On & On & On: Reading Jeff Tweedy, Listening to Wilco, Recovering from Addiction, & Living with Grief
When my friend and colleague and mentor Kurt Eisen lost his struggle with cancer in September 2019, I knew that it was art or literature or music—or something like that—to which I would turn, to privately and publicly process my feelings of longing and love, grief and gratitude.
He was a renowned scholar of that award-winning 20th century playwright Eugene O’Neill. After Kurt died, I immediately ordered his book on O’Neill, contacted the O’Neill society’s Facebook page, and watched a YouTube documentary about this brilliant, tortured writer to somehow console myself. That would be my first but brief stop, looking for art to make sense of losing this dear friend. For the first few days after our loss, I watched the documentary more than once.
That YouTube diversion was just dark and weird enough, but it didn’t quite do the trick. I suppose O’Neill for me will always be the whiskey-sucking, Diane Keaton-chasing version portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Warren Beatty’s romantic epic film for leftist poets, Reds.
We bonded over music, Kurt and me, and next I thought that maybe Bob Dylan’s massive catalog is the place we would land, for me to learn and listen and write. Even before we lost our dear Kurt, I thought I might be writing about Dylan right now, but for some reason, that’s not where the muse and I ended up.
For the last year of his life, this professor and mentor and supervisor and me, we communicated mainly over text message. If I went to see him in his office, he probably wasn’t there, because he was in Nashville getting treatments. My fitful attempts to visit Kurt over the summer failed, but at least our texting increased.
It’s hard to talk to a friend that you believe might be dying. What do you say? We mostly texted in 2019 about popular music, music fandom being our shared hobby and avid avocation. Although Kurt was not connected to Ordinary Space directly, this fanzine was born out of that same kind of nerdy passion we both professed, in past years in the form of recommendations, trying to turn the other onto something new and beautiful.
Some of those texts were about Dylan, the recent Rolling Thunder movie in particular. Even though it was on Netflix, we saw it separately but on the same day before the Netflix release, at Nashville’s Belcourt. Was that the last film Kurt saw in a theater? Maybe.
Kurt was a supervisor, a boss who was “boss” in the best colloquial sense, because he always seemed more focused on the thing itself, on compassion and art and science and justice, more than on his own ambitions. But he was also disciplined enough that his academic talents did reap books about that aforementioned author, who happened to have been an alcoholic, like me.
So I knew I needed books and music to process my feelings of loss after Kurt’s death. I knew that this would ultimately help me find myself, as much as it would help me honor my friend and honor my grief. So there was an earlier text message exchange from maybe March of 2019.
I was at the gym working out, which really just means: walking on the treadmill, listening to tunes with my Bluetooth Bose headphones, and sitting in the sauna, listening to more tunes.
In past years, Kurt and I had bonded at the university fitness center. Before he got sick, that is where we would accidentally collide and talk about whatever, some work worries I am sure, but probably mostly about what new music we were discovering.
But on that day of what I call “the Tweedy texts,” I was in the locker room, and he was maybe at home or at the hospital. The texts then, they simply confessed in the most eloquent brevity that he was wrestling with his own mortality. I suppose we all wrestle similarly at different times, but with texts with a junior colleague when you have cancer, that somehow seems more sincere and more severe. Kurt didn’t have to text me during that time, this was not about a pressing work matter, and I am incredibly grateful that he did.
When we first met, I was a new colleague. My only obligation to him was to teach first-year college students to write essays, to do this without garnering too many complaints. I even botched that early on, and Kurt always rallied to support me.
But insofar as the utilitarian roots of our relationship began with my teaching of 100 students in four sections of freshman comp per term, this insight is needed for context and emphasis now, because this essay I am scribbling now, it breaks some of my own general rules for those young writers.
This personal essay discusses death without adequate emotional distance and narrates its own internal writing process instead of simply getting to the point: the point of elucidating my theological, emotional, and fellow-recovering-addict relationship with the music of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, even as the deepening of this fan relationship was prompted by Kurt’s advice and his earthly demise.
I am making a much-needed-personal-myth of those Kurt-Tweedy texts. But it was probably like this—Kurt: “I am reading Jeff Tweedy’s memoir’; Andrew: “Cool.”
|Kurt Eisen's picture in my All Saints Tribute. 10.31.19|
The point is, that in those text messages, where Kurt was also wrestling with his own disease and his coming death, he also told me he was reading Jeff Tweedy’s memoir, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. These were not long text messages, mind you, yet still I am making a much-needed-personal-myth of those Kurt-Tweedy texts. But it was probably like this—Kurt: “I am reading Jeff Tweedy’s memoir”; and Andrew: “Cool.”
While I know we didn’t text every day, the texts we did share in the last months of his life have now become “sacred texts” to me. This is also to say, that if he made the point to recommend Jeff Tweedy’s memoir, no matter how briefly and in passing, I knew I should take a look.
Of course, I did not pick up Tweedy’s book in March when he suggested it, but I did in late September after Kurt passed away. If I did not feel compelled, attracted, even obligated to make more space in my listening life for Tweedy and Wilco back then, I really do now. This book, finally, would begin as my secret connection with Kurt, when O’Neill did not quite reel me in, and then, its meaning would grow and grow.
Though Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) is Tweedy’s first serious attempt at prose, it is amazing, as evidenced in its even more animated audiobook version.
Once I had fallen further into the Tweedy and Wilco rabbit-hole where I am still residing as of this writing, particular songs would connect me with my grief and friendship, and at the same time, as my relationship with the Tweedy corpus became truly my own, I found more of myself, my heart, my hopes, my fragility, my selfishness.
Now it’s as though Kurt has left me alone with Tweedy, to do due diligence and discovery on my own. Just as Kurt aided me as a friend and colleague, he has helped me from afar, by reminding me to spend more time with a particular artist and author.
I am not exactly letting go of Kurt or losing my best memories of him, but I am somehow holding on, in a healthier and more cathartic way, thanks in part to this grief process getting mediated by the writing of Jeff Tweedy and music of Wilco.
Don’t ask me the exact count of new books I started in 2019 and didn’t finish. But this year, like every year, I began far more books than I completed.
So in September 2019, not long after my friend’s death on Friday the 13th, I finally started reading Jeff Tweedy’s recommended memoir and started listening to Wilco in earnest. I furiously finished the memoir in a few days and have been re-reading it in fits and starts ever since, with a Wilco soundtrack close by.
Now it’s as though Kurt has left me alone with Tweedy, to do due diligence and discovery on my own.
Concurrent to all this, my dear fanzine co-editor Rick and I have also been on a year-long project to further unpack our fandom for the Uncle Tupelo lineage, so we have been listening to Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco, and anything and everything else by Jay Farrar or Jeff Tweedy. Early in the summer we saw Son Volt at a popular East Nashville venue.
As of this writing, I am between installments in a flurry of Wilco gigs on their Ode To Joy tour. This has all been terribly cathartic and invigorating for me on multiple levels. Obsessing about different bands—and their entire careers and catalogs—is an engaging and expensive pastime that also takes on sacramental magnitude for me.
Strangely until this year, I thought I might never become a true Wilco fan. Perhaps, I once thought, I am just not cool enough, or uncool enough, or smart enough, or something enough to “get” Wilco. Perhaps Wilco would remain my musical broccoli, like Radiohead remains. I know broccoli is supposed to be good for me, but it just makes me sick to my stomach.
Tweedy’s memoir teaches so much about his career and Wilco and music fandom itself, but he broke me into a million pieces when he wrote about his addiction.
As a fellow traveler in recovery, at these intervals when I was reading and listening to the memoir, I was also listening to more and more Wilco. This journey into Wilco’s canon and Tweedy’s mind have lasted a season, as I internalized Tweedy’s art in ways that I never had before.
Recovery memoirs exist that resonate so clearly and eerily, it’s as if some stranger was living my life, then publishing a book about it and calling it their life. From the stories in the back of the AA Big Book to the memoirs by people like Anne Lamott and Mary Karr and Nick Flynn, this recovering addict craves the tell-all stories by other recovering addicts. Anne Lamott’s story especially brings me to buckets of gratitude tears every time, because her story is my story in uncanny and uplifting and hilarious ways.
Reading Tweedy’s memoir was different for me than with these other texts. First, I wanted as much of the inside story on Wilco as he would give. Rock music might be Tweedy’s primary art, if you will. This nonfiction narrative book stuff, maybe that is a sort of side hustle for Jeff. Reading the book supplemented listening to Wilco albums.
Plus in the early pages, Tweedy cracks a joke that he is not going to talk about drugs at all. I cannot ever fully explain how uncomfortable this made me, but then, more than halfway through the book, I wanted to ask him to be my sponsor. I am kidding. Sort of.
Chapter Nine is called “Toby In A Glass Jar” and narrates Jeff’s bottom, his first terrifying days of abstinence from Vicodin pills, and his experience in rehab.
Toward the beginning of the chapter, Tweedy turns a corner, sometimes called in recovery literature, step zero. He does not say step zero, but he does write this step zero story, when a pharmacy employee increases the quantity of pills of the scrip, free of charge.
Tweedy shares, “Now something different was happening. I was depressed and I had started to only feel normal and human when I had plenty of drugs on hand. Before, I had always needed to be in actual pain to rationalize asking a doctor for painkillers. An air of legitimacy had always propped up my self-esteem; I wasn’t a drug addict if my use was sanctioned by a health-care professional. Now those pretenses were disappearing fast.”
This retrospective honesty, however, did not stop Tweedy from taking the free drugs from the pharmacy employee who admitted to being a Wilco fan. Jeff was “elated and a little scared.” It is not easy for an addict to admit how horrible it is when getting drugs gets easier. Tweedy admits, “Even in what felt like a lotto-winning moment of euphoria, I knew making this connection was one of the worst things that could have happened to me.”
With the exception of Sky Blue Sky, I was at step zero to becoming a Wilcomaniac before this year. I was also in my own step zero for alcoholism in 2007, the year Sky Blue Sky came out. In retrospect, I am amused with how much depth and delight I found in Sky Blue Sky back then, especially learning much later, reading the memoir, that it was Jeff’s recovery songbook.
There’s one thing abut addiction: it cannot go on and on and on, no matter how you try. You dry out or you die.
Tweedy was newly clean in 2007, yet I didn’t know it then.
But I was drunk or high or delusional or all of the above, and I was listening to this disc. The illusions and denial were fading fast, so I had to admit that my hedonistic depravity had deprived me of a moral center. Only a bluesman doing a deal with the devil would keep me going.
My step zero for alcohol was temporarily avoided by another illusion, fixing me with the elusive notion of romantic desire. Yet in all this, I was haunted by a penchant for religious reality, a craving for God in the midst of all the other cravings. Only later would I understand how it is all the same ultimate craving.
But for the addict, the distortions and misdirections are a leading cause of premature death for middle-aged white guys like me.
The songs “On and On and On” and “What Light” were anchors that year, even if I was reading them wrong, or should I say differently than I do now. There’s one thing about addiction: it cannot go on and on and on, no matter how you try. You dry out or you die. The summer of step zero was a time of sampling new sins, sipping more and more in the morning, passing out in the middle of the day.
Over the course of the memoir reading, I learned the ways that Jeff and I are different in our addictions, not just the respective drugs of un-choice. Tweedy claims he never craved countless oblivions but some kind of peace and control. For me, peace meant stopping militaristic war, nothing to do with my internal war for more and more and more. I did crave loss of control and endless oblivions, and the blackouts delivered as advertised.
A lot of recovering people have some survivor’s guilt. My friend Kurt wasn’t an addict. He didn’t give himself cancer. His disease was of a different ilk, only the terminal nature of our diseases is something we shared. Yet my voluntary treatment in the twelve-step modality saved me; but the most advanced cancer treatments available could not save my mentor and friend.
Yet when Kurt was texting me about the Tweedy book, he was also at a kind of step zero. He was starting to surrender to the mystery of life and death. Even though our relationship was more and more minimized by each passing day, he took time to appreciate and love me in those text messages.
Reading and re-reading chapter nine took me away from processing my grief for Kurt and into cascades of gratitude for recovery. Even after his death, Kurt was helping me because I know he prompted me from the other side to finally pick up this book that has helped me so much.
Sober dancing and face-melting at as many Wilco shows as I could pack into this melancholy autumn, this is now more than me just chasing another band This is a traveling private memorial service.
For one show, I was able to provide one dear colleague and mutual friend of Kurt’s a miracle ticket. In this, I inaugurated a new tradition that each year around this time, we will catch a show in his honor, to keep his memory alive by cherishing friendship and by loving our rock n roll.
Kurt is more of an elder sibling than a parental figure, but I find it uncanny that his birthday is so close to my deceased Dad’s, one day different. Losing Kurt reminded me too much of losing my Dad.
Grappling with grief and loss also requires a higher denial of death that follows facing it, which is the hopeful alternative that the dead are not dead, only home; not lost, only resurrected to a different dimension, which is not the end, only heaven.
“Mine ain’t about yours. Yours ain’t about mine. We all suffer the same. You don’t get to decide what hurts you. You just hurt.” – an unnamed mentor of Jeff Tweedy’s
You can’t really diminish cancer or Parkinsons or alcoholism or whatever reminder you need of humanity’s inherent proximity to tragedy. But you can get to step zero, you can find sweet and sad defeat at different angles of the battle. Fighting disease is not all bombast and combat, but sometimes the stealth to surrender, to simply accept the truth in “God’s will be done.”
For addicts, step zero precedes step one which precedes healing and wholeness. For another essay, we might apply step zero to climate change, gun violence, and toxic masculinity. For me for now, leaving step zero and going deeply into the first three steps, only then did the “war on war” in my heart start to find peace, only then did the flip-flop between grandiosity and inferiority stop being so severe.
In this same memoir chapter primarily devoted to finding his bottom and the rough road to getting clean, Tweedy describes an impromptu expletive-laden speech from someone he calls a “big black guy.” After chastising Jeff with so many F-bombs, he gets to the hard takeaway: “Mine ain’t about yours. Yours ain’t about mine. We all suffer the same. You don’t get to decide what hurts you. You just hurt.”
In Tweedy’s radical encounter with this unnamed and unlikely mentor, in the emphatic and profane exchange described in the book, we get clarity that we don’t need no performative pain, no oppression Olympics, no stratification of suffering in this rehab recovery community. Or perhaps we don’t even need such a market metric to measure hurt and sacrifice in the rest of the world, either?
Tweedy continues, “I was trying to put things in perspective by pretending I had no perspective, by denying my own feelings. It’s always going to be important to acknowledge someone else’s pain, but denying your own pain doesn’t do that. It just makes their pain relative to yours, like a yardstick to measure against. It’s a waste of pain. After that I started listening more and I started feeling again.”
Jeff Tweedy does not romanticize his addiction to pills, nor does he glamorize his pain in early recovery. There’s a lesson here, especially for folks inclined toward a redemptive and even poetic theology of pain.
No matter how many times I have been taught the danger of comparisons, I feel myself comparing myself to my late father and my recently deceased mentor and to this strange familiar Illinois man who was born the same year I was and is currently central to my music fandom.
Over time in 12 steps, I have realized they really mean the part where they say, they don’t care if I came from, as the saying goes, “Yale or jail.” It took me some time to realize that I had earned my seat in the rooms, earned it with the very selfish behavior that has been driving the guilt and shame that would have denied me any seat. That is, I felt somehow unworthy of bad coffee in church basements, because I was afraid that, by my accidental birth assignment, I certainly had stolen someone else’s seat.
A world with enough seats and enough tables for all sounds nice, but isn’t that also idealism, to make me feel better about not giving up mine? Here, you have my place, while I go and sulk over here, or even worse, go back out and drink. But in recovery, it doesn’t work that way. Those worldly categories really do fall away.
So race and class differentials do mean that I am writing some of this in a hotel at an academic conference, where I had to walk past unhoused people, suffering from addiction and on the street, to get from one place to the next in downtown San Diego. Real race and class differentials also drive the pointless yet poignant internal conversation about white guilt and fragility. Real race and class differentials, these still distort our experiences. But.
But at a 12-step meeting, such status symbolism and privilege parameters are temporarily suspended, as in a glimpse of the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated. Also in death, life’s playing field is similarly leveled. Nobody gets out alive. But.
Elsewhere in the memoir, Tweedy says that, “being vulnerable is probably my superpower.” Though Tweedy is not a Christian, I think Jesus-followers can learn a lot from this lesson.
Sometimes we forget how vulnerable Christ had to be to accept the radical love of his followers and to become radical love on the cross. Being vulnerable is being authentic. Being vulnerable is being yourself. Being vulnerable is not weakness, just a different kind of strength.
Surrender and even an indifference tempered by love and gratitude saturate my listening experience of Sky Blue Sky. Somehow this album was part of my salvation story when I was still drunk and when I didn’t know that Jeff Tweedy was newly clean. Somehow it has all kinds of new meaning now that I am listening to it over and again now sober.
Learning that “On and On and On” really wasn’t about a brief and failed fling more than a decade ago, learning that it was about Tweedy’s loss of his Dad, it is helping me process the loss of a friend two months ago and my father five years ago. Knowing that going “On and On and On” is what this essay would do, if I do not bring it to a tentative conclusion, we leave with these words from Wilco.
One day we'll disappear together in a dream/However short or long our lives are going to be/I will live in you or you will live in me/Until we disappear together in a dream
-Andrew William Smith