"Make Music So It Will Inspire Others To Make Music"
I don’t believe in superheroes but I believe everyone has some kind of gift. Maybe even call it a superpower. At one point in Jeff Tweedy’s memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back Again), he describes his superpower as being “comfortable with being vulnerable.” What’s truly bizarre is that I read that line after I got off the phone with my friend, Meghan. I told her that our gift might be that we are okay with being vulnerable. I don’t believe in some strange cosmic, spiritual connection. Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe I had read that quote online somewhere, and it stuck with me. I was able to put it to good use. There’s still no denying how strange it is to read something that you thought was pretty cool to say over the phone, in the moment. Only to find out that it may not have been as original as you thought. Maybe my subconscious stole it from one of my favorite songwriters. A songwriter I was able to meet for the first time after many close calls.
Heck, I think Jeff Tweedy is my favorite songwriter simply because I am convinced that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saved me in a way that Nevermind did when I heard it back in high school (though now I would say that In Utero had a much greater impact). Nearly a decade after Nevermind, I had lost a parent, was going through a breakup, and I remember sitting in the Purdue University parking lot with someone I loved and didn’t want to let go of. I told her “Listen to this song called ‘Radio Cure,’ it sums up everything I’m feeling. Everything that I can’t express is said right here.” What’s amusing about one particular lyric is that I always thought he was singing “Distance has a way of making love understandable.” It’s actually, “Distance has no way of making love understandable.” Oops. I was telling her that time apart will help. Well, distance didn’t help that relationship either way. Eventually, we realized that no matter how hard we tried, we were no longer compatible. I know she’s doing great these days anyway.
Last night at the Music Box Theatre, Jeff Tweedy was there to tell some stories and sign copies of his memoir. He did mention how people misinterpret his lyrics and I immediately thought back to some moments of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I also think if I hadn’t heard that record, I wouldn’t have recorded some of the best songs I had ever written, many of which ended up on Deathless. For the longest time, I kept “You Know” tucked away because it showcased a vulnerability even I wasn’t ready to share. It was also pretty straightforward, until I heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot… and had this weird idea. Why not put some distortion on the acoustic for the third act of the song. Then I added a screaming vocal at the end. It may have been the first time I attempted the “ridiculously long sustained note,” somewhat of a trademark of mine, if you ever watched me play live. A year or so later after recording Deathless, I would see Wilco play on my birthday at the Vic Theater I believe, and watching Jeff scream “I would like to thank you all for nothing” over and over and over again, made me feel emotions at a concert I didn’t think were possible. “Sunken Treasure” was the first song I ever heard by Wilco. Well that and “Misunderstood.” I chose to listen to the opening tracks on both CDs first for some inexplicable reason when I bought their double record at Best Buy. I bought it because I read a review by Greg Kot (another hero) in Rolling Stone. I was so taken aback by both tracks that I initially felt disappointed that the rest of Being There was less experimental alt-country. That was my initial (and wrong) first impression, because of course now I love it. However, I recorded an entire podcast with a great duo of music fans about my favorite Wilco record, Summerteeth. (link below)
Speaking of emotion, how will it ever come. How will it ever come out right, I should say. When you get to meet one of your heroes for a total of a minute, it’s hard to know exactly what is going to be said. Again, Jeff Tweedy is a musician, a songwriter, and a true blue human being. He’s not Superman, but I look up to him more than most people alive right now. Part of me thinks I should’ve been the last person to get their book signed, because maybe I would’ve had more of a chance to say something more. I was nervous, of course. It’s certainly possible that the times I’ve met Jeff Buckley’s mother or Matthew Sweet backstage at the Metro were on par, but there was a longer stretch of time for both interactions. I’m not one of those weird autograph hounds that wants a picture, I really just want to say thank you or let them know that what they do is important. Not that they don’t already know or have people come up to them constantly already. Granted, it took me a long time to actually walk up to my favorite filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson in NYC when I visited there for a Demme retrospective. I said something similar to Jeff in that I mentioned how what they did, helped me cope with tremendous loss. I think I said it quietly and Jeff was signing my book. Part of me thinks he was taken aback since I know he recently lost his dad.
What made Jeff Tweedy smile after signing my book was when I told him that I constantly find his music inspiring and that I’m a musician mostly because of Wilco. He said, “Aw thanks man, I really appreciate hearing that. For me the best reason to make music is that it inspires others to make music.” I almost teared up hearing that, trembled and replied with something like, “Well it does for me, every time.” We ended on a nice “Thanks, Jim” and I walked away. Of course, Jeff would say something awesome about music like that. Of course now I want to finish a record I thought was already finished, but I took it off the “shelves” because I ultimately think it could be even better.
I wanted to walk up to a couple more familiar faces there at the Music Box, but of course, it was best to go out on a high note and besides, I was still feeling a bit shaky. Then while walking home, I realized that there are still so many stories to tell, so many songs to write, and so much art left to experience. Everyone who knows me currently, knows that I haven’t been this unhappy in a long time. Dark thoughts won’t leave my side. I won’t go into great detail as to why, because it involves a previous career path that didn’t work out. It also involved music. Since everything dissolved with this particular career choice, I couldn’t enjoy music for awhile. Playing it, writing it, recording it. Then of course I go to see Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and then get to meet Jeff Tweedy, and things feel better for the moment. Music is my savior and has been since high school. Probably even sooner than that because let’s face it, I was obsessed with my dad’s vinyl collection.
At one point in Jeff’s incredible memoir, he talks to his son Spencer about what to include. They talk about listening to Captain Beefheart and it was hard not to think of my dad playing Frank Zappa records for me when I was younger. What’s a bit funny is that when I was a kid, I equated Frank Zappa with Weird Al to some degree because my dad played for me that song “Dancing Fool.” Yet somewhere down the road, I discovered the album and the opening track to Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. One of a few more experimental records in his collection. I think that was my first-ever exposure to jazz. There are so many stories behind so many records of my dad’s that I think musicians like Jeff Tweedy understand. His memoir is full of great yarns and remarkable insights. Including an entire chapter devoted to depression and addiction that really hit home. That’s for a whole other post someday. Someday soon.
Let’s just say that I would relish the experience of hearing more stories from my favorite songwriter, and Wilco the band. But the memoir does a great job of capturing what makes Jeff so unique and empathic. It’s also appropriate that his new solo record (due out Nov. 30th) is called WARM, because his music and his writing creates a campfire of warmth to bask in. At least for me. I won’t name names, but there are certain friends of mine that aren’t fans of Wilco, and I respect their taste. Not everyone can love the exact same music all of the time. But meeting Jeff last night solidified how much I need music, whether it’s his or others. The memoir also sums up the need for meaningful relationships and connections too. Those I’ve neglected in hopes of healing, but maybe I can’t heal by neglecting those important connections in life. For some that don’t know, I also unintentionally once moved in next door to where Wilco records and rehearses way back in 2006, if memory serves. Part of me misses that apartment but part of me is content with an affordable one-bedroom in Rogers Park currently. Again, I had no idea until I moved in with a photographer roommate back in 2006 and a neighbor pointed out that “Oh yeah, Wilco’s loft is that building right there,” pointing out my apartment window off of Belle Plaine. Then earlier last year, I had the pleasure of touring that building thanks to studio manager Mark, who was kind enough to host a brief tour of the facility for some students and myself. There are just a lot of personal connections I’ve had to Jeff and most importantly, the music. How do you sum up around 17 years of gratitude and inspiration in less than a minute? Well he said it best. Music is my savior and well, Jeff’s responsible for some of the best songs that I know saved me, and will probably continue to do so. Ditto his memoir. It’s a must-read. I’ll likely never forget last night’s experience, as brief as it was. If you want to hear me talk about an entire Wilco record, the one that’s gone on to become my favorite, check out this episode of The Great Albums podcast here. Otherwise, pick up Jeff’s book and give a listen to his new solo record at the end of the month. Maybe it’ll inspire you to make music too. Let’s go.