Saved By Rock’n’Roll


The leader of the Great American Band made his most celebrated album while puking his guts out in a studio bathroom with crippling migraines. He made its successor so lost in a Vicodin haze that the whole period was something of a lost weekend. Both events had their upsides: The albums were rock masterpieces—odd and comforting, full of dislocation, radio static, and melodies meant to heal the pain of being adrift in the modern world. They won Wilco phenomenal critical acclaim and a huge, rabid following for live shows where they play experimental music as kick-ass rock’n’roll. The downside of these albums is that they nearly killed Jeff Tweedy.

Yet here he sits in a rambling Chicago loft, enjoying a Diet Coke, a quiet Monday, and the new (and excellent) Wilco (The Album). All this is contrary to some very durable rock clichés, the druggy tortured artist chief among them. “There’s all these different ways in which that mythology has beaten itself into people’s heads, mine included,” Tweedy says in a slightly creaky voice. “Well-adjusted, happy, and productive artists don’t get a lot of ink. Nor does how many awful, awful records are made on drugs, or how many don’t get made because people are dead. The fact of the matter is I didn’t really write when I was fucked up.”

After leading a quick tour of the band’s long- time studio on the third floor of an industrial building—past organs, a Mellotron, and other instrumental exotica; past bunk beds, vintage radios, and autographed photos of Don Rickles and Bob Newhart; and past a drum isolation booth filled with naked male mannequins— Witco’s singer-songwriter has settled at a glass table in the kitchen area. Wearing an orange T-shirt, gray cords, a Milwaukee Brewers cap, and a janitor-size clump of keys, the 41-year-old has the kind of shaggy, gray-streaked hair and amiable, careworn face you might expect to see through a squeegee-streaked windshield at a Midwestern filling station.

He’s a strange breed of rock star at a strange moment in his life. For the first time in a career stretching back more than two decades, he’s comfortable being comfortable. Years after forming Wilco from the ashes of alt-country group Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Tweedy has evolved into a confident yet sui generis frontman: a retiring but magnetic persona, an archivist of rootsy Americana who crafts misty sci-fi soundscapes, a poetic soul often physically pained by performing, a countrified Kurt Cobain leading a Midwestern Radiohead—which is not an epithet he treasures.

“I actually apologized to them for any humiliation that comparison might have caused over the years,” he says of Radiohead’s Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien, whom he joined on an Oxfam charity record at the New Zealand studio of Crowded House’s Neil Finn. While there Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone recorded much of the new and most confident album of Witco’s career—a career that has often been on the verge of an early death. The most notorious Sturm und Drang was captured in the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which covered the making of Witco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—an album that, in typical Wilco fashion, both got them dropped from their major label and launched them as a commercial powerhouse.

When Reprise Records balked at the disc’s static-shrouded, hook-light songs, Wilco streamed it on their Web site, where it won a devoted following and, eventually, a deal with Nonesuch Records. Less an album than a paradigm shift, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went on to sell 647,000 copies (despite being offered for free) and win pretty much every critical superlative there is. But while the album’s story cemented Wilco as a triumphant David to the Goliath of a doomed record industry, it also revealed ominous fissures: between the band and longtime member Jay Bennett (who was fired from Wilco in 2001) and in the mental health of Tweedy, who spends the film’s more memorable moments racked in visible agony, his battles with anxiety and migraine headaches punctuated by gut-hurling genuflections in the toilet stall.

Those chronic ailments drove the yet darker events that accompanied YHF’s follow-up album, A Ghost Is Born, during which the singer, who had become addicted to painkillers prescribed for his migraines, made a desperate attempt to quit all medication and suffered a complete collapse. “He was in the worst state I had ever seen him in,” recalls bassist John Stirratt, Tweedy’s sole consistent Wilco band mate from the beginning. “Just completely in pain, panicky, not able to be in a room with anybody. I thought it could be the end of the band.”

The album’s 2007 successor, Sky Blue Sky, was to some extent a head-clearing exercise for Tweedy, who was fresh from rehab. “Around that point it was really important for me to be as direct as possible,” he says. Sky Blue Sky was Witco’s highest-charting album, although its ’70s-tinged guitar jams strayed far enough into Seals and Crofts territory to prompt the barbed critical epithet “dad rock.” Wilco (The Album), on the other hand, sounds neither nostalgic nor pointedly experimental. Instead, it offers a focused collection of poetic, emotionally direct songs that explore fear, loss, and love from a midlife perspective. The critical response has been typically rapturous, and as the band’s summer tour has proved, the album lends itself to some epic live performances. “To me it’s a lot of the things that are identifiable as Wilco,” Tweedy explains. “Just done more confidently and in one place.”
Much of Tweedy’s new creative freedom came from sloughing off a mind-set that both fuels addictions and defines much of the post-punk, we-suck culture that formed him. “God, it feels really good to put that away,” he says of he self-loathing “alternative” ethos. “As awesome as punk rock was, it caused a lot of damage to a lot of things that are pretty great. Like musicianship. And…caring.” He laughs. “It’s a lot of work to pretend you don’t care. And I’ve come to believe it’s dishonest to deny yourself enjoyment, pride, confidence—which people somehow think is an affront to the world. ‘Oh, he really likes himself. What an asshole.’”

This kind of thing once made Tweedy one of the legions of artists who equate health and happiness with creative death—an impression only underscored in cultural fixtures like the third-act Behind the Music moment where the drug-free musician exults in his hard-won sobriety. While Tweedy says his biggest current vice is crossword puzzles (“just, like, the lamest rock star thing to have”), he attests to the humility necessary to keep addictions at bay. “I took great pride in calling James Frey a fucking fraud before anybody else did,” he says of the author of A Million Little Pieces, who famously romanticized/fabricated his own struggles with addiction. “I read that book and was like, ‘This is not only bullshit, it’s totally irresponsible bullshit.’ That whole idea of willpower, and him being so macho about it. That’s exactly the kind of shit that got me in the hospital.” Just three weeks after we talk, proof of these same crippling impulses will come with news that Bennett—Tweedy’s sideman of seven years—overdosed on painkillers at 45 after years of battling his own demons.

The triumph of Wilco (The Album) ably rebuts the tortured-artist ideal. “It’s obvious that with Jeff, the faucet is on more than ever,” says drummer Glenn Kotche. “Before it was like Jeff was using pills as a crutch for writing. But it’s pretty clear that he didn’t need them, because the songwriting on this record is better than anything he’s done before.” Witco’s current stature also testifies to a larger, post-generational music bloc—a big-tent audience Wilco has built up over years of touring, one that revels in the classics yet thrives in the present. The band’s most famous fan just happens to be the most famous guy in the world, Barack Obama, whom Tweedy befriended when the latter was an unknown Senate candidate from Chicago.

As we finish talking, Tweedy prepares to go pick up his sons, Sam and Spencer. The latter, an alarmingly precocious 13-year-old whose band, the Blisters, has played alongside Wilco, had his bar mitzvah two days ago. (Tweedy’s wife, Sue Miller, is Jewish.) In a week the popular blog will bear the following post: “One of the most special parts of my service was when my dad sang ‘Forever Young’ by Bob Dylan…When I was a little kid, my dad would play a song for me every night. Sometimes I still cry—in a sentimental, nice way— when I think of those times.”

Pulling on a windbreaker, Tweedy recalls one last, telling aspect from the collaborations in New Zealand. “It was really family-oriented,” he says of the sessions with members of Radiohead, the Smiths, and other giants. “They were all musicians who had managed to be around for a long time and were in long-term relationships with kids.” He chuckles and heads for the door. “Dad rock’s got more going for it than people want to give it credit for.”

© 2009 by Chris Norris,