If you’re a diehard Wilco fanatic, you already know about this book. You probably scored an advance copy and have already read it. Twice. If you’re not a maniac, let me tell you a bit about it. Wilco: Learning How to Die is Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot’s biography of Jeff Tweedy and his two bands, Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. It’s also the story of a very strange time in American cultural history when the corporations completely took control of the music industry. Now before you get all cynical and scoff that the record business has always been about money, of course it was. But there used to be some equity between the real music lovers at the labels and the corporate guys. The music guys could convince a label to hold on to its “heritage” artists even if their short-term sales weren’t looking so hot. This balance of power shifted by 2001, and major labels will probably never recover any semblance of integrity. Unless they get tricked into it. This book also tells that story.
Greg Kot hopes that if someone were to stumble across his book 20 years from now, they would feel like they got a glimpse of what was happening in American culture at the time. It is the story of a band, but it’s more than just the story of a band.
Sometimes Learning How to Die reads like an oral biography. There are lots of quotes, and Kot is not afraid to step back and allow the participants to tell their story. And yet the book never rambles, and it’s definitely telling a specific story. Kot told me he really wanted this book to have a beginning, a middle and an ending. That’s quite a challenge for a book about a band who is still very much alive and active. But he manages to pull it off without feeling like he’s cutting off the story before it’s actually over.
Greg Kot took some time before his weekly radio show, Sound Opinions, “the world’s only rock and roll talk show,” to talk about the book and about Wilco at the studios of WXRT in Chicago. The book contains some great details that even the most obsessed Wilco fan could not have known. I became a huge Uncle Tupelo fan after the band had already broken up, so it was great to hear the full story of how they began, and how they worked as a band, and eventually how and why they split up. I told Greg Kot that it seemed like a fair portrayal.
Kot: I appreciate the comment about the fairness because I did well over 50 interviews for this book and every anecdote, every story in this book has been confirmed by at least two people. So it wasn’t a case of one guy’s word, even if the story was really great, you know what? A lot of people embellish and a lot of people forget, and even now I’m finding out even though two people confirmed something, it wasn’t the exact date, it happened at this other time. People’s memories are faulty and they might believe something in their soul to be true, but you ask four other people what their interpretation of the event is and they have a little different spin on it. So I tried to bring all those perspectives into every crucial incident that’s in this book and try to give everybody a fair shot.
GLONO: I noticed the back of the book says it’s written with the “cooperation of Wilco band members…” It doesn’t say “authorized biography” or “unauthorized biography.” Can you explain what that means? Did [Wilco manager] Tony Margherita give his stamp of approval on this?
Kot: You know, my first call was to Jeff when I thought I’ve got a book here. I was going to write a book one way or another. I had enough to write a book just based on what had happened, because the whole Reprise/Wilco thing really was the genesis of this book, and I’m sorry this is going to be a kind of convoluted story but I think it’s important that you understand, just for your own reference, what happened here. I was on the phone literally every day during that month and a half when that stuff was going down with somebody at Warner Brothers or somebody in Wilco. And I literally had this entire almost minute-by-minute breakdown of how a record company and a band interact over an album that isn’t quite what the record company had in mind as far as a commercial entity. And I knew then that I had more than enough material not only for this magazine piece I was working on for the Tribune but for a book. And at that point I knew I could write a book because I’d interviewed Jeff and John [Stirrat] and Jay [Bennett], all the guys in the band numerous times. What I wanted to do was take the book back further and get the full scope of the story. So I was hoping that they’d cooperate with that and hoped that they would allow me to pry a little deeper into their lives, but it wasn’t going to stop me from writing a book.
And to my good fortune, Tweedy said, “Cool, you might as well be the one to write the book.” He said, “My approach is going to be, I’m not going to hinder what you do. If you wanna interview me, that’s fine, but as far as I’m concerned that’s your project and I got nothing to do with it.” And I said that’s great, it is my project. Nobody’s going to be able to read this book before it comes out, your comments are going to be on the record, if you decide something shouldn’t be on the record you’ve got to let me know ahead of time, the ground rules were laid out with everybody. And everybody understood this is where I was coming from.
I rode out with Tony [Marherita] to see the end of the first leg of that Wilco tour. And we rode out to St. Louis together and I got five hours of me and Tony talking on tape. And another five hours on the ride back. So I had the guy who was with Jeff from the record store in St. Louis. I got good access. They cooperated in that they allowed me to interview them. Again and again and again to the point where I’m sitting in John Stirrat’s house and I know that the sun’s going up and it’s going down and John’s kind of looking at me like, “Are you ever gonna leave?”
But these guys are incredibly gracious about that, so I’ve got to give them credit for allowing me to ask these questions. And for the most part they were incredibly cooperative. But in terms of the authorized/unauthorized stuff, no they didn’t authorize it. They didn’t have nay financial stake in it. They knew that from the start. They knew they weren’t going to get to read the book before it was published. As they’re reading the book they’re finding out stuff just like any reader is. I got a call from one of the guys in the band a few days ago and he said, “You know, we’re all gonna learn something from this because some of this stuff is new to me,” and he was like, “Wow, I didn’t realize this,” or “I didn’t realize that.”
GLONO: Those are the same terms the movie, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, started out with, but that ended up a lot more fanboyish. Particularly with the Jay Bennett firing. The movie showed it one way, the Glorious Noise interview showed it totally from Jay’s perspective, and your book seemed to present it very believably and fairly.
Kot: I’m glad you thought that. I think Sam [Jones, director] did a great job. To me, what I loved about Sam’s movie was seeing these guys making music together. That was the best part. And it’s very hard to distill a very complex relationship like the one that Jeff and Jay had in one scene. And unfortunately Jay Bennett’s career in Wilco gets boiled down to that one very acrimonious scene in the recording studio, which is really a distortion, clearly. Not that Sam was trying to tar and feather somebody but he obviously had an incredible moment on screen here. But at the same time boiling down a six- or seven-year relationship to one two-minute moment in the film doesn’t quite do it…
GLONO: My favorite chapter in the book is the one with the Howie Klein interviews. As a cynical music fan who thinks the major labels are self-destructing, it was fascinating to hear a former high-level record executive confirm my beliefs.
Kot: Klein’s got his own layer of bullshit that you’ve got to get through, too, just like any guy who’s made a lot of money in the record business. They all have their own little layers that you have to cut through. But at the same time Howie Klein was a new waver in the punk rock era running a label paying himself $100 a week and running a label out of his bedroom and putting out Romeo Void records. This guy had some cool credentials. Warner Brothers for a long time had some real music lovers running that company. Lenny Waronker, Mo Ostin, Howie Klein, Seymour Stein over at Sire, those people at the Warners empire, sure they were making money…
GLONO: Yeah, it’s not like they were a tiny little indie just scraping by. They were a huge, successful company…
Kot: Absolutely, these guys were running a successful company putting out Randy Newman and Ry Cooder and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Van Morrison. That’s a pretty good track record. Joe McKuen, the guy who signed them, really loved Uncle Tupelo and when Son Volt and Wilco broke into two camps, he managed to find places for both those bands in the Warner Brothers empire. He finessed that, and that was not an easy thing to do. The fact that the band broke up, everybody thought Farrar was the guy, but they weren’t sure because he didn’t have this band anymore, McKuen managed to get both those guys established in their solo careers by saying to the Warner Brothers people, “Hey, we’ve got two great songwriters here now. Instead of one band with two songwriters, we’ve got two great bands now.” And Warner Brothers bought it. And Warner Brothers bought the fact that Jeff Tweedy could make a double cd on his second record. Think of that happening today. A band on its second record after selling 175,000 copies of its first decides it wants to make a double cd. No frigging way is that going to happen. And I really think that Warner Brother is the last of that era of record execs. Literally, Wilco saw that era die under their watch. Those guys started to fade away and the corporate guys took over. I was in Ice T’s house when Warner Brothers caved on his whole thing with “Cop Killer” the cover art of the Home Invasion record, and he goes, “You know, I’m getting fucked. It’s the corporation that’s deciding you’re selling too many records to white kids…”
GLONO: Do you think it will ever change? Will it ever go back, or is it up to indie labels?
Kot: I think what’s going to happen is that we’re going to see even more consolidation, and in fact they just cut loose a whole bunch more acts. We’re really going to see the majors tied almost exclusively to the idea of signing crossover artists who can connect on a number of multimedia levels: the videogame, the movie, the TV special, the TV commercial. They want these pliable pop star celebrities that they can crossmarket and make multimillions off of. I think the whole idea of artist development at a major label level is dead for the foreseeable future. And that opens things up beautifully for the indies right now.
GLONO: If a band can sell 200,000 copies and still not be considered profitable enough, that’s just crazy. That’s when it’s time to start an indie label!
Kot: Exactly. And a band like the Shins can be superstars, sell out shows all over the country, sell 200,000 records. The Postal Service, those are the kind of bands that people really, really care about passionately. They don’t have the 5,000,000 sales, but they have loyal customers who are going to keep coming back every time. And that’s gold to an entrepreneur.
GLONO: Okay, here’s a gripe. I don’t know if you were doing it to be a gentleman or to be coy or whatever, but you refer to the “weirdness” of the Being There tour. You mention throwing the snack tray out into the crowd, and there’s talk about drug issues becoming an issue. But Ken Coomer refers to a band on the road creating “your own moral universe” (p. 138). I’m not looking for dirty stories, but everybody says it was so weird but no one actually talks about the weirdness. What was so weird?
Kot: Well, I brought it all back to this: it’s all there in Summerteeth. Anybody who has any questions about what was going on here, listen to that album. I think it’s pretty transparent. I was writing a book about music and culture and as their private lives overlapped with music and culture, it was going to be in the book. There’s no doubt that the behavior, the “moral universe” that Coomer is talking about, is all described in rather explicit detail on that Summerteeth record.
GLONO: They’re obviously not killing anybody.
Kot: No, they’re not killing anybody, but in terms of feeling like they’ve killed somebody… They’ve killed something: a relationship, innocence, feeling like you can be the same with this person that you love ever again because of what happened here. That all got destroyed on that tour. That’s where the overlap was. There’s a valid argument to be made: how come there’s not a single Winona Ryder reference in this entire book? Why did you never once describe the Ryan Adams/Jeff Tweedy rivalry? There’s a lot of stuff, but that’s for another book. There’s probably a whole made-for-TV movie about Wilco’s 1997 tour, and you know what, I frankly wasn’t that interested in getting into that gossipy side of it, and believe me, I got it. I got it all. At some point, it was like, this is just a tawdry, sub-VH1, typical rockstar biography. I didn’t want to write that book. Frankly, it just got a little bit tawdry and not that interesting to me. What is the point of detailing these guys’ indiscretions on the road every step of the way. If those indiscretions influenced the music in some way, okay, we touch on this absolutely, and it’s in there. People who want to know more, someone else will write that book, I’m sure.
GLONO: As a reader, you give examples of Jeff freaking out at a Johnny Cash show, of Jeff freaking out at a British audience, but where’s all this weirdness? It’s like you were teasing us.
Kot: [Laughs] I didn’t want to tease anybody. I didn’t want to sink to the lowest common denominator. That to me is a book I’ve read before, and it’s like those VH1 episodes. After a while, they start to blur together. At the end of the day, what purpose am I serving by dredging out every little indiscretion?
GLONO: Titillation! Motley Crue does it.
Kot: Exactly. I read that book [The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band] too and I wanted to vomit after a while. I don’t care about Marilyn Manson urinating on a deaf, dumb and blind groupie. I mean, Jesus, what purpose does that serve? Believe me, none of what Wilco did was anywhere near that level. It wasn’t spectacular debauchery; it was the tawdry, run of the mill, to even describe it as debauchery is complementing it in a way that it shouldn’t be, because it wasn’t even at that level. It was just normal boy’s behavior, left alone to their own devices for a long period of time, you get stir crazy in a frigging bus driving around the country, and that’s what the extent of it was. I didn’t mean to tease anybody. If there had been spectacular, criminal behavior going on, it would’ve been in the book.
GLONO: The first time I saw Wilco was on the Being There tour in Detroit and I didn’t really know what to expect. When they came out they scared the crap out of me. Tweedy looked all sickly and intense. But after a few songs, he didn’t look as pale and scary, and it seemed like the whole band was having a lot of fun up there.
Kot: That was the full-on rock tour, and it was pretty amazing. I actually saw a couple shows on that tour in Los Angeles and something happened where he ripped his shirt and he jumped into the audience and came back up and one shoe was missing. And I went back and told Bill Bentley — who was a guy I knew at Warner Brothers, a really good guy and a great journalist before he became an executive at Warners — that Jeff jumped into the crowd last night. It was like an Iggy Pop show, and he looked like, What are you talking about? Jeff Tweedy doesn’t do that. I said, “You might want to go see them tonight then because something’s going on on this tour that hasn’t happened before.” That was the big confrontation tour. I think it was the combination of a lot of things. Talk about breaking through to the other side on a lot of levels.
GLONO: What are your feelings for this current touring lineup?
Kot: I’m excited about it actually. I think it’s a great lineup. Nels Cline is a monster. I’ve seen him with Mike Watt and I was blown away so many times by that band. Those guys were just amazing. It was punk jazz and it was totally ferocious, balls-out stuff.
GLONO: I hope they come back to Chicago toward the end because that first show at Otto’s was incredible.
Kot: It’s going to get better and better. They’re talking about stretching songs and stuff. The possibilities are very wide open in this band which is great. It’s very exciting.
GLONO: I think it’s funny how you bring the online message boards into the story. We freaks get our perspective heard in your book. There have always been fanzines, but this immediate, crazy, rabid, fan interaction is a new thing in popular culture. Are Wilco fans freakier than other bands’ fanbases?
Kot: That’s a good question. I check out message boards pretty frequently at band sites just because I think it is a useful tool sometimes. Like when the new Slipknot record comes out you get a real sense of whether that record’s going to be any good or not, whether the fans are going to respond to it. But I have to say that the level of discourse at the Wilco-related sites, even the most negative ones like Postcard who are very negative and very cynical about a lot of thing, but at the same time there is an intelligence there that is beyond “You suck, man.” There are arguments being made and debated. They’re brutally honest about it to the point of being maybe a little over the top about it to the point where they lose perspective. It’s almost like they’re doing it for effect. But it is a thinking community. It’s not just a blind allegiance sort of thing. There are certain elements of the Wilco fanbase that have blind allegiance to it. Some people took it the wrong way when I wrote about “Spiders” and “Less Than You Think” as sort of a knock, but I meant it just the opposite. I thought it was really healthy. This is exactly…no artist could wish for something this involved, this ongoing and engaged for months of debate about one song or two songs. It’s incredible. I love it. That to me is a huge compliment to any artist and it shows me a lot about how these fans are willing to listen to a record that many times and be willing to debate it…
GLONO: When it’s not even released yet!
Kot: Yeah, it’s incredible. That’s a huge, huge compliment not only to the artist but also to the fans because they are true music lovers. They are really in it for all the right reasons.
GLONO: If the fans want to discuss a band that defies expectations, it seems like they’ve latched onto the right band for it.
Kot: Wilco is a funny beast because they are being typecast as a “critic’s band.” And what is a critic’s band? I think a critic’s band is a band that does keep shaking up the formula every time. They don’t make the same record over and over again. You kind of know what a Matchbox 20 record is going to sound like before you even listen to it. And with a Wilco record, you never know. I’ll never forget when I put on “Spiders” for the first time. Jesus Christ, this is great. I really love it because it locked into two things I really love, which are the krautrock Neu beat and that skronky fill guitar. I love that. Those two push a hot button in me and when they’re done really well I really like it. It’s one of those songs that I could drive from here to California on. That song could be on a continuous loop and I could probably keep driving.
GLONO: I love “Spiders.” The bass and drums remind of Neil Young’s Trans and the guitar reminds me of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.” I love it. “Less Than You Think,” on the other hand… I doubt if I’ll ever listen to it all the way through.
Kot: People were saying, “Why are you defending that track?” And I said, No, I wanted Tweedy to talk about it. I wanted him to defend it. I want to hear his logic. To me, it’s a failed song. It’s better in theory, a better idea, than in actual execution. To me, it’s like a Metal Machine Music.
GLONO: But it doesn’t even do anything. It’s like static. If it sounded cool, that would be one thing, if there was stuff going on, but it’s just static…
Kot: It’s like Metal Machine Music. The theory of it is better than the execution of it. And yeah, talk about a test! Holy mackerel. Nobody’s going to sit through that track more than once. And I can understand being in a particular mindset to sit through it, but you know what, life’s too short to put myself through that over and over again.
GLONO: But if this is a critic’s band, and a critic’s band can sell 400,000 copies, what’s the matter with the world? 400,000 is a lot of records!
Kot: That ain’t small potatoes. Even the 200-300,000 they were selling before is pretty significant. Very few bands achieve that level. The millions and the multimillion selling records get all the attention, but there are so few.
Wilco: Learning How to Die is out now. Greg Kot will be signing books at Borders (4718 N. Broadway) in Chicago on June 22 at 7pm, and in St. Louis at Left Bank Books (399 N. Euclid) on July 1 at 7pm. Chapter summaries and excerpts are available at the book’s official website. Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born is released June 22, 2004.
Check out the complete, 5,000+ word edited interview transcript. If I had to type it out, you might as well be able to read it.