For the uninitiated, Jeff Tweedy is the lead singer of the band Wilco, as well as a musician, producer, poet, and songwriter. In my mind, he is one of our generation’s great artists.
Like others who have risen to the top of their respective professions, there’s a tendency in us “laymans” to want to understand the magic or secrets behind their success and prolific output, or in the case of Tweedy, his capacity for imagery and melody, and his ability to convey meaning from a series of chords/notes and words strung together. What books were read, routines established, and/or blood oaths taken to reach these heights?
Oftentimes, I think we find ourselves, as eager consumers and seekers of these types of secrets (daresay “hacks”), disappointed by how pedestrian or seemingly simple they seem, or wholly unattainable, either by virtue of god- or genetically-given talent or circumstances, usually combined with a smattering of serendipity and sheer luck.
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), by Jeff Tweedy (Dutton 2018)
Jeff Tweedy, the youngest child of gruff, blue collar alcoholic parents born in rural Illinois, certainly did not come from means, nor was placed on this Earth with any sort of prodigious talent. Over the series of his memoir, Tweedy speaks to his “superpower:” his passion for discovering music of all sorts, and where that openness and commitment has taken him: bands (and bandmates) formed and broken up and a continual sonic evolution via experimentation – new songs, structures, and genres.
With remarkable humility and honesty and a pervasive sense of gratitude, Tweedy takes on his journey starting in his formative years, eagerly absorbing the music recommendations of his older brothers, far-reaching radio stations, and all-knowing record store clerks, as well as a fellow classmate named Jay Farrar. Farrar would soon become his first bandmate and his eventual counterpart in the much-loved early-90s outfit Uncle Tupelo.
Tweedy’s journey is remarkable for just how unremarkable it is, including his battles with depression and painkiller addiction, his wife’s battle with cancer, his experience as a Dad of two boys, and his pervasive and unabated appreciation for music. Tweedy takes us along the ride through Wilco’s evolution from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and Farrar to the shadow of British songwriter Billy Bragg, the addition of another Jay (Bennett), a volatile creative combination that led to (my opinion) their best album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (infamously chronicled in the documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco”), up to the band’s current formation, responsible for the past few albums.
Throughout, Tweedy is remarkably frank about his personal and professional battles, creatively, emotionally, and physically, which makes for an interesting and engaging read. However, I think non-fans of Wilco/Tweedy will likely find little to draw on from this book – maybe not a surprise altogether, as very few “celebrity” memoirs stand on their own. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to any fan of any of Wilco’s albums (at the very least to read Tweedy’s plea for his fans of various generations/formations of Wilco to get along!)
On another note, this is one of the first books that I’ve listened to “cover-to-cover” in audiobook format. To anyone with any familiarity with Tweedy’s voice, I’d contend that audiobook is the far-and-away optimal “format” to consume this book. The production value is incredibly strong throughout, as Tweedy’s unmistakable dry and wit-laden candor comes through, and there are even some fun back-and-forth conversations with his wife and children, done in their own voices, that I don’t think would translate as well on the page.
For me, recommending an audiobook is a bit of a remarkable statement, as I’ve had mixed experiences with audiobooks in the past as a way to supplement my reading habits in the car, while walking, etc. Listening to other books, I’ve oftentimes found myself mentally zoning out, or getting lost among the characters speaking and broader narrative. I’ve had the most luck with memoirs like Tweedy’s (currently listening to Tara Westover’s Educated), or longer form history (more than 10 hours into Chernow’s Grant, a longer project.) On the other hand, listening to fiction has continued to elude me, as listening to the 166-person cast Lincoln in the Bardo audiobook (my review here) left me mostly lost, though one could argue a more straightforward, non-experimental book, like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (which I enjoyed on audiobook several years ago), might work better.
Eager to continue with the experimentation, and continuing to refine what works best for me.