WEIRDLAND: Emotional Lifting, A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco and Jeff Tweedy

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Emotional Lifting, A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco and Jeff Tweedy

JEFF TWEEDY: From the very beginning, Jay Farrar had a tough time reciprocating warmth. I learned that you didn’t express too much emotion around him. But I wanted to be friends with Jay, if only because I was so amazed that somebody else existed—someone my age, who lived in Belleville and went to my school—who felt the same way about this music that I did. We were the guys who would take records to parties and then inevitably end up in a room by ourselves listening to those records. The musical tastes of our classmates were predominantly classic rock—If you wore a Stray Cats T-shirt, you’d get pizza thrown at you, and you’d be called a faggot. There was a jukebox in our cafeteria, and if you played anything other than the 1978 Trooper song “Raise a Little Hell,” somebody would walk over and kick the jukebox repeatedly until it stopped. And then they’d call you a faggot. Becoming friends with Jay Farrar meant upping my game. I needed to find records that Jay and his brothers didn’t know about yet. So it was a healthy competition. We made trips to St. Louis to buy records. We discovered record stores like Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records, the latter of which I’d be working at as a clerk for a while.

I had a girlfriend in high school who dragged me to big arena rock shows. I went to see Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar, and the Who’s first “farewell” tour in 1982 at the Ralston Purina Checkerdome in St. Louis. It all sounded so bad to me. I wasn’t just bored, I hated those shows. And I felt sad afterward. Nothing about the experience was exciting to me. Something always seemed overly macho about how bands postured themselves on those enormous stages. I’m not sure why the macho-ness bothered me. I loved Black Flag, and there was nothing more macho than Henry Rollins at that time. Actually, that was my least favorite part of Black Flag, but it was a different type of macho, or at least it was to me. I was learning to play the guitar, I still couldn’t make an E minor chord if my life depended on it. I looked at the chord book and fumbled my way through learning a few basic chords. I made steady progress and showed enough sustained interest, so for Christmas my parents bought me a white Peavey T-60 electric guitar, which weighed about seven hundred pounds. The strings would pop off the bridge with the slightest strum. It was unplayable. 

I bought a brand-new black-and-white Fender Telecaster. I remember when I figured out how to do the standard da-da-dada Chuck Berry riff, it was like I’d split the atom. I couldn’t listen to the Beatles or Bob Dylan, sit back and think, “Well, maybe if I play an A-major scale enough times, I’ll get there someday.” It was more like “I want to write a song right the fuck now.” Jay Farrar asked me to join the Plebes, not because I was so clearly a guitar virtuoso but because they needed one more high-school-age member to qualify for the 'Battle of the Bands' competition. I remembered vaguely Buddy Holly starting in one of those high-school contests. Jay Farrar and me formed Uncle Tupelo, as a nod to Elvis’s hometown in Mississippi. Uncle Tupelo opened for Johnny Cash at a club in Santa Ana, California, in 1993. We didn’t meet Johnny Cash and June Carter before the show, but we could hear them during our set, watching through the curtains on either side of the stage and shouting, “Woo-hoo,” between songs. It was startling. 

Another girlfriend had gone away to college as I started my senior year in high school. She left Belleville to attend SIU–Carbondale, a two-hour drive southeast. She met a guy there during her first semester away and started seeing him while she and I were still technically dating. I was devastated. I’d experienced rejection before, but not that world-shattering feeling of betrayal. That feeling marked the beginning of the first identifiable pattern of depression in my life. When you’re prone to depression, this is the kind of catalyst that can bring it on and turn something upsetting into something debilitating and seemingly insurmountable. I drove down to Carbondale to see her, and I found her walking hand in hand with a guy toward her dorm room. They went inside, and I waited outside for a few minutes, wondering what I should do, and then I knocked the door. They were already in bed. God, it was a full-on catastrophe. It was almost comically hurtful. And as inconsequential as it would be in the grand scheme of things, at that moment I couldn’t see it as anything less than the end of my life.

I wrote “Gun” a little while after that. So I was grateful all that pain hadn’t gone to waste. “It hurt much worse when you gave up/which way I oughta run/Crawling back to you now/I sold my guitar to the girl next door/She asked me if I knew how/I told her, I don’t think so anymore.” That was probably the most honest and direct I’d ever been in a song up to that point. Telling the world that I’d sold my guitar wasn’t saying I’ll kill myself, but it was close. To me, it was almost the equivalent of killing myself at that point. I was in so much pain; I was willing to give up the one thing in the world that was sustaining to me, the only thing that mattered. That might seem like a martyrdom fantasy—“If I can’t have what I want, I don’t want anything!” It is grandiose, but I also think I meant it, I was serious about it. The feeling that “anything is better than this,” even giving up the only thing you love if it would just make it go away, is real. I can still identify with that. When I play Gun, that’s what hooks me in. It’s not about remembering that act of betrayal, but the memory of being gripped by so much despair and helplessness that I didn’t even care if I ever touched a guitar again. I felt that exact way years later when I went into rehab. “I don’t care if I ever write another song again, I just want to feel better.” That’s why I can still sing “Gun” and not feel silly. It’s about that feeling of despair and being willing to do anything to make it go away. 

Not that I think suffering is necessary to create worthwhile art. Because I think that artists create in spite of suffering, not because of suffering. I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art. “We've been practicing in Belleville all week. So this is our first show.” That’s how I introduced Wilco to the world, on November 17, 1994, at Cicero’s in St. Louis. Wilco was me on guitar, John Stirratt on bass, Max Johnston on banjo and fiddle, and Ken Coomer on drums. The only new guy onstage with us was Jay Bennett (who came from a suburb of Chicago). It was basically Uncle Tupelo minus Jay Farrar. Jay Bennett was smart and funny, but he was also a pain in the ass. I think most people who were friends with Jay will tell you that. Jay would laugh at my protests like he thought I was joking, but I was sincerely concerned. Only at the very end of his time in the band did his difficulties start to outweigh his virtues. Jay was burdened with the kind of issues that show no regard for intelligence or social status. Maladies that destroy without taking into account what one has to offer the world, like all diseases.

On a musical level, Jay Bennett was a great match for me and the rest of the guys. Like everyone else in Wilco, Jay could slip in and out of styles pretty effortlessly. He was also willing to dig in with me to find ways to subvert classic song structures. Sometimes he would put pen to paper to show me why a chord change shouldn’t work, but only in service of showing me how cool it was to be so wrong. It was similar to some of the dynamics Jay Farrar and I had going on. Once a song goes out into the world, that’s when it can get ruined. Other people get to listen to it and make it worse, by misreading intentions, judging and weighing in with opinions. Not just my songs, but all songs. I guess people ruin everything. I am right there with them. My songs are never as good as they were in my head when they had limitless forms and belonged only to me. I think songs are ruled by melody. I believe that melody, more than lyrics, is what does all the heavy lifting emotionally. 

If you grew up wanting to be a part of the indie rock scene, you were expected to at least give the appearance of not caring and giving the least possible amount of effort. Of course, it’s a lie. Does anyone think The Velvet Underground just happened with minimum effort? Sonic Youth? Pavement? David Kahne, the head of A&R at Reprise, told us they needed something more obviously pop that they could release as a single. That made no sense to me. I was sure Summerteeth was full of pop music. I was fed up. The process made me more cynical. The music industry depends on artists being insecure and needy. If you’re not willing to walk away from a deal, and the other side knows it, you are screwed. For some reason I’ve always been stupid or arrogant enough to walk away from negotiations when they start to feel gross or insulting. It looks like it’d take a lot of confidence to do that, but I don’t feel like an exceedingly confident person. I think I’m just stubborn. And I hate feeling greedy. “No record deal? Okay, welp, it’s back to small budget for me.” And I’m stubborn because there’s only so much I’m willing to compromise artistically. Allowing something you’ve created to be undermined to a point where you can no longer believe in it or stand behind it feels suicidal to me.

While Sam Jones's "I am trying to break your heart" documentary progressed, Jay Bennett started pitting people against one another, whispering rumors and stoking paranoia. If you weren’t in the room, there was a good chance he was talking behind your back or diminishing your contributions. I heard about all the nasty things he’d been saying about me when I wasn’t around—I guess it never occurred to him that the rest of the guys in Wilco would compare notes—and when it was just Jay Bennett and me alone in the studio, he said the rest of Wilco wasn’t pulling their weight. I suggested trying to create sounds that didn’t involve us, like an organ with some keys taped down, or a tape echo feeding back on itself, or an electric fan strumming a guitar. The plan was to come back the next morning, turn all of our self-playing instruments back on, and hit record. But when I got to the Loft, Jay Bennett was already there, walking the camera crew and talking about how he’d put it all together. He had all of the instruments going, the whole room was buzzing, and he was fielding questions from Sam Jones about 'his' sonic experiments. I didn’t say anything—I knew that was petty and I didn’t want to get into another fight in front of the cameras—but I was furious. That was a group idea and I’d suggested it. There were many reasons I didn’t want to make music with Jay Bennett anymore. For one thing, it wasn’t a healthy situation for either of us. There were lots of prescription medications being consumed at the Loft. But Jay Bennett wasn’t close to even being ready to admit there was a problem. I was scared for him, but I was even more terrified 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 self-preservation move. I fired Jay Bennett from Wilco because I knew if I didn’t, I would probably die. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s really not. I told him I knew what was going on. That’s one of the first things I said to him. “You’ve been getting FedEx packages full of pills.” The guy who was running the Loft for us would see him there in the mornings, counting his pills on a desk in the back. I told Bennett we would help him. If he wanted to find somebody to talk to about addiction and maybe get into a program, we would pay for everything. But he was incredulous, saying: “If I had a problem I would admit it.” Some fans thought I should have stayed with Jay as a sign of loyalty for the band. But I think that kind of devotion, to something entirely made up like a “band,” is silly and even dangerous. There are only three people I’ve committed myself to completely for the rest of my life: my wife Susie, and my sons Spencer and Sammy. My actual family. I had to confront my Vicodin addiction in rehab. My thoughts were: “I’m not some junkie who wants to disappear. I have real migraines. I have real panic attacks. And I’m only being responsible by finding a way to control them so I can keep doing my job.” 

In November of 2003, we went to New York to record with Jim O’Rourke. John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Leroy Bach (a multi-instrumentalist who’d been with us since Summerteeth), Mikael Jorgensen and myself were going to start work on A Ghost Is Born. It’s also where I was pretty sure I was going to die. I mean that in all seriousness. I thought I was going to die. Every song we recorded seemed likely to be my last. Every note felt final. But like my father, I was always able to maintain a work ethic and I managed to keep creating. I didn’t cancel any gigs. The worst of it happened when I was alone in my hotel room having panic attacks, taking too many pills and then panicking because I’d taken too many pills. Every night I’d lie in bed—or just as often, in the tub until the bathwater would get cold—telling myself, “If I fall asleep right now, there’s a pretty good chance I’m not waking up. People die in this situation all the time.”

I met Bob Dylan when Wilco played a College Media Journal showcase in New York City in 2006. “Hey, Jeff, how’s it going, man? Good to see you!” Bob had spoken to me! Without breaking stride. And I was left in his wake trying to play it cool, but I could feel all of the other folks around us looking at me. It was impossible to play it cool. “Dylan talked to me. Did you guys see that?!” I immediately undid any credibility I had just accrued by being visibly rattled. I had to sit down. Later, when I had collected myself, I called Susie to let her know Bob and I were already best friends (just exaggerating a bit). We were invited to the Grammy Awards in 2012 and Wilco was treated as a lowly posse of interlopers, so we felt both thankful and annoyed. It was annoying that Jack Black introduced Foo Fighters as the only band retaining their “indie cred”, especially when Wilco is literally indie. Playing alongside Daniel Johnston was one of the top 10 musical thrills of my life. But none of it really matters. My highlight that night was when, attending a Grammys afterparty, Sir Paul McCartney whispered to John Stirratt that he had loved watching Wilco play live on the Austin City Limits Festival (on September 16, 2011). Paul McCartney is a Wilco fan! Stirratt told us Paul Mccartney thought Wilco was the band closer to the sound the Beatles would have if they were an indie band. That was insane, and I think more meaningful than winning a Grammy Award.  

As I am recounting my youth, I’m realizing that growing up in an old midwestern industrial town in the seventies has made my memories sound like they were filmed on the set of some fifties sitcom. Soda fountains?! Penny candy?! I promise I didn’t make any of this up or fill in the gaps in my Vicodin-dimmed memory by watching reruns of Andy Griffith. Nowadays, I've stopped worrying about whether I have anything important to say. Also remember that even if everything's been said before, not everyone has said it. Music is magic.

Lyrics from the song Bombs Above from Jeff Tweedy's solo acoustic album "Warm" (2019): "All my life I've played a part/I'm taking a moment to apologize/I should have done more to stop the war/I leave behind a trail of songs/From the darkest gloom to the brightest sun/I've lost my way but it's hard to say/What I've been through should matter to you/A man so drunk he could hardly stand/Told me once holding my hand/Suffering is the same for everyone/He was right but I was wrong to agree." —"A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco" (2018) by Jeff Tweedy

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