He is trying to break our hearts

With a new album out and an intriguing new biography spinning the tale of his tormented career, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy looks like the leading American rocker of his generation. Which may tell you something about the state of American rock.

Eric Boehlert
June 30, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

Breaking up is never easy, especially onstage at Irving Plaza in New York.

It was September 1996, during the College Music Journal's annual conference, and Jeff Tweedy and his band Wilco were headlining. Wilco had not yet been dubbed one of the few American rock bands that matter; that label was cemented when Reprise Records rejected its minimalist masterpiece, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" as unworthy of release -- it found a new home and was quickly dubbed a classic. In '96, Tweedy and his Chicago-based band were better known as the torchbearers for the burgeoning alt-country scene built around American bands like the Bottle Rockets, Son Volt, the Silos, Vulgar Boatmen, the Jayhawks, Old 97's and Whiskeytown, who shouted their barroom choruses while also exploring the softer side of life.


Unapologetically rural in sensibility, they sang about floods (the Bottle Rockets' "Get Down River"), the road (Son Volt's "Windfall"), the big city (Old 97's' "Broadway"), small towns (Whiskeytown's "My Hometown"), getting high (Whiskeytown's "To Be Young"), being bored (the Vulgar Boatmen's "Drive Somewhere"), and the working poor (the Bottle Rockets' "Welfare Music"). And they did it with some of the finest, most economical rock songwriting of the last decade. Try to top the Vulgar Boatmen's "You and Your Sister" or Whiskeytown's "16 Days."

Tweedy's previous band, Uncle Tupelo -- formed with childhood pal Jay Farrar -- was the spiritual godfather of the alt-country sound; the name of its 1990 debut "No Depression" even morphed into a sort of shorthand for the movement as a whole. ("No Depression" itself is a 1936 Carter Family song, an ode to better times in the afterlife.) By 1996, though, Tweedy found the categorization claustrophobic. At sold-out Irving Plaza that September night, the crowd waited for a roots-rock punctuation to the triumphant night; a "good-time barn-dance vibe," as Greg Kot puts it in his new rock biography, "Wilco: Learning How to Die." But Tweedy, as has become his musical custom, had other ideas.

Instead of lassoing the crowd in, Tweedy, anxious to move forward musically with the new, more sophisticated sound that was playing in his head, turned them away with a string of unknown songs from the band's yet-to-be-released album, "Being There." The songs, heavy on piano and often hushed with introspection, bore little resemblance to the pop-rock sound fans had grown accustomed to. "About one-third of the way into the set, when it became clearer that this wasn't going to be Wilco as usual, the fans' discomfort became palpable," writes Kot. "What the hell was going on? Tweedy did nothing to dispel the bad vibes." If anything, Tweedy seemed to take perverse pride in disappointing his loyal fans.


Bounding offstage, Wilco bassist John Stirratt bumped into Joe McEwen, one of the industry's most respected A&R men, who had signed Uncle Tupelo to its major label contract and represented Wilco at Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Asked what he thought of the Irving Plaza show, McEwen spat back, "I fuckin' hated it," and then charged into the cramped dressing room to confront Tweedy: "It was horrible! It was fucking horrible! The last time I saw you, you guys were on your way to being as good a band as the Heartbreakers!" referring to Tom Petty's legendary band.

Tweedy seemed dumbfounded. Tom-fucking-Petty, that's what you think this band is about? In a matter of months, with the release of the ambitious and mostly melancholy "Being There," it would become obvious to everyone that Wilco was never going to become a feel-good American jukebox the way Petty and his Heartbreakers were in the '80s and '90s.

But McEwen's frustration no doubt echoed the sentiments of lots of Wilco fans, and not just his colleagues at Warner Bros. who, according to Kot's account, became convinced that if Tweedy thought he'd written a pop hit, he'd find a way to sabotage it the studio.


"I kept seeing them leave a lot more radio-friendly stuff by the wayside," recalls Sam Jones, who chronicled the band in his acclaimed 2002 documentary, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." "I was incredulous at first. I finally realized that Jeff doesn't care. He just doesn't have it in him. All he really wants to be allowed to do is make records."

Tweedy, an introvert who battles a laundry list of personal demons, has led three musical careers: Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and what we might call Wilco II. Tweedy's band today bears very little resemblance to the one that came careening out of the Uncle Tupelo split in 1994. Back then the band was still firmly rooted in swinging, pop-filled Midwestern American rock. The Wilco that powered 1995's "A.M." as well as 1998's "Mermaid Avenue," and the 2000 follow-up "Mermaid Avenue II" (both built around thoroughly modern workings of unearthed Woody Guthrie material), is now gone.


Wilco II, featuring new players, has morphed into something else entirely. Something more thoughtful, more complicated and compelling; an American answer to Radiohead, as the cliché goes. Fans of the original Wilco might respond that it's also something too precious and earnest, something that flirts with a certain soullessness, a skillful detachment that Tweedy has constructed in the studio. There can be no question that Tweedy is a more accomplished and daring songwriter today than he was 10 years ago; R.E.M.'s Peter Buck calls Tweedy, "one of the best songwriters of his generation." But is Wilco a better band?

Undoubtedly some enthusiasts have matured musically with Tweedy through every step of his two-decade musical journey. But my guess is not that many of those original Uncle Tupelo and early Wilco fans, itching for a taste of steel guitar, are still onboard for the Wilco II ride and Tweedy's penchant for hushed, mournful lullabies. Or that, conversely, the band's new generation of converts find all that much of interest in Tweedy's back catalog of songs about screen doors, moonshiners, and Acuff-Rose.

That gap is only likely to widen with the release last Tuesday of Wilco's fifth album, "A Ghost Is Born." At times purposefully inaccessible, with actual song choruses often hard to uncover, the withdrawn sound of "A Ghost Is Born" sometimes makes the laid-back "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" seem positively Springsteen-esque in comparison.


Kot's compelling book paints a vivid portrait for both past and present Tweedy fans. For the uninitiated, Kot, a music writer for the Chicago Tribune, offers up an engaging guide through today's rock landscape, detailing both the personal and professional pressures Tweedy has faced while steering Wilco.

There's something strange, though, in reading such a detailed and serious account of Tweedy's musical career, when you consider that by today's record industry standards it's essentially been a commercial bust. Uncle Tupelo enjoyed a sterling, almost mythic, reputation, one that far outstripped its capacity to make money. And while critical acclaim has only ballooned for Wilco, the band's SoundScan numbers remain underwhelming. Its only real hit, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," has sold roughly a half million copies, or what Usher, today's R&B king, could probably sell on a really good weekend. (Unlike Usher, however, Tweedy has essentially been locked out of commercial radio.)

Meanwhile, the band's been the subject of not one, but two documentaries. (Along with "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," there was 2001's "Man in the Sand," which chronicled the making of "Mermaid Avenue," a co-venture with British folk singer Billy Bragg.) The national hand-wringing that took place in the music press over Reprise's decision to part ways with Wilco at times seemed a bit over the top. And my hunch is "A Ghost Is Born" will receive reviews far more glowing than the uneven album deserves.


So there's a temptation to complain that the Wilco myth-making has gone too far. But when you survey America's tattered rock landscape today and see how few bands have sustained their careers, and how fewer still take musical chances the way Tweedy has with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, the attention, and specifically that provided by Kot's book, represents a welcome appreciation.

In so many ways, the story of Uncle Tupelo is the same do-it-yourself rock 'n' roll tale that has played out countless times in American life over the last half-century. It's about growing up in a dreary small town (Belleville, Ill.), and grabbing on to music like a life raft. In the heart of REO Speedwagon country, Tweedy was a teenage Ramones fan while Farrar worshiped the Sex Pistols. "It [was] like the two visitors from Mars," said Farrar. "We felt like the only two people listening to that type of music."

So the guys start a band (picking the name by randomly selecting one noun each from separate columns of possibilities scribbled on a legal pad), win a local following (in this case at a little St. Louis club called Cicero's), meet up with a horned-rim-glasses-wearing record-store owner who, despite having no experience in management, agrees to help them chart a path in the industry. They make a record in 10 days for $3,500, and then tour cross-country -- surviving on revenues from T-shirt sales, not tickets or records -- in a 1970 Ford Econoline van that was eventually traded in for $50.


The band paid its dues. "They were touring their asses off," recalls Jeff Pachman, who signed the little-known band to Rockville Records. "There wasn't even time to do laundry. So you'd see, Day 1, T-shirt with logo on the font; Day 2, same T-shirt with logo on the back; Day 3, same T-shirt with logo inside out. They were drunk when they played the Continental [in New York] -- Jeff fell off the stage and onto a table -- and they were great. I hadn't had my socks blown off by a band like that since the first time I saw the Replacements."

And just to complete the American music-industry fable, Uncle Tupelo got screwed over by its record company. Much to embarrassment of Pachman, his bosses at Rockville Records, which sold more than 200,000 copies of Uncle Tupelo's first three albums -- a killing for a small indie label -- never paid the band a penny in royalties. (In 2003, Farrar and Tweedy won an undisclosed court settlement.)

But what separated Uncle Tupelo from the majority of basement bands who give it a shot was that Farrar and Tweedy created something entirely original and compelling. In the mid-'80s, when they started out, and when rock's elite were still focused on the Clash's London and the Talking Heads' East Village, nothing could have been less cool than covering old Carter Family songs, welcoming a steel guitar, and doing it all without a hint of irony. But Uncle Tupelo didn't cradle its throwback sound with reverential nostalgic care. The band's signature start-stop crunch had more in common with the Pixies than the Louvin Brothers.

Farrar and Tweed made for an usual rock pairing, in that both were withdrawn and, during the Uncle Tupelo days, they often appeared uneasy -- certainly overly earnest -- onstage, where shoe-gazing was the norm. Musically, Tweedy provided the group's small bouts of buoyancy, while Farrar filled the role of "Grapes of Wrath"-type brooder. Buddy Brian Henneman, the talented front man for the Bottle Rockets, calls Farrar "the griever, a young man who wore an old man's scars." As Kot notes, it was the griever's voice -- that once-in-a-lifetime voice -- that gave Uncle Tupelo the "blue-eyed soul heaviness," and demanded that attention be paid from the first note of "Graveyard Shift," the opening track on "No Depression." (When the band split, Farrar founded Son Volt, whose stunning debut, 1995's "Trace," still stands as the quintessential alt-country record. Farrar, however, has not been able to sustain that quality over the years.)


Today, Tweedy looks back and dismisses a lot of the mythology and "revisionist history" that's been built up around a band that put out only four records. He's right; Uncle Tupelo was overrated. The band made just one truly great album, 1993's "Anodyne," whose stellar wall-of-guitar tracks like "The Long Cut" and "We've Been Had" still stand alongside anything Pearl Jam, Nirvana or the Smashing Pumpkins did in terms of rock's great rallying cries of the '90s.

Still, by the time of "Anodyne's" release, Farrar and Tweedy's relationship, surprisingly distant even during the good times, became increasingly strained as Tweedy began to write and sing more of the band's songs. In the liner notes for 2002's retrospective, "Uncle Tupelo: An Anthology," Tweedy, retracing his progressively prominent role in the band, mentioned that Farrar "encouraged" him to sing songs. Then Tweedy corrected himself, conceding that Farrar had simply refused to sing any of Tweedy's songs, so he had to do it himself.

Following the band's high point, a rapturous, sold-out gig in December 1993 at Tramps in New York, at a time when Nirvana was rewriting the rules of commercial rock radio and it seemed anything -- even an Uncle Tupelo hit -- was possible, Farrar called the band's manager, Tony Margherita, and told him Uncle Tupelo was finished. Then Margherita called Tweedy and broke the news to him. With a messy split and an unsupportive music partner behind him, Tweedy would spend the next decade battling record companies and himself. But mostly himself, as he fought addictions, crippling migraines, and the need to purge Wilco of its original members in order to capture the sound he was chasing.

Following the very Tupelo-esque sounding "A.M.," Wilco delivered the multidimensional (and somewhat bloated) double CD "Being There," which signaled the band's inevitable break from alt-country. But to add to fans' confusion, in 1998 came "Mermaid Avenue," which sounded like a complete U-turn, harking back to an Americana hootenanny vibe. The project was spearheaded by Guthrie's daughter Nora, who had unearthed hundreds of her father's unpublished song lyrics. She handed them over to Bragg and Wilco, whose job it was to create the music and record, not a tribute album, but something more contemporary and unified. What they did was capture pure magic, an album of undeniable charm and appeal.


Here's how the unassuming centerpiece effortlessly came together: "[Guitarist Jay] Bennett banged out the three chords for 'California Stars' in his girlfriend's kitchen so quickly he was sure he'd lifted them off Springsteen's 'Nebraska' or some other cherished album. When Tweedy heard the demo, he did some tweaking; he accelerated the tempo and took the melody up an octave. In the studio, [drummer Ken] Coomer and [bassist John] Stirratt made it swing, and Wilco knocked out the finished version in two takes."

Of course, it's depressing to discover in Kot's account that tension between Tweedy and Bragg made a joint tour in support of "Mermaid Avenue" impossible, and that their respective managers often ended negotiations in trans-Atlantic shouting matches. The dysfunction hit its zenith when Wilco and Bragg appeared at the same New York festival, the 1998 Guinness Fleadh, but played separate sets promoting the same album.

But by that point there was tension everywhere, as Wilco I began to collapse. First to be shown the door was sideman Bob Egan. Soon Coomer and guitarist Bennett would be given their walking papers.

And then came the damaging -- both musically and emotionally -- recording of "Summer Teeth." Writes Kot: "What began in Austin [Texas] as a straight-forward live-to-tape band recording, ended up in Chicago as an elaborate two-man overdub extravaganza. It was Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, a few cartons of cigarettes and a Pro Tools computer cocooned in a studio as they transformed songs of wretched despair into cathedrals of sound. In the process, they shut out the world and even their own bandmates."


Adopting a kitchen-sink approach to studio tinkering, the two became lost in a maze of sound effects, overdubs and lost tracks. Recalls Coomer, the soon-to-be-dismissed drummer: "Jeff didn't go to rehab, but he should've in my opinion. Jay was taking pain killers, antidepressants, and wasn't in much better shape. There really wasn't a band, just two guys losing their minds in the studio."

Tweedy himself was a physical and emotional mess, battling addiction problems, chronic and often debilitating headaches, bouts with depression and anxiety attacks that struck right before show time. And that highlights the only weak spot of "Learning How to Die"; Kot does not sufficiently answer -- or even address -- the riddle at the center of the book: Who is Jeff Tweedy and why, on a personal level, is he so miserable? Clearly the ailments blanket Tweedy's creative process, for better and worse, and Kot should have probed deeper into that uncomfortable territory in search of answers. (At one point Tweedy tells Kot, "I don't like talking about it.") Indeed, the troubling questions became even more relevant this April, when Tweedy checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic to battle his dependency on painkillers, forcing the release of "A Ghost Is Born" back by a month.

Musically, with the help of new Wilco guitarist/producer Jim O'Rourke, Tweedy brought the band back from the "Summer Teeth" edge with the gorgeous and now infamous "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," an album that not only came to symbolize Tweedy's maturation as a songwriter, but was also a larger-than-life example of everything that had gone wrong with the increasingly consolidated music industry. Only in an industry run by fear would a senior vice president of A&R sit back and listen to "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's" breathtaking 52 minutes, hit the pause button and conclude, "This isn't even worth shipping out to stores." But that's what they did at Reprise Records, in the spring of 2001. Not hearing any radio singles, the label told the band to shop it elsewhere. When the news leaked, Reprise was pummeled in the press. Trying to cut its losses, Reprise, which paid for the recording of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," made the rare gesture of giving Wilco ownership of the masters for free. Wilco then turned around and sold them to Nonesuch, a separate, although more appreciative, Warner Bros. entity. "The whole thing," manager Margherita recalls, "was like an insane dream."

Across the course of Jeff Tweedy's nearly 20-year personal and professional journey, you sense he gets that feeling a lot.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected since its original publication.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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