A paean to the life-changing power of music, Jeff Tweedy's amiable new memoir focuses on the songs that inspired an introspective Midwestern boy to start a series of bands, most notably the Grammy-winning group Wilco.
Tweedy's deliberately paced songs often focus on people, beliefs and relationships in gradual decline. But as an author, he moves quickly. With 50 chapters covering a little more than 200 pages, "World Within a Song" is a restless book.
It's a format that allows Tweedy to demonstrate his infectious enthusiasm for multiple genres. Though he heralds the hugely popular ("perfect" "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") and the undeniably influential (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message"), his best chapters are about relative obscurities.
Combining melancholy strings and increasingly sinister lyrics, Randy Newman's "In Germany Before the War" — in which a serial killer represents a country's descent into madness — is an unparalleled demonstration of "how clearly the text of a song can be illuminated by its musical habitat," Tweedy writes.
Watching Minneapolis' The Replacements — "the best rock band of all time" —perform near Tweedy's Illinois town in the 1980s, he sees a drunken Paul Westerberg fall from the stage while performing. Westerberg kept singing, "balancing on his forehead with his mouth pressed against the mic." Afterward, Tweedy decided this was the job for him.
The book's sweetest chapter finds Tweedy watching his guitar-playing cousin perform what he passed off as an original composition. Though he soon learned that "Takin' Care of Business" was a Bachman-Turner Overdrive song, Tweedy's misapprehension inspired his earliest forays into music.
Tweedy's prose is solid, if sometimes too cute. When he mentions "an establishment offering up food and drink to one and all," you think, "Just say 'restaurant,' man."
Nor is he the most self-aware writer. Paul McCartney's band Wings released a best-of album in late 1978, apparently "cobbled together for maximum Christmas sales," he notes. Like the unforgivably apostrophe-less "Wings Greatest," Tweedy's user-friendly book is arriving just in time for the holidays.
If Tweedy's book is short and breezy, "Johnny Cash: The Life in Lyrics" is an undeniably substantial (and expensive) physical object. With scores of career-spanning photos, the words to every song he wrote and enlightening annotations by country music historian Mark Stielper, it's a big, handsome coffee table book that reflects the durability of its late subject's long career.
Here too, the little-known songs are the most fascinating.
"Country Boy," a 1957 song about a shoeless kid planting seeds and hunting rabbits, is Cash's "first autobiography," Stielper writes. "Apache Tears" (1964), about a Native woman tortured and murdered by white men, emerged from Cash's ultimately disproved belief that "he had Indian blood." And "Ragged Old Flag" (1974), an ode to patriotism written during the Vietnam War, glimpses Cash as an antagonist to the counterculture.
The book is a reminder that before he was repackaged in the 1990s as a cool oldster covering U2 and Nine Inch Nails, Cash made unmistakably personal music.
Kevin Canfield is a regular contributor to the Star Tribune's books coverage.
World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music
By: Jeff Tweedy.
Publisher: Dutton, 256 pages, $26.
Johnny Cash: The Life in Lyrics
Publisher: Voracious, 384 pages, $55.