The Music That Made Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy
The 51-year-old rock realist talks about the songs, albums, and artists that have meant the most to him throughout his life—including Missy Elliott, Minutemen, and Amy Winehouse—five years at a time.
By Ryan Dombal
Jeff Tweedy does not belong here. The windowless Manhattan conference room he’s sitting in feels like a cramped holding cell, with harsh light and functional furniture. Tweedy, in a T-shirt and army jacket, his flow of greying hair spilling out underneath a knit hat that reads “giveashi*t,” will not be mistaken for middle management anytime soon. He is OK with this.
Tweedy is now known as a great rock everyman, singing about love and loss with a wounded honesty that feels tough and tangible. And yet, for all of that everyman appeal, he has never really held down a straight job his entire adult life. He joined his first band as a teenager in Belleville, Illinois, a husk of a manufacturing town near St. Louis, and he’s been making music ever since. Nothing else stuck. He tried a few different colleges after high school—studying communications and psychology—but somehow never managed to amass a single credit. When he was 22, the first album by Uncle Tupelo, the pioneering alt-country group he co-led alongside singer-songwriter Jay Farrar, was released. After that band busted up four years later, Wilco was born.
He may not have much experience working a typical 9-to-5, but he knows hard work. For nearly three decades, barely a year has gone by without some sort of Tweedy venture—a Wilco LP or tour, or a record by one of his several side projects, or a Mavis Staples album that he produced. He’s made cameos in “Portlandia” and “Parks and Recreation.” He’s started a label and a music festival. He’s tried being a TV weatherman. He’s covered the Black Eyed Peas. This month, Tweedy is expanding his repertoire even further with two things he’s never done before: a memoir called Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) and Warm, his first-ever solo album of original songs. Both live up to his wise, weary, deadpan reputation.
Let’s Go is especially enlightening, a rock’n’roll book that quietly dismantles what we expect from rock’n’roll books. (“The rock-memoir genre is not something I’m enthralled with,” he tells me. “I’ve read very few.”) Along with candid stories of his upbringing and behind-the-scenes accounts of his career, there are also casually philosophical passages that undo the myth of the tortured songwriter (“To exalt an artist’s suffering as being somehow unique or noble makes me cringe,” he writes), dissect the subtle brilliance of Midwestern sarcasm (“when it’s done correctly… it’s like performance art”), and pull the curtain back on the pursuit of musical perfection (“Nobody in the world gives a fuck what a hi-hat sounds like”). There is a harrowing chapter about his near-fatal addiction to painkillers around the time of Wilco’s 2004 album A Ghost Is Born that depicts the realities of drug abuse in a way that feels almost unnervingly stark. “My comfort level with being vulnerable is probably my superpower,” he writes early on.
The book is also stuffed with tales of musical fandom, like how at a young age his older siblings introduced him to Motown and Kraftwerk and Frank Zappa. Or how he nearly fell through the floor at a Replacements show. And there was that time when an 8-year-old Jeff Tweedy recorded Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run off the stereo, played the tape for his classmates, and told them that he was the one singing—a story you can hear Tweedy tell in the following excerpt from the Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) audiobook:
So while this little room inside of his book publisher’s office may be bland, Tweedy’s memories of the songs and albums that have moved him across the last five decades are anything but.
The Wild West Singers: “Big Rock Candy Mountain”
Jeff Tweedy: This sounds like an exaggeration, but my mother always told people that, at a very young age, I would sit and cry and point at the stereo until she put records on. She was an early proponent of garage sales, so I have this collection of children’s 78s that I would listen to on a portable record player. And I remember the picture disc of “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” It’s beautiful. Most of my records looked like that one when I was growing up.
“Big Rock Candy Mountain” is a hobo daydream about a place where no railroad cops are going to beat you down. But to a kid, it had the same sort of appeal as the reveal of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—I wanted it to be real so badly. I loved rock candy. And I used to dream that there were Ding Dongs under my pillow, wrapped in silver foil. I’d wake up and be so upset and disappointed that they weren’t there.
Blondie: Parallel Lines
In the late ’70s, Creem magazine used to be on the stands in grocery stores right next to Hit Parader and Tiger Beat and Rolling Stone, and as a 10-year-old kid who was interested in that shit I would read articles on the Clash and Blondie.
I know a lot of people have an adversarial relationship with music journalism, and there’s certainly some lazy writing that annoys me. But music journalism made such a difference to me, because I was able to read about and feel that energy before I could even find the records. I still think about reviews of records that I never found. I could probably track them down now if I looked, but I’m happier having this esoteric review of some crazy record from that time period in my head instead.
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message”
When I first started going to punk shows, I never even knew where people got those clothes. Me and my friends would drive over from Belleville to St. Louis, which wasn’t a hotbed of punk rock fashion, but there were enough kids there that had the uniform. And we were like, “Where do you get those boots?” They don’t have those at Thom McAn. They just don’t. It was all mystifying to us.
At one of the first punk rock shows Jay Farrar and I went to see in St. Louis, Jay tied a bandana around his leg, and I made a belt out of two bandanas. I remember walking up the sidewalk to the show and seeing all the punk kids out in front—and slowly, surreptitiously taking the bandana belt off, like a magic trick. It felt like I was wearing a beret. We were both like, “That’s not what they’re wearing at the punk rock show. Noted.”
Ultimately, though, it was a blessing to not be able to so readily put on that uniform. I don’t know if it would have ever worked anyway, because the uniform kind of comes from within. You have to want to fit in, and we eventually discovered bands that didn’t.
This was also around the time I started writing songs and playing shows. It felt like the only chance I had to be the person I saw myself as. It seemed like the place where I would feel better. And it still is. Miraculously, it ended up being a conflict-free zone compared to other parts of my life. I would go onstage and actually feel more relaxed than I did backstage. I felt that way before I had any right to—before I had put in the work to feel comfortable on a stage.
Addicts in general, I think, feel like they deserve be able to feel as good as they’ve ever felt at all times. And coming to terms with that not being how the world really works is hard. Before I had drugs, I had an ability to exalt myself to that sensation, even as a kid. And that probably comes from being somewhat exalted in my mother’s life and my birth order: My youngest brother was 10 years older than me. So it was like, “Yeah, I’m pretty special.” That’s not particularly healthy. Everybody should feel special, but everybody shouldn’t feel special all the time.
I’ve never understood the idea that you have to pick one musical style or the other; I’ve never really met anybody that has listening habits like that. Even the music of Uncle Tupelo was way more constrained than what I felt inspired by. To me, the whole point was to love more, to find more to listen to, to be more excited about more things.
I loved Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” It’s incredibly catchy, with emotional storytelling. I still know that whole rap, everybody from that time does. I probably had more that I could relate to in “The Message” than anything from the Clash, because Belleville is geographically located next to East St. Louis, which was just such a terribly underserved community at that time. It still is. But growing up, it was just horrible. They had no trash collection; you knew you were in East St. Louis when it started getting smokey, because everybody had to burn their trash.
And there was just so much casual racism where I grew up. Just constant. It was horrible. But my mother was somewhat woke, using today’s terminology, compared to people around town. She had a terrible experience with a guy running a nut stand that she had used the N-word with when she was a little girl, and it made a lasting impression on her. She had seen how deeply she had hurt this man, and she didn’t want to hurt somebody like that again.
A 15-year-old Tweedy, second from left, with his high school band the Primitives, which would later become Uncle Tupelo. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Minutemen: Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat EP
The Minutemen looked like nobody was dressing them. They didn’t completely embrace the idea of being a part of the fashion of their movement, and punk rock didn’t seem to really want them. They felt attainable. And they were making music with so few moving parts that you could hear what was going on and learn what each instrument was doing. If you listen to an Aerosmith record, there’s no way to know what the fuck is happening. But if you listen to a poorly mixed Minutemen record, it’s like, “Oh, that’s the guitar.”
They were also unabashedly not drawing a line in the sand between classic rock and punk rock. They liked Steely Dan, Blue Öyster Cult, even Van Halen. That was liberating for kids like me at punk rock shows who were being ostracized for liking anything other than what you’re supposed to like. Where I grew up, if it was evident that you were listening to weird music in the way you dressed and carried yourself, you were literally subjecting yourself to physical violence. I got pizza thrown at me.
People didn’t have immediate access to like-minded individuals back then, and you couldn’t find your tribe on the internet. That’s one of the best things about the internet, even though people have figured out how to exploit it before they’ve figured out how to make it into something utopian. The fact that people can sidestep so much loneliness by finding so many like-minded people at their fingertips would be heartwarming if it wasn’t so fucking devastatingly terrible for the world.
Various Artists: The Complete Stax/Volt Singles (1959-1968)
This box set is such a great treasure trove. It’s like this giant record of the Bar-Kays and the Mar-Keys and Booker T. & the M.G.’s just kicking ass. There’s a connection between soul music and punk rock and folk music and country music—this vivid attempt at self liberation. It comes through on those types of recordings differently than on “art” music, which I love and appreciate just as much. But there’s something a little bit higher stakes about some of this music to me. People seem to need it more.
Around this time, Uncle Tupelo made an acoustic record of mostly folk songs [March 16-20, 1992], and because of that some promoter somewhere said, “They should open up for Johnny Cash.” So we did, at a dinner theater in California in 1993. We had a nice little conversation with him and June Carter after their performance. They were super sweet. June Carter was like, “Oh, you guys are so adorable. I just want to give you a bath.”
It’s hard not to be starstruck around Johnny Cash. He was the first artist I was ever aware of. But when I’ve met people I look up to, I’m not starstruck in a way that I want a picture—I want them to be my friend, so I don’t want to say anything stupid. The big three for me are Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Johnny Cash. I’ve been around all of them, and Neil Young is probably the most approachable.
The last show of the tour we did with Neil Young in 2008 was at Madison Square Garden, and the catering people got wind that we had really enjoyed this maple pudding that they had made at an earlier show. It tastes like one of those candies that’s shaped like a maple leaf, except pudding. It’s gritty. It’s unbelievable. So they had a dish out that was labeled “Wilco’s Maple Pudding” as a going-away present to us. I was in line behind Neil Young, and he was like, “Wilco’s Maple Pudding?! Where is my special pie?” He was upset—I think jokingly. But I wanted to say, “I had nothing to do with it, Mr. Young.” They did get him a pie.
Jim O’Rourke: Bad Timing
This record is the impetus for my friendship with Jim. There’s something lively and irreverent about it. It’s such a meditative acoustic guitar record, but then these interloping horns parade through. There’s humor there. It’s just so affirming, and it shows that this kind of music can be more human than people portray it to be—it doesn’t have to be an academic exercise. The [experimental] world that he was coming from always felt a little exclusionary to me. I couldn’t quite belong to it. But this was the first thing that I heard that made me think that we were not that far away from each other in terms of spirit. When we met, we just hit it off. There was no pretense to it. We were quickly smoking cigarettes and being stupid.
Jim is in Japan now, and he doesn’t leave. But we see each other when we’re both there. We’ve kept working together on stuff that will hopefully come out. It’s not done, but that’s a record on the horizon.
This was around the time I became a dad, and my kids would listen to anything I was listening to. We had kids’ records, but then there were also things that I would just put on to see if they’d respond to it, like Captain Beefheart. And they would love stuff like that because it’s so weird and imaginative and fun. It’s the highest compliment when a kid can get into something. Whatever you want to say about the Beatles, tell me why every kid in the world can still fall in love with them? There’s something magical about it.
Tweedy at 30, circa 1997. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Missy Elliott: “Get Ur Freak On”
Every once in a while, there’s just something that’s just so fucking far ahead of everything else and blows your mind. It slips through the cracks and becomes popular. You can’t name another song not by Missy Elliott that sounds like “Get Ur Freak On.” I was just mesmerized by it. It’s still special. I could listen to it all day long.
Pitchfork: This was when you were making A Ghost Is Born, and in the book you’re candid about your addiction to painkillers at this time, and how you thought you might die. You say the album was conceived as a gift to your sons, “to have some deeper connection to the dad they’d lost.” What do they think of that record now?
They’re 18 and 22 now. Sammy just revisited that record recently, and he wanted me to know that he thinks it’s lyrically beautiful. They’re both very, very touched by some of the sentiments that they know about how I felt at the time, and what I was wanting to express to them in particular. They don’t necessarily hear the anguish, and I don’t know that I do either.
We started playing that material on the road right after I got out of the hospital. And one of the thoughts I had was, “Is any of this stuff going to make sense to me anymore?” But after the first show, it became very obvious to me that those lyrics and those songs were a part of me that was hanging out while I was getting my shit together. They were more wise than me because they came from a place that somehow hadn’t been damaged yet, that was more intact. That’s what makes it OK to hear and not feel like I’m dredging up all of these horrible memories. When you make something, you disappear. The part of me that made that record was the part of me that could disappear; the part of me that couldn’t disappear was the part that was driving me crazy.
Amy Winehouse: “Rehab”
It is such a fucking heartbreaking song. And it was even more heartbreaking to me then, because I was relatively newly sober and already felt like that was the best thing I had ever done for myself in my life. It’s such a badass song, and she was such a badass talent. All you need to know about addiction is in that song. It is as accurate as it could possibly be, and it is still diabolically unaware. Her denial is the only thing that could have willed that song into being. The codependency in the lyrics: “My daddy thinks I’m fine.” It’ll always be this sad cry for help and, at the same time, this incredibly perfect pop song.
Various Artists: Music From Saharan Cellphones
This album led me to a lot of other records that I can’t pronounce. I will sit down and try to figure out what they’re doing on the guitar, because it’s insane. The rhythm and the specific scales that they’re playing are so alien that I feel compelled to have a better understanding of it.
Tinariwen is on this album, and I met a guy from that group the other day. We were playing the same festival, and I heard this timid knock on our dressing room door. I opened it, and he’s like, “Bonjour.” And I’m like, “Hello.” He didn’t speak English very well, but we worked out what he was coming to do: He wanted to meet my guitar. He’s a big fan of Martin guitars, and I have this old Martin guitar. That he wanted to say hi to my guitar was somewhat deflating and beautiful at the same time. I let him play it for a little while.
Cate Le Bon: Mug Museum
Cate Le Bon is one of the best out there making music now. It’s really rare for people to have a specific sound anymore, but I can always tell when it’s her playing guitar. Whenever I try to figure out her guitar parts, they’re way harder than they sound.
I’m a part of a cross section of musicians that span this weird divide in how people listen to music—people who have actually cut records in the studio to lathe for vinyl and who have also worked in the computer age. There’s only going to be one generation that spans that period, and I’m definitely smack dab in the middle of it.
It’s just about to start happening where you’ll have digital natives really ruling the roost in terms of culture. I’ve always assumed that having access to everything that was ever recorded was going to create some sort of crazy hybrid music you’ll never be able to envision. But what seems to be happening so far is way more reductive, like picking things to make pastiche out of, or exploring a genre with some sort of irony to it. I’ve been kind of disappointed in how it’s impacted people’s inspiration so far. It’s probably just that people are overwhelmed, and we’re more capable of digesting a little bit of music at a time and letting our imaginations grow from there. To get past this, it’s going to require people figuring out how to be able to contend with that amount of information.