Saturday, June 13, 2009

RIP: Jay Bennett (1963-2009)

Former Wilco guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett passed away in his sleep a few weeks ago (May 24). I never knew Jay, but somehow it kind of felt like I did.

Different people handle the passing of people they never knew in different ways. Some grieve for the loss of what that person was to them (i.e. Bennett will no longer be making music for his fans to enjoy). Some feel empathy for the loved ones of the deceased, while others just can't bring themselves to feel anything for people they didn't know. There are also those who grieve as if they actually knew the person. I definitely don't fall into the latter category, but Bennett's passing has reached almost to the Thurman Munson level with me. That is, the most I could possibly feel for someone I was never acquainted with.

I thought I'd use this space to pay tribute to Jay by recounting my personal history of experiences with him, his music and his persona.

I immediately became a fan of his during my first experience seeing Wilco live. It was the summer of 1997, and Len and I made the trip to Saratoga Winners, just north of Albany, to see one of our favorite new bands. As far as we knew at the time, Bennett had just joined the band for the Being There album, and this was his first tour. In reality, he was a member of Wilco even prior to the release of their debut, 1995's A.M., but the album had been recorded prior to him joining the lineup. Regardless, Bennett's dreadlocked blonde hair and on-stage energy instantly captivated us.

Wilco was a much looser band then than they are now, and they added several classic rock covers to a set of tunes from their first two albums and Uncle Tupelo's last. I recall "The Immigrant Song" and "Sweet Leaf," but online set lists fail to confirm this.

The following year, Bennett and Jeff Tweedy toured as a duo, and we were lucky enough to get to see them play the Middle East upstairs, a tiny space with a capacity of less than 200. Again, covers were a key element of the show, but with a little more serious tone this time. Big Star's "Thirteen" is one that comes to mind. At one point in the show, Tweedy even asked the audience for suggestions. When I called out "Sweet Leaf," he scoffed at it, but Bennett immediately started into the opening guitar riff of the Sabbath classic.

Following the release of the pop-oriented Summerteeth in 1999, and considering how different Being There was from the straight-up rootsiness of A.M., Len surmised Bennett had made a major impact on the artistic direction of the band. I was skeptical at the time, probably not wanting to give anyone other than Tweedy that much credit. But, years later I would come to agree with him, even going so far as to suggest Wilco was much better with Bennett than without him.

In 2002, Bennett was fired from Wilco as his relationship with Tweedy had soured. I had yet to see the negative depiction of him in the documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, when he and Edward Burch came to Boston in support of their recent release, The Palace at 4am (Part I). Believe it or not, I actually liked that album better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the breakthrough album Wilco released that year on which Bennett played and was a significant creative force, having co-written eight of the songs. In fact, I recently wrote in Frequent Spins that I wondered if there ever would be a Part II. According to the Undertow Music Collective, Jay's label and management company, plans for the followup were in the works.

At the show in question, which took place at the former rock club Lilli's in Somerville, Bennett seemed at ease talking to the crowd in reference to his former band. At one point, he addressed fans in attendance by suggesting they were free to, among other things, shout out requests or leave and go to Providence—in reference to the fact Wilco was playing only an hour away, at Lupo's, that same night—if they so desired. It was said in a relaxed and playful manner, and it illicited quite a few laughs from the crowd, myself included.

I never really thought I Am Trying to Break Your Heart portrayed Bennett as negatively as was written about it. He seemed insecure with the fact he and Tweedy weren't seeing eye-to-eye, and overly concerned that Jeff didn't understand him, but I didn't see the control freak some viewers saw. In fact, judging by what I've read since, it seems to me Tweedy undermined Bennett's role as his right-hand man by bringing Jim O'Rourke into the studio. Regardless, I think it says something that Jay's firing was part of a period of high turnover within the band, with drummer Ken Coomer being replaced by Glenn Kotche and Leroy Bach leaving as well.

I've remained a fan of all of Jay's post-Wilco work, although nothing has quite approached the quality of his collaboration with Burch. Regardless, I've always had a soft spot for him, and it was with shock and sadness that I learned of his passing while I was on vacation recently. Although I never really knew Jay Bennett, it somehow felt as if I did. He will be missed.

Jay Bennett photo courtesy of PopMatters
Jay Bennett (1963-2009)

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