Thursday, May 28, 2009

Song of the Week 5/22/09

Billy Bragg and Wilco - “Another Man’s Done Gone”

I was hanging out at a 33rd birthday party-slash-BBQ Sunday night when I happened to check my work mail on my iPhone. (Why would I do that on a holiday weekend? I am a moron, that’s why.) The subject of the 7:07 p.m. email from my co-worker Dave almost made me drop my drink on the rooftop patio:

“Shit…Jay Bennett Dead?”

I silently said “no no no no no no no no” and hoped that I would find out it was not true. Alas, word came in quickly (via numerous comments on my Facebook status) that Bennett had indeed died in his sleep sometime Sunday morning, with the news confirmed to the Chicago papers by his longtime friend and musical collaborator Edward Burch.

Most people who knew of the former Wilco multi-instrumentalist have only one impression of the man, which come from the compelling 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. The film shows Bennett as a cranky, pushy musician who can’t understand why Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy doesn’t appreciate what he brings to the band’s in-progress album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Having met Bennett only three times in my life--two of them in interview sessions--I definitely saw those parts of his personality up close. What the film doesn’t show is that he was a very intelligent (he had multiple college degrees), well spoken, funny, somewhat sarcastic and always engaging man whose musical knowledge seeped through everything he touched. Bennett, like all of us, was certainly not perfect. His battles with various addictions have been mentioned in various histories of Wilco. And this year the man himself started pouring out his thoughts about his up-and-down-life on a very compelling MySpace blog. The last entry mentioned his lack of health insurance and how he was saving money to get a hip replacement. I remember thinking, “A hip replacement at 45? That’s too young.” And dying at 45 is most certainly too young.

There are people who say Wilco was never the same after Jay Bennett was booted in 2001, while others say the band has gotten more interesting since then. Both sides are right. Wilco, like most great bands, has never stopped changing and searching for what is their next musical path. That journey has kept them as a vital act, even 15 years after Tweedy convinced Uncle Tupelo bassist John Stiratt and drummer Ken Coomer to join him in his new band. Wilco became different after Bennett left. Not better or worse, just different. Both eras of the band have been filled with great songs, great recordings and great performances. And that definitely would not have happened without one Jay Walter Bennett. He helped push the band’s arrangements to encompass more than just their alt-country roots. And while he might have had his problems with the sonic direction of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, he was the one person who knew how to get those sounds Jeff Tweedy was hearing in his head.

Bennett was a great songwriting foil for Tweedy as well. He co-wrote such Wilco classics (yeah, I feel like calling them that) “California Stars,” “War on War,” “ELT,” “I’m Always in Love,” “Jesus etc.” and “My Darling.” That last song was close to Bennett’s heart, as it was a lullaby he wrote with Tweedy for his niece. Bennett even re-recorded it for his first post-Wilco project, the highly underrated The Palace at 4a.m. (Part 1). That disc with Edward Burch was such a joy to hear. Bennett poured every sonic trick he had into that album. Back in 2002 I wrote, “Bennett was known as the jack of all instruments in Wilco, and on Palace he doesn’t disappoint. The orgy of overdubs is incredible in the middle section of ‘Talk to Me’: there are solos from a banjo, a mellotron, some unidentifiable ’70s keyboard and a lap steel guitar. After seeing this duo play together, I have a hunch that this partnership might last. I for one can’t wait to hear what Part 2 brings.” The two Burch and Bennett shows I did see had great tunes, but best of all showed off a great humorous chemistry between the two. At one show I remember saying to my friend April, “These two ought to do a comedy album.” Bennett made four solo albums after Palace Part 1, all of which have compelling dark pop songs. Burch and Bennett had made plans to record a Palace Part 2 this year and Bennett was working on another solo effort, even with his hip pain. I can only wonder what is left in the vaults of Bennett’s Pieholden Studios in Urbana, Illinois.

The Jay Bennett I choose to remember is the one that made me laugh and get swept up in the power of music at the same time. He showed some of that wit on stage in bantering with Jeff Tweedy. However, most of the time he was a man always moving on stage--from keyboard to keyboard, to guitar, to guitar and keyboard in the same song, he was always making Wilco sound bigger than a five piece. And when the man played guitar, he laid down some great solos. I was fortunate enough to see Bennett perform as a member of Wilco 14 times from 1996 to 2000. And they always delivered. When the band became a four piece after he left, their sound became extremely thin. It took three years--and two people--to replace the sonic void that Bennett filled was when he was onstage. (And as I mentioned before, some people still don’t think that hole has been filled in Wilco’s soul.)

Lastly, I’d like to share a funny anecdote about Bennett and his take on his own music. Back in 1999 Cheap Trick were playing a late afternoon show at CBGB to promote their upcoming live album Music for Hangovers. I was one of the lucky few to pack myself inside the club to witness a great set. I noticed that Jay Bennett and Ken Coomer were in the club, which made me laugh since I was going to see them do the first of two shows at Irving Plaza that night. After the Cheap Trick show wrapped up I walked across the street to grab a bottle of water at a deli. As I got in line to pay, I noticed this dreadlocked guy standing in front of me. Sure enough, it was Jay. I said hello to him, and he grudgingly remembered me (we had done an interview only a couple weeks before). I said to him, “It's gonna take a lot to top that show.” He replied, "We can't top Cheap Trick," and then broke into this huge smile.

“Another Man’s Done Gone” is the shortest song on the two Mermaid Avenue albums, but it just may be the most powerful. Legend has it Jay Bennett and Billy Bragg were working on a melody for a piano piece that Bennett had. Tweedy woke up from a nap, happened to grab a scrap of Woody Guthrie lyrics and within a short time they had recorded the song, which brought tears to the eyes of many in the studio. And what a masterful stanza of words Tweedy chose:

“Sometimes I think I'm gonna lose my mind
But it don't look like I ever do

I've loved so many people everywhere I went
Some too much, and others not enough

Well I don't know
I may do
Down or up or anywhere
But I feel
Like this scribbling might stay

Maybe if I hadn't seen so much hard feelings
I might not could've felt other people's
So when you think of me, if and when you do
Just say, well, another man's done gone
Well, another man's done gone”

This clip from the Mermaid Avenue documentary Man in the Sand always struck a chord with me. It’s got a whole different meaning now:

Jay Bennett never got his peace of mind with Wilco or Jeff Tweedy (he filed a lawsuit against Tweedy looking for royalties from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and I Am Trying to Break Your Heart earlier this month). I hope now that somehow he’s found that peace.

In the YouTube age, Jay Bennett’s amazing catalog of work lives on. Here are some of my favorites I found over the past few days.

“James Alley Blues”


“I’m Always in Love”

“My Darling”

“Poor Places”

“Cars Can’t Escape”

“I Got You” (From Jay’s next to last show with Wilco)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great performance on the "Monday" clip! You can see everyone involved was having a blast while rippin' the snot out of that song.

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