Smile Politely

Jay Bennett in a Good Place

I hope you’ve seen the posts about Jay Bennett & A Boombox, and Jay’s early recordings with Titanic Love Affair. Now I’ll write my observations about Jay from the two decades I knew him.

Jay’s two most obvious musical influences were Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello. TLA was named for a Bragg lyric (from “Richard” off the 1983 album Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy).

You helped me build this bed
But you won’t help me sleep in it
When I fall between you and the wall
Our Titanic love affair sails on the morning tide

Jay adopted, for his TLA recordings, Costello’s  affectation of “byes” in place of “boys.”

From “Strict Time” on Costello’s 1981 album Trust:

All the byes are straight laced
and the girls are frigid
The talk is two-faced
and the rules are rigid
’cause it’s strict time

Jay sang “byes” at every opportunity in those days. In the group of TLA songs I introduced last week,  it shows up (perhaps less dramatically than usual) in the line:

Zit-faced byes with bleach-blond hair

21 years it took to get there

They were once skinheads, now their hair is long

They can’t play pool, they can’t write songs

The “bleach-blond hair” phrase returned in Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and the drum part from another great Trust song,  “New Lace Sleeves,” would show up on “Fireworks” years later (to some chagrin).

Jay lived long enough to learn the chord structure for “Man Out of Time” — which had stymied him for years — by watching from the wings as Costello performed it. I wish I could remember where this eureka moment took place, but when Jay told this story, I didn’t think to ask.

The Later Years: Decline

The second-to-last time I saw Jay, he was sitting in the alley outside Private Studios. He introduced me as “my nemesis” to the band he was recording, a Michigan-based female singer-songwriter and her lads. (I can’t recall the name, but I remember they had a really Flash-y web page, which was impressive in those days.)  

Jay’s teeth were solid brown from tobacco stains. In recent years, people had worried about Jay a lot. The quasi-local band American Minor had notoriously hired then fired him as their album producer, because he was asleep and unwakeable for one scheduled recording session, and spent another session encouraging them to use unfamiliar, unusual instruments and sound processors.

And he seemed medicated.

Why “my nemesis?” I wondered. I was never a threat to Jay on any level. I was a younger kid who looked up to him. He was sometimes nice and sometimes catty.  He could be both simultaneously.

But “nemesis?”

And then it occurred to me that his TLA-era girlfriend, the intoxicatingly beautiful Nina Hernyrd, cut my hair a few times circa 1989. Did this provoke outrageous jealousy? Maybe. It shouldn’t have. Jay was my superior intellectually, musically and probably by any other metric you could conceive, except that I’m taller (which, now that I think about it, can be a really big deal for short men).

Jay was one of the few people who could drop in unannounced during someone else’s recording session, interrupt it with impunity, join in, divert it, criticize it, and still be welcomed and appreciated. That happened one afternoon when he added a spontaneous vocal track to “When the Ball Drops” from my 2000 album, The Partial Shebang. Jay thought that album, and especially track 2, should merit attention from record labels. (This was before everyone realized the music industry was over.)

But the thing I remember most about that afternoon at Adam Schmitt’s home studio, on East Oregon Street in Urbana, was the debate. Jay absolutely could not glean any redeeming qualities in Poster Children, another local band recently dropped from Warner Brothers’ Reprise imprint, which had just released Wilco’s Summerteeth.

Adam and I brainstormed, thinking of all our favorite Poster Children songs, trying to figure out which one might appeal to Jay’s musical sensibilities. Adam retrieved the PC catalog from his CD collection. Track after track, Jay just shook his head. “I don’t get it,” he said

Watching Jay and Rose Marshack converse warmly, a year or two later at The Highdive, I blushed. But then, you don’t have to like a person’s music to like the person. And that works the other way around, too.

Another example of Jay’s frenemy tendencies came sometime around February of 1989.  Little Engine, my high school band, was playing the Volcano Room at Chin’s Wok n’ Roll Cafe. I was singing, and my eyes were closed. Jay and Rick Sims approached the stage (which was elevated about three inches above the rest of the room, now The Clybourne’s top floor) and poured beer over my head. At the time, it felt like a baptism. Just having the attention of those two made me feel worthwhile. I had just turned 18.

As I grew older, I realized it wasn’t necessarily a nice thing to do. Kind of bullying, really.

Jay could be combative, dismissive and even cruel. He had lots of bad things to say about other people’s’ music, and fairly rigid rules about music generally. He had opinions about the proper length a guitar strap should hang from one’s shoulders (deep), and fashion (plaid shorts, cuffed pants and buckled Doc Martens, for example, were good).  HIs station wagon was exactly the kind of car a kool guitarist would drive.

Of course, that made his occasional praise more worthwhile. Jay was a polymath, far more intelligent than almost anyone he encountered. For some reason, he was also insecure at times. Like a lot of brilliant people, his peaks and valleys were intense. When I Am Trying To Break Your Heart hit the cinemas, I recall a lot of people remarking that it portrayed Jay in an unflattering light. I doubt any of them knew Jay. It seemed exactly like him to me.

That’s not to say he wasn’t treated poorly by Jeff Tweedy. Moreover, his indignation was not solely self-serving.

He thought Max Johnston got screwed.

He thought Ken Coomer got screwed.

He worried that John “Steer It” would get screwed.

He was angry when Bob Egan was literally cut out of the Wilco picture.

By the way, Jay’s favorite Wilco album was A.M., which he didn’t play on. I know that only because I told him it was my favorite, and he agreed. Whether Jay liked musical innovation remains debatable. He was outspoken about the futility of lyrics until he penned some good ones.

But he certainly had the ability to be sweet and caring, which you heard a lot about in the wake of his death. On the worst night of my life, Jay looked after me. I appreciate that.

It was August 11, 2002, the night Jay and Edward Burch debuted their Palace At 4 A.M. locally. I was lead bartender at The Highdive that night, overseeing bar staff and bar operations, and greatly looking forward to the show. But then my recently ex-girlfriend showed up with another of our co-workers (male). Her need to join the Peace Corps in South America had been, evidently, not entirely true.

I missed that show, needing to go outside and bash a log into a concrete barrier. All summer long, the South America ruse had seemed less and less likely, and this is when it all came crashing down.

I was out of my mind.

After the show, Jay came over to my house, along with Dawna Nelson and Adam. They all looked after me. Jay left lecturing messages on the ex-girlfriend’s voicemail on the subject of how people should treat other people. I thought that was nice. Jay knew a lot about betrayal and jealousy.

In hindsight, I wonder again whether he was thinking, on that night in 2002,  about those haircuts in 1989. Had he held an irrational grudge for years? Maybe he thought I’d got my comeuppance for an indiscretion that never happened?

It never made sense that I’d be a romantic rival to him as an 18 year-old. Grudges don’t need to be rational, though. I don’t have fantasies of Nina Hernyrd’s fingers running through my hair, but I enjoyed it at the time.

Whatever the case, Jay took care of me that night. If there had been an imagined hatchet, it was buried.

On Substances

Jay’s curiosity for experiences drove his need for constant stimulation, which led to overindulging. One of his enduring relationships was with the recently deceased Greg “Stokes” Hill, a reliable source of unregulated pharmaceuticals. Stokes manned the door at Mabel’s during its 80s heyday. He took your money and looked at your I.D. He seemed intimidating at the time.

When Jay was in Wilco, he lived at 8 1/2 Main Street in Downtown Champaign. In those years, Stokes worked the door at The Highdive, two blocks away. I was the bartender. Greg didn’t seem intimidating then. He seemed sweet & narcoleptic. This was before the opioid epidemic was fashionable.

When Jay came into town, he would usually drop in to see Stokes for supplies.

Whether it was cigarettes, food, uppers, downers, whatever; Jay never encountered moderation. He could abstain completely, and did for months (years?) at a time. But he couldn’t enjoy just one of anything. Into his 30s, he celebrated his November 15th birthday by drinking his age in beers. Then there were the times when he’d drop 40 pounds and not drink at all.

Jay spoke about his substance tendencies in an interview with Robert Loerzel. Read this one too.

The Final Years: A Good Place

The last time I saw Jay was inside the Urbana Schnuck’s. He was there with Kate Stanton, buying an inexpensive bottle of wine. He gave me a big hug and introduced me to Kate. I introduced them both to Heather.

If you followed Jay in his final years, you’ll recall the phrase “in a good place.”  It was said about him posthumously, and seemed to contradict all known facts about him at the time (the health issues, the lawsuit, the weight gain, his relationship to chemicals).

If I hadn’t seen Jay that last time, I wouldn’t have believed that he “had really gotten his shit back together.” So I’m glad I did.

Kate was a grounding influence. She was born exactly a week after he was, on November 22, 1963. When you recall that C.S. Lewis expired on that day, you’ll realize it was a monumental 24 hours.

Later that day, I took a bottle of Crane Lake (then $2.50 at Meijer) to their bungalow at Buena Vista Court. I’d told them they should stop spending $7 for wine that all comes from the same factory in Lodi. They weren’t home. I left the bottle on the porch.

I went back to Buena Vista Court in the days after Jay died, but Kate’s sister explained she was too grief-stricken to see anyone. I left my contact info, and offered to help with anything that might need doing, whether cutting the grass or fetching some groceries. I never heard back, so I’d like to dedicate this offering to Kate, with my thanks.

Kate keeps in touch with Jay’s mother, Janis. Janis planned to visit Kate on her recent return to the Chicago suburbs. “They had not married… so Kate calls me her mother-in-love,” she reported.

I think Jay was in a good place when he died. I think he was happy. He’d been very active in the chat group (sadly non-archived) surrounding the Play or Pose Reunion, which took place on the weekend of his death. I believe he died because he was trying to get a really good night’s sleep before seeing all his old friends.

As usual, he overdid it.

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