If you crumple the pages of a phone book maniacally enough they become soft as chamois. Soft enough, in fact, to use as toilet paper.

How does Jeff Tweedy know this?

"I think a combination of incompetence, poor financial planning, and resentment had resulted in a standoff among us over who would blink first and grudgingly supply the others with the luxury of toilet paper . . . "

Tweedy was living the dream. Tweedy was living, with his band, in an apartment in Belleville, Illinois. Floor-to-ceiling pizza box chic, blankets instead of doors, minimal paper products.

Advertisement

"I'd convinced myself that we lived in an indie rock version of the Monkees' house . . . I truly believed that a band was supposed to live together and have antics and adventures."

The band (Uncle Tupelo) broke up. He formed a new one (Wilco). He won a Grammy, was nominated for three more and sold millions of albums worldwide. But now Tweedy the famous musician is Tweedy the first-time memoirist. In May, he's bringing the book of his life to the Auckland Writers Festival. The toilet paper anecdote is on page 126, but you should start at the beginning, where Tweedy writes: "There will be no mention of prescription painkillers." (And then, two paragraphs and much reader relief later: "That last part was a joke.")

"I feel like I got more confident as the book was closer to being finished," he tells Weekend. "To me, the intro feels a little bit more gimmicky than the rest of the book. A little bit less secure. A lot of times when I'm a little bit less than secure, I have a defence mechanism of being a little bit humorous."

He's underplaying for effect. The book, Let's Go (so we can get back) - a memoir of recording and discording with Wilco, etc., is laugh-out-loud funny. The writing is conversational. Tweedy can namedrop with the best of them - collaborators include Billy Bragg, Mavis Staples and, posthumously, Woody Guthrie - but, "I don't mind people seeing me as a completely normal person."

It's a radical notion, he suggests.

" . . . to present to the world the idea that you don't have to be some creature from outer space or some extraordinarily different type of human to indulge your creativity."

In 1992, Uncle Tupelo spent a week making an album with Peter Buck, lead guitarist and co-founder of R.E.M, the band Tweedy describes as "pioneering a new kind of rock star persona. A homespun, accessible and overall friendlier sort".

Wilco was formed in 1994 out of the ashes of alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy's personal discography runs to 16 albums, including one with his son Spencer and, most recently, a solo album, Warm. How does he describe his own rockstar persona?

"Well, I have a combination of denial that I even have one, and then I also feel like there's a wilful ignorance of having one . . .

"I would rather have it projected on to me than waste any of my energy mythologising or caretaking a persona. Oddly enough, I think by being pretty open and accessible and willing to answer questions and not participating in that kind of persona building, that somehow disorients people even more."

Tweedy says when he does encounter a "clear vision" of someone else's idea of him: "I'm always kind of amused by it."

Jeff Tweedy will appear at the 2019 Auckland Writers Festival with his new book Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) - a memoir of recording and discording with Wilco, etc. Photo / Whitten Sabbatini
Jeff Tweedy will appear at the 2019 Auckland Writers Festival with his new book Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) - a memoir of recording and discording with Wilco, etc. Photo / Whitten Sabbatini

He grew up in America's Midwest in a medium-sized town in Southern Illinois; he learned to play the guitar while he was recovering from a bicycle accident. One of the early anecdotes he tells is the time he recorded Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run on a cassette tape that he took to school with "Jeff Tweedy" written on the cover. He explained he had written every song, played every instrument, sung all the vocals. A classmate said he thought he'd heard it on the radio. Tweedy: "Probably. It is pretty popular."

The Boss gave way to The Ramones, the Clash, the Sex Pistols. Tweedy discovered punk. He worked in a record store, went to concerts, played his first covers for the Primatives and wrote his first song for Joe Camel and the Caucasians. The moral of his story to this point is, he writes, "don't be discouraged, get a good guitar".

But we're still at the beginning of the book. He's still deflecting for laughs. On the phone, from a tour bus in St Louis, Missouri, he elaborates.

"A good guitar could be crocheting. Or writing poetry."

(If you are going to write poetry, he adds, find a pencil that feels good in your hands).

"The definition of a good guitar can be pretty broad. If you are on this planet and you are one of the few privileged people who have ever walked this Earth that are allowed to even search for something that you love to do, I feel you have a responsibility to do that. It makes the whole planet better when there are more people allowed to engage in something that they love to do."

The Tweedy rock 'n' roll story is sex with an older woman (Dear Reader, he married her) and drugs from a Pharmacy drive-through.

He met his wife, Susie Miller when she was 30 and he was 19. It was her last night as a club booker in Chicago; she was leaving to launch her own music venue.

"She was the star of the evening and the star of the room, and it was apparent to me that she was just a Star, period. The first real star I'd ever met," he writes.

His drug addiction story is less lovely. A fan who worked at a pharmacy handed him a heavier bag than normal. His prescription had been tripled with a wink and a smile but "even in what felt like a Lotto-winning moment of euphoria, I knew that making this connection was one of the worst things that could have happened to me . . . "

Tweedy has suffered a lifetime of migraines and "mood disorders". Anxiety. Panic attacks. Opiates were his painkiller of choice. How dark did it get? At one point, he discusses stealing cancer medication from his wife's mother; at one point he goes to hardcore rehab. Today he kills pain with ibuprofen, bags of ice and hot water. Lies down in dark rooms, takes naps, tries to catch it early.

"I do still have all of the mood disorders I've ever been diagnosed with. And I have a lot of evidence that as I get older and older that I will survive.

"There may be less comfortable moments, but I don't worry that it's going to be forever like that, like I used to when I was younger."

This is a recurring theme. Tweedy, 51, is not staying in one place. He is a creator and an experimenter and a collaborator. Back in 2008, he was part of New Zealand musician Neil Finn's Seven Worlds Collide project ("it's hard to think of better people on the planet than the Finns"); more recently, he's worked with gospel legend and civil rights activist Mavis Staples; in 2017, a reviewer from Paste Magazine pondered the many faces of Wilco - "country-rock band, industry innovators, pop group, political activists, noisy experimenters, touring juggernaut . . . "

Tweedy says he tries to make something new every day. Every. Single. Day. It doesn't have to be good, but it has to be something.

"When I look at a lot of music that comes out, it's so complicit in our current global landscape, because it's so rooted in the fear of losing its one little niche, its one little place. Whereas music like hip-hop is all about 'what's tomorrow?' It's not concerned at all about preserving some legacy or piece of the past.

"I have a 'vocabulary' that's rooted in the past, rooted in music that has meant something to me and that I've absorbed. I feel like I'm duty bound to try and make it something new. Like, it's sort of pointless if you don't."

He understands that may be perceived as risktaking, but "in reality, it's a pretty cowardly risk to take. It's not like jumping out of an aeroplane. It's not like trying to perform brain surgery on someone without ever going to college. There's nothing life and death about it.

"The worst thing that can happen is people aren't going to like your record as much and maybe fewer people will come to your shows or maybe nobody will come to your shows and you have to figure out something else to do with your life. That happens. And people survive. It's not always the end. You can work harder or make something new again and maybe people will like it again.

"I think you have a responsibility to be unafraid of other people's reactions."

Wilco founder Jeff Tweedy will bring his new memoir to the Auckland Writers Festival in May. Photo / Supplied
Wilco founder Jeff Tweedy will bring his new memoir to the Auckland Writers Festival in May. Photo / Supplied

After this interview, Tweedy will perform a solo acoustic set in St Louis, Missouri, featuring new material from his album, Warm. In May, he'll take Auckland's Aotea Centre stage for the festival's gala night event - eight writers telling seven-minute "at the crossroads" themed true stories. The following day he will appear in conversation with Alex Behan and finish his session with a musical performance. It will be the first full-blown writer's festival for the man who calls books "my companions" and says "I love it when words wake up and sound new again".

A constant reader, he describes an early obsession with American writer Gertrude Stein.

"I guess that's where I first encountered the idea of 'a rose is a rose is a rose' was kind of a way to get you to see the rose again. A way to use language when it had been kind of drained of all its meaning by overuse or just by being a cliche. That's the first time it occurred to me that words could live and die."

When Tweedy writes songs, melody is king ("it's the primary emotional force in the context of a song") and words come much later, literally formed from nonsensical mumbles.

When it came to working on a book: "I had to learn to write prose for the first time in my life. I've always been much more interested in distilling language into poetry or lyrics or something closer to Haiku, where you tell the story by what you leave out."

Probably, he says, if he rewrote his memoir tomorrow, it would be an entirely different book.

"The truth is vast. I do understand that slippery slope, because if I'm being truthful, I can mix up being factual with being truthful. You can start to include details that aren't necessary but they're accurate. To tell the story truthfully, to me, meant to tell the emotional truth of that story as accurately as possible."

Jeff Tweedy appears at the Auckland Writers Festival. Full programme: www.writersfestival.co.nz

Let's Go (so we can get back) - a memoir of recording and discording with Wilco, etc. by Jeff Tweedy ($39.99, Faber Social).