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Lockdown Read 2


Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) On Song-Writing and Creativity:

I just like writing songs. It’s a natural state to me. I like to believe most people’s natural state is to be creative. It definitely was when we were kids, when being spontaneously and joyfully creative was just our default setting. As we grow we learn to evaluate and judge, to navigate the world with some discretion, and then we turn on ourselves. Creating can’t just be for the sake of creating anymore. It has to be good, or it has to mean something. We get scared out of our wits by the possibility of someone rejecting our creation.

It bugs me that we get this way. It bugs me a lot. I think just making stuff is important. It doesn’t have to be art. Making something out of your imagination that wasn’t there before you thought it up and plopped it out in your notebook or your tape recorder puts you squarely on the side of creation. You are closer to “god,” or at the very least the concept of a creator. I understand destruction can be creative too, but I think it becomes a lot more thoughtful and intentional when you’ve allowed yourself to be a creator. I’m pretty naive, I admit, but I’ll always believe that destruction would be an impulse a lot more difficult to indulge if more people were encouraged to participate in their own tiny act of creation.


I also kind of believe that even the greatest works of art ever created mean almost nothing individually. If a work of art inspires another work of art, I think it has fulfilled its highest duty. People look for inspiration and hope, and if you have it you share it. Not for your own glory, but because it’s the best thing you can do. It doesn’t belong to just you.

The Chicago historian Studs Terkel asked Bob Dylan in the sixties about how he went about writing a song and trying to outdo yourself, or at least being as good as the last song he wrote, and his response was pretty damn perfect. He said:

“I just want to find another place to pound a nail…Music, my writing, is something special, not sacred.”

If the songs Bob Dylan wrote aren’t sacred, then nobody’s songs are sacred. Nobody’s. No one has ever laid on their deathbed thinking, “Thank god I didn’t make that song. Thank god I didn’t make that piece of art. Thank god I avoided the embarrassment of putting a bad poem into the world.” Nobody reaches the end of their life and regrets even a single moment of creating something, no matter how shitty or unappreciated that something might have been. I’m writing this after returning from Belleville, where I sat next to my dad’s bed in my childhood house and watched him die. I can guarantee you that in the final moments of his life, he wasn’t kicking himself for all the times when he dared to make a fool of himself by singing too loud.

I said this recently to my son Sammy, when we were talking about creative choices and how much weight to give other people’s opinions. I told him: “You can’t pants me anymore. I’ve had my pants taken down enough times in my life.” I meant that both figuratively and literally. I’m hard to shame by an outside opinion. Obviously, there are still things that could happen during a show that mioght rattle me and knock me down a peg. Somebody in the crowd could shout out, “You suck,” and it would make me feel less than enthused about myself. I’m still a person. Mostly, I’d be curious why they would bother to spend their hard-earned cash to inform me of my lameness.


Here’s what I think about when I’m writing songs. I think about when I moved to Chicago twenty-five years ago and I was using this crappy RadioShack cassette recorder that didn’t work at all well. It was just something to get ideas down on tape so they wouldn’t disappear, but it was an awful machine. So Suzie let me use her old Dictaphone, about the size of a dictionary. I was in love with it. It sounded so much better than you’d ever imagine, considering it was an arcane piece of clunky seventies technology. Suzie would get cassettes from bands who wanted to play Lounge Ax, and the ones that didn’t pass muster I would confiscate and record over with my own songs. I’d fill an entire tape with new material, coming up with a new tune every night as my set goal.

I’d sit in our apartment with my guitar and Suzie’s gigantic Dictaphone and I’d listen to everything on the tape, whatever I’d recorded the previous nights, everything up to the blank space on the tape. Then I would imagine, “What comes next? What does the next song sound like on this album I’m making up as I go? If I was a teenager again, listening to an album in my bedroom, what would I want to hear next?” There’s so much power in that silence, just imagining what could happen but hasn’t happened yet…

Making these songs, arguing over the minutiae with Tom-it’s all that matters. Whether any of it comes out or doesn’t come out doesn’t ultimately concern me. I mean, I’d love to have people hear as much of what I create as possible, but I don’t worry about it too much. I think that’s the secret to this line of work-you have to be okay with music being a great thing to do, and not rely on it to be the thing that makes you rich or even the thing that pays all your bills. As long as it’s something that makes you feel better and you wake up every morning wanting to get back in the studio to make something else, then there’s not much anyone can fucking do to ruin it. You can find an audience. You can take your time. You can find your voice. You can find new ways to express yourself. You can explore it. You can get better at it. If you keep it close, no one can take that from you. It exists. The beautiful part has existed and it will continue to exist.

Jeff Tweedy (Wilco). LET’S GO (SO WE CAN GET BACK) (2004). A memoir of recording and discording with Wilco, etc.