Jay Bennett 1963-2009

I remember the day Marvin Gaye died. I was only ten years old, but I remember my friend Mark's father telling us that Gaye was dead. I didn't know his music at the time, but perhaps it was my burgeoning love for music that left a mark. I still remember exactly where I was sitting.

Amazingly, 25 years later, very few of my favorites have passed away. Johnny Cash was a tough one, but Cash's music never hit me to the core like my favorites. There's music I like and then there's music that drives deep. The latter camp is crowded by the artists I post about relentlessly on this blog: Wilco, Bruce Springsteen, Damien Jurado, Nick Drake, Richard Buckner and a few others.

To say that 1994-1996 was a turning point in my life would be somewhat of an understatement. I grew up with Springsteen, Uncle Tupelo was the prologue, but it was Wilco that really changed me. I remember working in Manhattan and hearing that vinyl copies of Wilco's second record, Being There, had been bouncing around prior to release. I called every record store in the phone book. I finally found one in Hoboken that had a copy. I begged the guy to hold it for me. I dropped everything and hopped on the Path train.

It was really Wilco's second, third and fourth records that solidified them as my favorite band, perhaps ever. Jeff Tweedy was the man behind the mike, and usually the pen, but the guitarist he brought on before the recording of Being There, Jay Bennett, changed not only Wilco, but Jeff Tweedy. Shelved were the alt.country ballads that Tweedy could write while napping, and introduced were an array of sounds, crashes, beeps, organs, and gorgeous harmonies that turned Wilco from a good band to one of the world's best. Bennett evidently wrote the music to the stunning "California Stars." He wrote "My Darling" for his niece. He was the second force that Jeff Tweedy needed, and has never been able to replace.

This evening I learned that Jay Bennett died last night. Ever since his dismissal/departure from Wilco on July 4, 2001, I've wondered about Jay. I was disgusted when Wilco's manager Tony Managherita basically scoffed at Bennett's prospects in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, but unfortunately, Marghertia was right. Bennett's career floundered without Jeff. He released one great record, The Palace at 4am, with his buddy Ed Burch, though few took notice.

I met Jay Bennett once up in Boston in 1995 or so. It was before a Wilco set and he seemed like a nice guy. He offered me a shot of tequila. I think I accepted. But it was watching Jay and Jeff work together that made them one of the most important rock pairings in recent memory. But following his exit, as Wilco reached the masses following the publicity and critical praise behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Jay Bennett fell off the radar, but not my radar. His contributions to Wilco, and at the risk of sounding dramatic, my life, won't soon be forgotten. Jay Bennett was 45.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this... Knowing that I'm not alone in my thoughts and feelings right now is helpful. Those days of Wilco really did change music forever. Being There will sell more copies in 30 years than it has now - they were that far ahead as a band... Too bad Wilco is just a noodling jam band these days.

Anonymous said...

I was saddened to hear about the death of Jay Bennett. He was a brilliant player, arranger, producer and recording studio "mad scientist."

I met Jay @ Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ shortly after he was fired from Wilco. He was touring with Ed Burch behind their fabulous record "The Palace at 4 am." Jay spoke fondly about his Wilco bandmates despite the obvious fact that the pain of his departure from the band was still raw. He was funny and incredibly intelligent. He struck me as a a very sensitive and passionate person.

Jay was very engaged in a conversation that night at Maxwell's about the all-time best Wilco shows. He laughed heartily when I mentioned a show at Irving Plaza in NYC (October, 1995) when the lights went out (the band kept playing!) He was open and very articulate. He shared that he thought Wilco always played better shows in New York than they did in hometown Chicago. As a New York Wilco fan, that certainly made me smile.

Jay Bennett was a wizard on the electric guitar and always a dynamic stage presence.

Jay's work with Jeff Tweedy in Wilco (Being There, Summerteeth, Mermaid Ave x2, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) --in addition to The Palace at 4 am-- will stand as a great musical legacy.

Jay Bennett was one of my favorite musicians. He will be missed.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this Chris. I tear up as I read. I have many Wilco/Jay Bennett stories and memories.

The soundtrack to my most-pivotal years of 1994-97 was Wilco WITH Jay. I trekked 100s of miles in snowstorms to see them time and time again, and vividly recall a moment (in the pick-up) w/PASSENGER SIDE keeping me & my buddy Mickey safe on the treacherous Minneapolis roads. . .trying to get the First Avenue to see them perform. Like it was yesterday. Raging loud. And singing as we inched towards are destination: First & center! Gosh I was lucky to live so close to Wilco-ground zero: Chicago. Can't say how many cigarettes I witnessed Jay smoke. . . But it must have been dozens of packs.
What a nice guy. Long live Jay Bennett!
formerly Mel in MKE