28 Years Later, The Quintessential Dad Rocker Explains The Real Meaning Behind His Songs
Jeff Tweedy is talking to the masses. And that’s a good thing.
It took me a brief moment to decipher the conversations coming out of the din in the synagogue. A couple across the pews was talking about their wacky toddler eating dirt in the park, starting day care, leading them to wonder if they should move to Vermont. Another dad chimed in with his own tales of poor sleep quality and cuddling with his 2-year-old. “It’s a good phase,” they assured him. All across the pews here at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn grown-up couples — mostly couples, mostly middle-aged — chatted. From the snippets that made their way to my ears, it was mostly about their kids and, naturally, the most significant Wilco show they’d seen. (“Remember the farm?” “Of course! We met there, man!”)
The crowd was here to see Jeff Tweedy talk about his latest, and he readily admits, greatest, book, World Within a Song — subtitled “Music that changed my life and life that changes my music.” It’s now from Dutton books and is organized, common to so many rock books, by song. Most chapters outline a song that somehow shaped Tweedy’s life, and he reflects on it in a few hundred words. Other chapters are short random memories from life that are as quirky as they are intimate. There’s a lot of depth to the book, but unlike the great thinkers on song like, say Bob Dylan (and his recent similarly structured but far more tangled The Philosophy of Modern Song), Tweedy comes by it with naked honesty. Here we’ve got humor merged with memoir; snippets of his life that feel so messy and real that you can’t help but be drawn in.
He sets up the book with the thoughtful honesty you might find in a Wilco song like “I’m Always in Love” or “Outta Mind (Outta Sight).”
“What I care most for in this world,” he writes, “and what I’ve thought about the most by far: other people’s songs. ... And how deeply personal and universally vast the experience of listening to almost anything with intent and openness can be. And most importantly, how songs absorb and enhance our own experiences and store our memories.”
How nice. But Tweedy is only acting the part of a man without an agenda. He wants us to think he’s just a guy who is being honest about all the weird and wonderful music that shaped him. Hey, he’s telling us “Taking Care of Business” is a great song because it inspired a 10-year-old Jeff Tweedy to play music because it is fun and brings people joy. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that Tweedy, and Wilco, came up in the very recent decade when having taste in rock and roll was an identity itself. And to admit you were really into, say, Bachman-Turner Overdrive would shatter that, sending you back to the uncool masses. Wilco’s debut album, A.M. came out the same year Nick Hornby published High Fidelity, a send-up to Rob Fleming, a record-store owner whose appreciation of music becomes his identity and his relationships — and his whole life — revolve around it. Fleming would have listened to Tweedy, who in the ’90s and ’00s was the college kids’ rock star. For years, Wilco was cerebrally cool. They were the band that the in-the-know kids would listen to, looking down on more mainstream country or rock fans. Wilco wasn’t for them — it was ours, the folks who could truly appreciate it. Were we wrong?
When Tweedy takes the stage, Amanda Petrusich, the great music critic from The New Yorker, gets right to this point: Isn’t there some worth found from the “disdain of record store owners,” she asks, the clerks who would push you to like music that is more, well, challenging? Her personal example is Sonic Youth, a band that is most definitely noisy and weird and takes a few listens — a few pushes from friends or the record store guy — for appreciation to flourish.
“There’s probably some benefit to being challenged,” Tweedy admits, but, he argues, finding music through cliques doing homework and seeking acceptance of each other as critics is changing, and for the better. “With my kids, there’s too much music available,” he says. There’s no unavoidable song anymore, and there’s just too much for his kid to form rock-solid opinions. So do they just listen to what they like without digging deeper? No. They still challenge themselves; they just don’t shame others for not doing so. They see songs for what they are: works of art that enhance our experiences and make memories.
To prove his point, the format for the evening changes. The guitar comes out and Petrusich dusts off a pre-written request for a song written by Tweedy. But instead of just playing a few songs, she invites the dad who requested the song — of course, it was a dad — to come out of the audience and explain why this song.
He slowly makes his way to the small stage, just feet away from Tweedy, and shyly raises his head. “Well, this is pretty awkward,” Tweedy quips. Everyone laughs. The dad seems unmoved. He’s already thinking about the song. He picks up the microphone and starts to explain: He was driving with the kids — trying to get through a move, dealing with so much chaos and turmoil and a dark point in life. It was in the middle of the night and “Should’ve Been in Love,” a gem from Wilco’s debut album came on. The song immediately spoke to him and he realized, through all the stress and difficulties his priorities were all off, he needed to be more present.
“I don’t know what I would have done without it. The song changed my life,” he says to Tweedy. The singer-songwriter looked stunned, moved, and as he wipes tears from his eyes, he gathers himself, thanked the man and gives us a clue what that dad might have been going through: “Your life’s been stinking, your heart’s been shrinking, and you’re too busy think to stop, you blink and you’re blue. Should’ve been in love.” What dad hasn’t been there? And yet, at 2 a.m,. driving through the anxiety and tumult of life in transition, the song found this man.
There were three more requests, three more tearful journeys that, frankly, had very little to do with the songs themselves. Jeff Tweedy pointed this out, noting that for you to feel a song personally, attach it to a memory and time in your life, well, that speaks to the purpose of the song. Songwriter intent be damned.
I will admit I was one of the cool kids who spun Wilco on my college radio shows. (“This is Tyghe Trimble at 90.9 WCWM.”) I colored those songs with Rob Fleming-like identity. I bought records and went to see Wilco because it was cool (and they rocked). I spun the songs because they were artful and something that was accepted by my group. But six years after I graduated, Wilco was less cool than it once was (on its way to becoming the epitome of “dad rock”), and I was dating a woman who I was pretty sure was the one. Or at least trying to, in that on-and-off dating you get early on in a relationship. We saw a movie one night at my place — I won’t bore you with the details — and then she left. I walked her to the subway feeling confused and torn. (Did she or didn’t she? Would we or wouldn’t we?)
In this brain fog, I put on the then-new Wilco album The Whole Love (2011) and took a walk. “The Art of Almost,” the opening track, hit me as I walked down Queens Boulevard. It made me feel seen and realize that I was too focused on the future and not in the joy of wooing, dating, or meeting a person. At least that was my takeaway from the song, a takeaway that kept me pursuing and being a bit more present. Yes, 12 years later, we have two kids and a life together. To be clear, I don’t credit the song with our marriage. But I am thankful for the music that help me to absorb and enhance my experience and cement a memory — of those days where I was young and stumbling into love in Queens. That’s what songs are all about, isn’t it? Tweedy sure would like us to think so.