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'Wilco' history captures a young man as tortured artist

Wilco: Learning How to Die, By Greg Kot, Broadway, 256 pp., $14

Much of "Wilco: Learning How to Die," Greg Kot's passionate history of the bold, restless band that for some represents the salvation of rock 'n' roll, is devoted to its leader, Jeff Tweedy, and the harsh education through which he learns to live with himself and his art, if not his bandmates.

Kot, a music critic for the Chicago Tribune and a Wilco loyalist, is occasionally led astray by his beliefs, and the results are hysterical. However excruciating, Tweedy's inner turmoil does not qualify as a "holocaust," and fewer rants regarding the corporate dilution of rock, that decades-old scourge, would have sufficed. But the enduring gift of Kot's enthusiasm -- an absorbing, detailed narrative -- dwarfs any undeserved praise of the band.

What emerges is a deftly drawn portrait of Tweedy as a hard-working artist jabbing convention with his guitar pick.

Tweedy, born in 1967, established a career-defining pattern when he rejected the blue collar expectations of Belleville, Ill. "I saw the life my dad had, and I knew I didn't want it," he tells Kot. "He had to take care of a family basically since he was seventeen, and the only real outlet he had was a twelve-pack after working all day. I saw the guitar as my outlet."

In the tradition of teenage insurgents, Tweedy turned to rock 'n' roll -- "I was maimed by rock 'n' roll," he would later sing -- and found a kindred spirit in Jay Farrar. At least for a spell. With dollops of country and punk, Farrar and Tweedy built the band Uncle Tupelo, whose first album, "No Depression," was recorded in Boston and released in 1990. Farrar, stern and driven, was the band's artistic leader, but Tweedy, a self-described "late bloomer," gradually matured as a singer-songwriter, and a nasty cocktail of ambitions poisoned their friendship.

From a distance Uncle Tupelo now looks like a passing thunderstorm: loud, gloomy, and gone. But its hoarse aesthetic incited the "alternative-country" movement, and Tweedy claimed two personal victories -- the courtship of his wife, Sue Miller, and the end of an incipient love affair with alcohol -- before Farrar pulled the plug on the band. Tweedy "wanted to nip it in the bud, to avoid having to deal with more serious issues down the road," Miller says. "He's a very emotional person anyway, and alcohol isn't a good thing for him to be around."

Joined by friends -- including bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer -- Tweedy launched Wilco, and the irony embedded in the name (trucker lingo for "will comply") expanded. First up was "A.M." in 1995, a catchy but by-the-numbers effort that sounds like a slapdash jam session when compared with the twangy bravura of sophomore album "Being There," which earned raves in 1996. Tweedy was on top, yet, Kot writes, there were days when he "awoke hating what his life had become." Hating his fans too: Kot recaptures a London concert at which the singer belittled the audience, embarrassing his bandmates. A critic of "tortured-artist syndrome," Tweedy was slouching under the weight of authentic depression, and two longtime companions -- migraines and anxiety attacks -- made things worse. He gobbled pills and kept the pain to himself. Except when he wrote.

Multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett created a sumptuous canvas for their third album, "Summerteeth," but Tweedy preferred sandpaper. The album, a raw and poignant near-masterpiece, features tales of murder, domestic violence, and infidelity, and its bleak commercial potential sowed tension between Wilco and its label, Reprise Records, which intensified when "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was completed in 2001. By then Coomer was out of the band, replaced by Glenn Kotche, with whom Tweedy had formed a musical kinship not unlike the bond he once shared with Bennett, who was next on the chopping block. Kot doesn't sugarcoat Tweedy's behavior, particularly the astounding cowardice of asking his manager to ax old pal Coomer. Each party gets time in the witness box.

But the verdict is "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," rejected by Reprise and bought by a smaller label under the same corporate logo. On the strength of its hard-earned lucidity, Tweedy prevails. Critics and fans cheered. Purists wondered whether Wilco was becoming the new soft jazz. Tweedy went back to work. Robert Lowell once wrote of "freelancing out along the razor's edge," which Tweedy knows about all too well. Kot does a superb job of capturing the singer's story.

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