A friend of mine, and a fellow music snob, recently lent me a copy of a book entitled Wilco: Learning How To Die. The book is by Greg Kot, who many may recognize as the co-host of the popular NPR program, “Sound Opinions.” He is also a critic for the Chicago Tribune, and occasionally freelances for various music magazines.
Wilco has been a favorite band of mine for a very long time. My father introduced me to Wilco in 2004 when he took me to see them at the Palace Theater (the show was opened by local rock n’ roll heroes, My Morning Jacket). It made a very profound impression on me: the musicianship, Jeff Tweedy’s (front man for Wilco) witty banter with the crowd, and the overall atmosphere. It was my first real concert (not including the time when my parents took me to see Raffi as a child).
The book is about Wilco, but it’s also extremely personal. It isn’t “music literature” as I have ever read it before. It covers topics such as Tweedy’s problems with substance abuse, his relationship with former band mate Jay Farrar, and other topics which, until recently, have been mere speculations among Wilco fans. It is a story that goes as far back as “The Primitives,” Tweedy’s high school band. Kot also writes about how Tweedy, when in the fourth grade, brought a cassette of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” to school, and proudly clamed it was his own work. It is in these fine details that the mythology of this great band becomes reality.
The first half of the book is dedicated almost entirely to Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo was a band forged out of the remains of The Primitives, and several new members. 80’s punk bands such as Minutemen, Black Flag and Husker Du were very influential to the group. The folk and country music scenes in Tweedy and Farrar’s hometown, Bellville Illinois, were also incorporated in their music. From this unlikely combination of the raw energy of punk music and beauty of folk music created the genre known as “alternative country.” The book offers a lot of insight into this musical phenomenon, including references to other pioneers in the genre including Old ‘97s and Brian Henneman.
In short, this book is one of the greatest pieces of music journalism I have ever read. It is full of in-depth interviews as well as new and interesting facts. I would highly recommend it to any Wilco fan or anyone who is interested in one of the most critically acclaimed bands of our time.