In his latest memoir, Jeff Tweedy once again follows Proust. The Wilco frontman takes a bite out of fifty musical madeleines and takes you through the cellars of his youth to the attic room of his adult life. In passing he also talks about his hate and love for Deep Purple, Dolly Parton or Bon Jovi.
When we speak to Tweedy, he adjusts his Daniel Johnston ‘Hi, how are you?’ hat for a moment. Johnston is just one of countless artists who didn’t make it to his last book. World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life that Changed My Music is a series of fifty essays, each linked to a song, in which the Wilco frontman reveals a piece of his inner world. “Fifty songs is of course far too few,” sighs the Wilco frontman. “In the book I therefore issue a mea culpa to all the unsung heroes. Anyway, this collection is mainly intended to fill the autobiographical gaps from my previous memoirs.”
If life is a movie, Jeff Tweedy has come up with a pretty good soundtrack. Yet we all have to start somewhere, he admits in this book. His musical birth began with “’Smoke on the fuckin’ water’” by Deep Purple: a hopeless cliché riff that was the prelude to his lifelong obsession with listening, playing and writing. Full of self-mockery and with his tongue pressed deep into his jaw, Tweedy writes compact, charming love letters to his musical idols: from Patti Smith over Billie Eilish and Rosalía to Otis Redding and 10cc.
“I’ve never been guided by what’s cool and obscure enough,” he tells us. “It’s because of what my body tells me during a song. No matter how silly it is, like ‘Smoke on the Water’ or the theatrical concept rock of Aphrodite’s Child: if you can perfectly remember how the nine-year-old version of yourself was blown away, you can only continue to cherish that music.”
In highly personal vignettes, Tweedy also talks about the heartbreaking encounter with a fan, or about the one and only time his father spanked him. Elsewhere he gives Dolly Parton and Bon Jovi a pandering on paper. Although Tweedy doesn’t think it’s fair that we mention those two names in the same breath. “My love for Dolly is almost unconditional,” he says. “But I think the god-awful ‘I Will Always Love You’ is such a dragon of a song that it doesn’t even matter who rams that shit song out of their throat. I had to write off that horror too.
“It would be hypocritical to write a book where I only put classics on a pedestal. Love cannot exist without hate, so I also had to have some words for the music that I despise in an irrational, inexplicable way. And the songs that I absolutely rightly hate. Enter: Jon Bon Jovi! He once said that Apple’s Steve Jobs was killing music. Well, I believe Bon Jovi has been killing music for a long time. (laughs)
“It was never my intention to lick upwards and kick downwards. There is much more music that I find absolute rubbish, but Jon’s ego can certainly handle the beating in this book. By the way, I met him once: quite a jovial guy. Together with his wife he also does a lot of charity work. So his heart is in the right place. Just a shame about that shitty music. (laughs) At Wilco we have come up with a name for that phenomenon: GGBB. That stands for good guys, bad band. Unfortunately this happens more often. Just like those fakes who embrace rock ‘n’ roll on stage, but act like disgusting bourgeois behind closed doors.”
From dark to light
With his latest book, Tweedy mainly tried to quell his own imposter syndrome. Previous memoirs like Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) and How to Write One Song they only partially achieved this. “I still have no idea what I’m doing,” he chuckles. “Let alone that I will cause a palace revolution in literature. Only it is so addictive to lend my voice to printed paper. That was a revelation to me.
“Writing songs or prose is a completely different discipline, but for me one similarity counts: with a minimum of words I try to reveal a whole world. And furthermore, I try to use my imagination to put into words something that is scary or difficult for me. I control the darkness with sentences, cadence and melody. Actually, I always work from dark to light. It should never be one or the other. That challenge often kept me hostage to the keyboard with this book.”
Tweedy also says he continues to look for a challenge with Wilco. Evidence of this is the recently released Cousin, bringing Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon on board for production. “She had to shake things up a bit so that we wouldn’t suddenly fall asleep after twelve records. Also with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) and A Ghost Is Born (2004), we once brought in an outsider as a producer. When you’ve been at it for as long as we have, you just have to remain willing to push your limits. It’s simple: keep moving or die. And I still don’t feel like dying for the time being.”
World Within a Song is published today by Penguin Random House. Cousin by Wilco has been published by dBpm/Sony.