A Letter to Jeff Tweedy

So I’ve been threatening for over a year to write a 33 1/3-style book about the Uncle Tupelo album Anodyne, which has been a fixture of my musical world for–jesus–almost 30 years. The idea was stuck in permanent “I’ll get to it” status for a long time, until I read Hanif Abdurraqib’s great book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A tribe Called Quest. Sometimes reading a great book inspires you to get writing; so I did. And Abdurraqib’s repeated device of directly addressing letters to the members of Tribe seemed like a good idea worth borrowing. So: here’s the first little bit of stuff about Anodyne and Anodyne-related topics, and maybe being out here in the world will help make the rest of it come together.

Hi, Jeff,

So the weirdest thing is that, at least kind of, you seem to have written your own version of this letter (I don’t know to who; maybe you’re imagining someone like me writing it to you) in the form of the Golden Smog song “Can’t Keep From Talking.” It’s a great song about a fan reckoning with the weird imbalance in their relationship with a singer. “I know you don’t know me / but I know a lot about you / you’re the one who knows me / better than I do.” I think a lot about the neat turnaround happening with the language of those lines; but more than that, I think about the truth contained in them: fans know a lot about the artist, but are just part of an anonymous mass to the artist; but they became fans in the first place because the work of the artist so perfectly described what was going on in the fan’s head.

So yeah. That’s where we are. I’ve been listening to your music at varying levels of intensity for decades now. To be honest, I’m not nearly as engaged now[1], but in my early adult years Uncle Tupelo and early Wilco were the north pole of my musical universe; they damn near were all of my musical universe.

We’ve actually had one human interaction, although there is no chance whatsoever that you remember it. At a Golden Smog show at First Avenue around 1997, I was towards the front of the crowd. It was a great show, and an amped-up crowd; at one point, I got mashed up against the stage in an uncomfortable but not quiiiite dangerous fashion by a knot of especially jazzed-up dudes. You were playing bass for a song then, wandered forward on the stage, and looked down at the scrum; there was a moment of eye contact and you flashed a clear “that looks like it sucks” look before wandering back. Not a huge deal, but I appreciated the empathy. Back in the Uncle Tupelo era, I always got the impression, both from musical content and from band interviews, that you were the empathetic one.

I can clearly remember my first encounter with Uncle Tupelo: I was getting ready to play a show, a DIY punk thing in a barn loft outside of Blair, Nebraska, that happened to be my very first show. To warm up, my friend Grant started playing this insane guitar riff. I asked him what the hell that was. He said it was a song he’d heard (“Graveyard Shift, for what it’s worth) from his friend Joe, whose brother was a college radio DJ in St. Louis, and had done an in-studio thing with this kickass band called Uncle Tupelo. So like this music took hold in my brain right as I was about to play my first show, having gotten there through a direct person-to-person chain straight from the source. That’s some powerful, magical shit, and no wonder it took hold of me so strong.

(And for what it’s worth in terms of intraband songwriting balance: since music acquisition was so much more haphazard in those days, especially in the rural midwest, for a few months Uncle Tupelo remained this great band that I just experienced through “Graveyard Shift” on a mix tape. This changed after I was standing in a Pamida in Morris, Minnesota and their campus radio station[2] segued into “The Long Cut” and the top of my head just about fucking blew off; when they said that was an Uncle Tupelo song, I got motivated enough to drive to St. Cloud to track down the album. I couldn’t find Anodyne, but I did score March 16-20 1992, and that was all the gateway I needed).

That first exposure was a couple of weeks after I finished high school. One way you could look at my undergrad years[3] would be as a sort of hockey-stick graph of Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt obsession. Slow and steady at first, and then, somewhere in my junior year, hitting an inflection point and WHAM! Suddenly almost vertical. Being There came out just as my first real band was forming, and it laid out the musical agenda for the band.[4] It’s not that we were covering songs from Being There; we just sort of used its sensibility to mark out the musical boundaries we’d play in. Summerteeth came out just before that band was broken up by a school board meeting in outstate Minnesota, and the expansion of your sonic palette on Summerteeth again served to mark out the now-wider boundaries that the band, and after the fatal school board meeting, I on my own, would work within. If my boundaries as a musician were less Wilco-bound after that, I think it’s more just a case of me growing up artistically and recognizing that I needed to be carving out my own space than any dropoff of love for the band.

But anyway. The Uncle Tupelo records and A.M. blew my young mind because they, uniquely among all the music I knew about, were describing my world.[5] It just felt so incredibly validating. Growing up in rural Nebraska was fine, but there was this overwhelming feeling of being left out because nothing in any media feels like it acknowledges the place and the lifestyle. And then there’s this strong of absolutely kickass records that, on top of rocking their asses off, felt like you and Jay were walking around the streets of Blair, Nebraska, reporting what you saw (maybe a little dourly, in Jay’s case, but also very validly). “Screen Door” felt like a friend of mine must have written it from a direct experience I’d lived through. And it carried on through A.M.- “Passenger Side” was from the point of view of about five of my uncles.

It’s a magical thing when music you love feels like it’s matching up with your sensory input. And then time moved on, I moved to the city, and got on with building an adult life (a big chunk of which still involved rocking out). And the weird thing is that as Wilco albums progressed, they felt like you were describing the process of dealing with adult shit. Songs describing the cloud of emotions that surround an ongoing adult relationship. Songs talking about having kids, which seemed at the time like a thing I might do sometime. The important thing is that it still felt wonderfully like a voice I could identify with talking about a world I could recognize.

And there was another side to it, too; as the 2000s progressed, and I moved from my 20s into my 30s, I got steadily more aware that my brain as a machine ran with a few hiccups. With time I’d learn to identify these hiccups as anxiety and depression. And it felt like these were frequencies being broadcast on Wilco records, too; even without knowing details, songs like “Hell Is Chrome” or “A Shot in the Arm” made it feel like you were working your way through stuff that was at least in the same neighborhood as what I was working through.

Anyway. The point of all of this is to say that as I drifted into the mental health battles of my 30s (and I don’t want to overstate this; I had problems, pretty big ones even, but it’s not like it was a decade of absolute anguish. But there was a lot to work through), a lot of the time I was listening to your music as I worked out, and often thinking “this Tweedy guy seems to have it all figured out.”

It was quite a while later, after I’d drifted off into different music and then started to come back, and after I’d read your memoir and heard a long, good interview you did with Marc Maron, that I realized something important: it was never that you’d figured everything out. Because figuring everything out isn’t really possible. What I’d been seeing was a guy with a mental landscape at least sort of like mine encountering a lot of the same things I was encountering, just a few years ahead of me on the timeline, but also in public and through highly visible art. What had looked like “has it all figured out” was actually just “is dealing with it the best he can,” which is all any of us can hope for in life (ironically, I guess I’m claim to having figured it all out here).

I don’t know; this is a lot to put onto a guy who I only know through music. But that’s what we do with music that gets into our heads in the right way. That, as far as I can tell, is what “Can’t Keep from Talking” is all about. For a long stretch, your work made me feel less alone in the world and inside my own head. That was a gift. I just wanted to thank you, thank you for doing what you do.

Keith


[1] To unpack: for me, personally, Wilco got steadily less vital after the Summerteeth lineup faded; A Ghost Is Born pretty solidly marks the end of my superfan status, although I liked Sky Blue Sky a lot. But I want to be clear about this, both to you and to the small handful of people who may actually read this some day: this is absolutely not one of those “you changed and BETRAYED me, the fan, who you OWE EVERYTHING TO!!!” situations. The band and your output changed over time, as of course they would, and after a point it stopped lining up with my sensibilities (which also changed with time), but how on earth could I begrudge that if you’re making the music you feel like making? Not everything has to be for me.

[2] KUMM 89.7, “the only station that puts KUMM in your ear.”

[3] Believe me, I spend a few minutes every day thinking about how ridiculous it is that I care about rocking out but then say things like “my undergrad years.”

[4] Or at least a big chunk of it; we were in Minneapolis, so there was a lot of Replacements emulation going on. But then I’ve always gotten the impression—based partly on some stage banter of yours—that there was a lot of Replacements appreciation going on in Wilco, too.

[5] When I followed the short trail of bread crumbs from Uncle Tupelo to the Bottle Rockets, well, they were pretty clearly reporting on a familiar world, too.

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