Review: ‘Wilco: Learning How to Die’

51T9ueCpjRLWilco: Learning How to Die chronicles the history of experimental rock band Wilco. Written by Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, the book opens with bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s small-town beginnings and goes on to cover Uncle Tupelo’s career and the birth of Wilco. There is very little information online about Tweedy’s childhood, so Learning How to Die’s opening sections were invaluable. (For me, it was like reading like a superhero origin story.)

Pivotal Tweedy moments, like his introduction to Jay Farrar and their subsequent formation of Uncle Tupelo, are detailed. I’ve never really gotten into Uncle Tupelo, but their legacy is undeniable, and learning about their formative years widened my appreciation. Tweedy and Farrar’s songwriting process was particularly interesting. Their professional relationship was a minefield of warped expectations and miscommunications, and it grew increasingly volatile as the boys’ egos developed and the band’s star rose. Quotes from those closest to them are also included. These offer a broader picture and made an oft sensationalised rivalry richer and more nuanced.

The Wilco narrative here unfolds chronologically, with each half culminating in a major conflict: Tweedy versus Farrar, and Tweedy versus Jay Bennett. Since these incidents are well-documented, even casual Wilco fans will anticipate them, giving the book a great quasi sense of tension.

I’ve heard people cite Learning How to Die as evidence that Jeff Tweedy is some prima dona or self-absorbed asshole. Certainly Tweedy burnt through more than his share of personal and musical relationships – this book unashamedly reflects this – but to dismiss him as selfish ignores the surrounding context. Tweedy was unhappy and unhealthy for much of his early career, and used drugs and drink to alleviate the debilitating migraines he had suffered since childhood. His deep-rooted depression is here chronicled (the Summerteeth era was particularly difficult), and it would be fair to say Tweedy was socially maladjusted early on. I’m aware I sound like a Tweedy apologist, but my biggest concern going into this book was that it would sour my opinion of someone I respect. Fortunately, it didn’t; I just don’t see any malice in Tweedy, or his actions. The man was sick, and probably a little too intense for his own good, but his motivations were pure. A perfectionist, he aspired to greatness and, early on, held his band mates to a similarly high standard. His abrasive, somewhat anti-social manner may’ve been misconstrued as arrogance, but I’m not surprised some past band mates had their lackadaisical efforts called into question. I’ve been in Tweedy’s position in every one of my workplaces, so could sympathise. Tweedy isn’t perfect, but he does his best.

Well-written, well-researched and packed with detail, Learning How to Die is a great resource for Wilco fans. I was pleased Kot wasn’t starry-eyed in his approach; he wasn’t caught up in reverence for his subject matter. He wrote passionately about Tweedy’s songs and performances, but this passion did not impede upon his journalistic duty. It would’ve been easy to ignore Tweedy’s shortcomings, or portray them, lovingly, as the eccentricities of a mad genius. But Kot’s writing wasn’t gushy; he kept a cool, critical objectivity, which I appreciated.

His account of the band strikes me as the perfect companion piece to Sam Jones’ award-winning documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Both showcase Wilco’s struggle to retain artistic freedom and integrity, and to defy critics’ and fans’ preconceptions. Jones’ piece is even referenced to expound on the Reprise fiasco.

A defiant streak runs through all of Tweedy’s output. It makes his music exciting and his story compelling. I’ve always admired Wilco’s refusal to play to audience expectations. As a band, they simply cannot be pigeonholed. Kot recognises this in his biography, and successfully captures Wilco’s ethos.

I wholeheartedly recommend Learning How to Die to Wilco and general music fans. The only shortcoming I perceived is that its coverage stops with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. (A Ghost is Born is mentioned, but not in any great detail. Its inclusion is more of a superficial postscript.) This is no fault of Kot’s – the book was current and comprehensive at the time of publication. It’s still a fascinating read, and Reprise’s rejection of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is still a relevant and illustrative example of the music industry’s mechanisations, but one wishes an updated version would come along offering greater coverage. I feel Tweedy’s admission to a rehabilitation clinic during the Sky Blue Sky era would’ve closed the circle and added a sorely needed redemptive angle. But such is the nature of reading ten-year-old biographies of still-working bands. For what it is, Learning How to Die is very hard to fault.

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