Remember Jay the right way
I’m still waiting for songs to be written
Songs I know you’ll never hear.
Don’t you think that I already know?
All at once I’m so shy now that you’ve been bitten
It’s a seed but I hope that you know that we can’t let it grow
I’ll be laughing at your jokes tonight.
I’m always lost in my head
I’ll be bumming all your smokes tonight
Though you think I’d be better off dead
— “Drinkin’ On Your Dime” (Jay Bennet & Edward Burch)
Back in 2002, I was asked by No Depression to write something about Wilco’s challenging year leading up to the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and in the course of writing that piece I had the chance to talk to Jay Bennett a couple of times – lengthy night time calls where he opened up about the tribulations of that time and the joy he was experiencing in his post-Wilco career.
I think Jay called me after the publication of the article to tell me he thought I had been fair (to my mind, the highest compliment you can pay a journalist). Subsequent to that day, he contacted me again to ask if I was interested in writing about his reaction to Sam Jones’ documentary covering that period – I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. What, I asked, was the issue? He hemmed and hawed and said that he was bothered by how some things were portrayed. I told him it was hard for me to talk to him about the movie as I had not seen it at that point. He promised to dispatch me a copy and we would talk and clear the air, but I got the feeling he regretted calling me with this request even as he was making it.
No copy of the movie arrived, no air-clearing conversation occurred. And I would not see IATTBYH until a couple of months later at a local theater. Then it was obvious which scene had vexed Bennett – the one where he and Tweedy bicker about an edit on the album, and the tiff appears to climax with Tweedy running to the bathroom to vomit. I can only assume Bennett feared the scene would become emblematic of his role within Wilco. His fears were to some degree founded. One website yesterday headlined his passing thus:
“Jay Bennett, 45, Former Member Of Wilco, Antagonist In Doc I Am Trying To Break Your Heart …”
When I read that word, I felt sickened. Jay Bennett was the protagonist of some of the finest contemporary music made in the last 20 years.
He was a ridiculously talented multi-instrumentalist. He was a gifted arranger and producer. an entertaining performer. He showed spark as a singer and songwriter. To me, he was a brutally honest conversationalist who was exceedingly generous with his time and insights, just as he was generous with his music.
The story of what happened to Wilco in the past couple of years isn’t always a happy tale, but it does have a happy ending.
That’s how I began my piece on Wilco and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (In Through The Out Door, No Depression #39, May-June 2002). Today, the optimism I saw for Bennett (and that he saw for himself) rings more than a little hollow. But it’s also emblematic of how positive and forward looking he was at the time. Bennett was surprisingly open about his experiences. Initial despair about his split with Wilco quickly gave way to a furious spurt of musical creativity. Bennett sent me demos for what became The Palace At 4 AM (Part 1) (an album he recorded with Edward Burch), and the subsequent finished record delivered on the promise of those demos. I think I liked the later acoustic version of the record – Palace 1919 – even more. I was convinced he was on the threshold of a promising new career as a singer songwriter.
Before the article appeared, Jay was in Toronto with Burch to perform at the Horseshoe Tavern and to prepare for a gig he’d landed producing a local act. We spent the better part of an evening together backstage and then out scouting a couple of studios. Jay was again optimistic, upbeat. He put on a great show with Burch and my main memory is of the three of us backstage talking about our admiration for Rockpile: he and Burch were frantic to track down a bootleg video of a documentary on the band that they believed had been filmed in Canada. Could I help them acquire a copy?
Bennett’s perspective on what would happen post-Wilco seemed to be that the only measure of success would be his personal happiness. Nothing else seemed to matter. He had his home studio. He had a creative partnership with Burch. He was a newlywed. Far from being a destructive thing, the challenging experience of making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would not be the unmaking of one group, but spur on the creation of two uniquely fine recording acts.
As it turned out, Wilco went on to become an even more popular band (let the blogosphere argue about whether they are still as worthy a group); Jay kept making music as an independent artist. Yesterday, I downloaded what may be Bennett’s last completed album, a record he gave away to the world called Whatever Happened I Apologize. It is difficult to listen to in the current circumstance which is not at all a commentary on the quality of the work.
I went back through my notes from that ND article and I noticed something odd. In my initial contact with Jay to arrange an interview, he must have asked me to be sure to ask him in our subsequent conversation for his taking-out-the-garbage story. And so I did.
It turned out that Bennett had been married 12 days before we spoke. His mother had passed on a family heirloom for the ceremony – the bride-and-groom figurines that adorn the top of the wedding cake (or “cake topper,” as Bennett called it). After the ceremony (which had included Bennett singing Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire” and Burch doing “Turn! Turn! Turn!”), guests began cleaning up from the party. But the groom ordered his guests to stop.
“I was like, don’t clean up. Don’t clean up! Don’t do it! They had started taking out the garbage and the recycling. I just had this vibe…”
A couple of days later, he discovered the antique cake topper was missing. Cue a frantic search. Bennett, ever mindful of his anti-trash “vibe,” still hadn’t taken out the junk from the festivities. On a hunch, he dumped out the garbage on his garage floor.
“I was down on my hands-and-knees going through cake goo and coffee grounds and emptied ashtrays. It was charming,” he told me.
Luckily, the cake topper was there amid the detritus.
Luckily, he’d had the hunch to call off the immediate post-wedding clean-up campaign.
And as Jay figured it, luckily he had been lazy enough not to promptly remove the trash.
“I hadn’t taken out the garbage that day. It was one of those times when irresponsibility paid off.”
Yes, he laughed when he said that.