The intimate story of one of the great American bands of our time, creators of the controversial masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
When alt-country heroes-turned-rock-iconoclasts Wilco handed in their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to the band’s label, Reprise, a division of Warner Brothers, fans looked forward to the release of another challenging, genre-bending departure from their previous work. The band aimed to build on previous sales and critical acclaim with its boldest and most ambitious album yet, but was instead urged by skittish Reprise execs to make the record more “radio friendly.” When Wilco wouldn’t give, they found themselves without a label. Instead, they used the Internet to introduce the album to their fans, and eventually sold the record to Nonesuch, another division of Warner. Wilco was vindicated when the album debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard charts and posted the band’s strongest sales to date.
Wilco: Learning How to Die traces the band’s story to its deepest origins in Southern Illinois, where Jeff Tweedy began growing into one of the best songwriters of his generation. As we witness how his music grew from its punk and alt-country origins, some of the key issues and questions in our culture are addressed: How is music of substance created while the gulf between art and commerce widens in the corporate consolidation era? How does the music industry make or break a hit? How do working musicians reconcile the rewards of artistic risk with the toll it exacts on their personal life?
This book was written with the cooperation of Wilco band members past and present. It is also fully up to date, covering the latest changes in personnel and the imminent release of the band’s fifth album, A Ghost Is Born, sure to be one of the most talked-about albums of 2004.
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About the Author
An award-winning music critic for the Chicago Tribune, GREG KOT contributes to a wide array of national magazines, including Rolling Stone, and co-hosts the rock ’n’ roll talk show Sound Opinions on radio and television, and at www.soundopinions.net.
Read an Excerpt
“You Have To Learn How To Die”
Jeff Tweedy was sobbing as he sang. He and his bandmates in Wilco were coming off a grueling tour that had seen them play too many shows too far from home for far too long, and now they had just finished up four days of recording sessions in an Austin, Texas, studio. Listening to the playback, Tweedy could measure the toll. He could hear the depression and exhaustion in his voice, the misgivings about the life he had made for himself. Music was both the best thing that had ever happened to him and the worst. It kept him away from his wife and family for long stretches, and now he was beginning to doubt everything: his music, his marriage, the sound of his own voice. The songs held no answers; they simply channeled what was in his heart and mind. Both, frankly, had seen better, brighter days. “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me.” He heard himself sing the words as they marched past him; rather than cushioning or muffling the lyrics, the music seemed to highlight them, making them even more difficult to bear. All Jeff Tweedy could think was, “I’ve failed. I’ve let the band down. I sound like the most depressed person in the world.”
But he hadn’t failed. He had taken the first blind leap into an album that would prove to be one of the defining moments of his and Wilco’s career. Summerteeth would expose his inner world to an almost unbearable degree but, with the help of his bandmates, somehow turn it into life-affirming music.
A couple of years later, Tweedy would write a song called “War on War,” in which he would sing, “You have to learn how to die, if you wanna wanna be alive.”
In that Austin recording studio, Tweedy died a little. It was a feeling he already knew intimately. There was the moment Jay Farrar took the band they had built together, Uncle Tupelo, and tore it apart by telling Jeff Tweedy he couldn’t stand working with him anymore. The moment Tweedy turned an alternative-country concert for a club full of Johnny Cash fans into a punk-rock kamikaze mission. The night Tweedy baited a British audience until they wanted to tear his fool Yankee head off. And still to come would be the moment when he found his record label didn’t want the best record he’d ever made.
Beneath the facade of the small-town newspaper-delivery boy that he once was, the kid who wouldn’t speak unless he was spoken to, Jeff Tweedy brings a self-confidence that cannot be ignored or denied. It can be willful and sometimes almost cruel, but it is not indiscriminate or random. The personality can best be glimpsed and assessed through the music, because Tweedy is a songwriter of knee-buckling honesty. The emotions in his songs examine the heart of darkness that, to some degree, lurks in all of us. His great subject is intimacy—with a lover, with a friend, with music itself—and its price. His songs teeter between bliss and oblivion: “There is something wrong with me”; “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you”; “I am trying to break your heart”; “Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”
He can ice the listener’s blood with a scream; there are nights when “Misunderstood” sounds like a back-alley mugging, when his howl “I want to thank you all for nothin’, nothin’ at all” repeats until the veins rise like blue fault lines down his neck. Or he can cut our hearts out with a whisper. “She’s a Jar” climaxes with a line that lands with a sickening thud, a corpse being dropped from a third-floor window, but it’s sung with the understatement of an undertaker: “She begs me not to hit her.” Left unanswered is precisely what kind of holocaust the character in this song had to live through to deliver that line with such matter-of-factness. Not knowing is almost a relief.
In the way they marry the everyday with the surreal, the opaque with the anthemic, the acerbic with the melodic, Tweedy’s songs evoke the work of the great songwriters, not so much the usual suspects (Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan) as the lost punks, iconoclasts, and misfits who put the color in Tweedy’s life between the headphones. Tweedy learned to be a great listener before he became a great songwriter and musician, and he developed a connoisseur’s taste: Pere Ubu’s Peter Laughner, the Minutemen’s D. Boon, the English folkies Nick Drake and Bill Fay. With these rock outsiders Tweedy shares a certain daring, a way of looking at the world that demands more of it and more of himself, sometimes at a steep cost. Tweedy’s cry “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm” on Summerteeth echoes the desperation of Nick Drake as he sang in the darkness of a British recording studio just weeks before entering a psychiatric rest home, murmuring about the world’s fading beauty, even though unable to lift his face off the studio floor.
With each Wilco album—including two Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg on the lyrics of Woody Guthrie—Tweedy and his band have pushed their music to measure up against those lost giants. They’ve done what few bands in the post-Nirvana rock ’n’ roll world have managed: to better themselves with each album. It’s not a stretch to imagine Dylan and the Band bashing out a Tweedy song such as “Dreamer in My Dreams” in the basement of Big Pink. And it’s possible to get so lost in the closing moments of Wilco’s ensemble performances in “Reservations” or “One by One” that time melts away.
“Jeff is one of the few people I am envious of as a writer,” says Gary Louris, whose band the Jayhawks helped restore the art of songwriting to 1990s rock. “I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon, but there’s very little that impresses me when I listen to new stuff. Whether it’s the White Stripes or whoever the band of the moment is supposed to be, I think, ‘That’s kinda cool, but compare it to the greatest stuff in rock and it pales.’ I try to look at things like that in perspective, stacked against the best of all time, and I think Jeff ranks up there. You can put his stuff against anyone’s, and as a songwriter he doesn’t have to back down to anyone. He lives the music, more than anyone I know. He’s immersed in music, and it shows.”
R.E.M.’s Peter Buck simply calls Tweedy “one of the best songwriters of his generation.”
It took time. For a shy small-town kid from the Midwest, to risk failure in the name of artistic expression is to contradict a lifetime’s worth of social schooling. But the thirty-four-year-old man who wrote “War on War” isn’t that far removed from the fourth grader who brandished a cassette copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run one day at school and informed his classmates that it was his creation. It was as if the kid weren’t challenging his classmates to believe so much as himself.
With his high-school friend Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy forged a style of music that both embodied and repudiated the small-town life he had known in Belleville, Illinois, a blue-collar town surrounded by farms and strip mines thirty miles southeast of St. Louis. Together they steered the band with a tight-lipped refusal to pander, a deft songwriting touch, and voices that sounded like they could’ve fit comfortably alongside the plainspoken misfits on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. But whereas Farrar was already a fully formed musical talent at the time of Uncle Tupelo’s first album, Tweedy grew into a formidable songwriter incrementally. On Uncle Tupelo’s fourth album, Anodyne, in 1993, he was finally sharing the songwriting load equally with Farrar, matching him song for quality song. Uncle Tupelo’s twang punk sowed seeds for an alternative-country movement that would become a fad by 1995, spawning a spate of major-label signings of Tupelo-like bands, a still-thriving Internet community of fans, and the fanzine No Depression, named after the Carter Family song that had provided the title for Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut album. But Uncle Tupelo wasn’t around to enjoy the spoils. The band’s bitter breakup would prove a watershed in Tweedy’s development as an artist: within months he took the remaining members of Uncle Tupelo into the studio and began shaping a musical personality that would take him far beyond the alt-country world that he and Farrar had been credited with creating.
It was no accident that Tweedy’s abilities as a songwriter and arranger caught up to his ambitions in Wilco; by the time Uncle Tupelo broke up, John Stirratt and Ken Coomer had begun to evolve into a swinging rhythm section, and the versatility of the musicians added and subtracted along the way—Max Johnston, Jay Bennett, Bob Egan, Leroy Bach, Glenn Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen—paved new avenues for Tweedy’s songs. In its raunchiest moments, Wilco celebrated rock for rocking’s sake: the Keith Richards–worthy riff high-stepping out of “Casino Queen,” the fractured guitar solo in “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” the Velvet Underground–worthy throb of “I’m Always in Love.” The band mastered the simple joy and immediacy of a pop song, in the spacious arms-wide-open wonder of “California Stars,” or the sing-along that drunkenly smiles at crushing small-town routine in “Passenger Side.” What’s most intriguing, however, is a more recent development: Wilco’s increasing aptitude for exploring the shadows. On their 2002 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they make music that evokes the feeling of being between worlds, of searching for consolation on a planet that feels lonelier than ever even as it becomes more packed with distractions, information, and convenience stores. It’s all there in “Ashes of American Flags,” the sound of 3 a.m. solitude, of Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green” or the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You,” music so intimate it’s like a whisper in the listener’s ear.
At its best, the music industry was complicit in such exchanges, a conduit between the most profound musicians of an era and the most ravenous music fans. When Wilco signed to Reprise Records in 1994 and became part of the Warner Brothers empire, it was joining a group of labels with a long, rich history of supporting not just musical giants such as Frank Sinatra, Neil Young, and R.E.M. but mavericks such as Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooder, and Randy Newman. It was an artist-driven label run by music aficionados, and Wilco fit right in with the philosophy: to sign artists with a genuine vision that would be developed over a dozen albums, rather than quick-hit wonders designed to cash in on a trend. Then it all went wrong.
It was Wilco’s lot to develop into a creative force at a time when the monetary value of music soared to an all-time high even as its artistic worth plummeted lower than Christina Aguilera’s leather hip-huggers.
Against the backdrop of a $156 billion merger between America Online and Time Warner in 2000, bands such as Wilco—whose entire catalog for the conglomerate had sold about 1.5 million copies—became expendable. At least that’s what two Reprise executives believed in the spring of 2001, when they decided to take a pass on Wilco’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
It was a signpost of a trend that impinged on all the arts, especially music: For the last decade, the intelligence of America’s listening audience had been tacitly ridiculed by the multinational corporations that make, market, and filter most of the music we hear. A band’s worth was determined no longer by its artistic reach, its potential to create music of lasting significance, but by how rapidly it could find a huge audience. It didn’t matter whether that audience was seduced by a designer fashion line, an acting role in a Hollywood movie, a tie-in with a video game, or, perchance, a compact disc as long as the corporate shareholders got their quarterly dose of good news. Of the Big Five corporations that ran the music industry at the time of the AOL–Time Warner merger, none was in it exclusively for the music; they had spread their financial claims across a diverse range of products, from cell phones to wine coolers, and music was just another widget on the assembly line.
The trend toward simpler music, quicker success, and more instantly marketable artists presumed that America had become a nation of indifferent, inattentive listeners and it should get the music it deserved. In turn, the multinationals poured big bucks into manufacturing pop stars, even those who couldn’t sing or play a lick. Of course, prefab pop was at least as old as the Monkees and Menudo, but now the stakes were higher than ever: $14 million alone to make sure that everyone knew that Jennifer Lopez had a new album of pitch-corrected pop songs on the market. That left little or no cash to promote “difficult” artists, who were seen as self-indulgent prima donnas who could not be easily molded into multimillion sellers.
“Jeff Tweedy is a twat,” one former major-label president told me at the height of the singer’s travails with Reprise. Though acknowledging the enduring merit of Wilco’s music, the executive—who didn’t even work for Warner Brothers—marveled at Wilco’s desire to make “indulgent albums” for what had become the music industry’s largest corporation. “It’s unacceptable at this time for any artist to behave the way he does. Who does he think he is? Neil Young?”
Perhaps. Neil Young once got sued by his label in the 1980s for making what the gravely disappointed executive David Geffen called “unrepresentative” albums—in other words, they didn’t sell well enough. Two decades later, the stakes for Wilco and Reprise were even higher. The business of making music generates more than $12 billion a year, more annual revenue than even the movie industry. Yet as teen consumers are being tempted by diversions other than CDs—DVDs, cable TV, home video games, and, most insidious of all, personal computers—the Big Five, and the newly bloated AOL Time Warner in particular, are on a mission to cut not just the nonprofitable acts but even some of the ones who aren’t profitable enough.
Into the latter camp fell Wilco. Wilco’s sin wasn’t that it was a drain on Time Warner’s budget; here was a band, after all, that was pulling down more than $1 million a year on tour and therefore required no handouts from the label to stay on the road. But it simply wasn’t big enough soon enough to suit the new demands of a business looking for instant megastars and cross-promotional celebrities. In the year after the merger was announced, AOL Time Warner’s value had sagged by more than $50 billion. At a time when the blockbuster hit mattered more than ever, anything less—even a band emerging as one of the most important American rock bands of the last ten years—was deadweight.
So for music lovers who were paying attention to these dispiriting machinations, it was not particularly startling when Reprise rejected Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in July 2001. The real surprise came next. Rather than water down the music to meet its record company’s demands for a more commercial album containing more radio-friendly songs, the band left Reprise, began streaming Foxtrot on its Web site—essentially giving its music away—and performed its new songs on a national tour.
The Chicago quintet’s industry end around was a risky move that turned into an artistic and commercial coup. When Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was finally released nine months later on Nonesuch Records (ironically, another, albeit smaller, subsidiary of the same AOL Time Warner conglomerate to which Reprise belongs), it was already one of the year’s most widely discussed albums, a cause célèbre in the media, and a major embarrassment for the once-venerated Reprise, which underwent a leadership overhaul in the wake of Wilco’s departure. Foxtrot sold more than 55,000 copies in its first week and debuted at number 13 on the Billboard pop-album chart; it has since sold more than 400,000 copies. Those figures are career bests for Wilco, but they’re merely commercial validation for the one thing the record industry has misplaced in its rush to cut costs and bolster revenue: the music.
At times in Jeff Tweedy’s life, it seemed as though music was the only thing that mattered. Along the way he has butted heads with equally strong-willed artists, tripped beneath the wheel of drugs and alcohol, let friends slip away, fired bandmates without notice, and struggled through the ups and downs of marriage. He has been human, in other words. His music resonates because it embraces that truth, especially the flaws.
Flaws, accidents, and failure are as essential to great music as instruments and voices. Rock ’n’ roll is amplified self-expression. It is music so personal and unashamed that it couldn’t be made by anyone else. It’s not so much what notes are played as how they are played. It’s the high wire Jeff Tweedy walks when he jumps into a guitar solo. Or the moment when Wilco drops the volume to an uncomfortable whisper in a noisy bar, as if the band were slowly undressing in front of a roomful of hooting strangers. It’s the ongoing response to the question once posed in song by the Who’s Pete Townshend: “Can you see the real me?” The artist’s most difficult challenge is finding “the real me” rather than an idealized “me” or a copy of someone else’s “me.”
Jeff Tweedy has spent three-quarters of his life barging through unmarked doors in search of an answer, and his songs, from “Screen Door” to “Reservations,” mark his journey. In many ways, that search makes him all wrong for what the music industry has become at the outset of the twenty-first century. He is not a celebrity or a larger-than-life character. He is not even an artist his most ardent fans can always embrace, because his music is less about meeting expectations than about upsetting them, including his own. In a business increasingly geared toward quarterly profits, Jeff Tweedy is a tough sell. But sometimes tough sells shake our souls in a way that no one else can. More than anything else, this is the story of an artist and a band that defied everything and everyone to put the music first.