Not to suggest that this is our “final word” on Jay Bennett by any means, but I asked the GLONO crew for some of their favorite memories of the late guitarist, producer, keyboard collector, and VCR repairman.
After this we’ll return to our regular programming. At least until further news breaks. Maybe it was all a hoax to get people to buy his new album on vinyl… At least, that’s what I’m going to keep hoping.
And remember, kids: try to make sure people realize how much you care while they’re still around to appreciate it. Life goes fast.
It was June 1998 and we were all still living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. All of us except Vit, who tipped us off to the “secret” show coming up at Lounge Ax. The billing had it listed simply as “Rhymes with Bilco.”
I’d seen Wilco in Detroit in support of Being There, but this was on their home turf. Wilco had fast become a new obsession because of that album. We piled into my band’s mini van and drove 4 hours to Chicago not sure we’d even get in as there were no advance ticket sales.
We arrived early and took in the energy and excitement of Chicago in the summer. Lounge Ax was in the recently gentrified neighborhood of Lincoln Park but was still as grimy and rock and roll as you can imagine. We got there early and got in quickly. There was no line. The Bulls were in the NBA finals and because Chicago is a sports town the TVs were on and people were sitting at the bar watching. Back then there were couches lined up on a raised platform running the length of the venue and we settled in hours before Rhymes with Bilco was set to take the stage.
We had beers and talked and watched basketball and the seeds of my obsession with moving to Chicago were sewn. I was with some of my best friends in a city that had always fascinated me (I was born north of Chicago and visited family regularly growing up) and I was waiting to see my favorite band in a small rock club. What could be better?
As the sun set and the beer took hold the crowd got thicker. It was getting harder to get to the bar, never mind the bathrooms. An already narrow passageway grew tighter still as guys wearing backwards baseball hats and girls wearing tight pants filled the gap.
I was talking to Vit on the couch when somebody tripped over my legs. I glanced up to see a dirty looking guy in pinstriped pants and dreadlocks look back briefly in my direction and apologize. It was a few seconds later before I realized who it was.
“Was that Jay Bennett?” I asked Vit.
“Yeah,” he said, too sarcastically. “What do you think they are, rock stars?”
I was really just asking for confirmation on who it was that tripped on my feet but the answer to Vit’s question bounced around my head before I said anything. I was a little pissed that he was condescending but I had to be honest.
“Yeah, to me they are. This band made an album I love as much as anything I can think of,” which was hyperbole but also true in the bliss of early drunkenness.
When they finally took the stage we were collectively blotto. We were the obnoxious assholes singing, dancing, and generally causing a ruckus at shows. We harangued the tall baseball hat wearers and nearly got in a fight. We were the fans Jeff Tweedy would later reprimand from the stage (rightly) but that night Wilco was a rock band. Jeff may be the Leader of the Band but Jay was the Chairman of Fun.
As has been mentioned on countless fan blogs and bulletin boards, Jay Bennett clearly loved being in a rock band; especially those early years when Wilco was gaining respect and a following. But it was his playing, as opposed to his stage antics, that mesmerized me that night. His guitar playing on “Forget the Flowers” is still some of my favorite on record and to see it live—to SEE that picking—blew me away.
It was a perfect rock show on a perfect night in a perfect city. I miss my friends and I miss Chicago and I miss that band.
To be perfectly honest, I was always more of a Jeff Tweedy fan. My first exposure to Wilco was a couple of songs on a mix that Vit made. “Passenger Side” struck a nerve. By the time Being There was released, I had been buying up every used copy of AM I could find and giving them away to my friends.
Sab bought Being There on vinyl and I remember listening to it for the first time in his decrepit apartment. We were all shocked by the range and fully enjoyed playing “name that reference” with each song. It was obvious that Wilco had been raiding our record collections. Tonight’s the Night, the White Album, American Beauty, they were all represented along with a lot more. Derivative? Perhaps, but those bands weren’t around in 1996 and Wilco was.
I remember talking to Bennett in 2002 outside of Laurie’s Planet of Sound after that in-store he and Edward Burch played. It was the first time I had talked face-to-face with someone from a band I really loved, and I was a mess. Not as bad as when I waited outside the theatre to get Johnny Marr‘s autograph in 1989, when I could barely manage to blubber a “thanks,” but close. As usual, Phil handled the talking. I made some comment about “kids like us” coming up to him and hassling him, and I immediately realized that he was not actually that much older than we were. It was the first time I recognized the fact that dudes in bands were actually my peers, at least age-wise.
But I’ll never forgot how cool Bennett was with us. At first, we were just going to ask him to sign a CD for a giveaway we were hosting. But really, we wanted to hear his side of what went down with Wilco, even if it was off the record. We had been following the recording of the new album as information trickled out. We knew that Ken Coomer had been kicked out. We knew that Sam Jones was filming everything, and we watched when the Wilco movie’s web site unceremoniously stripped Jay Bennett’s name off its cast of characters after he was kicked out of the band (before, after). History was being re-written in real time on the internet right in front of us. Bennett wanted to share his side of the story, and he was willing to go on the record with a small, local website that promised him not to get “creative” with our editing.
No one’s going to suggest that Bennett’s post-Wilco material could really hold a candle to the stuff he did with that band. But so far, neither can Wilco’s post-Bennett material. That era is over. I’m happy I caught as many Wilco shows back then as I did. Wish I would’ve seen a few more. Glad we’ve got the albums and all the bootlegs…and YouTube. Big thanks to all the tapers out there.
Thoughts on the end of Jay/Wilco
As we mourn the passing of Jay Bennett, I’m struck with a sense of deja vu. Have we all been here before? Indeed — when Bennett was issued his walking papers from Wilco. Let us not mince words: He made Wilco what it was and his departure from the band, my favorite at the time, is something I have never quite gotten over. I may never, now that Bennett’s untimely death all but solidifies my attitude. Yes, I’ve hoped that some day, just maybe, he and Jeff Tweedy would kiss and make up. That can’t happen now, which gives me a sad sense of closure.
Tweedy gets lots of run as a brilliant-artist-type, but it’s clear that without a foil (Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, Bennett with Wilco) he’s merely an above average singer-songwriter. But during Bennett’s tenure Wilco, the real Wilco, was a great band, quite possibly one of those rare modern rock acts that deserve mention in the same breath as the classic era titans: The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Grateful Dead, etc. To draw an analogy with the Academy Awards, Bennett was the Best Supporting Actor, who by virtue of his own enthusiasm for the role made the lead seem that much better. Not to disparage the sort of thespian gods who win Best Actor, but in most Oscar years the real talent is found among those nominated from lesser roles.
Comparing Wilco before Jay came aboard and with various lineups after he left, there is no disputing how different, and to my mind better, the band was with him on stage and in the studio. The band’s albums should bear similar fruit, at least to any reasonable listener. So as we all forge ahead without Bennett, let’s hope that the history of Wilco as it continues to be written correctly acknowledges his contribution. Let his acrimony with Jeff no longer be the first bullet-point in the biography. May his era be defined as the true apex of a band that never would have been without him and was never the same after he left.
Unlike my GloNo colleagues, I was late to the Wilco party. Which, in retrospect, resulted in an audio advantage, perhaps. As in I didn’t have a predilection to take one side over another, which essentially was Tweedy versus everyone else (it sort of struck me that the Wilco shows I saw could have been billed as “Jeff Tweedy with Wilco,” although it could have been construed that Wilco was (is?) nothing more than a vehicle for Tweedy). Anyway, when I listened, it was about listening to the music, not to the personalities. When The Palace at 4 am was released I heard it as what it was: a work that was, regardless of the performer(s) (meaning who was whom, who had a blowup with whom, who was ready for a People magazine expose, if People went there), well orchestrated and delivered, something that stood on its merits, something which provides all that one needs to know about Jay Bennett’s talent, independent of any of the penis-size comparisons that seem to have become too much of the back story that was becoming the central act.
If there is a lesson in all of this, it could be this: Bennett died at 45. Which just goes to the point that we all have little time for squabbling and bickering, that what we do, what we leave behind, is what matters most. The People magazine part goes into the recycling bin, to be forgotten.