Musician, producer and songwriter Jay Bennett was instrumental in the development of Wilco during their early years. Joining the group in 1994, he (alongside frontman and principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy) helped shape the band’s sound, turning the group from an alt-country outfit into a more ambitious indie-rock collective on albums like Being There and Summerteeth. But during his work on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Bennett began to alienate the rest of the band, especially Tweedy, and Bennett was fired from the group in 2001. In this excerpt from his new critical biography, Wilco: Sunken Treasure, Paste chief film critic Tim Grierson recounts Bennett’s tragic death eight years later.
On April 24, 2009, Jay Bennett’s official MySpace posted a note from the musician. Bennett hadn’t updated his blog since November of the previous year, when he revealed that, after spending time working on a solo album called Kicking at the Perfumed Air, he decided at the last minute instead to put out a completely different collection, Whatever Happened I Apologize. But this April missive wasn’t about new music. The post was entitled “Hip Replacement,” and in it he explained the serious medical condition he was facing.
“After burying my proverbial head in the proverbial sand since last summer, I finally decided it was time I ‘face the music,’ and find out what was causing the severe pain and immobility in my right leg,” he wrote. Years ago, he had suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during a show with his old band, Titanic Love Affair, but after visiting the doctor, he discovered that he needed a complete hip replacement. “A decade plus of multiple nightly stage jumps and various other rock and roll theatrics had finally taken a toll that I could no longer merely ‘deal with,’ or ignore,” he wrote. The problem, though, was that his insurance wouldn’t cover such an expensive procedure — “my previous injury to that leg was listed as a pre-existing condition, and any injury that could be linked to the same root cause, I was told, would not be covered” — and so Bennett noted that he was forced to try to find a hospital that would perhaps work out some arrangement with him. He seemed optimistic that such a thing was possible, but it required him to sell off some of his gear. Plus, as time went on, his health was deteriorating: “[M]y mobility has continued to erode, to the extent that, for quite some time now, it has even been difficult to sit at the computer for more than just a few minutes.” (In fact, the MySpace blog post had been transcribed from a handwritten note, apparently, because typing on the computer had become that painful.)
Despite it all, though, Bennett remained optimistic. “With any luck, by mid-summer, I should be a new man,” he wrote. “This whole experience has really taught me to look both inward and outward for support, and I’ve learned things about myself that I thought I had completely figured out years ago. Family and friends have helped me to keep faith in a future that will actually be much more carefree than my constricted present state.”
Despite being booted from Wilco, Bennett was still putting out records, but they received little to no attention from the mainstream media. In a September 2008 interview with Glide, he acknowledged his situation. “I’m never, ever going to have a record review that doesn’t at least start off with some mention of my participation in Wilco, you know, and a comparison of my music now to the contributions I made to Wilco’s music, or what Wilco was then to what Wilco is now,” he said. “That’s just reality. I’m never going to be taken just completely on my own; it’s always going to get set up in that context.” He had gone through a divorce, along with the health issues, but he wanted to be positive. “I’m doing a lot better,” he said. “I had a handful of unhealthy years; then I had a couple slouchy years when I was trying to get over the crazy stuff, you know… now it feels like things are more balanced. No coffee, no booze, no drugs. I’m trying to eat better and exercise more … and I’m down to the five-ish cigarettes a day. I’m feeling good.”
“The last time I saw him, he was one of a bunch of people who played at the Hideout in Chicago for a tribute show to [Bennett collaborator] Edward Burch,” journalist Robert Loerzel says, referring to a show that took place in June 2007. “Jay had gained a lot of weight at that point. And I don’t know what exactly was going on with that but, you know, his weight had kind of skyrocketed up and down over the years.” Loerzel had interviewed Bennett in 2004 in relation to his solo album The Beloved Enemy, and the musician admitted that he had gone through rough times. “Most of my adult life, I’ve been a drinker. And I’ve dabbled in everything else that most rockers have done. Was it to the point that it interfered with my life? I don’t think so,” Bennett told Loerzel. “I’ve had my share of rock ‘n’ roll excess, where it was impeding my judgment here and there … I had friends express concern about me. At various times in my life, I was self-medicating. I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve been though seven therapists in five or six years. I’ve finally found one who clicks. It works.”
A couple weeks after Bennett’s post about his need for hip-replacement surgery, he was in the news again. On May 4, 2009, a lawsuit was filed in Cook County, Illinois on behalf of Bennett, who was claiming he was owed money from Tweedy. The four-page document alleged, among other things, that Bennett “has received no compensation for the results and proceeds of his performance” in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a documentary, the suit alleged, in which Bennett had “a significant role,” even though Tweedy “never obtained the necessary releases for the use of Bennett’s performance in the film.” Tweedy was also accused of breach of contract and for other unpaid moneys due Bennett. The suit was looking for “in excess of $50,000.00” in damages from Tweedy.
A day later, Wilco’s publicist sent out a statement from Tweedy. “I know exactly as much as everyone else does,” it began. “I’ve read the news and I honestly have no idea what these claims are based on. It was such a long time ago. Aside from everything else, I’m being sued for not paying someone for appearing in a movie I didn’t produce. Go figure. I am truly sad it has come to this. I am equally convinced, however, that I have done nothing wrong and that this will be handled fairly and swiftly.”
The tight timeframe between Bennett’s MySpace announcement about the surgery and the lawsuit didn’t seem like a coincidence. There was an assumption among casual observers that Bennett’s suit was an attempt to wring money out of Wilco — Tweedy specifically — to help pay for the surgery, whether or not Bennett’s claims had any merit. Soon after, Bennett’s management company, the Undertow Collective, sent out a statement that read, “After a long, four-year process (and therefore very much unrelated to his impending hip surgery), formal filings against Wilco were finally initiated. This task was very emotional for Jay. He was a ‘lover,’ and this confrontation was not easy for him.” Coincidence or not, the whole affair seemed to be just the latest sad chapter in Bennett’s relationship with his former band.
It got even sadder a few weeks later.