On a brisk morning this past March, Jeff Tweedy took a walk through the park near his house on the northwest side. He shuffled through the grass, past the swings and across the baseball diamond, retracing his steps over and over again before slumping onto a cold iron bench.
In a few months he’d turn 37. He’d soon celebrate his ninth wedding anniversary and his tenth year fronting Wilco. The band’s last album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, had sold 450,000 copies and was well on its way to going gold–not bad for an album that had been rejected by its intended label. The follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, would be out soon, and the band had a new lineup Tweedy was genuinely excited about. Already the stars of a feature-length documentary, the group would soon be the subject of a biography, Greg Kot’s Wilco: Learning How to Die. And Tweedy himself was about to publish his first collection of poetry.
By all rights he should’ve been feeling pretty good. But he wasn’t. He was manic, panic-stricken. Unable to focus long enough to read a book or even to play with his two young sons, he’d taken to leaving the house for hours at a time and just walking.
Tweedy’s belief in his talent as an artist had long been undermined by bouts of anxiety and depression, which were worsened by severe migraine headaches. Over the years he’d tried to assuage his fears and kill the pain with drugs: first booze, then pot, coke, and pills. Later, he began taking prescription painkillers, antidepressants, and antianxiety medication.
But his migraines and panic attacks were becoming stronger and tougher to deal with. Tweedy had become anxious about taking painkillers, scared that he was becoming an addict. A few weeks earlier he’d quit everything cold. Now he was paying the price.
“I was just begging to be hospitalized,” he says. “I wanted to be knocked out and locked up. I wanted someone to tell me what was wrong, ’cause it was really scary, terrifying.”
In another day he’d be in the emergency room. In a couple weeks he’d be in rehab.
Late-afternoon sunlight filters through the windows of Wilco’s loft, a third-story warehouse space near Albany Park. It’s a quiet Sunday in May, and as the band wraps up rehearsal you can hear birds chirping outside. The musicians set their instruments aside and disperse as a production manager and guitar tech start to untangle the maze of cords.
Wilco has leased the loft since 1999. It serves as the band’s studio, storage facility, and clubhouse. Shelves lined with CDs and books, cases of gear, recording equipment, and reels of tape clutter every corner, and the walls are hung with all manner of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia–concert posters, band photos, drawings by fans.
The first time all the members of the new Wilco–Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, and recent additions Pat Sansone and Nels Cline–were all in this space together was three days ago. It’s less than 72 hours before their first shows, a pair of warm-up gigs at a small club in DeKalb, and they’ve been trying to work through a set list of 60-plus songs. Tweedy, thinner and shaggier than he’s been in years, takes off his mirrored aviator sunglasses and flops face-first onto a futon in the corner.
Tweedy’s handlers have tried to downplay his recent hospitalization as a minor stint in rehab for painkiller abuse, the unfortunate by-product of his lifelong battle with migraines. Some in the popular press have portrayed it as a typical case of rock-star excess: Tweedy was featured in a Billboard cover story on addiction along with rehab ghouls like Courtney Love and Scott Weiland. But the truth seems to lie somewhere in between. Long before he’d gained any notoriety, Tweedy was trying to balance his awareness that something was badly wrong with his desire to downplay the extent of his problem–to keep it manageable, if only in his head.
“I’ve been dealing with depression and panic disorder for a long time,” he says. A White Sox game flashes on a nearby TV. “That probably goes as far back as my childhood. . . . I come from a family with an alcoholic background, so I’ve struggled with addiction, or at least alcoholism, for a long time as well.” In 1991, while still a member of Uncle Tupelo–an outfit known for its boozing–Tweedy quit drinking. “I knew there was a family history of it, and it was something that scared me,” he says. “But I didn’t stop self-medicating.”
In part to combat his migraines and anxiety, Tweedy had what he describes as a series of “monogamous relationships” with drugs, using for a while, then quitting. “After alcohol it was pot, which made my panic much worse, so I stopped that pretty quickly. Then I flirted with cocaine, but that’s like poison to somebody with panic disorder, literally like poison. And then,” he says, “I found opiates.”
Tweedy insists his use of opiates–morphine in particular–wasn’t recreational, at least at first, but merely allowed him to function normally. “[It’s] a pretty mind-blowing mood stabilizer. It creates a sense of well-being and that’s how it kills pain. It made the panic much better,” he says. “Basically, it made me feel like myself, and that was the problem. That’s why a lot of people never really perceived me to be an addict or anything. I didn’t like getting fucked up. I liked feeling good. But then I became addicted to feeling better than everyone else.”
The mid-to-late 90s were a particularly druggy period for Tweedy. He and guitarist Jay Bennett spent endless hours in the loft studio, tinkering with tracks and popping pills. “We did go through a period of trying everything, certainly every antidepressant under the sun,” Bennett says.
“They were very isolated then and starting to get into bad habits together,” says Stirratt, besides Tweedy the only member from those days who’s still in the band. “They were not fun to be around.”
As had become a pattern, in 1999 Tweedy weaned himself off morphine. Reportedly Bennett continued to abuse pills, causing the first rent in a split that would lead to his eventual firing in August 2001. “That’s bullshit,” says Bennett. “I don’t think who was using what when had anything to do with our differences.”
The next two years were a constant whir of activity for the band, providing something of a reprieve for Tweedy. “When we’ve been on the road or really busy, historically I’ve tended to use less, so that helped,” he says. Between 1999 and 2001 Wilco toured extensively behind its third album, Summerteeth, released a second collection of songs set to Woody Guthrie lyrics with Billy Bragg, and recorded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which famously resulted in a break with Reprise Records.
Tweedy’s health was relatively stable during this time, his bad spells limited to occasional bouts of depression and some intense preshow jitters. But “in an amazing kind of way he always got up and delivered when he needed to,” says longtime Wilco manager Tony Margherita. “Jeff could be having a panic attack, crying, the works, and two seconds before showtime he’s fine,” says his wife, former Lounge Ax owner Sue Miller. “He’d go out there and you’d never know. Somehow he’s able to step into something else when he has to perform.”
Often affected by seasonal changes, Tweedy was swept into another bad cycle of migraines and depression in the fall of 2002. “It culminated in me taking painkillers again, and a doctor convinced me it was OK even though I said I was an addict,” Tweedy says. “He was like, ‘Look, you’re in pain and you’ve gotta take something.'”
Tweedy eventually had a sinus operation that gave him some relief from his headaches. But this past fall, as Wilco prepared to record A Ghost Is Born in New York, he hit another wall of depression, panic, and pain. “And so I started maintaining with [pills] again. And I knew better. But I wanted to see [the recording] through.”
After the sessions in November and December, Tweedy returned home to Chicago convinced he had to stop using once and for all. “I recognized it was more serious than I ever really let myself believe. But I resisted going to treatment because I thought, ‘I can quit. I can do this. I’ve done it before.'”
Tweedy had also developed what’s known as a secondary disturbance: he’d begun panicking about his use of pills to control his various maladies. “As ridiculous as it sounds,” he says, “that was probably what made it easier to quit, because I was so scared of getting addicted again. So anything that was a pill I’d decided I didn’t need any more.”
In his zeal Tweedy dumped not only his painkillers but also his mood stabilizers and his antianxiety medication.
“That,” he says, “was a big mistake.”
Going cold turkey had worked for Tweedy in the past. This time he sent his body into a state of acute withdrawal. Scheduled to promote his poetry book, Adult Head, at the Palmer House in mid-March, Tweedy had to lie down in the back of the car as Miller drove him downtown. Yet somehow he managed to perform flawlessly–“which was surprising,” he says, “because at that point I couldn’t even look at a book anymore.”
Within a few weeks he was experiencing cognitive loops–repeating sequences of words, sounds, or feelings, often hallucinatory in their intensity. He suffered these for hours or even days at a time.
“It was hellish for me and scary for everyone around me,” he says. “I couldn’t be at home ’cause I didn’t want to frighten the kids.”
“Just watching him have this breakdown, it was very painful. For him, for me, for the kids,” says Miller. “It’s been rough. But it had been rough for quite some time before that. He wasn’t ready to deal with it yet, obviously. But I’d been alarmed for a long time.”
The third weekend in March, Tweedy’s panic got “so severe that I thought I was dying,” he says–at which point Miller took him to the emergency room, where he was shot up with a heavy dose of antianxiety medication and sent home. But the drugs wore off, and Tweedy was back at the ER the next day. “And that’s when they told me about a place in town that deals with dual diagnosis, which is something I’d never even heard about,” he says.
Dual diagnosis is the simultaneous presence of two independent medical disorders, most commonly a mental health issue and an alcohol or drug problem. Studies show that 50 percent of those with mental illness also have substance abuse problems, while more than half of those with a diagnosis of substance abuse also are mentally ill. The list of attendant neurological and physical problems commonly associated with dual diagnosis patients includes migraines and anxiety disorders.
“Just hearing that made a lot of sense to me,” Tweedy says. “I was like, ‘Where do I go? Can I go there today? Will they let me in?'”
A Ghost Is Born was set for a worldwide release in early June, and Tweedy had been scheduled for a European press junket and a monthlong preview tour with the band in April. Upon his hospitalization, the record’s release was quietly pushed back two weeks. A short press announcement regarding his entry into rehab followed.
Tweedy spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, then left, electing to continue his therapy on an outpatient basis so he could try to keep Wilco’s commitments. He returned home for a couple days, even managing to rehearse with Kotche and Cline. But as soon as he put his guitar down, the sickly terror returned. In early April Tweedy checked himself back into rehab.
As rock ‘n’ roll road trips go, DeKalb isn’t the most glamorous of destinations. The city’s nightlife, such as it is, centers on a stretch of Highway 38. At one end of the strip is Sullivan’s Tavern, with a sign trumpeting an upcoming Jagermeister party; at the other is Sergeant Pepper’s, which bills itself as “The Restaurant That Rocks.”
In between the two is Otto’s Nightclub, owned by longtime Wilco soundman Stan Doty. Tonight the band will play the first of two sold-out shows here, debuting the new lineup and giving Tweedy a familiar stage on which to ease back into performing. The crowd of 500 will be a mix of locals and Wilco diehards from all over the country–California, Oregon, Florida–plus a small army of rock critics.
Inside the club, as the band’s getting ready for an afternoon sound check, a haggard-looking Tweedy takes a cell-phone call from his mother.
“Can I call you back, mom? We’re about to play,” he says, climbing onto the stage. Like most of those close to him, Tweedy’s mother is worried about how her son is coping. The DeKalb shows will go on under the watchful eyes of Miller and Margherita as well the band’s New York publicist, Deb Bernadini.
After Wilco canceled its April tour–including a mainstage appearance alongside Radiohead and the Pixies at the Coachella festival in California–Tweedy had returned to rehab in earnest, starting an intensively structured program of meetings and education as well as group, cognitive, and art therapy. “Best art in the world gets made in a mental institution,” he says. “Hands down the best shit I’ve ever seen.”
But while he was inside, Tweedy spent long hours wondering if his own art and his health were at odds with each other. “I asked myself, ‘If getting better means I never write another song is that OK?'” he says. “Absolutely. But at the same time, as much as it’s a cliche, I really believe that I wouldn’t have made it even this far in my life without some kind of destructive thing happening if it wasn’t for the fact that music has been therapeutic for me.”
The turning point in his treatment, he says, came during a group session. Among the recovering crack addicts and junkies was a woman who’d come unglued after her ten-year-old son hung himself. She talked about how she’d regained her desire to get well, to keep living despite the part of her that wanted desperately to be dead.
“And what am I gonna say after that about my problems? Um, I get scared? I have headaches?” Tweedy says. “I got a heavy fucking dose of reality right there. It’s not that I’ve ever complained about my life, but it really reaffirmed that I’ve had a pretty fucking blessed existence.”
The band soldiers through its sound check, running through a handful of songs from A Ghost Is Born. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” begins with a mesmerizing keyboard figure, then shifts into a raging guitar stomp. “Hell Is Chrome” is a dreamy drug allegory that presents Lucifer as the soothing rush of a morphine high: “When the devil came, he was not red / He was chrome and he said . . . come with me.”
As Cline burns through a long, wrenching guitar solo, Tweedy unstraps his instrument and steps from the stage onto the floor to watch the band. “Maybe some of the things I’ve experienced have been put in my path to make me realize how much I really like playing music,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. “I consider it a privilege to create, to stay alive by creating.”
“I wrote this last night,” announces poet Thax Douglas, brandishing a scrap of white paper. “It’s called ‘Wilco #7.'” The rumpled Chicago open-mike host and rock club regular is among those who’ve made the trek to DeKalb. “When the shadow gets heavy the creatures are shot out like rejected quarters from the supposedly sealed room. Once outside and breathing the creatures will realize that nothing is ever completely sealed in plastic, except the paneling,” he reads, then steps off the stage.
Depending who’s keeping score, this is either the seventh or eighth version of Wilco. Although sidemen and touring members switched with each album, for the first seven years of its life Wilco’s nucleus–Tweedy, Bennett, Stirratt, and drummer Ken Coomer–was a stable if mildly dysfunctional family. The last three years have seen a turnover of virtually the entire band, and the other shoe has yet to drop. Bennett and Coomer, both dismissed in 2001, say they still haven’t settled up with Wilco financially. Both are signatories to a mid-90s agreement establishing the members of Wilco as an LLC, Wilco World Tours. Under its terms, they claim, they’re entitled to a share of the corporation’s assets from their tenures with the band and some potential future earnings. But despite repeated requests, they say, they’ve been denied access to the company’s financial records. “I did receive a check for a dollar, after I had an attorney send them a letter,” says Coomer, who adds that he hopes the issue can be settled out of court.
“I don’t expect to be a millionaire,” Bennett says, “but I’d like to know if I’m even going to be a thousandaire. I kind of feel like a mushroom: kept in the dark and fed bullshit.” Bennett’s case is slightly more complicated than Coomer’s, but he too hopes to keep it out of court.
Tony Margherita says discussions between Bennett’s legal counsel and the band’s are ongoing, and that Bennett hasn’t been denied access to the books. With Coomer, he says, “There is no settlement discussion and nothing to discuss. With regards to the alleged dollar, I have no idea.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted by design to have a band that changed its lineup this much,” Tweedy says. “To me it’s a drag that it’s been like that. But at the same time I’ve seen bands hang around for a long time, with all of the same people, whether it’s out of loyalty or attachment. And I’ve seen how they don’t go anywhere anymore–and I’m not talking about commercial success, but about being inspired.”
John Stirratt has been there since before the beginning. He started as a guitar tech for Uncle Tupelo and later became a multi-instrumentalist in the band that morphed into Wilco in 1994. These days he’s the band’s lieutenant and musical director: during Tweedy’s rehab he guided rehearsals, singing the songs and fine-tuning arrangements. But his position within the group hasn’t always seemed so solid. During the making of Summerteeth he felt marginalized as Bennett and Tweedy crafted the bulk of the record, even worrying that he might be replaced. In recent years, too, his future has been the subject of considerable speculation. “Am I next?” says Stirratt, laughing. “It’s amazing how many people have actually come up to me and asked me that. It’s like, ‘Fuck you, man!’ But I have a very Zen attitude about Wilco at this point. I’ve learned a lot and gotten so much out of it that if it ended tomorrow I would be fine with it.”
Bennett’s departure–and Stirratt’s relocation from New Orleans to Chicago the year before–helped stabilize his rank. “After Jay left I kinda enjoyed a revitalization creatively within the band,” Stirratt says. “It became an easier, less competitive situation after he was gone.”
Stirratt’s current influence is evident in the addition of Pat Sansone, his bandmate in the Autumn Defense, as Wilco’s utility man. Stirratt and Sansone have been friends since they met on the southern college-rock circuit in the early 90s. Both in their mid-30s, they have similar backgrounds–Stirratt’s father was a Dixieland jazz player, Sansone’s mother and grandmother were professional singers, and both began playing while barely out of diapers. Their fondness for mellow pop and roots music comes through at the sound check when the band unveils a newly arranged version of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s jittery gem “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” They’ve recast it as a slice of southern soul, Stirratt reworking the bass line and Sansone adding flourishes of clavinet.
Sansone has been recording his own music under the moniker Birdy on the Moon for years, but it’s as a session player and touring hand for others (Ryan Adams, Dave Pirner, Joseph Arthur) that he’s made his name. His proximity to the Wilco family–Margherita also manages the Autumn Defense, and Sansone has been a regular visitor to Wilco’s loft–made him the obvious replacement when Leroy Bach quit the group in late January. (Bach, who by all accounts left amicably, declined to comment for this article. “I just think he lost his enthusiasm,” says Tweedy. “Although with Leroy it was kinda hard to tell when he was enthusiastic.”) After first sounding Stirratt out about it privately, Tweedy came to an Autumn Defense show in March, where he “officially popped the question,” Sansone says.
If Sansone and Stirratt reflect the more conventional side of Tweedy’s aesthetic, drummer Glenn Kotche and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen encourage his experimental leanings. Both met Tweedy through avant-garde pop star and ex-Chicagoan Jim O’Rourke.
The 34-year-old Kotche first hooked up with Tweedy to play a one-off collaborative set with O’Rourke at the Chicago Noise Pop festival in 2000. The trio eventually recorded and released an album as Loose Fur in 2003; a second volume will come out later this year. Brought in to replace Ken Coomer during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Kotche has become the most important catalyst for Tweedy’s music since Jay Bennett. A Chicago native, he graduated from the University of Kentucky’s prestigious percussion program, but he learned his most valuable lesson from Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker, who produced one of the first sessions he played on. “Even though I had a lot of formal training, Mo taught me that the key to being a musician isn’t about technique,” he says. “It’s about feel and songs.”
Returning home after graduation, Kotche was soon much in demand as a session drummer. In addition to becoming an O’Rourke mainstay, he played with a procession of midwestern singer-songwriters (Edith Frost, Chris Mills, Simon Joyner) as well as recording solo albums of avant-garde percussion and improvised music. When the call came from Wilco, he’d been teaching music to suburban high school students.
Thirty-two-year-old Mikael Jorgensen, too, was born into a musical family. His father, Joe (who died last summer), emigrated from Denmark to Brooklyn in the early 50s and became a respected New York recording engineer, working on albums for Frank Sinatra and Englbert Humperdinck; later he was a key force behind the jazz-fusion label Tappan Zee. A tech geek from an early age, Mikael started composing songs on a primitive IBM PC music program as a teen. “I actually took my computer to the high school talent show and played,” he says, laughing. ” I don’t think anyone really got it.”
Jorgensen made his first foray into rock with the oddball pop combo Lizard Music, who recorded an album for Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen’s World Domination label in 1995. He went on to lead postrockers Movere Workshop, who released a pair of singles for Chicago indie All City Records. After dropping out of Rutgers University, he got an engineering degree at DeVry and moved to Chicago in the late 90s looking for work; he helped Tortoise’s John McEntire build Soma Electronic Music Studios, where he soon took a staff position. Jorgensen met Tweedy there in 2001, while O’Rourke was mixing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Later that year he recorded Wilco’s collaboration with the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey. In February 2002 Tweedy invited Jorgensen to start doing laptop sound manipulations for Wilco, first in the studio and later on the road. Jorgensen eventually added keyboards to his duties and moved from the soundboard to the stage.
The wildest card in this new hand, though, is Nels Cline. At 48, Cline has more than a decade on his bandmates (“I’m the newest and the oldest,” he jokes) and a long and varied CV as a west-coast rock, jazz, and improv guitarist. LA-born and -bred, Cline first came to prominence in the early 80s with his twin brother, Alex, as part of legendary free-improv collective Quartet Music. He’s released work under variations on his own name (Nels Cline Trio, Nels Cline Singers, Destroy All Nels Cline) and appeared on hundreds of other recordings, collaborating with the likes of Mike Watt and Thurston Moore and maintaining an ongoing partnership with Geraldine Fibbers singer Carla Bozulich.
Cline was on tour with the Fibbers in 1996 when he met Tweedy, who was on the same tour playing with the midwestern supergroup Golden Smog. “I could sense that there was something about Jeff that stood out,” Cline says. “The Fibbers really gravitated toward him out of all those guys, so it made me pay attention to him. But apparently he was paying more attention to me.”
Tweedy had in fact been keeping tabs on Cline, following his catalog and periodically getting updates from Bozulich. When it came time to retool Wilco’s lineup to support the guitar-heavy Ghost earlier this year, Tweedy decided to recruit him.
“He was really funny about it,” recalls Cline. “He called [Bozulich] first to see if she’d be mad about [his] stealing me away from her. But Carla knew that I was at a crossroads, that I’d mostly been losing money playing my own music, and she knew I needed something like this to come along.”
Over the years Cline had turned down lucrative sideman gigs (with Rickie Lee Jones and Paula Cole, among others), and Tweedy didn’t exactly give him the hard sell. “Jeff asked if I thought it was a stupid idea for me to play with Wilco,” says Cline.
Familiar with Wilco’s history, Cline was nervous about how his presence might affect the band’s fragile chemistry. He agreed to fly to Chicago and rehearse on a trial basis. In the meantime, he and Tweedy began talking on the phone regularly. It was one rambling two-hour exchange that finally sealed the deal. “We started talking and found we had a common ground in our formative love for the Byrds and Roger McGuinn, Buffalo Springfield, 60s rock, and the impact that Television and Sonic Youth had on each of us,” says Cline. “Then it got into all kinds of personal, internal stuff. Stuff he was going through. It was just an amazing conversation, one of those rare things. By the end of it, it was pretty obvious that this was somebody I had to play with.”
Cline raised some eyebrows in March with a defensive post on his Web site announcing his decision to join Wilco’s lineup: “If the attraction to Wilco is puzzling (it seems to puzzle a few, though more folks seem to think it an excellent fit, which is equally odd to me), look to their involvement with Jim O’Rourke, to their many and sometimes really out there side projects,” he wrote. “Look at their amazing percussionist, Glenn Kotche. These guys are not generic roots rockers. And besides, I personally like Mr. Tweedy’s lyric sensibilities very much. I like the upcoming album. Bill Frisell thinks it’s a perfect pairing, OK?!!?”
“There were people who felt I was abandoning my path and essentially abandoning them,” Cline explains. “But the thing about Wilco is that despite how overtly normal they may seem to many of my fans, it’s really obvious that they’ve become much more popular as they’ve become more interesting–which is completely unusual. There isn’t any plan or strategy behind what they do, except to make the kind of records they want. And that was good enough for me.”
“Welcome back Jeff!” someone in the crowd at Otto’s yells. “It’s good to be back among the living,” Tweedy replies, taking the mike for an animated reading of the piano-pop tune “Hummingbird.”
The first night’s set list is drawn mostly from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. The band delivers a bruising version of “Poor Places,” Kotche’s drums blasting ragged holes in Tweedy and Cline’s wall of guitar noise, and Sansone, Jorgensen, and Stirratt work a thrillingly loose groove on the loping R & B number “Theologians.” The players move seamlessly from chaotic squalling to gossamer pop, and the partisan crowd laps it up. But Tweedy’s verdict is the one that counts. “That’s the best Wilco has ever sounded,” he says simply, after the show.
Stirratt is perhaps the most excited of the bunch. “It sounded sooo good,” he gushes to no one in particular. “I mean, I knew it was sounding great in rehearsal, but I didn’t want to say anything and jinx it. This is gonna be interesting.”
Backstage, Tweedy changes out of his sweat-soaked T-shirt and collects his things. Miller grabs him by the hand and escorts him out a side door, back to the nearby hotel where they’re staying, though he does pause to accept some emotional hugs from fans waiting outside. The rest of the group mingles for a while, accompanied by wives and girlfriends, then adjourns to Otto’s basement bar for an impromptu dance party. Feeding the jukebox and handing each other shots, they celebrate well into the wee hours. As Otis Redding’s cover of “Satisfaction” blares from the speakers, even the usually dignified Cline does his version of the Funky Chicken.
The next afternoon is dank and humid as heavy thunderstorms creep in from the west. Tweedy walks along DeKalb’s main drag, on his way to a lunch date with Miller. En route he stops in front of Otto’s, where a line of fans has camped out. Doors won’t open for another six hours, but they want a spot in front of the stage.
Tweedy chats with them briefly, then waves good-bye. “There’s all kinds of people in our audience–firefighters, working-class folks, college professors, housewives. It’s this weird mix,” he says. “But they seem to be pretty respectful of the band as people, even though there is an enormously fanatical element to what they’re doing.” One couple in Australia have named their firstborn son Wilco. Another admirer had Tweedy’s autograph tattooed on his arm. “In the end,” Tweedy says, “all people really do as fans is find something that’s close enough to them in shape to pour themselves into.”
“People think that they know him and they don’t,” says Miller. “But the part that’s really weird is when girls come up to me all googly-eyed and freaked out wanting to know what it’s like to be married to Jeff Tweedy.” She grins. “And I’m like, ‘You have no idea.'”
If Tweedy has a genius it’s his ability to become, as one of his new songs goes, “exactly what you want me to be.” Over the course of his career he’s been an aw-shucks roots revivalist, a debauched good-time rocker, a tortured romantic, an avant-pop experimentalist, and a major-label martyr. Now the critics love him as a courageous recovering addict. “Tweedy was characteristically frank in talking about his addiction,” Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis wrote in a recent profile. “When I told him that it’s brave to share so much of himself in his songs and his interviews, he protested that there is no other choice for an artist.”
Tweedy’s mythos received a massive boost with the imbroglio surrounding the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. When the album was rejected by Reprise and the band was nudged out the door–eventually signing with another Warner subsidiary, the boutique label Nonesuch–Wilco became an artistic cause, a maypole for those decrying corporate cluelessness to dance around. Of course, while Warner Brothers did reject the album, it also agreed to let Wilco have the record for a nominal $50,000, then went one better and offered it to the band gratis–in part, no doubt, as a way to avoid a shitstorm of bad PR, which came anyway. Aided by Sam Jones’s documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the Wilco machine managed to turn an unusual example of corporate largesse into a David-and-Goliath story.
Buoyed by the media attention–and some aggressive and expensive prerelease marketing–Yankee Hotel Foxtrot found its way into Billboard’s top 15 its first week. Over the last three years Wilco has managed to broaden its name recognition among the general public–the song “War on War” was recently used in an ad campaign by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, and Tweedy’s entry into rehab even made the news crawl on MSNBC.
Nonesuch VP David Bither says the push behind Ghost will be even stronger. “Given what Wilco accomplished the last time out, our expectations are pretty high,” he says. “Of course, there’s a gambler’s-risk element to all this.”
“We’re really not gonna know where we stand until July,” says Margherita. “My instinct–and maybe this is just wishful thinking–is that we have kind of jumped up to a different level of sales. There are just more people out there in the world now who know who Wilco is.”
Of course, compared to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot–which, despite all the critical hoopla calling it experimental, was a very accessible pop record–A Ghost Is Born will be a difficult sell. Muted and mostly downbeat, the album careens from stark, spare set pieces to deafening clashes of sound. The disc’s penultimate track, “Less Than You Think”–which Tweedy describes as an aural expression of his migraines–ends with 12 minutes of sustained feedback.
Most of the tunes on Ghost were written in late 2001 and early 2002, after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was completed. “That was a productive time for me,” Tweedy says. “It probably sounds mean, but I think Jay Bennett leaving the band around that time was probably healthy too.” Tweedy’s own poor health, he admits, has hampered his writing since then.
He won’t come out and say it, but Ghost seems very much a reaction to Bennett’s departure. Bennett was the group’s formalist, a notorious studio tinkerer who, Tweedy intimates, discouraged or even ridiculed his attempts at playing lead guitar. (Bennett rejects this suggestion.) Ghost was recorded live and quickly, and features meandering arrangements and plenty of Tweedy’s discordant explorations on guitar.
Preproduction for Ghost began in February 2002, when the five-piece version of the band (still including Bach) demoed material at the loft and at Soma. “We did regular tracking, fully arranged songs that were more stripped-down and folky,” says Kotche. “Then we did a whole set of eight different reels of what we call ‘fundamentals.’ It’s a listening game where Jeff would go into the recording booth and open up his notebooks and make up songs on the spot. We’d all be listening and interacting with him, but none of us could hear each other and he couldn’t hear any of us. So you would have this juxtaposition of people’s radically different takes of what was happening at the same time, which yielded a lot of cool stuff.” Ghost tracks like “Company in My Back,” “Muzzle of Bees,” and the B-side “Kicking Television” all grew out of those sessions.
With an album’s worth of songs ready, Tweedy enlisted O’Rourke, by then living in New York, to produce, and the group booked three weeks’ worth of time at New York’s Sear Sound–known for its vintage gear and old-school atmosphere–with the idea of cutting the tracks as close to live as possible.
“The idea was to get the energy we had onstage down on the record somehow,” Kotche says. “We wanted to make a record where we were communicating through the chemistry we have with each other instead of communicating with technology or tricks or overdubs.”
“By the time we got there we definitely had the approach hammered out,” says Tweedy. “We knew we wanted to play in the same room, without headphones. Just trying to capture people making music together and without a bunch of computers or other things getting in the way.”
The sessions quickly became an exercise in minimalism. Kotche, who often double- and triple-tracked complex drum parts on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, stripped his kit to the essentials, laying down simple, efficient parts. The rest of the band played musical chairs: Stirratt moved off the bass to play guitar and piano; Jorgensen and Bach wove together simple organ, Farfisa, and synth riffs. O’Rourke stepped from behind the console to pitch in with bits of bass and guitar. All this allowed Tweedy to flex some muscle on guitar, cutting a fierce, elemental dash or pulling out tortured blues howls and strange strangulated solos.
Tweedy’s lyrics, too, have mutated from straight narratives to impressionist wordplay–a by-product, he says, of his increasing interest in poetry. “For a long time I thought if I wrote a song that anybody could sing, I’d succeeded,” he says. “Kinda like a self-imposed Brill Building mentality. . . . Then I started losing interest in that and started feeling like I wanted to write stuff that only makes sense if I sing it.” On Ghost he applies his damaged tenor to lines like “Your mind’s a machine / It’s deadly and dull / It’s never been still and its will / Has never been free.” His voice proves capable of reflecting the dour domestic alienation of “At Least That’s What You Said” or the impassioned sentiments of the album’s sole rocker, “I’m a Wheel.”
“The great records never get released,” legendary rock producer Jim Dickinson once said, “and the best ones never even get made.” A Ghost Is Born‘s closing track, “Late Greats,” unpacks that quip into something like Tweedy’s summary statement about the whole mess–Wilco, rock ‘n’ roll, the music business, expectation versus reality, and the ineffable quality of great art: “The best band will never get signed / So good, you won’t ever know / You can’t hear ’em on the radio.”
Wilco plays that song to open the second night at Otto’s before dipping further back into the catalog, blowing through some of Summerteeth’s giddy pop and melancholy musings. During a pause Tweedy scans the crowd for his wife. “I love you, Susie. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for you,” he announces with no small amount of drama, then dedicates “I’m Always in Love” to her.
The band cuts new filigrees into the old songs and gives powerful shape to more recent numbers. The audience starts moshing to “Spiders,” bodies shooting up through the crowd like geysers as the club’s balcony visibly shakes.
Wilco exits the stage after a trio of encores, amid a hail of cheers. They’re all grinning, none more broadly than Tweedy.
“My only anxiety now is figuring out a way to keep this band together,” Tweedy says, taking a drag off a cigarette. “I want this band to stay together for the next ten years, man.”
It’s a few days after the DeKalb shows, and Tweedy’s sitting in his backyard, draining a giant tumbler of water. He hasn’t quite weaned himself off nicotine, but he’s trying to cut out caffeine, which means no more Diet Coke.
He’s been running errands all day. Wilco is off to Spain tomorrow for a one-off festival appearance. The band will return home for a week, then head back out on the road for a clutch of U.S. dates and a long European tour.
Tweedy is mindful of his condition. “There’s no cure. You can only maintain it. And a huge part of it is biological,” he says. But he’s starting to write again. And “I don’t feel anxiety about it,” he says. “There have been times in my life where I’ve felt anxious to be inspired, almost manic. Those have probably been productive times too, but I don’t think that stuff ever holds up for me.”
His older son, Spencer, pokes his head from behind a screen door, peers around, then ducks back inside. A mop-topped eight-year-old, he’s following in his father’s footsteps by playing drums in a grade-school rock combo called the Blisters. The group started out with a one-song set list–a cover of Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”–but has since expanded its repertoire to include material by the Ramones and Jet. Earlier this month Tweedy brought Spencer and his bandmates to the studio to sing backup on a song he’s contributing to the sound track for the Spongebob Squarepants movie.
“There’s been times where I’ve made poor decisions as far as what my priorities were,” Tweedy says. “Most people have an area of their life where they feel confident, and they tend to spend as much time there as possible. That’s why I’ve been a workaholic with my music. But it’s a good time in my life to start learning how to live outside of that.”
Just then Miller comes out of the house looking frustrated. The faint sound of crying wafts out with her. Sammy, their younger boy, is fighting his bedtime. “And Spencer’s inconsolable,” she says, “’cause it’s your last night and he wants you to–”
“OK,” Tweedy says. “I’ll be right there.”
He extends a hand before heading into the house. “I’m growing up,” he says. “Slowly, but I am growing up.”
Wilco plays the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield, on Saturday, June 12. The show is sold-out.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.