After reading Jeff Tweedy’s straightforward, plainspoken memoir, “Let’s Go (So We Can Come Back)” — with a title that was taken from a saying of his father’s, who preferred staying in the house, hence his directive to leave so they could return — it may strike you that the Wilco frontman could easily duplicate Bruce Springsteen’s recent fete of a one-man show. There are plenty of similarities in their tales: Both grew up in an industrial small town, with a forbidding, alcoholic father and a sweet, encouraging mom, and were driven by a desire to leave home, only to end up nearby (in his case, Chicago, not so very far away from his hometown of Belleville, Illinois).
Tweedy has just released first-ever solo album of original material, “WARM,” as well, and the autobiography and record serve as companion pieces revealing a new, more open, more vulnerable side to the singer/songwriter, who may well be his generation’s answer to Bob Dylan and Neil Young. While Wilco has been on a hiatus, the 51-year-old Tweedy has used the time to work with his sons, Spencer and Sam, and help his wife Sue successfully steer her way through cancer treatments after she was diagnosed four years ago. These days Tweedy is painfully honest about his own bout with opioid addiction, as well as the death of his dad, Bob, in August 2017.
Variety spoke with him about the memoir and new album on the eve of a sold-out four-night stand of shows that he just started at Largo in L.A. Those solo gigs will be followed by a national tour in late February and March before Tweedy resumes playing with his band later in the year.
Did you speak into a tape recorder for the book, or just type it out?
I harbored some optimism at first that just talking it out would somehow produce a book. I was disabused of that notion about three-quarters of the way through the project. Then it was kind of a frenzy of writing and putting it back into something more literary
You tell the story by moving back and forth in the narrative, a bit like Dylan’s “Chronicles,” but a lot more straightforward.
I tried to keep the conversational quality of it. That was the goal. I like books that, when you finish reading them, you still hear that person’s voice. You miss spending time with them. I was hoping to create that sort of sensation.
The book and the solo album really seem to be companion pieces.
Thankfully they do, but that wasn’t necessarily the goal. There wasn’t much hope they’d come out this close together. We pushed the album toward the end of the book-making process and scrambled to get it out. It’s just a lot of material, and as soon as I can get it out, I can move on to the next thing.
Like the title of the book, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back).”
Right, so we can get to the next record. I’ve heard that they’re complementary from a lot of people. And it makes sense. They were pretty much finished during the same time period.
There’s a real transparency about the two projects, as if you’re revealing yourself for the first time after hiding behind either the band or your own lyrical conceits. It comes across like you’re addressing the audience directly.
Being immersed in writing prose for the first time in my life, I was trying to teach myself how to tell a story in clear language without being distracted by the kind of details I’d historically put into a song. Those details don’t tend to move the narrative forward but paint a more vivid picture. You don’t need as much of that when you’re writing prose, because sometimes it’s at the expense of the overall story coming across clearly. I was trying to get the lyrics [on the new album] to have that same effect, so that at the very least, you can tell somebody what the song is about with a brief synopsis. Which isn’t something that’s been a deep concern of mine over the years. The songs were about whatever you wanted them to be about, or whatever I wanted them to be about. These songs have a more crystallized meaning.
You’re such a natural storyteller. Ever think about doing “Tweedy on Broadway”?
[Chuckles.] Oh my God. No, I don’t think so. I couldn’t stand the amount of discipline that would take. I had a tough enough time reading my audiobook. I don’t think it’s in the cards for me. People tell me they now go back to listen to the older records with information from the book; they come across like the songs on the new record. Even in those earlier songs, there’s more directness than people perceived over the years. They get distracted by the abstractness and the sometime cryptic imagery. But there’s not much indirectness about a song like “I’m the Man Who Loves You” [from “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel”]. I think more of my material falls into that category than a lot of people think.
Did working on the book reveal any other subconscious meanings in the old material for you? You’ve described mumbling sounds before they turn into lyrics.
That’s my songwriting process in the nutshell. That’s kind of my default position, to trust that more than me sitting down and deciding to write a song about, say, the Civil War. It’s a process that depends upon something revealing itself.
The whole “Am I destined to be my father’s son, or can I break the genetic ties that bind and create my own narrative that offers a happy ending” is very much like the theme to Springsteen’s show.
At the risk of offending you, I don’t think it’s very much like that at all. It took me a long, long time to relate to my father. My mother was the dominant figure in my life. Almost anybody growing up in America in a smaller-town setting has a shared experience, but a lot of the portraits I’ve seen in Springsteen’s lyrics glorifying this blue-collar existence, that wasn’t my experience. My mom wasn’t going to let that happen to me. If she had to dress me like Elton John to go to school to prove my flamboyance, she was all for it.
She didn’t want you to work on the railroad, like your father and older brothers did?
My mom was dead-set against me being a day laborer. One of my brothers had a severe accident on the job. He passed away just a few summers ago from unrelated health issues. My other brother, Steve, is alive, but we’re not particularly close. They both had many problems, alcoholism being one brutal way to put it.
One of the themes in the book is the influence of older women, from your mother and wife to the woman who took your virginity when you were still just a kid. You admit to being an unabashed mama’s boy.
What are you, my therapist? I’m very much abashed. I don’t think any mama’s boy is unabashed! [Laughs.] But I covered all that in the book. I’ve definitely had an easier time forming bonds with women in general, because of my relationship with my mother and probably because of a certain amount of suspicion at being unable to process the dynamics of my relationship with my brothers, who were much, much older than I was as the baby in the house. There was a degree of jealousy that really took me a long time to figure out. I think I’ve always been more comfortable with feminine energy.
You got married pretty early, and fatherhood came rather quickly. Your wife pretty much domesticated you.
We’re still going through the toilet paper she had when I first met her.
The other narrative line in your story is the two Jays, Farrar and Bennett, and the falling out you had with each in turn, in Uncle Tupelo and then Wilco.
I’ve pretty much had the same band together now for the last 15 years, since 2004. There hasn’t been a whole lot of wreckage along the way. When Jay Farrar left, most people assumed I’d be the wreckage in his wake. Luckily, we’ve both been able to keep at it. As far as Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett, they were both very different circumstances. Having played music and made records for 30 years, I would actually argue it’s remarkable how little of that wreckage there’s actually been.
Any relationship with Farrar these days?
We don’t really talk, but there’s not a whole lot of need for us to do so. But if there is a reason to for business, we do. We’ve worked together on a couple of projects — some reissues, things like that. There isn’t a lot of communication, nor is there any acrimony.
“Yankee Foxtrot Hotel” was such a stylistic departure that your record label, Reprise, refused to put it out, returning the masters to you, which you proceeded to put on the Internet. You really did anticipate this whole streaming economy.
At the time, it didn’t make much difference to us whether we had a major record label or not. Our money was in touring, not selling albums. That was the only way we ever made money. We never had been paid royalties for our records to that point. The advances had gotten bigger, but that meant the likelihood of seeing any money from selling records was pretty remote. Initially, it might’ve hurt, because it hurts anytime anyone says your record sucks, but we came up with a plan pretty quickly based on our economic realities. We couldn’t afford to not do the dates we had planned. And if we were going to do the shows, it was a lot more fun for us to have people aware of our new music. That’s what forced the decision to stream the record so people could hear it. It all worked out fine. But I never portrayed it as some principled stand against the man.
You were lucky in that Wilco established its brand right before the Internet deluge. What do you think of the current streaming economy?
For fans of music, what could be better than almost practically free music?When I was my sons’ age, the idea of being on a record label was almost impossible to comprehend. And the process of making a record was extravagantly expensive. They are growing up in a world where it doesn’t really matter if they have a record label. They can have the same playing field by putting their music up on Bandcamp that they record in their room. It’s pretty democratized compared to when I was growing up, and I like that. I don’t have any nostalgia for the way the music biz used to be. I know a lot of people who do because their checks from selling records have gotten a lot smaller. And I get that. It’s affected me that way, too. But the way it used to be is extremely rigged for the executives and the labels, to exploit people who would crawl across cut glass just to have someone hear them. And that’s not the way it has to be anymore. It’s still deeply flawed. What would be better for me is something completely different from now and then. And that would be where musicians are paid a fair wage for their work and executives take a serious pay cut. …
What about converting to Judaism? Did it hurt to be circumcised?
I didn’t have to have a circumcision. The moyel just drew a little blood. I already had the proper equipment. I wasn’t pressured to convert by my wife. Sammy was really struggling with Hebrew School, so I offered to go with him. It was something I’d thought about quite a bit. In this f—ed-up world we live in — say we were in 1930s Germany — I wouldn’t want any outside judgment to be made where I’m any different than my family.
Are you pro-Israel? Have you performed there?
I think that’s a really complicated question I’m not going to weigh in on here. No… I haven’t received any serious offers to play there, so… I’ll think about it when it happens.
You sing, “We all think about dying / Don’t let it kill you” in “Don’t Forget.” Have you come to terms with your obsession with and fear of death since your dad’s passing?
Writing a lyric like that is just a way to keep reminding myself. As opposed to an epiphany that’s fully integrated into who I am.