Monday, May 25, 2009

Gone Too Soon

SOME REAL SAD NEWS for music fans of a certain age and taste. Just clicked on the New York Times website and the first thing to catch my eye is Jay Bennett, Ex-Member of Wilco, Dies at 45. Bennett made news earlier this month after filing a lawsuit against former bandmate Jeff Tweedy for unpaid royalties over his contribution to five Wilco records and his appearance in the movie I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Cause of death is still unknown at this time, with the obituary saying he died in his sleep early Sunday morning.

In fact, it was seeing the Wilco movie in a Greenwich Village theater when it first came out in 2002 that drove me to jump off the Jeff Tweedy-Wilco bandwagon, never to climb back on. I thought Tweedy came off as overbearing and humorless in that film, and the shabby way he treated Bennett left a real bad taste in my mouth.

I always felt Wilco lost its heart and soul when it ousted Bennett. Tweedy in particular seemed to patronize the dreadlocked guitarist as they butted heads over the direction of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with Tweedy trying to move the band away from its Americana roots and Bennett wanting to add some rock-and-roll attitude to the songs. Tweedy "won" that debate, and my revenge has been ignoring all things Wilco ever since. Despite my boycott, Wilco has done just fine, judging by the often over-the-top critical praise from every quarter as Tweedy took the band in new directions.

That said, the first Wilco album, 1995's A.M. was an unabashed country-rock romp and remains one of my favorite albums. Bennett would join Wilco for the expansive second double album Being There and remain through Summerteeth and YHF, in addition to playing a major role in the two terrific Mermaid Avenue albums adapted from Woody Guthrie lyrics made with British punk-folkie Billy Bragg.

What propels the songs on A.M. more than the songwriting are the tasty guitar licks played by Brian Henneman of the underrated Bottle Rockets -- elevating songs like "Boxful of Records," "I Must Be High" and "Pick Up the Change" to a higher level, just as multi-instrumentalist Bennett would do with future Wilco material when he came on board for 1996's Being There.

I remember reading about Bennett's lawsuit, and Tweedy's cavalier response had the effect of turning me off even more: "It was such a long time ago. Aside from everything else, I'm being sued for not paying someone for appearing in a movie I didn't produce. Go figure."

Apparently Bennett lived the last few months of his life in intense pain, but didn't have enough health insurance to pay for the hip surgery he needed. According to court documents, he was seeking damages of $50,000 in his suit, a relatively small amount considering the big part he played in Wilco's financial success.

The one time I saw Wilco live was just over 10 years ago -- Irving Plaza here in NYC on April 21, 1999 (my birthday) -- an outstanding, rollicking show, as were the Austin City Limits and Sessions at West 54th concert broadcasts from around the same time which I taped. Watching those shows over the years, what stands out is the sheer fun the band is having onstage as they rip through the sets. But Tweedy was so intent on moving away from alt-country toward something less pop-oriented and more experimental that he was willing to dump his ex-guitarist in the process.

In addition to his work with Wilco and solo releases, Bennett was a highly respected session musician and producer, working with artists as diverse as Billy Joe Shaver, Blues Traveler and Sheryl Crow. R.I.P., Jay, you'll be missed more than you probably ever thought -- out of sight, yes, but definitely not out of mind.
Boogie Woogie Flu has a selection of Wilco songs, including some alternate takes and rarities, that Bennett had a major hand shaping; here's your link to yesterday's memorial post.

Here's a link to Cover Lay Down's Bennett tribute, also well worth checking out.

Aquarium Drunkard has demos and other outtakes from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Adios Lounge has a Jay Bennett & Edward Burch solo tune from a 2002 Minneapolis appearance.

And here's Bennett's myspace page, where you can hear his latest solo album and read the heartfelt testimonials from his fans.

"Tall buildings shake,
Voices escape singing sad sad songs,
Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks,
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around.
Voices whine
skyscrapers are scraping together,
your voice is smoking,
last cigarettes are all you can get,
turning your orbit around.
Our love, our love, our love is all we have.
Our love, our love is all of God's money, everyone is a burning sun."
Jesus, Etc. (Bennett, Tweedy)


ib said...

Well. I dipped in and out of Wilco's earlier stuff but never really ran that far with the ball, so your piece sheds a lot of light on some aspects of their internecine bickering I was not even dimly aware of. My interest in them waned in the wake of YHF, despite my having no informed agenda.

I have never seen the movie,"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart".

Very sad to hear of Bennet's plight, and all the more rankling to learn of Tweedy's unwavering dismissal of the suit as anything of consequence. Same old fucking shit. Same old aftertaste of unhealed wounds.

The Warden said...

Tweedy went thru the same thing with Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo. I was more of a Son Volt fan, really.