The Wisdom of Jeff Tweedy

by | Nov 25, 2019

Jeff Tweedy co-founded the bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco which pioneered the “alt-country” genre. He grew up in Belleville, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis. Wilco has released 11 studio albums, and six of them have been nominated for Grammys, with A Ghost is Born winning best alternative album in 2005. I recently read Tweedy’s autobiography, Let’s Go (Se We Can Get Back), and thought it was dynamite. From humble beginnings he’s had great musical success, but also ups and downs, triumph as well as tragedy, including battling opioid addiction.

Maybe there is something about being a songwriter that makes a person introspective and wise, or maybe Jeff Tweedy just has really good life advice. Here are some of the best bits of wisdom I gleaned from his book (quotes from his book are in italics):

Talent is important, but it’s really about working really hard. I think for most songwriters, unless they’re very singular and gifted, it takes some time for them to find their voice. There is a lot to be said for faking it till you make it. You just do it until it becomes real. You work, and you work, and you work, and hopefully you get it right eventually.

This is probably true in all areas of life. Doing the work is the key.

Life is Short. Life is short and you should wake up in the morning feeling excited about what you do. And if you don’t and you can afford to stop, you should stop. Even if it makes some people unhappy.

Ambiguity. We humans hate ambiguity more than almost anything in the world.

Choices. One of the main goals of recovery–and maybe the only essential goal of any psychological intervention, whether it’s through meditation or talk therapy or even an AA meeting–is to become aware enough of your thoughts and emotions to see when there is a choice to be made.

I love this notion. We all spend the majority of our lives on autopilot. Through intentional practice we can come to realize when and where we have choices. Amazing insight.

The Music Business. In discussing being a musician born in 1967, he noted how much the music business has changed during his life: I feel like I’m part of some connective tissue between two worlds that don’t really interact the same way anymore. I feel like I might be a member of the last tribe that made it across the divide before time changed, before people started listening to every era of music all at once because of the internet.

Those of us around the same age can relate. I used to collect vinyl records, then cassettes, compact discs and then iTunes downloads. I now stream music from Spotify and YouTube. And that is just one aspect of the huge changes in the music business. I can’t imagine trying to make money and have a career as a musician through all that change.

Everybody Hurts. When in rehab, Jeff felt that pretty much everyone else in group therapy sessions had much harder lives and challenges than he had. He confided in some of his fellow rehabbers: “I feel like I shouldn’t even open my mouth. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I think my situation compares.” This big black guy, who towered over me, turned around and started shouting at me. “What the fuck is that shit? Shut the fuck up! We all suffer the same, motherfucker!” I’m sorry,” I said, backing away. “I didn’t mean —” “Listen to me, motherfucker, listen.” Getting right up in my face. “Mine ain’t about yours. And yours ain’t about mine. We all suffer the same. You don’t get to decide what hurts you. You just hurt. Let me say my shit, and you say your shit, and I’ll be there for you. Okay?”

This is an important and profound concept. We all have tough times and hurt. What we feel is important to us. It’s not invalid to have the feelings we have just because others have had tougher situations.

Here’s a musical interlude. The video to a Everyone Hides from Wilco’s newest album, Ode to Joy, released a few weeks ago:

On Changing Minds. You can’t just tell somebody they’re wrong. They have to arrive at that conclusion on their own or it’s never going to happen. So I keep asking questions, not in a confrontational way, but with sincere curiosity. Give people enough rope, and they’ll hang themselves. They’ll eventually realize they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

Spot on. Use of reasoning, logic and even facts don’t change people’s minds usually. Rather, it is our own experiences and emotional reactions to events.

Culture of Belief. In talking about his son Spencer being a really good musician: He’d also grown up in a culture of belief. The way that professional baseball players have kids who end up being professional baseball players. The odds of any kid being a professional baseball player are really, really small. And it’s not just connections — you have to actually be able to do that. But it’s not a thing they believe they can’t do, because they have a modeled behavior, and an atmosphere of “Yes, this is something perfectly reasonable to expect out of life.” And I think that’s huge for people to be able to live in an environment where they believe they can accomplish things.

On creativity and making money in the music business: I’d love to have people hear as much of what I create as possible, but I don’t worry about it too much. I think that’s the secret to this line of work — you have to be okay with your music being a great thing you do, and not rely on it to be the thing that makes you rich or even the thing that pays all of your bills. As long as it’s something that makes you feel better and you wake up every morning wanting to get back in the studio to make something else, then there’s not much anyone can fucking do to ruin it.

Here’s Wilco playing on Leno in 2003:

1 Comment

  1. I’m reading That book. I have always like Wilco but didn’t know much about tweedy


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