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Tweedy has a gruesome bicycle accident to thank for the start of his music career. He was 12 at the time, the youngest of four kids growing up in Belleville in downstate Illinois. He was coming down a hill fast, the street slick from earlier rain, when he hit the brakes and slid into a ditch. His right leg was impaled by three pieces of rebar from an unfinished drainage pipe. “When I fell back off of it, part of my leg was left hanging there. It was a pretty massive injury. I still don’t have any feeling in this part,” says Tweedy, rubbing his upper right thigh.
The silver lining: Laid up at home for the summer, Tweedy taught himself how to play guitar. In high school, he joined a garage band that ventured from punk to rockabilly, eventually morphing into the alt-country group Uncle Tupelo. Considered a trailblazer in that budding genre, the band released four albums in the early 1990s that earned it an avid national following. A split in 1994 with his close friend, the lead singer Jay Farrar, who went on to found Son Volt, led Tweedy to rebrand the group Wilco—military radio shorthand for “will comply,” his stab at rock band irony.
Feeling a need for what he calls a “change of scenery” during this transition, Tweedy moved to Chicago to live with his then-girlfriend, Sue Miller, one of the owners of the seminal Lincoln Avenue rock club Lounge Ax (now closed). They would marry the following year (a waitress at Lounge Ax performed the ceremony) and have their first son, Spencer, now 17, shortly after.
Over its first three albums, Wilco began to find its footing and fans, increasingly experimenting with its sound, drawing from elements of pop and punk and yo-yoing between stripped-down and heavily layered production. The consistent thread was Tweedy’s distinctively scratchy voice, which he once described as “somewhere between Gordon Lightfoot and a teakettle.” With each album, he got more ambitious and abstract with his songwriting. (“She’s a jar / With a heavy lid / My pop quiz kid / A sleepy kisser / A pretty war / With feelings hid / She begs me not to miss her,” he wrote on 1999’s “She’s a Jar.”)
But before Wilco’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, could be released, the band was dropped from its label. Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, which had repped the group since its start, deemed the album (which, among other things, sampled shortwave radio transmissions) too weird to market. When Tweedy refused to make changes, the band was given the rights to the record as a parting gift.
Tweedy had the last laugh, of course: Wilco soon signed with another label (Nonesuch, another Warner Bros. unit, as it turned out), and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went gold, turning the group into a symbol for standing up to the industry. The conflict fueled the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, by the filmmaker Sam Jones, who milked the dramatic tension between the band and its label, as well as between Tweedy and the multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett (Tweedy fired Bennett after the record was done).
As Wilco’s recognition grew, so did Tweedy’s demons. Since childhood he had suffered from severe migraines, missing 40 days of school one year because of the accompanying vomiting and dehydration. As the headaches continued into adulthood, he found himself hooked on painkillers. Making matters worse were the panic attacks and depression he also battled.
In 2004, on the eve of the release of Wilco’s fifth album, A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy tried to quit cold turkey. “I made a really clumsy effort to do it myself, but I also quit taking everything I needed to take to manage the mood disorders. Five weeks after that, my brain chemistry had crashed to the point where it was almost impossible to cope. I lost 30 pounds. I walked around the park all day. I couldn’t really function as a father. I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t get on a plane and do a press tour of Europe. I didn’t care if I ever played music again. It was like having an almost constant level of anxiety and panic that was unbearable. So I finally went to the emergency room and said, ‘Hey, can you admit me? Please? I know I’m not having a heart attack, but I feel like I’m being chased by a bear.’ ”
The doctors referred him to a dual-diagnosis rehab center in Chicago, where he was treated for both his addiction and his mental health issues. “The most important thing I had to learn at that point in my life was that I couldn’t just think my way out of my problem, which is contrary to my arrogance,” Tweedy says.
He still gets migraines—he had one just the week before we talked, after returning home from Japan, the final leg of the band’s spring tour—and when they hit, they leave him “incapable of doing anything except laying in a dark room with ice on my head and vomiting.” But he has learned how to better fend them off, through diet and identifying the psychological triggers that can bring them on.
“Rehab was a huge turning point, with him as a person and our ability to do what we do,” says Wilco’s manager, Tony Margherita, who has known Tweedy since he hired him to work in a St. Louis record store that he managed. “He came out of it a more reliable and on-the-ball guy, which I think is really more his nature. The whole period leading up to it was a real low point for him and for everybody. But we pretty quickly looked on it like, This is going to be great. We are going to get the old Jeff back.”
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