So what do you do when your best friend is Jeff Tweedy?
Okay, so I’m lying; he’s not really Jeff Tweedy. But he’s written and recorded a song as good as anything I’ve heard from Tweedy (including my faves, “Acuff-Rose,” “Passenger Side,” and “Via Chicago”).
“So what?” you say. Well, here’s a bit of background—on my relationship with Tweedy and my relationship with my buddy.
Tweedy is my favorite songwriter of the moment, in fact, I’ll admit that his band, Wilco, is about the only band I have given a shit about for the last few years. I’m a big music nut—hence my involvement with this here Web site—but many days I feel like music did in fact die in the mid-70s. If you told me from now on there would be no more new music made, I couldn’t care less. Yeah, that’s right; there are enough Bob Dylan albums that I haven’t listened to, and Joni Mitchell albums that I own that I’ve never so much as dropped a needle on, that I’d be fine living out my years listening to all the great stuff I’ve yet to discover. (Shit, even if you took away all the rock music ever made, I could live happily listening to my dad’s jazz collection, forever.) So, point being, Tweedy and Wilco are pretty damn important to me. In an era of mediocre music and my own post-collegiate corporate-motivated angst, they’ve been burning the torch for credible rocks-off music for me for years.
Why Tweedy? Because he can write songs and lyrics with catchy hooks and deep words. Lyrics that are fun to sing along with. Lyrics that sound good to the ear. Lyrics that make you think. Lyrics that tug at your heartstrings. Lyrics that make me feel like I’m not the only miserable motherfucker on the planet who’s had to go through the self-torment of being me. Sure, that’s pretentious and self-absorbed and probably boring to anyone who’s not me—unless you’ve also been moved by Tweedy and Co. and you know what I’m saying.
Now about my friend. He’s been in some bands and they’ve all been cool. Garage stuff, mostly. Catchy tunes about nothing at all, girls and booze and fun. Live music, music to see with that proverbial head full of beer. We’re into that. But that’s not the sort of music you listen to late on a Sunday night by yourself when you’ve polished off a whole bottle of red wine and you’re feeling sorry because you were stupid enough to dump your girlfriend. That’s when Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen and Gram Parsons and John Fogerty find their way onto your turntable. But once you’ve broken up with enough chicks, drank enough wine to sail a yacht, and cried enough tears to drown a hound dog, you get to looking for new sounds to soothe the savage beast. Hence the aforementioned love of Tweedy and Wilco and Uncle Tupelo.
But there’s a more positive side to Tweedy than the rest of that group of songwriters, a side that brings people together, that forms bonds, like between me and my friend. Tweedy is not the existential loner that Neil is. He’s not a populist preacher like The Boss. He’s not as fucking crazy as Parsons, and he’s not as, I donno, classic rock (?) as Fogerty. Tweedy is more like sitting-round-the-oak-tree-sucking-down-a-bottle-of-something-with-your-pals-writing-songs-and-singing-off-key. That’s the spirit of the music that attracted us, more than the personal shit. But the misery loves company line is fitting; my buddy and I have realized that maybe, if you put aside all that macho shit and share in the life experience together, maybe things ain’t really so bad. Wilco’s music hits that point spot-on better than any other band, ever. “Colloquial” is the word that sticks in my mind. Plus they are amazing live—transcending the intellectual level of the lyrics: The rhythms of the music and the wild essence of the jam say the same things to the body that Tweedy’s words say to the mind.
So given the adoration that we have for Tweedy, it was only a matter of time before my friend’s garage rock bands gave way to a larger project, a bigger band, more of a musical challenge. I remember my friend telling me one day when we were goofing on some lyrics around a campfire—he was strumming his guitar—that he couldn’t play good enough to be in a bluesy country-rockabilly band. This was before anyone had told us that the genre of music we were loving was called alt-country and we didn’t really know anyone else who liked Sun-sessions Elvis, CSNY, and Uncle Tupelo—and liked them all for the same reason.
Now it’s a few years later and I guess he’s been practicing, because he’s got his alt-country band and they sound as good as anyone doing this type of music. They’ve got great songs and tight production on their demo EP and the lyrics are cool and slick and emotional and everything is right. But after a listen or two, I was looking for the soul. It was hard to find. I kept hearing someone else’s songs. I kept hearing the influences, “worn on the shirtsleeves” but I couldn’t hear who they were, this new band. They were a lot of things: Wilco, Parsons, Dylan, etc.; even a bit of Kurt Cobain.
Then I realized it was me. We’ve been talking about this sort of a band for years now—how cool it would be for my buddy to play in a band that did the things that Wilco, et al, do. How great this genre and style of music is, how much opportunity there is in the songwriting to say things, meaningful things. I’d even written the lyrics to a couple of songs, trying to draw a blueprint for this new endeavor. Then it just happened, all of a sudden, he has the band and they’re everything that we’d always thought a band like this could be. But I can’t hear the music because I realize that all I’d ever really been wishing for was that my best friend would be Jeff Tweedy.
But he’s not. He’s just the same guy he’s always been.
And when I realized this, I also realized something else. I listened to the EP again and really listened for my buddy’s voice, for his thoughts, for his elegant guitar playing. And I heard him this time, not Tweedy, not Neil, not any of the other guys who’ve worked their magic through his fingers and his interpretation. They were gone, but my friend was there now and I realized the greatness of his work. It was no longer imitative, it was him. And he was talking to me in his voice, telling me things that I’d never heard before, telling me things that weren’t takes on Tweedy, but his takes on his life, and my life too. There and then, he became a great singer, a great guitar player, and a great songwriter.
And goddamn it, he’s a great friend too. And I hope he realizes just how important his music is to me.