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Wilco's Jeff Tweedy honors the songs that have shaped his life in new memoir


Now it's time for another conversation from our series about how we find meaning. It's called Enlighten Me. And for this one, our colleague Rachel Martin spoke with Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: This conversation is for anyone who has heard a song and felt less alone because of it. And I'm betting that's most of us, right? For Jeff Tweedy, his new book, "World Within A Song," is a chance to pay tribute to the music that inspired him and kept him company, songs that made a home in his head and his heart and never left.

JEFF TWEEDY: I think in song shapes (laughter).


TWEEDY: I think - you know, I think it's just the nature of having been immersed in records for my whole life, I guess.

MARTIN: So I want to do this, if you don't mind. Like, I want to kind of walk through and listen to several of the songs that you write about and just talk about them...


MARTIN: ...And the imprint that all these made on you. Starting with the start - you write in the book that the song that made the first dent in your musical mind, which is your turn of phrase, which is lovely, is "Smoke On The Water" by Deep Purple.

TWEEDY: Don't play the whole thing though (laughter).


TWEEDY: You know, I think at the time that I'm talking about in the book, I didn't know the name of that song, I don't think. I don't think I would have even known anything about it other than when I picked up a guitar and I tried to imagine how somebody plays it, you know, you put your hands on the neck, and you do this. And I think that I went (vocalizing) buh, buh, buh.


TWEEDY: You know, I think it's because it really is so...

MARTIN: You're like, I got it.

TWEEDY: It's so elemental. It's like stumbling across some new element that gets added to the table of elements or something, you know?

MARTIN: Right.

TWEEDY: When somebody comes up with a riff like that, it's like...

MARTIN: Right.

TWEEDY: ...Oh, it's like, we should give it a scientific name and an atomic weight.

MARTIN: Right.


MARTIN: There is a song in the book called "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," which is just a haunting, beautiful thing. Originally, this was sung by a guy named Frank Proffitt - is that right? Let's listen to some of this.


UNCLE TUPELO: (Singing) Satan, your kingdom must come down. Satan, your kingdom must come down. I heard the voice of Jesus say, Satan, your kingdom must come down.

MARTIN: That's your version of this song.

TWEEDY: That's Uncle Tupelo's version of that song, yeah.

MARTIN: That's your band before Wilco - Uncle Tupelo. You loved this song so much that you guys recorded a version of this song.

TWEEDY: It's like when I hear myself singing that, I can hear myself trying to reach for the gravitas of the original. I don't know. I'm like - because it's so low for me to sing.


UNCLE TUPELO: (Singing) Gonna shout until they tear your kingdom down.

TWEEDY: The original that I heard is - sounds like a very old man that has earned the fear...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah.

TWEEDY: ...You know? And that's one of the things I think I responded to, also, is hearing these old folk songs and how they had lasted and survived for long periods of time. And there's some sort of - they're fear based, but there's a catharsis to them that I could relate to that felt like punk rock to me, you know? It felt very similar to the way punk rock would - felt like a safety valve or a release - you know? - of anger and fear.


FRANK PROFFITT: (Singing) For I heard the voice of Jesus say, Satan, your kingdom must come down.

MARTIN: Can I use this as a pivot point to ask you about your understanding of religion as a kid? Did you grow up in a religious family?

TWEEDY: No. My mother was very suspicious of religion. Particularly, I think that she thought the clergy - and she thought they're - I think she was suspicious of people in a lot of ways. She was - she thought they were phony.

MARTIN: All the people?

TWEEDY: Everybody.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

TWEEDY: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: And did any of your own thoughts fall neatly into some kind of religious framework?

TWEEDY: No. It never made much sense to me. I think I inherited a lot of my mom's skepticism, you know? Maybe that's, you know, in my DNA.

MARTIN: But then you went all in, Jeff - not on Christianity. But you ended up converting to Judaism in large part, as I understand it, because your kid - your son was going through the process of being bar mitzvahed (ph). Your wife is Jewish.

TWEEDY: You know, one of the things that our rabbi told our older son when he was being bar mitzvahed was - he asked our rabbi, what should he do if he doesn't believe in God? And his rabbi said, you - doesn't matter if you believe in God, what matters is that you search for the sacred. And that made sense to me. And in a way, you could take that as almost anything, you know? Like, well, look for beauty, you know? Look for whatever sacred means to you. And I thought that was really beautiful, and it felt like it was in line more than any experience I'd ever had in any organized religion.


TWEEDY: It felt more honest.

MARTIN: Yeah. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by Carole King - you wrote that there was a point when you were doing that song as an encore with Wilco, and it felt to you, like, the most honest that you could possibly be with an audience. Can you tell me why?

TWEEDY: Well, because I had never written a song that expressed that as well...


CAROLE KING: (Singing) Tonight the light of love is...

TWEEDY: ...Fear of love being fleeting, of loving somebody more than they love you.


KING: (Singing) But will you love me tomorrow?

TWEEDY: Early on in Wilco, there was a real sense of, like, do I really get to do this? Do I really get to do this thing that I love so, so, so much? And are you going to let me do this?


TWEEDY: Are you going to love me enough that I get to keep doing this? I was saying that very explicitly to the audience. Are you going to come back next time we play in town?


TWEEDY: Are you going to be - you know, will you still love even after - because I think there was - also one of the things that is embarrassing to me about being on stage still to this day is that it's so clearly that. It's so clearly you wanting some approval.


TWEEDY: And there's a nakedness to that just by being willing to walk out on a stage - that nobody needs to psychoanalyze you. They just know, oh, you wouldn't be up there if you didn't want me to show you that I love you.


WILCO: (Singing) Will you still love me tomorrow?

MARTIN: Jeff Tweedy is the lead singer of Wilco, the author of the new book "World Within A Song." Thank you so much.

TWEEDY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.


WILCO: (Singing) ...Still love me tomorrow?

TWEEDY: Thanks a lot.

(CHEERING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.