Jay Bennett: 1963 — 2009

I heard the news ear­ly Mon­day morn­ing, but it didn’t sink in until I read Aquar­i­um Drunkard’s post this morn­ing: Jay Ben­nett has died. There are times that I’m embar­rassed to admit it now, but once upon a time I was a pret­ty rabid Wilco fan, and I always had a fond­ness for Bennett’s con­tri­bu­tions to the band’s sound. The leap they made between the time he arrived and Yan­kee Hotel Fox­trot is a con­sid­er­able one, and it’s hard to imag­ine Wilco ever amount­ing to any­thing with­out his influ­ence, espe­cial­ly on their break­through album Sum­mer­teeth.

Wilco played the sound­track to a num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant moments in my life. I was floored when I saw them with Helen at Coop­er Riv­er Park in Sep­tem­ber 2000 (setlist here). As the sun set behind the stage, I knew I’d seen a band on the cusp of big­ger things. Lit­tle did I know that he’d be out of the band with­in a year. I con­tin­ued to love the band, and saw Son­ic Youth open for them in 2003, but it just wasn’t the same. I stopped lis­ten­ing to their music short­ly there­after. The cult of Tweedy proved too much to take.

I winced when I first saw Sam Jones’ I Am Try­ing to Break My Heart. Now I just feel betrayed by it. Is it pos­si­ble that both Ben­nett and Tweedy were mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal jerks hell-bent on their per­son­al vision for YHF, nei­ther bet­ter than the oth­er? Jay Bennett’s char­ac­ter assas­si­na­tion in that film will for­ev­er pre­serve the notion that he played Hed­wig for­ev­er after to Tweedy’s Tom­my Gno­sis, Ben­nett often play­ing — coin­ci­den­tal­ly? — the same town on the same night as Wilco, albeit at a much tinier venue.

Bennett’s fall was the only truth Jones cap­tured. Watch­ing him rein­vent him­self in tiny clubs after con­tribut­ing to a band on the verge of their great­est suc­cess still feels like a punch in the gut.

Now I’m lis­ten­ing to his last album, What­ev­er Hap­pened I Apol­o­gize, which you can down­load free from Rock Prop­er here. Like his oth­er solo efforts, it’s a stripped-down affair that isn’t exact­ly my cup of tea, but one can’t help but lis­ten to the song “Talk and Talk and Talk” and think that he’s address­ing Tweedy, though that may be over­reach­ing a bit. If he is, it only points up how pro­found­ly hurt he was by their split. Now they’ll nev­er be able to rec­on­cile what­ev­er dif­fer­ences they may have still had.

I may be inter­view­ing Wilco as they do press for their forth­com­ing record, Wilco the Album. I’m hope­ful that they’ll be able to talk about Jay and help us bet­ter under­stand who he was.

Jay Ben­nett died Sun­day. He was 45.


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