Friday, December 8, 2023

My reflections from Jeff Tweedy’s musical reflections

The first thing Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy ever learned on guitar was the big dumb riff from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” which he’s a little embarrassed about but also a little in awe of a song that played a big part in building his love of music.

While I too have a love/hate feel for “Smoke,” I feel the inner wimp that heavily overrides my tough-guy side can identify a little more closely with the second song Tweedy discusses in his new book World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music. When the yacht-rock catchy cheese of Leo Sayer’s “Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance)” was played, Tweedy’s father, on many, many - too many - weeknights would get up and dance at the moment the somewhat hokey song would announce “I can dance!” The song was simply imprinted on young Jeff’s mind, and the world will really never know how much Leo Sayer altered his entire musical psyche. He knew he would never want to do the kind of thing his father did when that song played, but when he occasionally hears it these days, it oddly makes his father so vivid in his mind that Jeff can almost smell him. Pretty impressive power of music on display.

Jeff writes about a time when he would buy everything on SST Records, which led him to essentially buy music blindly without every hearing it beforehand or knowing anything about the artist. One such purchase was a band called Slovenly’s album Riposte, which includes a song “As If It Always Happens” that is awesome in its artistry of bringing a bunch of friends together to create something that they refused to be embarrassed about sharing with each other. It’s a great tune that I had never heard before and it does illuminate what seems like average dudes making something great together. Wilco very much seems to have followed that formula.

He notes that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is the best-written song ever and that it reminds him of the happiest times with his mother, watching Judy Garland movies at night.

Tweedy tells a funny little memory of going to bars to try to get gigs, being told to provide a demo tape, going back to the garage and recording the best four or five songs, and then taking the tape back to the bar to try to get a gig. It never occurred to him and his bandmates to make a bunch of copies of the same performance to give out to bars.

He details what a shame it is that disco bands like ABBA and The Bee Gees were discounted so heavily by rockers when those songs seem to have stood the test of time and are undeniably great, no matter how cool you want to appear to be. If you’re looking at how to get better at forgiveness, as a person, Tweedy recommends taking one single song you used to hate - maybe it’s a disco one - and listening to it to see if you might have unfairly maligned it.

Interestingly, Tweety notes that Suicide was the first band to ever reference itself as punk. This was in 1970. But then he turns right around to write about “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc. That’s one of things I love so much about Tweedy in both his writing and in his music: he shifts around in his musical genres and isn’t afraid to note that, while he might not have liked that yacht-rock song back in the days when he was into Suicide, at a later point in his life he recognized the brilliance within it.

I’m excited that Tweedy’s favorite Rolling Stones song is “Connection.” That might be my favorite as well, perhaps because I work in the transportation field and I feel like it might be the most perfect song ever about transportation. He loves it so much because it’s on a Rolling Stones album he happened to be able to afford from the cutout bin as a kid.

Tweety stumbled in to seeing The Replacements when he went to a St. Louis club to watch X. He didn’t have any expectations because that’s not what you ever had for opening acts. But the band came out and played “Goddamn Job” and he knew, with their effortless fashion, that he had found his place in the world.

Early in his music career, his band got a prized gig at the Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri opening for Warren Zevon. Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles was the bassist for Zevon and when Tweedy asked if he could use the eventual-legend’s amp, Schmit held up his finger to get Tweedy to stop talking and he told his gear guy to not let this other guy touch his amp. As Jeff notes, a simple “sorry, I can’t let you” would have been the decent thing.

The book is mostly a series of short musings, including one about how dumb anyone who yells out “Freebird” at a concert is, as Jeff laments how poor Lynyrd Skynyrd has had their classic and truly great song turned into one of the world’s worst and never-ending jokes, a meme.

I love that he suggests getting Stevie Wonder to write us a new national anthem that isn’t so war mongering as our long existing one.

He asks, how is every last one of the Ramones gone?

It was a major revelation when the Beatles released their anthology in the 1990s. It allowed a young Tweedy to realize that they weren’t perfect. He had space to be terrible before he could get really good, he thought at that point.

Probably about half the time he doesn’t really enjoy singing “Happy Birthday.” Tweedy also has a nephew who vehemently despises the song and doesn’t understand why people would want to ruin a perfectly good cake experience.

This book is not as good - it’s got elements of a little too much aimlessness in it - as Tweedy’s other two modern classic books on rock. But he is a truly talented writer and storyteller and, even when he’s not at his best, he has found himself a pretty good background career.

4 out of 5 stars

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