I don’t want to hear the results of Jay Bennett’s autopsy.

by oz on May 28, 2009


I’ve been holding out on dropping the RIP post for Ex-Wilco band member Jay Bennett, but I’ve been watching the blog community mourn. If you haven’t heard, Jay Bennett died in his sleep on Sunday. I think most humans have a morbid curiosity to understand one’s cause of death, especially when they perish before their time. Jay was only 45.

I’ve always felt pity for Jay Bennett. I know I that I shouldn’t because he was a brilliant musician and his influence in transcending Wilco’s music beyond alt-country and into something more beautiful is indelible. Their album Summerteeth was his second with the band and marked a paradigm shift in their sound. It still stands as my favorite Wilco album and one of my favorites of all time.

Jay doesn’t deserve my pity. His accomplishments deserve celebration. But still, after watching the 2002 Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, he was painted as the bad guy. Ostracized for disagreeing with Jeff Tweedy on Wilco’s creative direction, his departure was bittersweet. Wilco went on to flourish and Jay went off quietly to produce solo albums that never found an audience. Recently, Jay sued Jeff Tweedy for royalties he said he was owed for the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the ensuing documentary.‚  When someone mentions his name, I immediately think “the guy that was kicked out of Wilco.”

And I suppose that’s the reason I don’t want to hear the results of Jay Bennett’s autopsy. This week I’m revisiting Wilco albums where Jay’s influence is palpable. I’m going to appreciate his contributions, relive some great memories I’ve had with these CD’s and, most importantly, rebuild his character in my mind’s eye. His passing is tragic and if the cause death is determined to be something other than natural causes, it won’t be how I remember him. Hasn’t his legacy been tarnished enough?

Free Album Download: Jay Bennett – Whatever Happened I Apologize.

Video: Wilco – Cars Can’t Escape (from I Am Trying To Break Your Heart)

[Help cover funeral expenses with burial insurance]

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Woody May 28, 2009 at 8:35 am

Well said.

Lennon May 28, 2009 at 9:06 am

Very well said.

mrs. oz May 28, 2009 at 9:55 am

Agreed. Good post!

Anna May 28, 2009 at 10:44 am

I think you’re right. It seems to be a bad sign that we haven’t heard updates yet. I’d rather leave it with everyone praising his accomplishments.

Starkey May 28, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Jay was the perfect foil or muse or both to Tweedy. I for one believe the band took an unfortunate turn after his “firing”. It’s no coincidence that Wilco’s best work, Summerteeth and YHF, was completed at a time in which Jay’s influence was peaking within the band. The band has not been the same since and that’s too bad because their best music was simply unbelievable. RIP Jay.

oz May 28, 2009 at 8:03 pm

@Anna – Don’t read too much into the fact that we haven’t heard updates. The results could take a week or two.

@Starkey – I agree completely. YHF was completely ingenious and the context gives it historical significance. It’s sometimes hard to listen to because images of 9/11 come rushing through my mind. “Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs.”

A bit off topic, but the new Wilco album is lyrically a far cry from anything they’ve done in the past.

Starkey May 29, 2009 at 5:33 am

Oz – I also believe Summerteeth was a stroke of pop/alt-country genius. One of the more overlooked albums, but a masterpiece.

Aaron Robert Hall May 29, 2009 at 2:11 pm

A truly sad day indeed! When we heard of Jay’s passing Monday morning we instantly broke out Summerteeth and YHF and revisited all the good times we had with those albums. It brought back some great and not so great road trips, epic camping sessions, and some real happy and sad times. I hadn’t picked up those albums in a while so when we revisited them it brought a lot out. Thank you jay for all the great times. You will be missed.

Disparatehousewife May 30, 2009 at 1:17 am

Both Bennett and Wilco MUTUALLY benefitted artistically from their collaboration. I think it is wrong to NOW vilify Jeff Tweedy for his creative and business decisions over a decade ago, only because Bennett has died.

Death doesn’t equal automatic sainthood. Neither is success an indicator of evil.

Though I am forming my opinions based completely on what I saw on the “I’m Trying…” documentary, it seemed that an end to the Tweedy/Bennett collaboration was inevitable.

Wilco was Tweedy’s brainchild and lifeline. At that point in time Tweedy was under tremendous stress. He had no idea whether the band was going to sink into oblivion, especially after being dropped by their label. While his musical career hang in the balance, Tweedy was also contending with health problems of his own, and a family to feed. His professional reputation would bear the entire brunt of the band’s success or failure, but he felt compelled to follow his own business and creative vision.

And Bennett, though indisputably talented, had a personality that appeared to clash with Tweedy’s, exacerbated by the stress of having to put out that album that the label no longer wanted. (Notice it was Jeff who had to go peddling the album to other labels.)

I think, in fact, that Tweedy brought out the best in Bennett, and that Bennett’s work suffered subsequently without the reining in of Tweedy’s vision.

Whether Wilco’s work has been better or worse post Bennett is subjective — certainly, they have become more and more commercially successful, to the dismay of purists. But then, Jeff Tweedy has never been worried about dismaying the purists.

I saw Wilco perform in Madrid the day after Mr. Bennett’s death, and the crowd gasped when Mr. Tweedy walked on stage. He looked the picture of death himself. He has lost a lot of weight, and was pallor to the point that my concert buddy thought Tweedy was wearing stage make up. He is obviously grieving too.

He might have fired Jay Bennett, but he is not responsible for Bennett’s subsequent success or failure, life or death.

oz May 30, 2009 at 7:53 am

Thanks for the comment Disparatehousewife. My intention wasn’t to vilify Tweedy, so I hope others don’t interpret the post in that way. I most certainly would not blame Jeff for his lack luster post-Wilco career and I wouldn’t even come close to saying that he could cause Jay’s death.

I don’t blame Tweedy for anything. He’s the nucleus of the band and if he has personal or creative differences with another band mate, he can fire them and I won’t think less of him.

I think its just a tragic situation. I’m looking forward to seeing Wilco this month at The Mountain Winery in Northern California.

Tom May 30, 2009 at 9:24 am

I agree that not judging either party, and not dwelling on the actual cause of Jay’s death are the healthier options. After having had the honor of working with Jay in his house in Arlington Heights and then his loft studio in Chicago, I got to know him on a personal level. He never displayed a real malice toward Jeff, ever. He looked fondly on his days with Wilco, but also looked ahead to the massive amounts of his own material that he wanted to produce. He treated my band mates and I with complete professionalism and stopped at nothing to get exactly the type of sound we were looking for – meaning that he would often work for hours (and hours) to perfect a 20-second riff where any other engineer would have “settled” for something hours earlier. In this drive for perfection, I saw the “artist” in Jay. In a day and age when that term is thrown around loosely, I mean that I saw the James Joyce in him – the Van Gogh in him. I’ll never forget the day that I realized that I was working with a true artist – a week or so into the project – it was absolutely transcendent for me. Since then, I treasured that time and the album he produced for us. We also spent hours in the studio recording covers of his choosing just for fun and even made up songs off the top of our heads and threw them to tape immediately. I remember the day he found an old Tiny Tim reel that must have laid in storage for decades – we played it and laughed at the treasured find! In closing, this is the Jay I will remember. Jay Bennett, the smiling, friendly, talented artist.

nittany roar May 30, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Did anyone get a chance to hear the demos from YHF? I found 2 different sets posted on the web, 1 titled YHF demos and the other YHF The Engineer Demos. There’s some pretty neat stuff in there, some stripped down versions of the songs and even some unreleased tracks from the recording sessions. I never knew this stuff existed, it’s pretty cool hearing the demos evolve into the official tracks off the album.

Disparatehousewife June 2, 2009 at 1:56 pm

I was responding not directly to your article, but to comments I have been reading on this topic posted on many blogs and news websites.

Thank you for your thoughtful tribute to Mr. Bennett. I am with you, that I don’t need to know what killed him. I am just sad that he is gone.

The Madrid show was terrific, by the way. By the end of the show Mr. Tweedy seemed himself again. It could have been jetlag, and not grief. I may have been projecting.

jeff June 14, 2009 at 6:06 am

I own A.M., YHF and beyond. I first became aware of Wilco from a friend with Being There. Saw the movie, been to the concerts, Yada- Yada and saw the edited stuff in the movie just like everyone. For my Jay Bennettt tribute (someone who I believe is hugely talented and I respect) I purchased Summerteeth for the first time last week and have been blown away. It will now stay in my car CD player this summer just like YHF did a few summers ago.
People naturally want to have a favorite (Jagger vs Richards, Lennon v McCartney, etc.). None of us know these artists really. We put them on a pedestal. Due to the fact they don’t have normal lives most everyone else, their eccentricities sometimes makes them jerks. I am sorry for Jay becasue I believe the movie (and in some ways how Tweedy uses and discards folks – not intentionally but I think he has some social inabilities and he is VERY insecure – hell just read his lyrics) made a forever sculpture of him. To me, Summerteeth and YHF are the Rubber Soul-Revolver twin towers of their career and like the Beatles, represent the pinacle of achievement, never to be revisted or duplicated. Let’s just all be thankful for those records.

DBT Chicago October 29, 2009 at 10:27 pm

as i accidently revisited this recently, what pisses me off the most is wilco’s (i.e. jeff tweedy’s) refusal to comment about jay’s death. i get the wilco corporation was upset by being sued, and maybe jay lost his mind. still, jay’s contributions to this band are undeniable and should be recognized … by the band. wilco’s no comment on his death is BS. if lawyers are whispering that into tweedy’s ear, shame on him for listening.
why can’t he put that shit to the side. i honestly believe tweedy wants to pay his respects and talk about jay’s death, but his business associates won’t let him. and for what, tens of thousands of dollars? i mean, i’d like to see what jay was asking for. has any writer found this out?
if i am wrong on any count, please tell me. i am going with my gut here. but if you have something, at least back it up.
as of recently, all wilco to me is a major-label band masquerading as an indie band.

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