• Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy Upends the Rock-Star Memoir with Let’s Go

    Memoirs are a great way for rock stars to enhance their mystique, present carefully framed personal tidbits and, of course, settle scores with former bandmates. If you’re Keith Richards, you can pick fights with current bandmates, as he did in his 2010 autobiography, Life, by slagging off Mick Jagger.

    One thing most music memoirs often lack is true insight into inner lives of their authors. Even at their most entertaining, rock autobiographies can feel like set pieces than genuine attempts by musicians to explain themselves. For all the frank talk in Life about his drug use, his romantic entanglements and his opinion of Jagger, even Richards was burnishing his image as a rock and roll pirate and inveterate trash-talker.

    Jeff Tweedy, of the indie rock band Wilco, flouts convention in his new memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) (Dutton). Tweedy is funny, illuminating, and sometimes uncomfortably candid as he recounts his childhood, his fractious relationships with various bandmates, and the addiction issues that put him in rehab in 2004. He’s a vivid writer with a pronounced sardonic streak. Tweedy is also unexpectedly gracious. Fairly or not, he’s often regarded as difficult to work with — a reputation underpinned by the ever-shifting Wilco lineup in the band’s early years, and a sometimes grumpy public persona. There are crotchety moments in Let’s Go, but Tweedy is thoughtful and mostly kind when he’s writing about people in his past — former collaborators Jay Farrar and Jay Bennett, in particular, who fans (and the music press) sometimes cast as nemeses.

    Some of his generosity is probably a function of time: at 51, he’s not as impetuous as he once was, and any sense of personal and professional upheaval is well in the past. There’s also the matter of success. Wilco has become one of the most praised indie-rock acts of the past 25 years, with critically acclaimed albums that have progressed from straightforward and rootsy to thorny and experimental. The fluctuating roster has long since coalesced into a stable and virtuosic ensemble of musicians who seem capable of pulling off any song at any moment — a feat the Chicago group ably demonstrated in 2013 at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival in Western Massachusetts with a set of covers that included songs by the Kinks, Pavement, the Grateful Dead, ABBA, and Daft Punk. In other words, Tweedy can afford to be gracious. Though the broad strokes of Wilco’s history are well-documented — see the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Greg Kot’s 2004 biography Wilco: Learning How to Die, and any number of magazine profiles — Tweedy himself has been largely opaque. He’s known for an acerbic sense of humor that frequently manifests in digressive stage banter, but he could be circumspect when interviews turned personal, as they did after his rehab stint.

    Tweedy does not hold much back in Let’s Go. He writes about feeling insecure and anxious as a kid and young adult who was always trying to impress the people he admired, especially Farrar. He details his confusion after losing his virginity at 14 to a woman more than a decade older, an episode that he writes, “felt very wrong. Technically, I was consenting, but only so far as a 14-year-old can consent to anything.” He writes about the pharmacist who started slipping him extra Vicodin, which Tweedy had been prescribed for anxiety, and the wrenching spiral of panic attacks, migraines, and opioids that he feared would end in his death. He describes his future wife’s reaction the first time she visited his bachelor apartment and discovered that Tweedy and his roommates considered toilet paper an extravagance: she looked “shaken and pale. Disturbed, really.”

    Tweedy grew up the youngest of four children in Belleville, IL, a post-industrial exurb of St. Louis that was “depressing and depressed, in all of the familiar ways common to dying Midwestern manufacturing hubs,” he writes. Considerably younger than his two brothers and a sister, he had a laissez-faire childhood, staying up deep into the night when he was young to watch TV with his mom (while his father, who worked long hours for a railroad company, tried to sleep in the next room), hanging around a local record store, and generally living the kind of be-home-by-dinner free-range childhood that was common in the ’70s and ’80s. He discovered a love of rock and roll early enough that he was telling his third-grade classmates that he was the one performing on a copy of Springsteen’s Born to Run that he taped off the radio. (Later, Tweedy writes, the stadium-sized shows he saw as a teen by Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and the Who struck him as disheartening displays of machismo.) He got serious about playing guitar when he was 12 and spent most of the summer laid up after a bad bike accident that left him with a broken leg.

    Meeting Jay Farrar in a high school English class was a critical next step. “I’m sure anybody watching was probably thinking, ‘Those two are going to start a band that plays a punk-country hybrid that a smattering of critics and punk-country-hybrid loyalists will blow way out of proportion,’” Tweedy writes of the first time they spoke. And that’s basically what happened. Farrar and his older brothers invited Tweedy to play in their cover band the Plebes, which evolved into the Primatives (thanks to a misprinted business card), and then into Uncle Tupelo, which put out four albums between 1990-93 and was considered a keystone band in the burgeoning alt-country/Americana scene. Then Farrar quit, just as Uncle Tupelo was breaking into the world outside the alt-country scene. More than a quarter-century later, Tweedy still sounds wounded over the break-up, though he is in some ways grateful to have been pushed out of the nest. “I had my feelings hurt when Jay Farrar told me Uncle Tupelo was over,” he writes. “I couldn’t believe it. How could he do that to our band? After everything we’d built together? But he was right to end it. I didn’t realize it until years later, when I found myself in the awkward position of being that guy in another band.”

    That other band was Wilco, which Tweedy formed in 1994 with the rest of the latter-day Uncle Tupelo lineup, plus the addition of Jay Bennett on guitar. Bennett was a key member of Wilco until Tweedy kicked him out in 2001, midway through making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album featuring 11 alt-rock songs shot through with sudden bursts of noise, surrounding abstract lyrics that seem to address feelings of disconnection and alienation. Though I Am Trying to Break Your Heart presented Bennett’s dismissal as a question of creative differences, Tweedy reframes the guitarist’s departure as a survival strategy. In a period when the singer was trying to avoid prescription medications, Bennett was in denial about the depths of his own addiction, Tweedy says. He writes, “I was scared for him, but I was even more scared for myself because I was just learning how much danger I was in and how hard it was going to be to stay healthy … So it was a selfish move. It was about self-preservation.” Bennett died in 2009 of an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl.

    Starting his own band wasn’t Tweedy’s only new endeavor in 1994. He also moved to Chicago, the next step in his relationship with Sue Miller, a music booker who co-owned the Chicago indie-rock club Lounge Ax. They married in 1995, not long before the birth of their first child, Spencer. Tweedy’s anecdotes about music are lively and interesting, from meeting Johnny Cash and June Carter when Uncle Tupelo opened for them, to having Bob Dylan greet him backstage like an old friend, to becoming pals with Mavis Staples. Yet many of the best moments in Let’s Go are scenes of him with his family. He writes frankly about how “disorienting” it was to become a father, and with tender emotion about the fear that swept through the Tweedy household when Sue was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 (she has since been clear, following treatment). He presents dialogues between himself and Miller discussing how much he should reveal about their marriage, an endearing conceit that proves plenty revealing. There’s a similar discussion with Spencer, his eldest son and occasional bandmate, as they figure out how much Tweedy should write about their relationship. He writes separately about his younger son Sam, but in either case, his pride in having two smart, empathetic kids is evident, and touching.

    For all his music business success over the past quarter-century, including a Grammy, a gold record, devoted fans, and a bespoke musical festival, it’s clear that Tweedy is most grateful for the family that he and Miller have made, and that he found the strength to hold tight to it when the pills were in charge. It’s made him particularly dismissive of the idea that suffering is necessary to make art. It’s also helped ease the insecurity he used to feel about what people thought of him. “Thankfully, at some point I stopped giving a shit,” he writes. “In a good way. I don’t mean I stopped caring about music. I stopped caring about things that don’t matter, or at least things I can’t control.”

    At its core, Let’s Go is a book about the things that matter, and Tweedy writes about them with honesty, self-awareness, and enough humor to keep things from getting too heavy. It’s a different kind of mystique, from someone who is comfortable enough with himself to write a memoir that ignores all the usual rules.