A Look Back at the Life of Musician Jay Bennett

A Look Back at the Life of Musician Jay Bennett

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Rock musician Jay Bennett, who was best known for his work in the Chicago band Wilco died last weekend at the age of 45. The cause of death has not yet been determined. Contributor Robert Loerzel has this appreciation of Bennett’s life and music.

In June 2001, Wilco was wrapping up work on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot when I went to Jay Bennett’s Arlington Heights home for my first interview with him. He wore a grease-stained shirt. And he had a hammer in his hand when he opened the door. He led me back to his garage, where he was repairing two 1963 Ford Falcons. He proudly showed me some stereo equipment he’d gotten at local rummage sales. He talked about fixing up stuff that he’d pulled out of his neighbors’ trash. Bennett fondly called this habit “garbage picking.”

BENNETT: I have no shame about doing that, even if it’s on the same block. I garbage-picked this lawn mower, and it didn’t work at all, and I rebuilt the engine with about eight dollars of parts, and now it fires right up. LOERZEL: It’s amazing what people throw out.
BENNETT: It’s amazing. I garbage-picked a VCR, like a brand-new Sony. I used to work at an electronic-repair store for about three years, and at the time we did a lot of VCR repair, so — It just had a tape stuck in it. You’ve just got to go in there and pull one of the little belts around manually, and you get the tape out and they’re usually good. That’s how I know how to do all this stuff. My dad, my dad and I worked together on cars when I was a kid.

I could see that Bennett was just as much of a handyman around the garage as he was in a recording studio. He told me he hated to pay anyone to fix anything if he could do it himself. I didn’t know it at the time, but Jay Bennett’s tendency to do everything himself was causing trouble with the other members of Wilco. As we sat talking on Bennett’s back porch, he seemed happy. And he said he was happy that band leader Jeff Tweedy gave him a chance to collaborate on writing and arranging songs.

BENNETT: He didn’t need to. I’m glad he did. He could have really easily said, “This is my band.” But I mean, that would have really changed the whole vibe of the band, too. I’m not saying people would have quit or run off or whatever, but it would have been different. You know, like, it would have been like, “Oh, that’s the band I’m the guitar player in.” I think he was true to his word in wanting it to be a group.

Two months later, I was just as shocked as anybody when I learned Tweedy had dismissed Bennett from the band.

As it turned out, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was one of the decade’s best albums, but those sessions had been a tumultuous time for Wilco. Greg Kot tells the story in his book Wilco: Learning How to Die. Bennett was calling the shots in the studio, and tensions flared. Tweedy told Bennett: “A circle can only have one center.” Bennett later recounted his side of the story during a phone interview.

BENNETT: You know, it’s as simple as this: Jeff just all but said, “I want my band back.” … And he had every right in the world to say that, you know? I speculate that there was distance growing because I was f**king wearing seven different hats during the making of that record. And it, uh, it, ummm, it hampered the communication in the band. Because people didn’t know if they were talking to Jay Bennett the engineer, the producer, the musician, the songwriter, you know?

As Bennett began to forge a new post-Wilco musical career, he crammed all his vintage guitars, keyboards and tape machines next to the washing machine in his basement. I stopped by a couple of times to watch as he recorded an album with Edward Burch called “The Palace at 4 A.M.” Even when I thought the songs sounded like they were finished, Bennett kept on tinkering, adding one overdub after another until he had more than 100 tracks on some songs.

ambi: Tape of Bennett working in the studio on the song “Puzzle Heart.”

That sort of endless tinkering was part of Jay Bennett’s genius, but it was also where he went wrong sometimes. When he finally made a decision, the results could be amazing. “The Palace at 4 A.M.” was a wonderful start for Bennett’s post-Wilco life. It showed his encyclopedic musical vocabulary — and a lot of heart.

Jay Bennett’s early concerts with Edward Burch had the triumphant feel of a talented musician declaring independence from his old band. And the two of them could not resist joking around.

BURCH: Are y’all ready for a guitar solo? ‘Cause, you see, Jay Bennett, he talks with his guitar. Myself, I sing.
BENNETT: You sound so, you sound so goddamn Southern Illinois right now, I’m about to kick your ass.
BURCH: The clock is ticking, motherf****r play that guitar!

But like most independent musicians, Bennett didn’t sell very many records or make much money. And as time went on and Bennett recorded four solo records, it began to feel like he was struggling. He got divorced. He missed gigs. Some fans thought he seemed depressed and intoxicated at his concerts. When I asked him about all this in 2004, he insisted he was all right. He admitted that he’d had some problems with drinking and drugs but said he was going through therapy and getting better. This spring, Bennett was recording new music and taking classes for his fourth college degree. But he also had a serious medical problem. He told fans that he needed hip-replacement surgery. And he sued Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, saying the band owed him royalties, a claim that Tweedy refuted. Back in 2002, Bennett told me that he held no grudges.

BENNETT: I am not a collector of enemies. I have few to none, you know? I just, I don’t believe in that s**t you know. … I do not believe in holding onto anger and hatred and negative emotions, because they’re all based on fear.

On Memorial Day weekend, I happened to be in Champaign for a reunion concert featuring some local rock bands from the same era when Bennett played with Titanic Love Affair, his eighties group. I was hoping to see Jay, who had moved to Urbana a few years ago, but instead I heard the sad news: He had died early Sunday morning at his home.

Even when other people perceived that Jay was sad or bitter, he always insisted to me that he was happy — especially whenever he was recording music or playing a guitar.