*A New York Times Bestseller*
*A Rolling Stone Best Music Books of 2018 selection*
*A Pitchfork Pick: Best Music Books of 2018*
Few bands have encouraged as much devotion as the Chicago rock band Wilco, and it's thanks, in large part, to the band's singer, songwriter, and guiding light: Jeff Tweedy. But while his songs and music have been endlessly discussed and analyzed, Jeff has rarely talked so directly about himself, his life, or his artistic process.
Until now. In his long-awaited memoir, Jeff will tell stories about his childhood in Belleville, Illinois; the St. Louis record store, rock clubs, and live-music circuit that sparked his songwriting and performing career; and the Chicago scene that brought it all together. He also talks in-depth about his collaborators in Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and more; and writes lovingly about his parents; wife, Susie; and sons, Spencer and Sammy.
Honest, funny, and disarming, Tweedy's memoir will bring readers inside both his life and his musical process, illuminating his singular genius and sharing his story, voice, and perspective for the first time.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The World's Longest Main Street
I grew up in a place called Belleville, a town of about forty thousand in Southern Illinois, a half-hour drive outside of St. Louis. It's the "stove capital of the world," or at least it was at the turn of the century. That's what we were told, anyway. It's also the home of Jimmy Connors and Buddy Ebsen (Uncle Jed from The Beverly Hillbillies), and when I was growing up they made Stag Beer there. So as you can imagine, my childhood was pretty magical.
In reality it was pretty depressing. Depressing and depressed in all of the familiar ways common to dying midwestern manufacturing hubs: a lot of old empty buildings and a lot of occupied barstools. The things that made our town unique and special were hard to get super excited about. Belleville has (purportedly) the longest Main Street in the U.S., spanning 9.2 miles and ending somewhere around East St. Louis. One stretch of road and so many opportunities to get loaded and almost zero chance of getting lost. I don't know how many bars were on Main Street, but there must've been a lot, because Belleville's other claim to fame was having the most taverns per capita. I found out later that wasn't true, which was kind of a relief, because it never felt like something worth bragging about. As if day drinking was a commodity we could have exported and sold to the rest of the world.
I lived just a half block off the Main Street with too many bars, on a tree-lined street with a name like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting: Fortieth. Our small single-family wood-framed house with a porch and a swing ended up being the last home my folks would ever own after my mother impulsively paid $16,000 for it at an auction in the early spring of 1967. Apparently she knew she was pregnant with me but hadn't told my dad. I was the card up her proverbial sleeve to ease his expected top-blowing at her fiscal irresponsibility. The previous owner had died in that house, which creeped me out as a kid, and as it turned out both of my parents ended up dying there as well. So everyone who ever owned the house I grew up in died there.
Which is, I think, the main reason my siblings and I weren't overly sentimental about hanging on to it after we buried my dad in 2017. Aside from all of that backstory, the place was fairly nondescript. The one word I think would be most useful in setting the scene of my childhood? Mauve. There was a lot of mauve. Mauve carpets, mauve wallpaper, mauve furniture. Everything was mauve. Think of a smaller me, and then picture the color mauve, and you've conjured my childhood in a nutshell.
I'm not sure if my parents intended to have me. I've heard different accounts. The popular story is that I was an accident. Regardless, I was late to the family party. My older sister, Debbie, who's fifteen years my senior, was born when my dad was just eighteen. They had two more kids, Steve and Greg, and by the time I showed up, my dad was in his midthirties, an age that most men of his generation considered well past prime baby-making years. My dad changed his story over time. He once told me, "I remember your mother called me at work and said, 'I want another one,' and I was home before she hung up the phone." I don't know if that's true. He always told that version with at least a six-pack under his belt, so I can't vouch for its veracity. It's possible he was trying to spare my feelings. Who wants to be an accident? That's a hard way to come into the world, created just because the responsible parties weren't paying attention. On the other hand, aren't we all accidents? Sorry, moving on . . .
My dad-his name was Bob, but for the purposes of this narrative, let's stick with Dad-worked on the railroad (yes, all the livelong day). He dropped out of high school after he got my mom pregnant when she was fifteen and got a job as a diesel mechanic for the Alton and Southern Railway. In the early 1960s, some higher-up figured out that Dad was way smarter than his lack of a high school diploma would indicate, so they sent him to Arizona to study computers and learn how to program with punch cards, and eventually he got promoted to superintendent of the switching yard. That's almost the extent of what I know about what my dad did all day. I only went down to the railroad to see him once, as far as I can remember. I never had much curiosity about his job. For his part, he didn't seem that curious about me, either, and I never felt much pressure from him to care about trains. Which is odd, because what kid doesn't like trains?
However, my dad did have a record I was fascinated by, Sounds of Steam Locomotives. It was a collection of recordings of train engines. That's all it was; the rhythmic clanging of steel wheels on steel tracks, the heavy chuff of heated steam being pushed through a locomotive's smokestack, a train's moaning whistle that always sounded to me like voices. It was a weird record, even more so because it was owned by my dad, who spent the vast majority of his waking hours around trains. Wouldn't that be the last thing he'd want to hear after coming home? Was there a time before I was born when, after work, he would sit with a beer next to the hi-fi, listening to tracks like "2-8-2 No. 2599, Chicago Northwestern" and "4-8-4 No. 801, Union Pacific" and nodding along like they were pop songs?
I guess when I think back on it, it makes total sense how I developed a fondness for almost any recorded sound. Maybe indirectly (because my dad and I never openly discussed it), I learned from him how you could find music in just about anything.
I wasn't an only child, but I grew up like one. Since my sister and brothers were so much older, most of the time it was just my parents and me. My dad was on call at the railroad twenty-four hours a day, so he'd always be gone or in bed early. It got pretty lonely in my house growing up.
Most nights I'd stay close to my mother, who was born JoAnn Werkmeister, as she watched TV and smoked cigarettes on the couch. It was the best she could do. She'd been a mother for so much of her life that by the time I came around, she'd kind of given up on parenting. Well, maybe not given up, but she wasn't interested in being an authority figure. I wasn't given a lot of boundaries or rules. I didn't have a bedtime. If I made it to bed at all, it was usually my decision.
She was a night owl-she took occasional naps throughout the day, like a house cat-so she always stayed up late, and she'd let me stay up with her. We'd watch Johnny Carson, and then later, on channel 4's late-night Bijou Picture Show-the Turner Classic Movies of its day-old movies my mom would tell me she'd seen in theaters when they were brand-new. She adored Judy Garland, so I especially have memories of watching movies like Presenting Lily Mars, Meet Me in St. Louis, For Me and My Gal, Strike Up the Band, Babes in Arms with her. Sometimes I'd drift off-it's hard to stay awake at 3:00 a.m. when you're a little kid-and sometimes she'd fall asleep. With a lit cigarette still dangling in her mouth. I'd watch mesmerized as it slowly burned down to the filter and hold my breath in suspense as an ash the length of an entire cigarette would somehow balance itself against her breathing for whole minutes before plopping onto the lap of her robe. That might sound like really irresponsible and dangerous parenting, I know, but it's a memory that evokes nothing but warm feelings for me. The smell of the cigarettes and the black-and-white TV flickering in the dark, the only sounds being Judy Garland's familiar voice-"Psychologically, I'm very confused, but personally I feel just wonderful"-and my mom's gentle breathing nearby. I never felt so content.
Almost every night we'd wake up my dad, who was trying to sleep in the next room. We had a small house, so the master bedroom was inconveniently located right next to the living room. There was just a wall-not even a particularly thick wall-separating him and whatever we were blaring on the TV.
He'd burst out of the bedroom in his saggy white briefs and start screaming, "Goddammit, shut this place down, JoAnn!"
"Go back to bed, Bob!" she'd scream right back at him.
"Do you know what time it is? It's two o'clock in the goddamn morning! I have to be up before you even know what day it is!"
He'd slam the door shut and my mom would light another cigarette. "Mom," I'd whisper, trying to be conciliatory. "Maybe the TV is a little bit loud."
"Don't let him tell you what to do," she'd say.
I'd turn the volume down anyway, at least until we heard snoring coming from the next room and we knew he was asleep again, and then the volume would go right back up. It was a nightly battle of wills, and my mother always won.
I tried to be the arbitrator between my parents, the neutral voice of reason, but they both knew I was on her side. My mom was very permissive with me about a lot of things, because she was more interested in having me as a friend and an ally than being my parent. We were a unified front against an unfair and unreasonable world (i.e., my dad and his demands for a quiet home after midnight). She took great strides to keep me by her side. If I ever said, "I'm lonely," she wouldn't suggest something rational like "Why don't you call that kid who lives down the block and go play with him?" She'd teach me how to play solitaire. That was her solution to my loneliness. "Here, I'll get you some cards." Because she wanted me there.
My parents did the best they could without a lot of role models in terms of making good boundaries and healthy decisions for their children. My mom's dad, the cabbie/pimp and career alcoholic, left emotional scars she never outgrew. When she was nine years old, she got a pair of pink cowboy boots for her birthday. It was the only gift she'd asked for, and for a girl not accustomed to getting what she wanted, it was a glorious surprise. She couldn't remember herself ever being that happy. But then she went outside to play, still wearing the boots, and she got hit by a car. It was pretty horrific. They took her to the hospital, and she was so severely injured that they had to cut her brand-new pink cowboy boots off her body. She ended up being in traction for more than a month. Her dad only came to visit her once that entire time, drunk and causing such an awful scene that he had to be forcibly removed by the police.
It's hard for me to even imagine my mom at that age, feeling the world fall apart all around her. Barely nine years old, run over by a car, with her cherished pink cowboy boots destroyed, and then her dad finally shows up for a visit, weeks later, wasted, and has to be dragged from her room, kicking and screaming, "I'm here to see my little girl. Let go of me, you cocksuckers!" It's just sadness piled on top of more sadness.
I felt bad for my mom and dad. Not at the time. At the time, I felt closer to my mom, I needed her more, and I loved that I was her confidant and best friend. I was the uncontested oedipal victor, a psychiatrist once told me. I really didn't like the sound of that. It was only later, when I was old enough to think about their relationship, that I could recognize how my father could legitimately claim he was being treated unfairly. He was getting up at four o'clock in the morning, sometimes earlier, to drive down to the railroad and work a twelve-hour shift. On top of that, he was always on call. The phone could ring at any hour of the night or day and he would be expected to deliver himself to the railroad's needs above all other concerns. It wasn't easy for him to get eight hours of rest even without us almost intentionally ruining whatever sleep he could manage. There's no reason we couldn't have watched TV in the kitchen or even gone to bed ourselves. But Mom wasn't interested.
"Turn that shit down!" he'd scream from behind the bedroom wall.
"Put a pillow over your head," my mom would shout back, and we'd both giggle like preteen bullies.
I think my dad genuinely loved my mom. And she loved him, too, but maybe not as much. When I was a kid, I thought that she wasn't getting what she needed emotionally from him. But in hindsight, it was probably the other way around. It was my dad who had no chance. She wasn't going to trust a man with her happiness. Not after her father made it so abundantly clear what could happen when you trusted a man. She trusted me, but I was her perennial baby, fostered to be her bringer of happiness. But with her husband, they were roommates, at best. She wasn't going to leave him, but she wasn't going to let him get too close, either.
While I was never groomed for the railroad, my brothers did end up going into the family business. Greg was in track maintenance, and Steve was a brakeman. I also had several uncles and cousins who worked on the railroad. Anytime I would express an openness to the idea of working around trains, my mother would say firmly, 'You're never going to go work on the goddamn railroad.' She was hell-bent against it. I don't know if she just wanted better for me, or if she worried it was too dangerous. I never quite figured out why it was okay for my brothers but not for me. Maybe it wasnÕt, but she knew she had already lost those battles and wasnÕt focusing on their futures anymore. Just mine.
Table of Contents
1 The World's Longest Main Street 11
2 Galoshes 39
3 Shrink-Wrap 67
4 How It Ends 101
5 Paper Products 125
6 More Ketchup Than You Can Imagine 149
7 The Flowers of Romance 163
8 Gr-Ood 179
9 Toby in a Glass Jar 201
10 Sukierae 227
11 On and On and On 251
Fun and interesting book. I have always been a Wilco fan and have followed them in music and various articles. I have also seen them in concerts a few times while always thinking Jeff Tweedy was and interesting and funny guy. The book bears that out as the tells great stories, using his humor and interesting writing style. But besides that is has been apparent that he has had to deal with various problems that can be relatable to similar challenges many people have faced. It is a very enjoyable read for Wilco fans or general readers looking for an interesting autobiography.
Read it in three sittings. If you grew up in the 70's / 80's / 90's and want to recall trivia from that time frame described in a hilarious voice, learn about the creative process from someone's who's been able to keep things fresh without compromising their vision over decades, hear smart insights about how technology and formats have altered how we listen to music, this book is for you. But the bigger gift is the window in to depression and anxiety and a humble. mature approach that sounds like it works as much one can ever hope for. This book delivers hope and laughs and nostalgia. Thanks for sharing Jeff.