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Christopher Borrelli | (TNS) Chicago Tribune

The road manager for Jeff Tweedy looked at me as if he were being solicited at the airport. Or rather, it was a look I’m guessing he reserves for those times when someone thinks of him as a conduit for getting a band’s demo into Wilco’s hands. Wary — that’s the word I’m thinking of. He is good at his job, and I know because he appeared deeply exhausted by me and my idea. I had a high concept for my conversation with Tweedy, I explained, and that’s why I’m carrying my record collection in a plastic crate from Target.

He shrugged. My funeral.

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“‘High concept,’” Tweedy said, suddenly at my side, staring at the record bin.

We walked down into the concrete bunker of a green room beneath the Athenaeum Center, a few hours before Tweedy began a short tour for his new book, “World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music.” The book is a funny, generous installment of a pretty smart trend in music autobiographies: Rather than recall a life from birth to success, individual songs serve as entry points into the personal history of performers. Some of these books — Paul McCartney’s “The Lyrics,” with some 160 songs, mostly written with John Lennon, and Bono’s “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” using the U2 catalog as writing prompts for self-reflection — stick to their authors’ own music. But Bob Dylan’s weird and entertaining “The Philosophy of Modern Song” from last year and Tweedy’s just-released “World Within a Song” serve as kind of delicious hangouts. You picture yourself alongside Dylan and Tweedy, each with their own respective jukeboxes — neither containing any of their songs — and just … listen.

The idea is so fun, I wanted more.

Hence, bringing a small, random, pathetic vinyl collection to an interview.

“This can’t be everything you own?” Tweedy said, peering into a half-full crate.

Well, I have plenty of CDs, I explained, all stored away inside a closet without a CD player for playing them. And Spotify. But other than a handful of staples back at my mom’s house in New England — “The River,” “Sticky Fingers,” “Kiss Alive II” — this is it.

“No,” Tweedy said quietly, refusing to accept such sadness.

Yes, I said.

He leaned over the crate and flipped and, to my relief, found a new batch of records a new opportunity to reflect. Music and your history with it is like that, I guess. I didn’t remove any records or slip anything into the crate to put a thumb on the hipster scale. It’s just what I own on vinyl, and there’s no Wilco. First record in the bin: A frayed copy of “The Official Sesame Street 2 Book-and-Record Album” (circa 1971). Tweedy smiled.

Several vinyl records in a mint green crate.
The world within a crate? The record collection Jeff Tweedy and I looked through for our interview about his new book. (Christopher Borrelli)

Flip. Flip.

He stopped at “Al Green Gets Next to You,” and turned to its track listing, ran a finger down to “I’m a Ram.” He said, “I remember seeing if there was something off this record that Mavis (Staples) would want to do when I worked with her. I always gravitated to ‘I’m a Ram,’ which has such a tough-sounding groove. Saw Al Green a bit ago at the Chicago Theatre. He was great but said some homophobic things, which was a drag.”

Flip. Flip.

Noticing he didn’t stop at Bruce Springsteen’s “Letter To You,” I asked: “I don’t know why but I get a sense you don’t like Springsteen.” In “World Within a Song,” comparing Springsteen’s starker-than-stark “Nebraska” album with the even starker punk minimalism of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” — an influence on Springsteen he’s often admitted — Tweedy calls Springsteen’s vision of desolation “nuanced and convincing in an actorly way” and compares “Nebraska” to a “beautifully lit” contemporary Western.

“I have admiration for Springsteen and love certain records,” Tweedy said. “But there is a nostalgia that crept into his music early on that I am suspicious of. I don’t think this is malevolent or intentional in any way, but it contributed to a notion that the working class is white, almost exclusively. It’s been a damaging fallacy for solidarity in this country.”

Flip. Flip.

The Jam’s “Sound Effects.”

“OK, love this record. It has …” — reading the track list — “‘That’s Entertainment’ and that’s always the kind of song I gravitate to on a record like this. I like the punk sound but quieter songs, any song where I could hear what they were doing — ‘Oh, now I can see what’s happening here. Andmaybe I could play that?’ I remember thinking that.”

Flip.

A battered copy of “Rock 80,” one of the countless hit compilations put out in the 1970s and ‘80s and sold through TV ads by K-Tel. I said I may have played this record more than any record in here, an unholy mix of Blondie, Gary Numan, Pat Benatar, The Pretenders …

Tweedy said, “This is such a good example of the record industry not knowing what to do with certain acts, so on a K-Tel record, you have New Wave defined as everything from Pat Benatar to the Ramones to the Knack. It reminds me of ‘Chipmunk Punk,’ and I think there’s a lot of the same songs.” (Indeed, “Chipmunk Punk,” released the same year as “Rock 80,” grouped the Knack, Billy Joel, Queen and Linda Ronstadt as punk.)

Punk, in 1980, was often sold as scary. I asked Tweedy if any bands scared him.

His mother didn’t want him to listen to “acid rock,” he said. As he wrote in the book — and in a recent essay on Abba, for the New York Times — disco often carried a scary subtext. “We forget now but nightly news reports would show the punk scene in London and people spitting on each other and piercing their cheeks, and my parents were like, ‘Oh, no — add that to acid rock and the list of music you can’t listen to.’ But see, it was good for business. The culture industry learned in the 1960s that they didn’t know what to do with records they sold but didn’t understand, so eventually they curated a certain amount of generational suspicion. They exploited those things because it affected their bottom lines. It’s been an unwise philosophy — that the older someone making art is, the less likely you are to gain anything from listening to them. That doesn’t exist with movies, books, visual arts. Rock as art was disposable. So it’s basically gatekeeping. And to a degree, I understand: There’s a need for youth to divide themselves and form their own identities. But the interaction between generations is much more productive.”

Flip. The “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” soundtrack. Flip. Donny Hathaway.

Stop. Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection.”

“This was in the crate of records my brother gave me,” Tweedy said. “But I never gravitated toward it. I do like Elton John, though. There are certain artists, as a personality and performer, they transcend their whole catalog. You can’t stand by everything they have done, yet … Dolly Parton is like that. Johnny Cash is like that for me. The highs are so high that the overall package becomes incredibly meaningful.”

In his book, for instance, he notes that Parton wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day, but: “All I’m saying is that ‘Jolene’ was enough work for one day.” He reserves his clearest distaste for Bon Jovi, writing they possess “the type of arrogance that compels one to swing for the fences every time one steps to the plate.”

Hate for certain music, and the path to overcoming assumptions, is something of a minor theme in the book. He told me that, early on in his career, he assumed that the goal of a band was to narrow down its inspirations to only that music that contributed to its own sound. “But I found that to be completely untrue. In fact, the opposite was true! The more interesting the band, the more wide-open they would be to embrace influence from anywhere — and to care about music that wasn’t evident at all in their own music.”

Flip. Parquet Courts. Flip. Kamasi Washington.

Stop. Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.”

“I don’t have a story for this, but you can’t argue the virtuosity.”

Flip. The Replacements. Flip.

Stop. Lana Del Rey’s “Norman (expletive) Rockwell!”

“Of all the big pop stars right now,” he said, “she’s great. Amazing, really. I mean, it’s incredible how huge her records are considering they are almost all ballads! There is this low simmering energy in them that isn’t about tempo or volume, but closest to Leonard Cohen, and yet she’s huge.” He smiled and shook his head at the thought.

He made me think of how vulnerability in music — Lana Del Rey sounds like nothing if not vulnerable — was once a traffic signal for hating a performer. Particularly if you were a kid in the ‘70s who was told disco sucked and most Top 40 radio was synthetic drivel. He writes, “’Dancing Queen’ is the song I always think of when I think I don’t like something.” For me, I said, I think it’s become Fleetwood Mac, which, by the indie years of the 1980s, was synonymous with a dull, bloated boredom. I hated Fleetwood Mac.

“Hate is a strong word,” he replied, “but it was hate then. It’s an accurate word. You weren’t just taught to dislike a sound, you had to be active in your dislike. I don’t see that much today. My own kids, their generation, they are wide-open: ‘Wow, look at all this music people have been making for decades.’ That’s the internet. Everything feels current. But maybe when I was growing up in a small town (downstate Belleville), there were less things for us to form ideas around. There were like two places to get clothes!”

I asked if being in a position to meet a lot of famous performers now ever affects how he thinks of their music. “If it happens, it’s with a contemporary artist. Anyone I grew up listening to, I mean, they could be totally (expletive) to me and I’d still love them.” He once unwittingly played a show for Lou Reed and later feared his judgment. He writes in the book: “How agonizing it would be to have Lou Reed say in effect, ‘No, not you! Everyone else. Junkies, deviants, misanthropes, Metallica … Yes! You? No, you suck!’”

Flip.

“Love Curtis Mayfield.”

Flip.

Wu-Tang Clan.

Flip.

Stop. Dylan. “Nashville Skyline.”

“Great record.”

But was he really a 7-year-old Dylan fan, as he writes? “My mom said I would point at the stereo, to put on a record before I could talk. Seven? Yeah, look at all the online videos of kids who memorize rap songs, from their car seats. It’s possible! What else is there to latch on to at seven? There is so much visual happening in Dylan, and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ (which gets a chapter in the book) is very clear narratively: ‘When your rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone.’ A lot of situations I wanted to leave at seven. My parents didn’t get along all that great.”

Flip. Flip.

A live album of Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night.”

“‘Tonight’s the Night’ is one of my all-time favorites. It was huge for Uncle Tupelo (his band that preceded Wilco). It was the inspiration for our last record. It’s pretty live and just documents a sound. The time we had to spend in the studio was limited so the idea of a documentary-style record helped. We had mixed results when someone would try to show how to build a track and use a studio as an instrument. So, yeah, love this one.”

Flip.

Bowie’s “Lodger.”

Flip.

A budget Woolworth’s record of a New Jersey orchestra playing John Williams.

Flip.

“The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles.”

“I bet you have been carrying some of these records most of your life,” Tweedy said.

I have.

“Wherever you move to, you bring them.”

That’s right.

“Yeah. I get it. It’s a sweet box of records,”

The road manager poked his head into the room.

“Now I have to leave,” Tweedy said. “Or this guy’s gonna kick your ass.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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