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Drugs, anxiety and sobriety define Jeff Tweedy as much as his music

After losing their record label in 2002, Wilco released “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” online, which ended up on a list of Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time. But singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy wrote in a new memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back),” that while gaining recognition for his talents, he had to start confronting his addictions and anxieties, while shaping his path toward sobriety. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Christopher Booker:

    Even after recording nearly 20 albums, winning 2 grammys, and writing a nearly 300 page memoir, trying to explain where it all comes from, remains an elusive task for singer – songwriter Jeff Tweedy.

  • Jeff Tweedy:

    It's all– it's all mysterious still. I can't– I can't explain– I can't even explain how people can whistle in tune. You know? You could read everything that I say authoritatively in the book with a, "Huh?" you know. You could put a question mark at the end of most of the sentences.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Tweedy's memoir — "Let's go (so we can get back)" — is an exploration of creativity, motivation and heritage – the story of a child of an alcoholic father, the starts and stops of musical stardom and the struggle against anxiety, depression and addiction.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In a lot of ways, the book isn't just working to pull back the curtain, but almost remove the curtain all together.

  • Jeff Tweedy:

    Yeah. I reject the premise of the curtain to begin with. I've always felt like the more human– the musicians that I love have become the more I have felt empowered to be– a musician or an artist.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The youngest of 4 kids, Tweedy was raised in a Belleville, llinois – a old manufacturing town about 20 miles outside St. Louis. His father worked for the railroad, his mother designed kitchens for a local cabinet manufacturer.

  • Jeff Tweedy:

    My mom and dad were both really, really smart. And– it was recognized, but not in the traditional way You know that's the thing I've really looked back and– probably put together for the first time in– time in my life recently is, like, "Oh, I've– I've had a life very similar to them." I didn't really make it much past high school– But I taught myself a trade, you know?

  • Christopher Booker:

    Tweedy's trade started with a love of punk rock. Bands like the Ramones, the Clash and the Minutemen. A bicycle accident kept him indoors for an entire summer – to pass the time, he picked up the guitar stashed in his closet.

    As a teenager, he played in a number of cover bands, before co-founding Uncle Tupelo – a critical darling of the early 90's credited with spawning an entire new genre of music – alt-country.

    But after four albums, his partner and childhood friend Jay Farrar announced he was no longer interested in making music with Tweedy and that he was leaving the band.

  • Jeff Tweedy:

    I was really hurt by Uncle Tupelo ending the way it ended. And then– and then it just– like– kind of like a practical notion of, like, "Well– nothing I can do about that now. That's over with and then it dawning it on me relatively that presents opportunity some how. You know, — as a– as a child of– of an alcoholic or– an environment of alcoholism, there's a lot of unpredictability. Even though my dad's routine was predictable, his moods were un– you know– were unpredictable.which inhibits, I think, a lot of feeling comfortable with your projection of the future. That's probably where it really comes from is, like, have– having a– having to adapt to your best projection of the future not really working out.

  • Christopher Booker:

    For Tweedy, the adaptation that followed Uncle Tupelo, was the formation of Wilco.

  • Christopher Booker:

    "A lot of Wilco's history is here?"

  • Jeff Tweedy:

    "Yeah, for like 20 years we have been here. Almost everything from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on has had at least part of the record worked on here or recorded here."

  • Christopher Booker:

    But as the 51 year-old recounts, this path was by no means simple and tidy. While their fan base and critical acclaim grew steadily during their early years, Wilco was famously dropped by their record label after they refused to alter 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." The process was captured in the Documentary "I am trying to break your heart"

  • Josh Grier:

    Ultimately, what it came down to is they told Jeff Tweedy, we don't like your album, we don't want to release it.

  • Christopher Booker:

    For the band, the album was a new direction – moving from their alt-country base to experimental alternative rock, but the label didn't hear a hit single.

    Released online and in stores under a new label, the album was certified gold in 2002 and Rolling Stone magazine now ranks Yankee Hotel Foxtrot amongst the top 500 albums of all time.

    The success of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was followed two years later by their grammy winning A Ghost is Born, cementing the band's status as a force in American music.

    But there was little joy for Tweedy. In the late 90's he had begun taking vicodin – at first to alleviate symptoms from migraines, depression and anxiety. By the the time the band entered the studio in the fall of 2003 to record a Ghost is Born he was battling a full-time opioid addiction.

  • Jeff Tweedy:

    You know, 15, 16 years ago, it used to be– on a nightly basis– being– in a– debilitated heap, crying on the floor, moments before walking on stage, you know, just really, really struggling to get through the first few songs.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Upon completion of a Ghost is Born, Tweedy quit opioids cold turkey, but in the weeks that followed, he suffered a mental collapse and checked himself into a intensive inpatient treatment center in Chicago.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Did you find– writing the book, and– chronicling it this way, did it change the way you think about– your addiction?

  • Jeff Tweedy:

    No. I don't think it did. That's the thing I've thought about the most for the past 15 years, probably, is– what I need to do next to stay healthy or to stay sober or- however you want to put it. I'm a big believer in when things get a little bit overwhelming, to slow yourself down and– and think of what the next right thing to do is. And I have all this evidence from many more years of– of my– of living that– reassures me I'm– I'm probably gonna be okay.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Being okay has also meant, being prolific. In the years since his time in the hospital, Wilco has released 5 studio albums, launched its own music festival in Western Massachusetts, while Tweedy, has also produced a number of albums with Gospel legend Mavis Staples, released a solo album as well as an album with his side project Tweedy – a duo with his oldest son Spencer. At the end of this month, he will release his second solo album.

  • Jeff Tweedy:

    There isn't like a– a career goal– that I'm like, "Oh, I want to achieve this." It's– I really very simply just– that I like being– engaged in a creative process. I feel sustained by it. I feel good about it. I love that feeling of being unburdened by self, or un– you know, you can really get in a super meditative state in– like, in the act of creation that– that I don't know where to– I don't find it anywhere else.

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