Jeff Tweedy entered a Chicago rehabilitation clinic in 2004 to treat his chronic migraine headaches and subsequent addiction to painkillers. The New York Times‘ Migraine blog recently spoke with the Wilco frontman about his condition and how it has affected his personal and professional life.
He told The Times he’s never missed a show because of a migraine, but there have been times when he kept a bucket on the side of the stage where he’d throw up in between songs. “There’ve been a lot of horrible experiences trying to, well, you know, have the show go on.”
He continues: “I’m sure there were misperceptions about my condition. You know, seeing a rock musician vomit on the side of the stage, I’m sure people thought I was completely out of my mind on drugs or strung out. It didn’t have any kind of long term impact on how people perceived the band, though. Crazy thing is, in my business, that sort of thing is considered an asset. Sick but true.”
He recalls one experience opening for R.E.M. in Italy when he was sitting in the dressing room’s shower with the cold water running over his head, “because it was the only thing I could do that felt good.”
Tweedy says the headaches would also affect Wilco’s recording process â€” especially the sessions for A Ghost is Born:
I was rarely able to function for more than a few hours a day. For a lot of that record I was just trying not to be too drugged out and as a result I was suffering from enormous migraine type throbbing pain. Quite a bit of that came out on A Ghost Is Born. There is a lot of material that mirrored my condition. In particular there’s a piece of music â€” “Less Than You Think” â€” that ends with a 12-minute drone that was an attempt to express the slow painful rise and dissipation of migraine in music. I don’t know why anyone would need to have that expressed to them musically. But it was all I had.
“Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is another. I think we performed that song once or twice â€“ we knew it was going to be on the record but it was one that was looming as a real challenge in the condition I was in. So when we put it together the arrangement ended up being as minimal as possible with the fewest amount of chord changes and I just got through the lyrics and punctuated them with guitar blasts basically just to play through the song. It ended up being a song we were pretty proud of. But it was not much fun to record.
As for the painkillers, Tweedy says that happened pretty much the same way a lot of drugs find their way into the hands of rock musicians.
“There was nothing noble about it in any way,” he says. “Even when I took the painkillers in a recreational way I never had a desire to live out any kind of rock and roll pursuit of oblivion. I’ve always been turned off by that idea of the suffering drugged-out artist. It’s always made me sort of nauseated to think that I could fit in to that stereotype. But like a lot of addicts, you come up with a way to prove to yourself that you’re different â€” that that’s not really who you are. And for me, having very real physical pain was a very easy way to convince myself (and a lot of doctors) that there was something different about me.”
It’s a pretty remarkable story. Especially for someone who suffered from migraines as a child and to this day will still get an occasional one that ends usually with my throwing up, passing out or both.