Jeff Tweedy at Brooklyn Made in 2021 (Scott Lynch)
Nov 3, 2023
Jeff Tweedy’s musical madeleines
In a new book, the Wilco frontman unpacks his memories through 50 songs
“We all start somewhere,” writes Jeff Tweedy. “I started with ‘Smoke on the’ goddamn ‘Water.’”
Much to Tweedy’s dismay, Deep Purple’s “bong-bruised, coughed-up lung of a song” –– the “Seven Nation Army” of its day — made up of four chords that almost anybody could figure out within a few half-assed attempts, was the tune that began his lifelong obsession with listening, creating, playing and writing about music.
“This book is the one I probably would have written first if I were more ambitious, and if I had been a little more clear-eyed about what I care most for in this world, and what I’ve thought about the most by far. Other people’s songs,” writes the New York Times bestselling author and Wilco frontman in his new book, “World Within A Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music,” out November 7.
This is the alluring vibe of Tweedy’s third book, a series of reflections on some of the songs and moments that have made the largest impact on the singer-songwriter’s life and craft. While reading (and listening), Tweedy wants his readers and fans to “treat” themselves to the 50 tunes cataloged in the pages of this book like they might a long steamy day at the spa. Take a moment. Breathe them in. Embrace whatever subconscious reactions and memories arise.
Put simply, Tweedy states that the point of this project is to convey “how miraculous songs are” in that they can be both uniquely personal and universally shared.
“It’d be cool if we could see the worlds within the songs inside each other’s heads,” he writes. “But I also love how impenetrable it all is. I love how what’s mine can’t be yours and we still get to call it ours.”
From time to time, Tweedy analyzes what makes a given song musically unique, but he’s more interested in documenting his own relationship with each track, enlightening readers with a natural timeline of how he’s grown as a fan, a musician, a songwriter, a frontman, a husband, a father and a human, trying to get by like the rest of us, always turning to music as his ultimate guide.
Readers can expect reflections on songs like Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” (“Hearing these words in the environment I lived in, at the age I heard them, felt dangerous”); 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” (“When this song came out, I hated it so much I actually kind of feared it”); Otis Redding’s “Sitting On The Dock of the Bay” (“It is a perfect song”), and a few dozen others by artists including the Replacements, Joni Mitchell, Billie Eilish, Rosalía, Mavis Staples and the Velvet Underground.
Tweedy hits the page with approachable, almost-conversational prose (what’s the opposite of a music snob?) while still providing the reader with tight, evocative sentences sprinkled with silly witticisms, heartfelt anecdotes, pop-culture references and, of course, music history –– all of which can flow through a single sentence:
“Aphrodite’s Child’s ‘666’ is … just about the wildest, most over-the-top, one-of-a-kind, and insane rock concept album ever made. The audacious conceits and pretensions of the Who’s Tommy sound perfectly reasonable by comparison. ‘They should’ve called it “Timmy”,’ I said to myself, once, deep in the throes of ‘666’ reverie.”
When breaking down the lyrics of “Loud, Loud, Loud,” his favorite song on “666,” Tweedy channels his 9-year-old perspective, expressing how it felt to uncover this oddball gem in his older brother’s record collection at such a young age. Despite the tune’s inherent silliness, Tweedy says it gave him goosebumps –– it still does. Playing upon that space between past and present, Tweedy unveils a life-lesson (they are scattered throughout the book).
“I don’t think you should ever override what your body is telling you about a song,” he writes. “Life’s too short to let your critical thinking get in the way of being moved by music.”
To further examine his own personal history, as he’s done in previous books, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)” and “How To Write One Song,” Tweedy includes what he calls “rememories” –– memoiristic song-sized snippets that (very) loosely relate to the previous song’s description.
These moments showcase, perhaps, what Oliver Sacks’ book, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” and Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary, “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory,” make known: that music has the power to instigate memory more vividly, more reliably, than other artforms.
Using these vignettes to paint a rambling portrayal of his memory, Tweedy takes readers from his childhood basement the one and only time his father hit him, to embarking on an Uncle Tupelo tour with a gun-strapped bus driver who liked to crack hard lemonades behind the wheel, to being dissed by Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit at an opening set for Warren Zevon, to meeting RZA in line for a port-a-potty during a shoot for SPIN Magazine.
Tweedy’s “rememories” don’t just fill in autobiographical gaps left open in his previous memoirs, but in their brevity and pin-point specificity, many of these intimate moments become instantly relatable.
“You’ve given someone else the words to name their own experiences,” Tweedy writes about the miraculousness of songs. “Wonders never cease.”
In some ways, Tweedy’s book accomplishes what his favorite songs accomplish. Without much context or coercion, Tweedy’s writing helps readers relive their own little flashbacks, as if they were listening to an old, cherished tune.
Tweedy will discuss his book at Congregation Beth Elohim at 8 p.m. on Monday, November 6 in conversation with journalist Amanda Petrusich. 271 Garfield Place.
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