Jeff Tweedy Lets Go

Wilco's frontman used to be the most tortured guy in rock & roll. Then he learned the hardest thing of all: keeping it simple

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 1086 from September 3, 2009. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Despite the fact that he has recorded some of the most challenging popular music of the past two decades, there is not much these days about Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy that suggests the turmoil his music contains or the struggles that have marked his band's 15-year history. He gives off the air of a man who has been through fire and learned his lessons: He is warm, but not effusive, honest and forthright, but with more of a philosophical than a confessional bent. His almost violently tousled hair might suggest a night in the gutter, but one worries there may be high-end products involved.

When I meet Tweedy, 42, for lunch in New York in July, the Chicago-based Wilco are riding high. The band has just headlined its largest show ever, playing a set of its elegant country-pop songs and John Cage-meets-Lynyrd Skynyrd experimental shredding to 12,000 adoring fans at a minor-league ballpark in Coney Island. Its current album, Wilco (The Album), a collection that contemplates love, acceptance and uncertainty, sits in the Top 10.

This, perhaps, is not a future one would have predicted for Wilco a few years ago, when the band was more a symbol of indie-rock growing pains than of midlife achievement. Tweedy has been plagued by migraines and panic disorders since he was a child. Two of Wilco's finest albums, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, released two years later, were usually seen by critics as groundbreaking sonic experiments.

In retrospect, it seems that Tweedy was only trying to explain the world as he saw and felt it. "There's always been a certain level of self-possession that has been elusive to me," he says. "A discomfort, I don't know — you feel really trapped in your body." While recording Ghost in 2003, Tweedy hit bottom and later admitted himself to rehab for an addiction to painkillers.

Since he cleaned himself up, Tweedy's music has found a different groove — not as outwardly distressed but deeper, sheared of the frenetic edge that sometimes overshadowed his darker material. Even as he has circled back to the straightforward songcraft of Wilco's first two albums, his music today is more sophisticated and layered, and Wilco, staffed by a murderer's row of progressive and avant-garde musicians, executes Tweedy's vision with thundering elegance. "I don't think there's anything more difficult or complex than trying to make things simple," Tweedy says.

Despite the fact that Wilco are a better band and a better business than ever, recent weeks have brought a reminder of their difficult years. On May 24th, Jay Bennett, Tweedy's onetime chief collaborator in Wilco, died suddenly. The two had never patched up their once-close friendship — only a few weeks before, Bennett had filed a lawsuit against Tweedy for money he thought he was owed. "It was a tragic end to the story," Tweedy says. But it's clear that he is determined to keep Wilco moving forward. "My dad worked on the railroad for 46 years," he says. "That's never lost on me. Being in a rock band can be work, but what the fuck, I'm not digging ditches."

On the new album, there's something risky going on. It almost seems like you are coming out as a grown-up.

Yeah, growing up is a revolutionary stance in rock & roll. We've gotten a much angrier response from fans for songcraft and pleasantness than we did when we put 15 minutes of noise on A Ghost Is Born. You'd think after all these years it'd be OK, but rock & roll people really guard that mythology.

There's not that many records about being a grown-up.

Well, grown-up records are usually really, really bad. That's why people are happy when you die or your band breaks up, you're locked in time. As long as those records stay static, you can go back to them and relive that glorious time in your life without having to look in the mirror. But if you look around at the people that inspired you, and they're getting older, it's an affront, like, "Who gave you the authority to change?"

Do you still relate to some of those angst-ridden songs from Wilco's first couple of records?

I still have angst, I just know what it is. That's a big difference.

The new album feels like a record by someone who has come to terms with his demons. How did you get there?

It would be a waste of suffering if you don't gain wisdom or insight from it. Maybe the album before this, Sky Blue Sky, comes off as a bit more melancholy than this one because my mom died in the middle of making it. It was set up to be the first record since I had gone through rehab. And then my mom died, and suddenly I wasn't really healthy. There's nothing really distinguishable between depression and mourning. Physiologically I think they're the same. So Sky Blue Sky kind of got finished with that in mind. On this record, I was about as healthy as I've ever been from beginning to end.

Were you and your mom close?

Yeah, I was definitely very, very close to my mom. I was 10 years younger than my youngest brother. I was the baby of the family and almost, practically, an only child. By the time I was really an aware being, my brothers and my sister had left. So there was a lot of maternal influence in my life, my dad being a railroad guy from another generation of emotional availability for a dad.

Chicago seems to be a city a lot of people leave. Yet you've stayed.

Chicago's a pretty comfortable place to have marginal celebrity. If you're humble and respectful, people seem to be pretty respectful back. Leaving is not something even worth contemplating. I've never lived anywhere other than Illinois. My wife has lived in the same five-mile radius her entire life, and she's not gonna leave Chicago. And our kids are happy there. So I'm not going to leave.

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From The Archives Issue 134: May 10, 1973