Jeff Tweedy Says It’s Okay to Be Okay

In a new memoir and solo album, the Wilco bandleader supplants the “tortured artist” trope with the universality of suffering.

Jeff Tweedy publicity photo
Whitten Sabbatani

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.

More than three decades into his career as a rock-folk subversive in Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy has emerged as a philosopher on the topic of suffering. His crisis with migraines and painkiller addiction, which crested between the 2002 release of Wilco’s genre-melting masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, was integral to his public narrative. But in the years since, he’s spoken out against the archetype with which he got tagged: the tortured artist. His memoir is now, on some level, a 304-page takedown of that cultural myth.

In his brother Steve’s bedroom, the wall was scrawled with an apocryphal Hemingway quote: “No writer ever becomes great until they’ve been greatly hurt.” The sentiment has long creeped Tweedy out, filling him with fear for whatever terrible thing he’d have to endure to succeed as an artist. He even suspects it “damaged” Steve, an author of unfinished books who Tweedy says refuses help to stop drinking. “Everyone suffers by degrees and I believe everyone has the capacity to create,” Tweedy writes. “But I think you’re one of the lucky ones if you’ve found an outlet for your discomfort or a way to cope through art.”

Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) unflinchingly describes Tweedy’s lowest point, during the making of A Ghost Is Born. Holed up in hotel rooms, he’d down pills and then fearfully Google about signs of overdose. He was sure he’d die soon. That’s why the album’s lyrics have a zoology motif: He was playing with a Noah’s Ark analogy, and “all of the songs were animals representing the different aspects of my personality worth saving.” The idea was that after his death, the lyrics would comfort his kids with the thought of their dad living on.

It’s a gutting revelation that lays bare how tangibly suffering can take a toll on art. Tweedy was debilitatingly high or in pain so often that compromises had to be made to accommodate him. “We restructured the song to be as minimal as possible with the fewest amount of chord changes,” he writes of the track “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” “This allowed me to just recite the lyrics and punctuate them with guitar skronks and scribbles to get through the song without having to concentrate past my headache too much.”

On Warm, a casually moving collection of what feel like Wilco demos that are nicely complemented and deepened by the memoir, Tweedy directly addresses fans who’ve taken the wrong lesson from his addiction stories. “Now people say, ‘What drugs did you take, and why don’t you start taking them again?’” he sings in gentle, measured tones. “But they’re not my friends.”

There’s a Tweedy solo album and book out now because Wilco has taken a break to allow the drummer, Glenn Kotche, to accompany his wife as she partakes in a Fulbright fellowship in Helsinki. That decidedly adult situation fits with the larger themes of domesticity and maturity emphasized by Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). Tweedy’s musical career has become a family affair, with his sons, Spencer and Sammy, supposedly playing an integral role in his recording process now. The former lays down preliminary drum tracks and the latter often offers backup vocals. Both of them contributed to Sukierae, a 2014 album released under the band name “Tweedy,” as did Jeff’s wife, Susan, who was battling cancer that year.

The Fulbright-related hiatus is also a lot less dramatic than the complications that have previously faced Tweedy’s bands over the years. Jay Farrar, Tweedy’s childhood friend, quit at the height of their band Uncle Tupelo’s success after Tweedy got too friendly (platonically, Tweedy says) with Farrar’s girlfriend. In 2001, Tweedy abruptly asked Wilco’s manager to fire Ken Coomer, the drummer, simply because Tweedy had met a better percussionist in Kotche. His squabbles with the guitarist and studio experimentalist Jay Bennett were captured in Sam Jones’s 2002 documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, but Tweedy’s memoir foregrounds Bennett’s drug use when explaining his firing. The musician died of an overdose a few years later.

Tweedy dishes on these tales—expressing compassion for the men he’s fallen out with, taking some measure of the blame, but also strenuously arguing his side of the story—in much the same folksy, straightforward, shockingly funny manner that the rest of Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) is written in. Dad jokes are aplenty, as are self-deprecating and sarcastic asides, even in the darkest passages. Regarding his early days of pill abuse: “I’d taken plenty of non-narcotic pain medication in my life, but mostly in suppository form due to my inability to keep solids down during a migraine. What’s that? You didn’t need to know that? My bad.”

For fans who know Tweedy largely through his abstruse poetry about murder, bloody needles, and “tongue-tied lightning,” the breezy tone will come as a shock, which is probably the point. The memoir opens with him explaining that the cover for Wilco’s 2015 freebie album, Star Wars—a cat wearing “an expression that’s more like ‘I am Coconut. I am your new god,’” Tweedy writes—was not that deep. In fact, that album and its 2016 follow-up, Schmilco, were meant to help deflate the pretentious image that had accreted around the band.

Tweedy’s 2018 output, the book and solo album, seems to have a similar corrective mission, arguing that optimism and recovery can make for art as powerful as art created from pain. To be all right—in spite of past sins, in spite of the romanticization of misery, and in spite of humankind’s tragedies—is good. Or at least it’s worth working for. “I know it’s a lie when you say it’s okay,” goes a line on the standout country-pop track “I Know What It’s Like,” and the cozy way Tweedy delivers it makes it clear he’s talking about a white lie, a healthy lie.

All of this is not to say that Warm is as jarringly perky as the memoir (though there is one facetious hurrah for the apocalypse, “Let’s Go Rain”). As always, Tweedy subtly complicates familiar folk and rock sounds—cowpunk goes ambient, noise clouds the prairie—while drawling about impossible images. But the book explains that the album was intended to be his most direct work, and indeed even the abstractions here hit the ear pretty cleanly. “I break bricks with my heart,” he sings, seeming to describe his songwriting approach. “Only a fool would call it art.”

Most poignant is the way each song works its way toward resolution, even as fear and death tremble in the margins. Warm’s title comes from a wonderful lyric on the album: “I don’t believe in heaven
 / I keep some heat inside / 
Like a red brick in the summer / Warm when the sun has died.” On another song, one in which Tweedy dismisses those who want him to get on painkillers again, he succinctly states his philosophy of late. “Having been is no way to be alive,” he sings, moving from weary-sounding to hopeful. “And I’m alive.”