The famously inscrutable Jeff Tweedy has at last clarified his opinion on American interventionism. Kinda, maybe. “All my life I’ve played a part in the bombs above the ones you love,” the Wilco front man sings over hesitant guitar twang in the opening moments of his first album of solo originals, Warm. “I’m taking a moment to apologize. I should have done more to stop the war.”
In the next verse he sings of having left “behind a trail of songs from the darkest gloom to the brightest sun,” but “it’s hard to say” that what he’s “been through should matter to you.” Then, an anecdote: A drunk man once took him by the hand and told him that “suffering is the same for everyone.” Tweedy reflects, with his voice cracking, that “he was right, but I was wrong to agree.”
As a listener, I felt I understood the meaning immediately. Tweedy is waking up to the puny scale of his problems. He sings sad songs about emotions, while his country manufactures payloads that kill children in Yemen. The drunk man turns Tweedy’s empathy back on him, offering absolution for those sad songs—absolution that Tweedy may be entitled to, but that will not bring any justice to the world.
Tweedy, however, puts the song in another context in his bracing new memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), released just a few weeks before Warm. To recover from opioid addiction in the mid-2000s, he checked into “a very hard-core city hospital in an underserved neighborhood,” and came to feel guilty about the scope of his troubles in comparison to the other people there:
I’d sit in group sessions and listen to other patients talk about their lives, and what they’d endured was beyond anything I could imagine … One guy told us about seeing his father murder his mother when he was nine and that he had his first taste of alcohol that night because his father forced him to drink whiskey, thinking it would make him forget what he’d seen. Hearing a story like that made me ashamed of how little I had had to survive and how much pain I’d derived from so much less actual trauma. What was I gonna say when the group got to me? “Um … I cry a lot. I get scared sometimes. I have headaches, and it makes it hard to make music.” That was the worst of it. I was out of my league.
But when he related this guilt to another patient, that patient was offended:
“Listen to me, motherfucker, listen.” Getting right up in my face. “Mine ain’t about yours. And yours ain’t about mine. We all suffer the same. You don’t get to decide what hurts you. You just hurt. Let me say my shit, and you say your shit, and I’ll be there for you. Okay?”
In this telling, the man offering absolution isn’t drunk, but rather in recovery. There are no bombs. But the underlying story is the same. Tweedy worries his damage is unearned given the wider world’s problems. Yet still, it’s there, and it must be dealt with either way.