Like everything these days, word of Jay Bennett‘s death trickled out in digital drops. First was a Facebook message I saw quoting a Via Chicago bulletin board post that “someone in New York named Jay Bennett had died.” Assuming it was a simple name coincidence I didn’t immediately think much of it. I did a Google news search just to be sure, but the only articles that came up were about Bennett’s recent lawsuit against Wilco and a short article on his new label’s experiment with raising funds to release his next album. No obits. No news otherwise.
Then the stream of text messages and emails came.
Undertow Records was the first official source I saw confirm Bennett’s death. I didn’t even see it at first, I read about it in emails. Undertow Released Bennett’s first post-Wilco effort, a collaboration with longtime friend and sometime collaborator, Edward Burch, titled The Palace at 4:00am.
Burch confirmed Bennett’s death for the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Jim DeRogatis Sunday evening.
“Early this morning, Jay died in his sleep and an autopsy is being performed,” Burch is quoted as saying on DeRogatis’ blog. “The family is in mourning and is unavailable for comment at this time.”
Throughout the day fans grappled in digital real-time with the news as confirmation spread. Twitter streams became a virtual record party dedicated to Bennett’s catalog with fans posting condolences and listing what songs were NP (“Now Playing”) to help console them. Wilco is not a HUGE band and Bennett has retained only a segment of that fanbase so we’re not talking about a mass cultural moment but his passing has affected a number of people very deeply and the fact that it’s all online for the world to see proves it.
Bennett’s post-Wilco years have not been great. It could not have been easy for him to see Wilco catapult to new heights largely on the strength of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the last album he made with them and on which he played such a huge role. Wilco has certainly done fine without Jay Bennett but one has to wonder how possible any of it would have been had he NEVER been part of the band?
The circumstances of Jay Bennett’s death are as yet not known publicly. Internet rumors of course abound. Fans know he’d recently announced plans to have hip replacement surgery (documented in a MySpace blog post) to correct what he said was an injury sustained years ago, possibly the result of an ill-planned and executed stage dive. We also know he was uninsured. That fact led many people to question the timing of his lawsuit against Jeff Tweedy and Wilcorp. Was he broke? Was he desperate? Was he bitter and vengeful? Does any of this have anything to do with his death? Right now, we don’t know.
Chicagoist ran a short article about Bennett’s new label’s efforts to raise enough money to press his recent album. Rock Proper‘s approach had a number of contribution levels with varying returns on the investment. Anything from your name in the credits to private studio time with the man who made one of the best albums of this now not-so-new century. As of the posting of that article, they’d raised just $107. The title of the album is Whatever Happened I Apologize
Glorious Noise had been in contact with Jay Bennett over the last several weeks. Through emails and text messages we’ve been engaged in a conversation about his current affairs and trying to schedule a formal interview. Our last communication with Jay was a series of text messages on May 13. We had a phone interview set up for that evening but as Chicago reeled from sever thunderstorms and rain, Jay Bennett was bailing out his basement.
Hey Derek I hate to do this…I’ve been battling a basement flood and leaking roof since 4 am…loads of fun…and now we have round two of severe weather on the way…I am just beat…oh yeah…I don’t have electricity, phone or cable…and this is the first time today this phone just might work…it has been insane w/o electricity I have to bucket out the sump pump…damn near fell off the roof…can we pleas touch base tomorrow…I’m really sorry.”
Jay Bennett was largely responsible for some of the most important music in my life. The Wilco albums to which he contributed arguably represent the best run of ANY band in recent memory. He helped transform Wilco from the less interesting outcome of Uncle Tupelo to the best band in America.
Godspeed, Jay Bennett.
Jeff Tweedy Responds to News of Jay Bennett’s Death: “We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy. We will miss Jay as we remember him — as a truly unique and gifted human being and one who made welcome and significant contributions to the band’s songs and evolution. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends in this very difficult time.”