What is happening in our world? Who is doing what? what is going on now? These are questions that will be answered. Enjoy.
Read Jeff Tweedy from Wilco’s New Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) Book Excerpt
For a certain group of people, Wilco and Jeff Tweedy—the band’s founder, lead singer, and primary songwriter—needs no introduction. The band has recorded and toured since 1995, when it climbed out of the primordial soup of early-to-mid-’90s alt-country, and legions of fans have tagged along for the ride. For everyone else, Wilco is one the most influential rock ‘n’ roll bands of the 21st century, inspiring wave after wave of ‘aught and early-teen era indie-rock acts. Their 2002 record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, remains one of the best of the 21st century.
As the band’s sound evolved over these 20-plus years, the songwriting of Jeff Tweedy has remained steadfast. His lyrics inspire, delight, and, occasionally, frustrate with their opacity. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), Tweedy explains his songwriting process, including how he created some of his most iconic lines (“I assassin down the avenue”). He also reminds us why music snobbery is obnoxious.
I’ve carried around a lot of books over the years that I’ve never bothered to read.
I’m not that way with all books. Just the books that I’m waiting for, anticipating some turning point when I’ll be ready for what’s inside. Other books I don’t feel are necessarily to be read. Sometimes, I think it can be just as inspiring to imagine what a book is about. I might crack it open and read a sentence or two to get a feel for the language, but I don’t always need a larger context. I don’t need to read them from start to finish. My relationship with them is mostly my imagination of their potential. I’m guilt‑free when it comes to books. I make an honest effort to read what I know is important, but I don’t grade myself. Life is too short to pretend you finished a book or understood it. Who cares?
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc.
I suspect that almost anyone claiming to have read Finnegans Wake is a liar, but it sure is a fun book to carry around, just feeling its weight in your hands. That’s a powerful thing, to have access to the mind of James Joyce right at your fingertips. I didn’t need all of it. It’s exciting enough to open to any page, find some crazy long sentence and see what kind of sense you can make of it.
Books are my companions. I love books and I’m always in the middle of several at a time. I don’t think of them as mountains to climb, or chores to accomplish for some notch in my belt or a badge to buff. Sometimes I’ll read a book about a book without even once feeling like a fraud for not having read the book the book is about. You understand. Sometimes I’ll read them with a highlighter, marking phrases that excite my lyric-loving mind. Otherwise I lose the plot. William H. Gass, who has written more than a few of my favorite sentences, has turned up in some of my songs. There would be no “Something in my veins / Bloodier than blood” without his genius.
Bits and pieces from Henry Miller have found their way into my lyrics, especially while I was working on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “Quiver like a toothache… When we were still innocent enough to listen to poets…” It’s amazing how many things I’ve been singing for years that I’ll find highlighted when I revisit the warped City Lights paperbacks I traveled with circa Summerteeth. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much of the imagery from “Ashes of American Flags” is sprinkled throughout the first 150 pages of Tropic of Cancer. None of it is in the same order or context as the song, but the language is almost all there.
“I assassin down the avenue” from “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” doesn’t really mean anything. It comes from a writing exercise. A lot of my lyrics originate this way. You could take, say, all the verbs from an Emily Dickinson poem and set them side by side with all the nouns from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and see what happens. It might start as gibberish, but it’s amazing how hard it is to put words next to each other without some meaning being generated. It would have been so much harder to memorize some of my more abstract lyrics if they had remained just gibberish.
Originally the line was “I assassinate down the avenue,” it started as an exercise where you make a list of ten or twelve verbs that you may associate with a vocation, in this case “a spy,” and a list of random nouns. For the next step you take a pencil and draw lines randomly between the two, until something surprising happens in the way they interact. Can I assassinate an avenue? Can the avenue assassinate? When we’re left to our own devices, verbs and nouns tend to pair up in clichéd ways, but when a verb is acting on an unfamiliar noun it can really be exciting. It stimulates the language. In the end the noun “assassin” sang better within the meter of the song and, for me, having it used as a verb made it somehow even more disorienting and evocative. I love it when words wake up and sound new again.
I have an easier time explaining the process of writing lyrics than I do explaining what they mean. Do people really need to know? Does it make the songs more enjoyable? Does it really matter if what they think a song is about is vastly different than what I think it’s about? I assume part of the reason I feel that way is because when I listen to other people’s songs, I’m never particularly interested in knowing what lyrics are “supposed” to be “about,” especially after I have already found them to mean something to me.
When I listen to other people’s songs, I’m never particularly interested in knowing what lyrics are “supposed” to be “about,” especially after I have already found them to mean something to me.
Knowing this about myself might have given me the confidence not to sweat being too clearly understood lyrically. Most songs are open to interpretation anyway, so why not leave a few more gaps for the listener to fill in with their imagination? The trick I was trying to teach myself at the time was how to find a balance between leaving enough room for someone to pour themselves into a song and giving them something concrete and engaging enough to want to be intimately collaborating with you on meaning. “You Are My Sunshine” is the perfect balance to me. I’ve never come close, but that’s the ideal I’m always aspiring to. Most people think of that song as being simple and easily understood, but I don’t know anyone who agrees on exactly what it means.
After a song is created I’m really kind of done with it. I can enjoy the process of writing and recording it, but after that, it’s not something that helps me disappear anymore. It stops being useful to me as anything other than another song to write on a set list. It’s other people who give it a long or short life. Songs become vessels for other people to pour themselves into. And that’s great. That’s amazing, but that’s as far as I can go.
Unless it’s “Heavy Metal Drummer,” in which case I can tell you exactly what it’s about. It’s a reminder to myself to lighten up occasionally. That’s all. I guess a lot of my songs function this way, now that I think about it. If I have some epiphany that I’m sure I’ll eventually forget, I make a mental note to stash the basic premise in a song somewhere so I can have the lesson refreshed from time to time. In this case, I was reflecting on the sudden realization I had once while watching a heavy metal cover band at a club in St. Louis after an Uncle Tupelo show. I’m not proud to admit this, but we were snobs. Just miserable. Hanging out on the sidelines stock‑still in thrift‑store flannel and work boots watching the spandexed gyrations of our peers—these pimply kids with massive hair actually having a fun time and yet still convinced of our superiority. Based on what? Our inability to enjoy ourselves? That is the kind of bullshit I need to remind myself not to indulge in, with song if need be.
From LET’S GO (SO WE CAN GET BACK) by Jeff Tweedy, to be published on November 13, 2018 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey Scot Tweedy. Also available in the U.K. on November 22, 2018 by Faber & Faber.