On 18 February 2006, Sujata and I walked through the backstage door of the Gothic Theatre in Denver, found our way to the auditorium and sat ourselves in two chairs, center stage left. Besides Jeff Tweedy, who was running through a sound check on stage, we were the only folks in the building.
Standing in the red spotlight, Tweedy seemed intense and forlorn at the same time, and I noticed that he was wearing the same rumpled and worn khaki Levi cords he’d worn the last three times I’d seen him. He was surrounded by 6 acoustic guitars, and he ripped through truncated versions of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “Bob Dylan’s Beard,” “Shot in the Arm,” and “A Unified Theory of Everything.” As Sujata snapped photos on here 35mm, I listened to his gravelly voice and the clangy guitar chords echoing off the concrete floor.
After he finished the final sound check, he unstrapped his guitar, hopped off the stage and started walking toward us. “Hi, I’m Jeff Tweedy.”
As we were talking, I told Tweedy that since I became a father 5 months ago, I’ve heard sentiments about childhood, parenting and growing up in the Wilco lyrics that I hadn’t notice previously. This was no surprise to him. He stroked his chin and noted that when Wilco got together in 1995, he was becoming a father for the first time and was struggling with raising a child when he felt that he had yet to grow up. He noted, too, that the cd, “Being There,” was originally slated with the title, “Baby.” From there, we talked about the challenges and joys of parenting. As we were talking about some of the challenges he wryly commented that his way of dealing with those things was to go on the road for extended periods of time. He also went on to say that despite the fact that he was on the road so much, he felt that his kids had a better sense of his life and his career than he had of his own father’s life outside of the home, mostly because the kids traveled with him when they could, they made good use of their I-camera, and his boy, a 10-year old aspiring drummer, would often play a few songs with the band when he accompanied them on the road.
As we were getting ready to leave the auditorium, I pulled out my copy of the Wilco book and asked Tweedy if he would sign the front cover for my son. Before we left the house that evening, I slid a photo of Atticus into the front of the book, so when I opened to the frontispiece for Tweedy, I showed him Atticus’ picture. He asked if Atticus was a fan and then he took the book and moved off to write. In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with the tour manager, who had come from backstage. Tweedy seemed to be taking an extraordinarily long time to write in the book, and when he handed it back to me nearly two minutes later, he said, “It’s hard not to sound apocalyptic when I write notes to kids these days.” We laughed about that, Sujata snapped a few photos of Tweedy and me on her 35mm and then we shook hands and said our goodbyes. As we were walking back to our car, I opened the book to see what Tweedy wrote. Since he was at it for two or three minutes, I was expecting to read a few paragraphs of witty prose, but what I found instead was, “Dear Atticus, Never stop listening. Jeff Tweedy.” When I expressed surprise at this, Sujata said that she watched him after he took the book from me and that he opened the front and just stared at it for a minute or so—he was thinking about what he wanted to write.
From this brief exchange, I learned a few things. First, it’s a wonderful thing to meet famous people who you admire and to realize that they are as gracious, sane, engaging and thoughtful as you’ve hoped them to be. And, second, I realized that the real joy of this encounter with Tweedy was swapping stories about things that mattered a great deal to both of us: being parents.
Later that evening, Sujata and I returned to the Gothic to watch the show. Tweedy took the stage and played acoustic versions of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo songs, and he threw in a few covers as well. What struck me the most was a few exchanges he had with the audience: after the first song, he said that he didn’t want to sound like a prick, but could people please be quiet while he was playing? He went on to say that one thing he appreciated was silence and that people missed on a fundamental element of the human experience when they gathered together as we were tonight and could not just “shut the f#ck up!” This was all delivered in his wry, half-serious/half-comic manner, but three chords into the next song, “Kidsmoke,” when he heard a few guys chatting up on the balcony, he stopped playing, held his hands out as if pleading and yelled, “Gentlemen, how can I serve you better?” What happened then, was rather amazing: Tweedy stood his ground and he simply cajoled the audience to silence. He said it was okay to sing along, but the background chatter was unacceptable. In an ironic twist, Tweedy actually began heckling the crowd, and, in many ways shaming them to shush. By the fourth tune, things had quieted down a bit, but not enough to Tweedy’s satisfaction, so he said, “Alright, if you won’t be quiet, I’ll just play without the PA.” And then he walked over to the PA system, flipped a switch and, voila, went into a stunning version of “New Madrid” without any amplification. At that, the place went dead quiet. No one moved and it almost felt like the entire audience was hesitant to even breathe. It’s ballsy enough to walk out on a stage with just an acoustic guitar and try to entertain 1000 people for two hours, but to actually unplug your instruments and turn off the microphone (rather than, turning it all up to drown out the audience)? The rest of the show was quite simply one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in my life. The Tweedy songbook is full of heartfelt, passionate, emotionally difficult lyrics that create a nice tension between his ironic, borderline caustic stage presence. Throughout the show, he continued to interact with the crowd, and there was even one point, in the middle of “War on War,” where he playfully stuck his tongue out at someone in the balcony who was making a ruckus. There’s nothing sentimental about Jeff Tweedy, and he also has an inimitable way of saying things without actually saying them, so when he began his second encore with, “I’m the Man who Loves You,” I took that as a way of saying, “Thanks for coming,” and then when he came out for his sixth encore, unplugged the PA and the mic again and went into a rousing, heartfelt version of “Acuff/Rose,” a song that’s about a kind of invisible common culture.