The phrase “dad-rock” was first conceived by columnist Rob Mitchum in his Pitchfork review of the 2007 Wilco album “Sky Blue Sky.” The album had, he thought, completely failed to be daring or experimental, an easygoing complacency that seemed, to him, contradictory to conventional rock and roll ethos. The album is a recovery record in the wake of Jeff Tweedy’s stint in rehab after a crippling opiate dependency. Sure, the album can seem languid at times, some tracks are too contented, but there is glory in the wisdom of sobriety.
On Jeff’s 2017 record “WARM,” he is even more wise. On “Don’t Forget,” he affirms a fatherly promise on unconditional love, “don’t forget you got a key, a cosmic key, I love you so much.” Later in the same song, he says with a tinge of wit “don’t forget to brush your teeth, or you’ll have a funny smile. You don’t have to smile at me.” It’s a quintessential dad joke.
For a while, Tweedy utilized consistent opiate cocktails to curb his persistent migraines. Other artists of Tweedy’s generation have not been so lucky, leaving behind a large trail of premature drug deaths. In the documentary “The Last Waltz,” about the disbanding of The Band in 1975. Robbie Robertson says about life on “the road” with his trademark toothy grin, “it’s a goddamn impossible way of life,” before pausing, smile fading, “no question about it”.
“Now people say: ‘What drugs did you take, and why don’t you start taking them again,” Tweedy sings in “Having Been Is No Way To Be,” the album’s most compelling number. The audience laughs when he sings this line live. “But they’re not my friends. And if I was dead what difference would it even make to them,” he defiantly retorts. The audience shuts up. As the song progresses, he speaks to his recovery, “it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to untwist the knife, to unmake my mind: having been is no way to be alive.” Then, he turns his attention to his wife. “And I’m alive…when you wake up to me.”
Tweedy has let go of the drugs and the chaotic lifestyle that used to define him. He’s got lovely young adult children, Sammy and Spencer, and a wife of twenty five years, Susie. His hair is long and grey, his face which once wore constant wincing bitterness, is now untroubled. But, what, really, is fatherhood but a loosening of edges (think dad-bod) and a letting go of a certain number of things—a repentance of all the past fuck-ups and wrong moves?
The family has started a delightful Instagram show during quarantine, where they perform and chat for one hour a few days every week. The other day, Jeff began to sing “You and I,” a quintessentially dad-rock Wilco love song. He is staring from especially close, as he sings, at his wife, the “cinematographer”, and into her phone camera. “Why were you laughing,” he asks as he finishes the song. “You were so close. I was going to kiss you.” An uncharacteristically frisky smirk crosses Jeff’s face. Spencer gasps from the other side of the family couch. “Spencer, go to your room,” Jeff quips. Ew, dad! Embarrassing!
The role of rock music has often been, throughout history, to alert the masses to the fraught underpinnings of society. It’s imbued with distrust, its performers loaded on drugs and angst. Jeff Tweedy, like most rock-n-rollers, has been through the wringer for his art. Now though, he sits on his couch comfortably, beneath his Ikea curtains, and proudly sings with his talented children, to his wife, surrounded in a warm blanket of support. Doesn’t sound too bad, actually.
It is May 1st and Jeff is debuting a new song on the Tweedy Show. Sammy is harmonizing, Spencer taps his knees in rhythm and Sue looks on, commentating and dutifully holding the camera. “Incredible boys you’ve raised, Sue,” a comment reads. “At the end of the end of this beautiful dream we’re in, I’ll wake up again, a robin or a wren, and I’ll sit upon your window. I’ll sing a song you’ll recognize.” Jeff looks into the camera, or up at Susie, and over at his sons. Grey hair falls long around his wrinkled and bespectacled face. He is comfortable, in pajama pants and a jean jacket. “And then a teardrop will fall, into the corner of the smile on your face, And I’ll be alive.” Jeff Tweedy rocks, but more importantly, he is alive.