Published Nov 13, 2018Even in the low-stakes realm of indie rock memoirs, Jeff Tweedy has elevated the form with his remarkably candid and compelling book, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), which serves as both a chronicle of his own life and an exemplary story that explores the strength and fragility of humanity.
After his pioneering "alt-country" band Uncle Tupelo broke up suddenly, Tweedy started Wilco in 1994, cementing his status as one of rock's most adventurous musical and lyrical voices. He has given thousands of interviews in that time, and often comes across as a good-humoured intellectual who is open to new ideas and always listening. To music, sure, but also to people and their conditions and how they might relate to his own.
Tweedy has played some role in a fair number of dramas by this point, many of them public knowledge. From band breakups and shakeups to the riveting action of Sam Jones' 2002 documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (which included a record label standoff, band in-fighting, and at least one mental breakdown in a bathroom), to acknowledgements that Tweedy has suffered from anxiety, depression, and opiate addictions. In this book, Tweedy addresses them all, tracing his life back to a pleasant if dark upbringing in Belleville, IL, where he became obsessed with music, to his working methods today as a father and husband himself, living in Chicago and immersing himself in as much joy as he possibly can.
Though often forthcoming as an interview subject, there are many revelations here that fans have been clamouring for. Tweedy addresses the acrimonious end of Uncle Tupelo and his relationship with his first musical peer and mentor, Jay Farrar, whose behaviour and rationale for ending their band, Tweedy ostensibly describes as inexplicable and based on a huge misconception.
Tweedy discusses the other Jay that has loomed in his musical life: Wilco multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, a talented guy whose creeping narcissism and shit-talking led to his dismissal from Wilco, as captured in Jones's aforementioned documentary. Sadly, Bennett eventually fatally and accidentally overdosed after ingesting the prescribed painkiller fentanyl and Tweedy mourns their friendship here.
Growing up as he did, Tweedy sympathizes with Bennett's plight. Born as an "accident" and almost a full decade after his siblings, he became more of a best pal to his mother than a son, staying up late to watch old movies with her, even if the volume kept his hard-working dad up when he needed sleep.
Tweedy recalls his dad polishing off a 12-pack of beer each night when he got home from work and his late older brother eventually succumbed to addiction, which runs in the family. While he has a deep fondness for his kin and his parents, both of whom are now deceased (if this book is guided by any watchful spirits, it's definitely theirs), Tweedy himself has fended off the lure of drugs and suffers from deep anxiety and a kind of fatalism; as fans know, he seems to ponder death in his music, from both reasoned and nervous perspectives.
Such universalism, which runs throughout Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), is what makes it so refreshingly instructive. Tweedy discusses his songwriting processes starkly. He has arrived at a kind of creative formula that he trusts: music + melodic vocal gibberish + organically spun lyrics = real, true expression.
He talks about how Wilco collaborate now, why working on music with his sons Spencer and Sammy blows his mind, and why his working relationship as a writer and producer for Mavis Staples has changed his life. The latter also may have made him a fan in Bob Dylan, who invited Wilco to open a tour, and turned Tweedy into a middleman, delivering flirtatious messages between Staples and Dylan about their long-gestating and unrequited love. Bob Dylan stories are always amusingly strange.
Tweedy also writes adoringly of his wife Susie Miller, who once ran the Lounge Ax club in Chicago and stole his heart and never gave it back. She has toughly dealt with recurring and rare forms of cancer for the last two decades and, as of this writing, is working with her medical team yet again. There is an indisputable sense that Miller altered Tweedy — her humour lightens him up, her fearlessness makes him stronger than he maybe is. She takes no shit and he has been encouraged to do the same, fighting back against record labels and any other conventional authorities, all the while accepting and trusting his own independent streak and instincts, while embracing his wife and their sons as pillars that keep him upright.
At one point, Tweedy acknowledges that he doesn't always have the best memory for places and experiences, leaving us to suddenly wonder if any aspects of his memoir are perhaps conjured or pieced together. But there's never a page in this thing that doesn't feel true. Let's Go (So We Can Back) exhibits a combination of wit, candour, passion, humility, useful wisdom and genuine care that's rare in such endeavours and a testament to Jeff Tweedy's inspirational artistic vision. (Dutton Books/Penguin)