Thursday, July 2, 2009

How Mr Tweedy is no Bird. I may need to take another listen to Wilco after this read.

Rahav Segev for The New York Times

Jay Bennett, Mr. Tweedy and Leroy Bach at a 1999 concert.


SITTING at a Father’s Day barbecue on the day before a sold-out three-night stand at the Wiltern Theater here, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco was talking about his 14-year-old son, Spencer, a drummer in a rock band called the Blisters. Over the past five years Mr. Tweedy, the son of a railroad worker from St. Louis, whose toes touched bottom on the way to rock greatness, had come to an understanding about himself that applies to Spencer too: “I told him: ‘You are not a rock star. You get to do rock star things.’ ”

In his button-down shirt and with a Brewers cap hiding a mop of hair while he talked in a borrowed office a few steps from a friend’s party, he couldn’t have seemed less the alt-rock god. Still, it took him some painful years to find a place to stand between the nice guy at the barbecue and the bandleader at the Wiltern.

The success of Wilco’s current tour — the reviews have been ecstatic — and his satisfaction with the band’s splendid new record, “Wilco (The Album),” are fine and all. But Mr. Tweedy, 41, seems to care most deeply that he has finally reconciled his musical ambitions with more personal ones: to live in Chicago, be part of both a family and a band, remain sober (it’s been five years since he kicked a punishing addiction to painkillers) and live out a simulacrum of normalcy.

The family picnic backdrop for the interview was less a matter of media management than a reflection of how he rolls these days. No longer the tortured artist on the bus whose only steady companions were pills and the demons they were meant to tame, Mr. Tweedy keeps his tour jaunts short and his family close. His two kids pop in and out while he visits with a reporter, and he seems most at ease when they or his wife, Sue Miller, are at hand.

It’s not that he wears the success and stability like a loose garment — he’s a pretty complicated guy on a good day — but unlike the rock trope that only chronic agony produces important music, the absence of mayhem has been good for the work, he says.

“I was never at my best when I was at my worst,” he said, looking out the window as his sons — Spencer and Sam, 9 — bounce and laugh on a diving board. “When I did do good stuff in the past, it was because I was able to transcend the parts of my being that weren’t healthy.”

Mr. Tweedy has a Midwestern lack of pretension that is easy to be around, but he is a less than voluble interview, not because he doesn’t try to answer questions, but precisely because he does. He cares about being understood but struggles to explain himself because, as all writers will tell you, happy is nice, but happy is hard to explain.

“I suppose because everything about my life is better, markedly so, I’m a significantly happier person — well, I’m not being very eloquent about it,” he said, pausing, and then continued: “Having a solid base allows you to look at darker things and actually think about them. I debate people about this suffering myth, this tortured artist stuff, and they almost never buy it.”

On the new album, which was released last week on Nonesuch, his lyrics still veer into the personally apocalyptic, but the fatalism is leavened by sweetness. The guy onstage at the Wiltern the next night — the one who used to keep a trash bucket offstage so he could vomit between songs — is no longer ruled by the migraines, the panic attacks and the drug jags that seemed to go with fronting one of alternative rock’s most consistent and respected bands. He seems like a regular guy having fun doing rock star things.

When Mr. Tweedy walked onstage at the Wiltern in front of 2,300 fans, most of them likely steeped in 15 years of band lore, no introductions were necessary. He made them anyway, choosing “Wilco (The Song)” from “Wilco (The Album)” as the opening number for Wilco the band.

“This is an aural open arms, a sonic shoulder to cry on; Wilco, Wilco will love you baby,” Mr. Tweedy sang in a direct address rare for rock. After the years of tumult that became a backbeat to Wilco’s music, a big old hug seemed in order.

“I think they called it ‘Wilco (The Album)’ because this band knows who they are, and they are ready to own that identity in a very confident way,” said Rita Houston, the music director of WFUV, a progressive radio station in New York.

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