My ladyfriend bought me a copy of Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) for my birthday. She knows that I'm fond of thinking person's rock star memoirs and biopics. She told two helpful folks at Brazos Books that I really dig Patti Smith's written work and recently devoured Elvis Costello's autobiography; they both immediately suggested Jeff Tweedy's book, of which they just happened to have a signed copy. Good call. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of memories from Tweedy's 50-plus years on earth.
Jeff Tweedy is not exactly a household name, and I don't foresee Wilco's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame any time soon. Here is the total of what I knew about Tweedy and Wilco before I began reading:
- Wilco formed in the '90s, and their music has been labeled "alt-country" or "y'all-ternative."
- The formation of the band followed the dissolution of Tweedy's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, when co-founder Jay Farrar left and formed Son Volt.
- Casual fans frequently conflate all three of those bands.
- Wilco collaborated with Billy Bragg on sifting Woody Guthrie's unrecorded lyrics and setting them to music, resulting in the two Mermaid Avenue CD's. I own the first, but have never listened to the second. The first, which I rushed to buy after hearing selected tracks on Austin's KGSR-FM, is the only Wilco recording I've ever owned.
- Wilco's album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the band's attempt to expand its musical boundaries beyond the alt-country corral; fans dug it, but critical response was decidedly mixed.
- The band's musical output, written primarily by Tweedy, appeals mostly to a white, middle-class, musical-connoisseur demographic...i.e., quite a few of my friends.
Regarding this last point: I consider myself part of that demographic, but I never really caught Wilco Fever. I wouldn't recognize a song by Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, or Son Volt if one sneaked into my Pandora feed. Even Mermaid Avenue did not prompt me to seek out more; I have been a fan of Bragg since his first album, and I prefer his settings of Guthrie's words over Tweedy's.
An Occupier friend of mine who was born white, but who seems to have made it his life's mission to extirpate whiteness and white male cis-het privilege, once on Facebook referred to something (I forget what) as "whiter than a Wilco concert at a farmers' market." So it made me chuckle to read that Mavis Staples herself, who has recorded three CD's with Tweedy as producer, once paid Tweedy a sincere compliment by declaring him black.
Ms. Staples is still alive to say, "No, I didn't really say that," and as far as I know she hasn't. But this anecdote does illuminate the problem inherent in autobios like this one: They tend to be self-serving, even if the author is by nature self-effacing. The tales of Tweedy's falling out with Farrar and, shortly thereafter, with Wilco's co-founder Jay Bennett make him look by far the lesser asshole. Since he is notoriously difficult to work with, I'd be interested to hear or read other perspectives on both cases; Farrar, fortunately, is still living and creating, while Bennett, sadly, is not.
The good news, since the dismissal of Bennett and other personnel shuffles, is that original Wilco bassist John Stirratt remains with the group 24 years along. Together, they have assembled a coterie of players who share Tweedy's vision and generate far less creative friction than Tweedy faced with either of the Jays.
For readers of Let's Go, whether Wilconians or not, the even better news is the hundreds of LOLs embedded in it. If I read it on the bus, I'd get some dude, what's so damn funny? looks from fellow passengers (like when I've ventured taking David Foster Wallace books for transit reading). Not everyone will get the humor right away: It's dry Midwestern humor, like some of the better Prairie Home Companionbits but a generation fresher and hipper.
Tweedy could easily turn his recollections of Belleville, Illinois, in the 1970s and '80s into a novel or a TV dramedy. He fills the town with ready-made characters from among his family, friends, classmates, co-workers, and retailers like the guy who ran the store for record snobs. He also paints a clear picture of a small Midwestern city in post-industrial decline, with all its dysfunctions on display in the countless bars lining its absurdly long Main Street. I found the bits on Belleville more interesting than stories from his musical career.
Through his discoveries of music beyond the Top 40 and the "classic" rock canon, the young Jeffrey Scot Tweedy discovered that Belleville was not large enough to accommodate his dreams. Those dreams even outgrew nearby Saint Louis and eventually Chicago, his and Wilco's home base. A long battle with addiction to Vicodin and related substances helped keep his ego from outgrowing those dreams. Today, at least according to Tweedy, he is content just to be known as Spencer and Sammy's dad...until the itch to make a new recording or embark on a tour returns.