Rock and Roll Book Club: Jeff Tweedy's 'Let's Go (So We Can Get Back)'


Jeff Tweedy's 'Let's Go (So We Can Get Back).'
Jeff Tweedy's 'Let's Go (So We Can Get Back).' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In Jeff Tweedy's new memoir Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), he remembers always wondering what his former bandmate Jay Farrar was thinking of him during their shows. Now, a quarter-century since Uncle Tupelo broke up, Tweedy thinks he might have an idea.

What Jay could have said, if he was paying attention at all, was "You have no idea what it's like to stand onstage with somebody every night who struggles with and sometimes overcompensates for debilitating self-doubt, a guy sadly aware he's disappointing a bandmate he's spent his entire adult life trying to please."

Self-aware even about his self-awareness, Tweedy seemed like he might be either the worst or the best guy to write a memoir. In fact, the answer is much closer to the latter. If there's a Wilco fan on your holiday shopping list, your search for the perfect gift is over. And don't expect the recipient to join in when Trivial Pursuit comes out on Christmas afternoon: they'll be curled up with a Tom & Jerry (this is the Midwest, right?) and their new book.

Like a Wilco song, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) breezes past, but is full of moments of acute insight, wry humor, and surprising poignancy. As music memoirs go, this is just the kind of book a lot of fans are looking for: neither a comprehensive catalog or an indulgent ramble, at a very reasonable 292 pages, Let's Go has only the parts you want.

Tweedy has been giving interviews in support of Let's Go, and it must be challenging for his interlocutors, because the book itself is like the answers to all your dream interview questions.

How did you get your start playing music? With a terrible guitar, one that he started playing in earnest only after a youthful bicycle accident that left him on forced bed rest. ("All of the ways I am exactly like Bob Dylan is, one time a biking accident changed my life.")

Why did Uncle Tupelo break up? Farrar left, ending a band that had always been premised on an unequal partnership between two immensely gifted singer-songwriters with very different levels of self-confidence. "The entire Farrar family was intimidating in their musicality," writes Tweedy, describing the family's wide-ranging jam sessions. "It wasn't until my late teens that I realized 'Takin' Care of Business' wasn't a Lead Belly song."

How does he feel about Jay Bennett? Tweedy devotes considerable space to Bennett, the late musician who was an integral part of the stylistic growth in the first few years of Wilco's career. Some versions of conventional wisdom have it that Bennett was a genius who Tweedy's ego just couldn't tolerate, or at least whose own ego wasn't compatible with that of the band's leader. The reality was both simpler and more complex, writes Tweedy: he writes that Bennett was brilliant but manipulative, creating an unsustainable dynamic in the band. He was also a drug addict. So, for a while, was Tweedy, leading to the next question...

What about that drug addiction? In one of the book's innumerable stories about what life is like when you're indie-rock famous (at the Grammys, one of Puff Daddy's guests mistook Tweedy for an usher), Tweedy writes that his big hook-up for opiates was a pharmacy employee who was a fan. "I gave him tickets to Wilco shows, but I never knew if he came," writes Tweedy. "He was obviously addicted to pills, too." A rehab stint helped Tweedy buck his habit, but the mental-health issues he was managing have remained challenging every day.

He suspects that his dad, a 12-pack-a-day guy until he sobered up at age 81, was self-medicating some of the same problems. In an amusing passage, he describes his dad's musical tastes.

My dad had a monogamous relationship with music. By that I mean he consumed one song at a time. That was enough for him. There was a six- or seven-month period when the only song he played was Mac Davis's "It's Hard To Be Humble."

One of the book's most fascinating passages describes how the album A Ghost Was Born (2004) was affected by Tweedy's drug habit. Writing about the 11-minute "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," Tweedy recalls,

Because of its length, getting a great full take felt unlikely with the window on my ability to remain upright closing fast. So we restructured the song to be as minimal as possible with the fewest number of chord changes. This allowed me to just recite the lyrics and punctuate them with guitar skronks and scribbles to get through the song without having to concentrate past my headache too much. We attempted two takes and take one is the one on the record. Take two was incomplete.

Taking an approach some other memoirists have used, Tweedy presents conversations with his wife Susie and his son (and bandmate) Spencer to explore his close relationships with them in a way that doesn't feel invasive. To describe the genesis of his relationship with Susie, a former bar manager over a decade his senior, Tweedy presents a cartoon by George Eckart.

He also opens up about his first sexual encounter, making clear that while losing your virginity at age 14 to a 25-year-old woman (not Susie, to be clear) may sound awesome, in fact there's a reason it's statutory rape, no matter the genders of the people involved.

What about his songwriting? Tweedy describes it in some detail, making a general point akin to that Paul Simon made in a recent authorized biography: sometimes songs don't have deeper meanings. The words emerge from the songwriting process in an organic way, and there simply isn't a grand plan that a writer can articulate. There is one specific song, though, that Tweedy says was about a specific moment. It's "Heavy Metal Drummer," from Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002).

I was reflecting on the sudden realization I had once while watching a heavy metal cover band at a club in St. Louis after an Uncle Tupelo show. I'm not proud to admit this, but we were snobs. Just miserable. Hanging out on the sidelines stock-still in thrift-store flannel and work boots watching the spandexed gyrations of our peers — these pimply kids with massive hair actually having a fun time and yet still convinced of our superiority. Based on what? Our inability to enjoy ourselves? That is the kind of bulls--t I need to remind myself not to indulge in, with song if need be.

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