on his evolution as a songwriter, performer and human being, first in Belleville, Ill., where he grew up and eventually formed Uncle Tupelo with Jay Farrar, and later in Chicago where he would marry Susie, his longtime wife, and have two kids, Spencer and Sammy.

“I don’t know what else to write about,” Tweedy says. “I was just trying to create a picture of who I am and fill in some of the stories that have been told a lot. I didn’t really spend much time on the things that I thought had been covered a whole lot. I tried to answer questions that don’t ever get asked. The book is pretty much the things that mean the most to me: I spend a lot of time with my family and a lot of time making records.”

Tweedy also doesn’t shy away from relaying his struggles with painkillers, an addiction that not only nearly resulted in the demise of Wilco but, as he admits in the book, also could have ended his life. That might sound melodramatic, but

Tweedy conveys that anxiety-riddled period of his life (essentially from 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot through 2004’s A Ghost Is Born) through a conversational prose style and a modest, humor-laced worldview no doubt influenced by his working-class upbringing in a small town about 30 miles east of St. Louis. He writes lovingly of his dedicated but emotionally muted father, a railroad lifer who would drink a 12 pack every night after work, and his mother, who was his closest companion in childhood and biggest fan in adulthood.

He also delves into various band-related episodes, including his fractured relationship with Farrar and the departure of the late Jay Bennett from Wilco. Then there are the lows of his wife’s two battles with cancer and the highs of seeing his kids grow up and become musicians in their own right.

“I would have discussions with my wife and my kids about what they think is private and the differences between secrets and privacy and the difference between having a public life and having a private life,” Tweedy says about what he would and wouldn’t convey in the book. “On some level I didn’t really share anything so private that I didn’t think it could be revealed. I think I erred on the side of being honest, especially when it came to things like whatever sociopathy that is associated with drug addiction. There’s no real benefit for me to pretend that that’s not who I am or what I was capable of as a drug addict. So I don’t think there’s a lot of reason to be overly cautious.”

He’s also not concerned about demystifying the creative process, which is curious coming from a guy whose lyrics often tend to be obtuse.

“I trust that if somebody is interested enough to read the book, and that if they’re imaginative enough, they’ll continue to be able to pour themselves into listening to our music and not be completely distracted by the book,” he says. “At the same time, I think some people might find it interesting; it might enhance something about a record.

“I think demythologizing a lot of what people perceive to be how Rock music works and how songwriters operate — I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t set out to disillusion anybody but I would be perfectly fine with people being disabused of their mythologies. I know a lot of really normal people that make a lot of extraordinary art. I think a lot people would feel a lot more open to making art the way they are open to being on softball teams even though they suck at baseball. It’s like, ‘Why can’t people just continue to be fucking happy being in a shitty band?’ I don’t know. Some people just don’t do it.”

Tweedy is as surprised and as grateful as anyone that he’s been able to make a life as an artist — a Midwestern kid who parlayed his love of The Replacements and Minutemen into a career that would lead to interactions with idols like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

“I’ve lived in Illinois my entire life,” Tweedy says when asked how his particular roots have influenced his creative trajectory. “The easiest answer is, and this is something I probably said before, you have a lot longer to suck in the Midwest than you do if you grow up in New York, where you could have the misfortune of somebody influential seeing you when you’re just starting out and really haven’t found your voice or anything like that. There are a lot more places to rehearse (in the Midwest), a lot cheaper spaces to work your shit out. I think that’s all benefitted me because I’ve been on a pretty slow trajectory of figuring out what it is that I’m doing.”

Jeff Tweedy’s book promotional tour comes to Walnut Hills High School on Friday, Nov. 16, presented by Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Click here for tickets/more details.


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