In his new memoir, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy ponders small town life
In his new memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy recounts an awkward encounter he had with two high-school classmates when he was back in his hometown of Belleville, Illinois, and out to dinner with his family. The two classmates assumed that Tweedy was back in town for their high school class reunion, and didn’t seem much impressed by his success with Wilco (certainly darlings of the indie-rock and alt-country scene, if not household names). The moment comes early in his book, and I think it says a lot about life in small towns across the United States.
Belleville, in Tweedy’s words, is known for having “the world’s longest main street” but not much else. Like a lot of small towns in the wake of World War II, it experienced a brief period of industrial growth before falling on hard times because a lot of the jobs that were available in such small towns were outsourced overseas or just disappeared. In the Norman Rockwell version of America, a small town is a tight-knit community where neighbors look out for neighbors; in the real world, neighbors look out for neighbors, but mostly with a gun in their lap to make sure that no one gets in their homes. I should know; I come from a small town not too different from Tweedy’s hometown.
Let’s Go is, of course, about more than Tweedy’s origin story, as a small-town kid obsessed with punk rock who grows up to be first in Uncle Tupelo and then in Wilco, earning critical accolades and a devoted fan base along the way (including your humble reviewer). But for me, the part of the book that sticks in my mind and resonates is the depiction of middle-America small-town desperation, and how a kid way too smart for his own good and into music that doesn’t get much play on the top-Forty formats of the town’s few radio-station options is seemingly set upon by all sides by mendacious mediocrity. Okay, I may be projecting a bit when I say that, but Tweedy makes clear that his hometown is no one’s idea of Mayberry, RFD, the kind of place where you want to sit a spell in case your neighbor actually invites you over.
Any biopic worth its salt will invest a good portion of its running time in the origin story, the “how” or “why” of what drove someone to do something more with their life than be a simple cog in the machine. If you don’t have the background, you can’t appreciate the struggle or the triumph. Tweedy’s struggle, so to speak, is clearly first-world, white-privilege in that he’s the misunderstood punk rock kid from the small town, eager to do something more with his life than what his father and older brothers did. But it’s important as well, and as he recounts in another section dealing with his time in rehab for drug addiction, his pain is just as real as anyone else’s.
Small towns are incubators of despair for those citizens born with the desire to set their course for points elsewhere. The gradual realization for some of them that they’ll never get out, that they’ll repeat or expand on the dull ways of living that their forefathers did, causes bitterness and anger, resentment of outsiders and of the rare few gifted or desperate enough to seek warmer and more open-minded climates. Tweedy’s encounter, however brief, with his former classmates illustrates that small towns breed small minds (again, not to say that I’m projecting here, but I think Tweedy was nicer about it). The typical rock-star bio would be more about the struggles to be heard and reach a wider audience, and that’s there (plus there’s some sex and drugs, though Tweedy is tongue-in-cheek about Wilco’s “obvious songs about sex and debauchery”).
But the part that resonates with me concerns the kid with the punk-rock soundtrack, trapped in a town of booze, Top 40 and bitterness. Because it hits close to home, literally. If Jeff Tweedy can make it out, there’s hope for the rest of us small-town dreamers, perhaps.
VIDEO: Jeff Tweedy talks about “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)”