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  Wilco: Learning How to Die
Greg Kot
Broadway, 2004
Rating: 3.7
 

Posted: June 30, 2004

By Laurence Station

The decision to title Greg Kot's book after Jeff Tweedy's critically lauded rock band, Wilco, makes sense from a marketing standpoint. Given the subject matter, however, Jeff Tweedy: Learning How to Survive seems a more appropriate title. Wilco: Learning How to Die (the subtitle references a line from "War on War," a track on the band's watershed release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) is a book about the life, artistic growth and myriad ups and downs of Tweedy. We learn where he came from (Belleville, IL, just east of St. Louis), his musical beginnings with fellow Belleville native Jay Farrar, the formation and ultimate disintegration of that duo's seminal band Uncle Tupelo, and finally the roller coaster ride that is Wilco.

Kot does a nice job of exploring how Tweedy evolved from mere fan to creative artist. Speaking of living vicariously through his idols, Tweedy says, "For me, I was reveling as much in the music as in the idea of that coming out of me." We follow Tweedy's initial step out of the more musically assured Farrar's shadow on Uncle Tupelo's second album, Still Feel Gone, as he pens what would become the lead track, "Gun." Of course, Tweedy's maturation as a singer-songwriter leads to the inevitable conflict with Farrar over how many songs the other will get on subsequent albums. Farrar calls it quits shortly after the completion of the band's fourth (and arguably best) album, Anodyne, but soldiers on with the supporting tour, which leads to the final show where Farrar and Tweedy perform an even amount of songs as if "a lawyer had brokered the set list."

The reason for Uncle Tupelo's dissolution seems rather obvious: Clearly, it was a natural progression of two artists who needed their own space. Kot waffles on this point, however, mentioning drummer (and stabilizing force) Michael Heidorn's departure as a possible reason (Heidorn left shortly after completion of the band's third album, March 16-20, 1992). But he also gives equal credence to Tweedy's growing confidence as a front man. Heidorn may have helped smooth over tensions between the two leads, but clearly the inevitably of the pair's split was set into motion once Tweedy began asserting himself.

While Farrar goes on to form Son Volt and releases that band's formidable debut, Trace, a suddenly on-the-spot Tweedy responds by forming Wilco and hastily recording the considerably less impressive A.M. Fortunately, multi-instrumentalist/guitar wizard Jay Bennett joins the group for the follow-up, the expansive double-album Being There. In Bennett, Tweedy finds a creative sounding board and overdub-obsessed co-conspirator. As a result, he begins experimenting with the possibilities of studio-manipulated sound rather than relying on the stubbornly purist "live off the floor" approach that defined Uncle Tupelo.

Uncle Tupelo's association with the burgeoning No Depression movement and posthumous credit for being a founding father of the alternative country sound (Whiskeytown, Blue Mountain, 16 Horsepower) irks Tweedy, who doesn't buy into the over-inflated importance Uncle Tupelo has been awarded. If anything, Tweedy appears jaded by the entire situation. He realizes he's where he dreamed of being as a teenager (a respected, influential musician), but the grass, obviously, is hardly greener on the flipside of fandom. "I'm wishing I was still fifteen and didn't know anything about a record except whether or not it rocked," he says.

After an unnecessary detour into the background of No Depression magazine, Kot regains his footing and documents the creation of Summerteeth, a lyrically bleak but summery, pop-sounding record that proves to be Wilco's dramatic break from its earlier, roots-oriented sound. Hunkering down with Bennett in the studio (to the chagrin and ultimate alienation of other band members), Tweedy taps into deeper emotions, inspired, in part, by his reading of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. With Summerteeth, Tweedy finds his voice as a songwriter, no longer trading on familiar folk, rock and country traditions, finding a more personal means of expression, less literal and more arresting. Or, as Kot hyperbolically puts it: "His lyrics were fiction steeped in truth, beauty dipped in blood."

The Tweedy-Bennett honeymoon ends during the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with indie-rock icon Jim O'Rourke brought on board to strip away the layers of noise the perpetually tinkering Bennett has piled onto the songs. Tweedy's subsequent exit line to Bennett, -- "A circle can only have one center" -- aptly sums up what being in Wilco has come to represent: Tweedy is the focal point, with a revolving door of collaborators helping to flesh out his increasingly bold and experimental ideas of what pop-rock can be.

Wilco: Learning How to Die is a fairly revealing look at Jeff Tweedy, the artist. But as far as an examination of the darker demons that plague him (such as a colossal chip on his shoulder to prove his mettle as a songwriter, and painful migraines that lead to an addiction to painkillers), Kot comes up empty. Tweedy remains tight-lipped when it comes to any form of armchair psychoanalysis on the author's part. Kot does succeed in documenting the histories of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, but it's clear Tweedy's the star, leaving some of the current and former players with less than adequate space to air their grievances.

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