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.