Thousands of The Tweedy Show’s fans (jokingly termed “clients”) peer virtually into Sue Tweedy’s family room four nights a week, met with wall-to-wall vintage furniture and bookshelves stacked with stuff: DVDs, tin lunch boxes, collectable cereal boxes with names like “Obama O’s” and “Quisp.” They see Jeff Tweedy in his “Hi, How Are You” hat and pajama pants, yet they seldom see Sue’s face. “Except for those couple of camera-flipping accidents,” she adds, “Ugh.”
On her Instagram account @stuffinourhouse, Sue films her family (husband Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, and sons Spencer and Sammy) as they perform songs for their weekly program: fan favorites like “Jesus Etc.,” deep cuts like “Late Blooming Son,” and fervent “client” requests like “Expecting to Fly.” She reads through comments as they stream in, trots out family photos, tells stories about their shared life — about Spencer naming his yet-to-be-born brother “Squirty Gun” (a nickname that stuck for the first year of Sammy’s life), about the time the Tweedys spent at Neil Young’s ranch. Still, she leaves many of her “clients” craving more — of her. “Even though I’m not shown,” she acknowledges, “I’m still a character on the show that people now know.”
For decades, her husband has written songs for and about her — including the 2014 album Sukierae with son Spencer, released after her diagnosis and subsequent battle with cancer. For decades previously, on her own, she booked talent and managed venues in the Chicago area, even co-owning the legendary Lounge Ax club (the site of a key scene in the movie High Fidelity, among other amazing moments — like her own wedding to Jeff on the Lounge Ax stage 25 years ago).
I corresponded with Sue about archiving, communal healing, her long career booking talent and managing venues, and the underrated art of creating a home.
Meredith Hobbs Coons: You started your career booking bands at clubs, then came Lounge Ax. Describe that trajectory. How did you get into that work?
Sue Tweedy: I have worked in music clubs my entire adult life. When I was 19, the drinking age was 19, and I started working at the Clearwater Saloon, which was mostly country-rock, and Biddy Mulligans, which was mostly blues. The drinking age turned 21 in Chicago right when I turned 21 so I never had to stop working.
I worked at Stages, which became Metro, in 1982. After Metro, I worked at The Sports Corner right across from Wrigley Field. That’s where I started booking bands, but only small ones. But then the Cubs won the playoffs (or whatever the heck it’s called) in 1984 and the owners didn’t want to do music anymore — just sports.
From 1984 to 1987, I worked at The West End and that’s where my real booking career started. I was managing the bar. It was owned by the same family that owned the Vic in Chicago. They moved the West End booking agent to the Vic, then I showed up for work one day and was told that I was now the booking agent. This was decades before computers and the internet and everything felt more DIY-ish.
There are so many insane stories about those years at the West End, but that is where I learned to book bands and started lots of lifelong friendships. I do remember that I overpaid the Replacements one time because it was one of the first contracts I had to deal with and I had no idea what I was doing.
When the West End closed in 1987, I [worked at] The Cubby Bear and booked and managed it until 1989 when Julia Adams and I opened Lounge Ax. I did meet my husband during my Cubby Bear years when I booked Uncle Tupelo to be an opener for my then boyfriend’s band. I booked Lounge Ax from 1989 until it closed in 2000, and those were the best years at the best club ever. I miss it so, so much.
But to answer your question of how I got into that work… I was thrown into it blindly.
Meredith: You’re essentially managing your own venue again, but this time it’s your living room. How much overlap do you notice in terms of your role then as club owner and now as emcee and self-termed “cinnamon-tographer” of The Tweedy Show?
Sue: I hadn’t really thought about this before, but you’re right… there are similarities!
Although I’m not booking three-to-four different bands six or seven nights a week, I still have to manage the talent, get the show to start on time, get through it relatively smoothly and end on time. And I do have a somewhat similar sense of happiness and satisfaction knowing that we are producing and presenting something that is making people happy. That was always my favorite part of booking a club: being able to see how meaningful it was to the people that came out to see the bands, and succeeding in making the show happen.
I will say that dealing with Jeff and the kids in my own family room feels somehow more completely exhausting sometimes than dealing with multiple bands and hundreds of people every night of the week. Maybe it’s because I’m older and more tired now, or maybe it’s them. [Laughs]
Meredith: You’ve shown off some fabulously weird stuff on The Tweedy Show and the @stuffinourhouse Instagram account. The other night, your son Sam showed off a bucket of plastic baby limbs you have in the hall. What’s the weirdest thing in your house and how did it come to you?
Sue: The weirdest thing in our house is probably a doctor’s bag from about 100 years ago, stuffed with scary looking medical and surgical tools of the time. I got it a long, long time ago on eBay. It was insanely cheap and filled with shocking and brutal looking things. It was way more insane than I even thought it was going to be.
I recently found a book from that time period called Standard Surgical Instruments. It’s basically a catalog, and I was able to identify all of the tools in my doctor bag. Some of the names make me want to faint [and/or] barf: brain knife, tonsil syringe, tongue forceps, vein stripper, rib spreader, eyelid retractor, eye scissors, gallbladder scoop, bone gouging forceps, nasal chisel, septum punch, uvula scissors, rectal dilator, uterine knife, urethral exploding bougie! OMG.
Meredith: Your home has so much character and has become internet-famous now. Your “clients” covet your curtains so much that they’ve scoured the internet to find their own. Tell me about the spaces you’ve inhabited in childhood and as an adult.
Sue: [Laughs] The curtain drama has been pretty bonkers. The house I grew up in was nothing like our current house at all. It was pretty standard, not overflowing with things. Our house now is packed with vintage stuff, as [was] every house or apartment I have lived in since moving out of my childhood home. Everyone in my family had a tendency to hold on to stuff. I like to call myself an archivist… some might say a pack rat, but I disagree.
A lot of the stuff in our house is actually from my childhood: lots of board games, all the 45s in our jukebox, kitchenware, pinball machine in the basement, and tons and tons of other things that can be seen on @stuffinourhouse.
In addition to all of that, thrift store shopping is and always has been my number-one favorite activity for stress release, mood elevation, and fun. [It’s] where I’ve gotten almost everything that didn’t come from my childhood. I had entire wardrobes for both of our sons years before they were born.
I’m obsessed with cool vintage things of all sorts (mostly from the ‘50s through the ‘70s), and my favorite places to find stuff like that are thrift stores because they’re cheap! I love making the house look nice, cool, and interesting with vintage things.
Meredith: The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles has spent much of her career arguing that maintenance (domestic as well as civic) is, itself, art. You managed and co-owned Lounge Ax for 11 years in addition to building a vibrant domestic world. Are you able to see the work you’ve done through the lens of art, or are they separate things for you?
Sue: I think that art pretty much just means anything where you are expressing yourself. So I guess I do see owning the club and managing our home and family life through the lens of art, now that you mention it! It’s all trying to communicate something for yourself, or for others that is beautiful or fulfilling. That is what I tried to do at Lounge Ax and try to do in life.
Meredith: In Greg Kot’s 2004 book Wilco: Learning How To Die, he writes about the time following 9/11 when you, Jeff, and the band determined it was necessary for them to get back on the road to give fans a sense of normalcy and form of healing. It seems this same attitude informs The Tweedy Show now. Do your goals remain the same? How do you see your family’s role in people’s lives?
Sue: It does feel kind of the same. When COVID happened, Jeff was at the very beginning of what was supposed to be an 8-week tour. All of the dates were canceled, and he came home. I knew people were really, really bummed. And then the quarantine happened.
I thought we could soften the blow for people a little bit by having Jeff sing a few songs every night for them. The first show — for some reason that I still don’t understand, but still cracks me up — we streamed from the bathroom while Jeff was taking a bath. That’s why The Tweedy Show artwork has him naked-y. It probably makes no sense whatsoever to a lot of people who weren’t watching back then. Ha!
At first, we were doing the show seven nights a week. Now we are down to four nights a week. It’s become a much bigger thing than we ever thought it would. People really seem to love the show, and I love giving them an up close and personal view of Jeff that they would never have at a regular show. (I mean, I am in his face pretty much the entire time with my camera.)
Every single night, we get so many comments about how the show is what they look forward to every night, or that it’s what is keeping them sane, or feeling okay, or less alone. All of those comments are very meaningful to us, and knowing how important it is to so many people is what keeps us doing it. Plus, it’s fun!
Meredith: Boundaries are tricky for all of us right now as we’re sheltering at home, and you have also opened your home virtually to thousands of clients four nights a week. How do you carve space for yourself in the context of your family and the broader public?
Sue: On one hand, the show is how we carve space for ourselves as a family. We are spending so much time together as a family almost every night because of the show, and lots of time before and after the show, either preparing for it or talking about it.
The Tweedy Show has been really good for our family. I think people who live together have a tendency to do their own thing a lot in their own spaces and having the show has “forced” us to spend a lot of quality family time together. It’s been really great for that.
On the other hand, it is a little weird sometimes to be so, so public. We are so completely being ourselves that we bicker sometimes, or maybe just don’t come off in the best way. It’s also a little weird to have our kids be so in the public now, but they are pretty much grown up, so I guess that’s okay.
For me, I hate being in the spotlight and I don’t ever show myself on camera. I have horrible stage fright. Opening myself up like that is not something I’ve ever done before. I have a couple haters now which is a new thing for me. I think they’re funny though.
Meredith: Through your cancer treatment and other medical struggles, what have you learned about what it looks like to show up for someone facing a health scare? Describe the most meaningful way you recall someone showing up for you.
Sue: So many people did so many meaningful things for us when I was in chemo and radiation. The moms from the kids’ school started a meal thing for us, and so many people participated. They brought a giant cooler for the porch, and every night delicious meals would magically show up for the family. I could cry thinking about it.
Like a lot of people, I am not good at asking for help. So, I think the best way you can show up for someone going through something, like cancer treatment, is to just do something. I know the natural inclination is to ask the person what you can do. Even I do that, and I know it’s better to just do something! But if you can think of something you can do to help them, just do it!
My Lounge Ax partner Julia told me one day that she was coming over to weed the yard for me. She didn’t ask — she just said she was coming over to do it. I loved that and now I’m tearing up again just thinking about it! Sniff.
Meredith: What pursuits do you find most fulfilling lately?
Sue: I’m not just saying this, I really mean it: Doing The Tweedy Show is what is most fulfilling lately. Life is so weird right now and it sometimes feels like it takes effort to not feel like you want to just crawl back into bed for the day. Between the pandemic and politics, I’m glad I have the show to take my mind off of things for a while every day. Even on days without a show, I usually am doing something show-related, like uploading the shows to YouTube, trying to read the messages, etc.
I do have some other things in the works that I know will be very fulfilling, but I have not had the time or energy to really get them going full speed lately. One of them is a Lounge Ax book. I’m still in the searching for pictures and ephemera phase. Back then there were no cell phone cameras, so every picture that exists only exists because someone schlepped a camera to the club and took a picture.
It’s nothing at all like now, where you can find a zillion pictures of any show at any venue from any night. So, I put a call out to people to look for pictures and things that they have, and I’m still hunting and gathering. I’m excited about doing the book and hopefully we can get it going soon-ish.