Jay Bennett at the Iota Club, 2003. Photo by Therra Cathryn Gwyn.
My phone rang during the week after Memorial Day 2009 and I didn’t get to it in time, but I immediately listened to the voicemail and heard my friend Sherri’s voice break.
“Tee…?” she said softly, “Jay Bennett died.”
I sat the phone down and stared at the wall. Surely this couldn’t be.
The first time I laid eyes on Jay Bennett I was taken slightly aback. He walked in the door of the Iota Club in Arlington, Va, outside Washington DC, and my friend Sherri nudged me. “There he is,” she said. There he was, indeed. He resembled no one so much as Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Affable Rockslob as he rolled into the room but had a presence that extended far beyond his physicality and a talent that did the same. I was intrigued immediately and I don’t think my reaction was unusual. Jay Bennett was most compelling, even before you knew his resume or capabilities. Now he’s gone, dead at 45, and along with a plethora of fans and loving friends and his devoted family, I’m wondering why he had to go so soon.
For those who don’t know the name Jay Bennett, go to Google News and type in his name. In May/June of 2009 you would have gotten some 1300 hits on the news of his untimely death, including Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Times, Rolling Stone, Spin magazine, MTV and Associated Press. He was an accomplished musician/singer/songwriter/producer from the Chicago area, once upon a time was in a band called Titanic Love Affair and later released one of my favourite CDs ever with his friend and sometimes collaborator, Edward Burch. As Bennett and Burch they released the wonderful and intoxicating (Rolling Stone magazine called it “sunny”) “Palace At 4 a.m ( Part 1)”. However, it’s usually Jay’s well documented and much-argued-about past of fuss and fame with Jeff Tweedy, as part of Wilco, that you will read about. This union brought forth some good music and on film, some good drama: Jay was fired from Wilco in 2001, and most unluckily for both he and Tweedy, in my opinion, the deed was done as they were being filmed for a documentary about the making of the band’s ”Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”. This resulted in Jay’s departure being featured in the movie, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”. As anyone who has been involved in any kind of break-up knows, be it business, personal or artistic, you’re never going to get the full story in a few frames. Even now, some 9 years or so later, bloggers and fans and friends and die-hards will argue whether Jeff Tweedy is the alt-devil in disguise and the cruel engine of Jay’s fate or whether it was simply time for Jay to leave the band, that his season of Wilco had passed. I notice for many the Wilco with Jay Bennett is their Wilco of choice. They sure did some great work together and it will stand.
Back to the Iota Club. Jay and Edward were touring behind “Palace at 4 a.m.” and Sherri and I drove up from Georgia to see them. She’d already met both Edward and Jay, after seeing them open for Kim Richey. She recruited me by connecting Jay to something I loved: the “Mermaid Ave” albums of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics that Billy Bragg and Wilco so brilliantly set to music. “California Stars” had become one of my all-time favourite tunes and Jay was credited with writing the music. I hadn’t seen Jay or Ed perform before but introduced myself that night, mentioning that we had a common friend in the Chicago music scene, beautiful songstress Kelly Hogan, who I had known and worked with in Atlanta. I liked the pair. I found Ed Burch to be upbeat, witty, intelligent and, what we call in the South with no irony, “a nice boy”. I was delighted to meet the musician whose high, clear singing so well complimented Jay’s breathy/smokey growl on my new favorite CD. Jay was sweet and immediately familiar. “Can I have hug?” he asked me. “Um. Sure” I said. Why not? He was also upbeat, funny, friendly and, his opening act informed me, cleaner and better smelling than he’d been in weeks. I laughed at the banter between them. Jay and I somehow almost immediately got onto to the subjects of Leonard Cohen (we were both big fans), the Bee Gees early music (also both big fans, but I didn’t like “Cucumber Castle”, he did) and the fact that both our marriages were in disintegration stage. I used the words “inactively married” to describe my relationship’s spiral at that point and an hour or so later, during their show, Jay turned to the audience and asked me, “What was that phrase you used, again?” I looked around to see if he meant someone else.
“You,” he said to me, “What was that phrase you used to describe your marriage?”
“Oh,” I said, as if people engaged me from the stage of the Iota Club all the time in front of an audience of strangers about my personal life. “INACTIVELY MARRIED!” I repeated, loud enough so everyone in the club could hear, because, God knows, I didn’t want to repeat it. Somehow shouting it out in front of others made it both funnier and more gruesome, and it fit the state of my dying relationship. I had to smile despite it all. You either tiptoe over a dying relationship or you stomp that sucker flat.
“Yeah.” Jay said, and then continued with the performance. Even later in the show he decided to exit the club and venture outside in the cold, snow from an earlier storm still banking the curbs. Edward, on keyboard, stayed onstage – steady, keeping the flow, smoke from his cigarette curling around his head. Jay sang from the street outside. We followed him down the road as far as his mic cord would take him. He tried to get Sherri to sing the last verse of “It Hurts”, offering her the microphone. She demurred. When I talked to her the other day she says now she wishes she would have done it. Let that be a lesson to us all: if you have a chance to sing in the snow with a genius, do it.
At that point I was hooked on Jay and Edward’s dynamic duo-ism and went to Chicago a few times to see them and hang out. The street fair performance I saw in June of 2003 was the last time they performed together for a long while, due to personal factors and other projects. Sher and I waited for yet another chance to see them again. It didn’t seem to be in the cards and a few years passed, too uneventfully, on the Bennett and Burch front. But we didn’t think it was over. We just thought it was fallow, like a field that’s getting ready to spring forth at any moment with the bounty of a lifetime. In the meantime, I got Jay’s solo CDs, kept in touch with the smooth singing Edward and often would put “Palace” (both the studio and later limited edition acoustic version) on my CD player, leaving it there for hours.
Now, with the news of Jay’s death, I think about him and his artistic significance, his musical intelligence, the comparisons in the press to Brian Wilson, to Brian Jones. I think of his loyal friends, the people he rubbed the wrong way, his bond with Edward, the fine work he produced for others, his sweet and complex nature. I think of how some people dubbed him adorable, and some, arrogant. To me he just seemed…well, big. He lived big, he thought big, he played big. He left a wake like an ocean liner crossing a lake. That kind of big. And when that kind of big leaves suddenly, it leaves a hole. A big one.
Bennett and Burch, 2003. Photo by Therra C. Gwyn.