Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on debunking the myth of the tortured artist

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has never been one for misty-eyed rock hagiographies. Fittingly, his recent turn as a memoirist is more concerned with puncturing myths than feeding them.

“I felt a little bit young to write a memoir,”  Tweedy tells The Adelaide Review of his late-2018 book Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). “But I also didn’t feel like there was any guarantee I’d be offered that opportunity in 10 or 20 years. So I thought it’s a good challenge, to try and write something I feel is honest, and maybe dispel certain myths that grew up around myself and other musicians.”

In particular, Tweedy takes aim at the “tortured artist mythology” that dogged much of Wilco’s early output, from the deceptively poppy darkness of Summerteeth to the resignation of A Ghost Is Born. “I don’t just think it’s unhelpful, I think it’s harmful and dangerous for people to believe it,” he explains. “Suffering obviously doesn’t create anything other than misery. There would be a whole lot more art in the world if it was only the product of suffering – I think artists create in spite of suffering, like anybody else.

Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) (Penguin Random House)
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) (Penguin Random House)

“In fact, I kind of look at artists as being somewhat on the luckier side of the equation because they have an outlet for those strong emotions and trauma, places to work on it and process it. But you know, I think it’s also forced a lot of people to manufacture suffering for themselves in an effort to be authentic, or have some idea of themselves as a legitimate artist… and that’s where it gets troublesome for me.”

While Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) does revisit some difficult periods, it is not a book about ‘confronting demons’ either. As Tweedy explains, that work has been ongoing for many years. “Being a person that’s gotten help for psychological issues, drug abuse, there isn’t a whole lot of my darker periods of life that I haven’t been forced to re-examine in an effort to stay healthy. So I didn’t feel like I was retraumatised by anything, it was just a matter of deciding how much of any given period to share.”

As more people share their stories, such conversations are becoming more common in mainstream culture – one is reminded of Hannah Gadsby’s riff on Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers in her hit Netflix special Nanette. “It’s not an idea that only I’ve had,” Tweedy laughs. “[But] it’s a tough one to sell, and it’s time to start selling it.

“I think younger artists get it. From all different types of disciplines they are hopefully putting themselves in the position to create for longer, and to live longer lives,” he says. “I just think art and creativity are such wonderful things to have in your life, and it’s also kind of damaging if it’s presented it as a way of life that almost causes suffering – people put cause and effect backwards a lot of times. I think it’s a good way to live, and should be thought of as such.”

The joy Tweedy gains from creating is evident not only in his constant output – he has released two solo albums WARM and WARMER in the past year alone – but in the way he talks about making music with his sons, both of whom perform on WARM.

“Ask any parent that sits down at a kitchen table and draws with their kids, it’s the best!” he says. “I think it’s a wonderful way to share your imagination, to show your kids that it’s okay to indulge your imagination and make something that wasn’t there. It’s an amazing power that humans have, to just make something up out of thin air – a stupid joke, something on a piece of paper.

“We live in an amazing point of history where we have paper, that’s crazy! We have a lot of shit to be thankful for.”

Jeff Tweedy
The Gov
Tuesday, May 28
Tickets

Header image:
Whitten Sabbatini

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