Jay Bennett's Final Days

An Excerpt From Wilco: Sunken Treasure

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Over Memorial Day weekend in Champaign, Illinois, where Bennett was living, a special local show called Play or Pose was going to be held. “Some people who had been part of the rock scene at the [University of Illinois] in the 1980s and ‘90s organized this weekend where a bunch of bands from that era would reunite and play,” recalls Loerzel, who had documented the scene, including Bennett’s band Titanic Love Affair, while writing for the U of I paper. “Several of my friends decided to go to down to Champaign that weekend and were kind of hoping that Jay would at least make an appearance. He was not scheduled to perform, but we thought, ‘Well, maybe he’ll show up, at least be in the crowd. If he’s there, no doubt he’ll get up on stage and do some songs, too.’ He had just announced not too long before that that he had to get a hip replacement, and so there were a few people that I knew who were part of his group that said, ‘We’re trying to organize some sort of effort to go to Jay’s house and urge him to come out.’ But it was sort of like, ‘Oh, we heard he’s not feeling well,’ and I don’t think anyone actually took the initiative and went to see him.’”

Chris Green was also in town for the event — his old band, Bad Flannel, was going to perform. “I needed to borrow some drums, so I went over to a guy’s house who lives right across from Jay,” Green recalls. “It was late, about 11 p.m, and I saw a light on in Jay’s place. I hadn’t talked to him in a month or so. I really wanted to go just bang on the door and say hey. But there was only one light on, and I knew he was in a lot of pain. So I was like, ‘Ah, fuck it, I’ll see him tomorrow.’ I was just, like, this close to knocking on his door.”

Not doing that, Green says, is something “I’ll regret till the day I die.”

That Sunday, May 24, Loerzel attended a sound check for the show and heard the awful news: Bennett had died. “It was a complete shock at that point,” he says. “At first, I couldn’t even believe it was true.” Play or Pose still went on, but Loerzel says that Bennett’s death “cast a horrible gloom over the whole thing.”

“It was so weird, the circumstances,” Green says. “Everybody who loved him the most all just happened to be in town at the same time. It was really interesting, in a way, and cool for everyone else he’s left behind that they got to commiserate. Rather than being scattered all over the country, everyone from that magical moment in time had come back. We were all just there together and just shell-shocked.”

Bennett was only 45. As it had been during his life, Bennett’s obituaries often started with his association with Wilco and his public falling-out with Tweedy. About a month later, coroners determined that he had accidentally overdosed on fentanyl, a powerful pain medicine.

Fentanyl had a reputation for being potentially unsafe. On December 21, 2007, the Food and Drug Administration sent out a warning about patches that contained the drug. “In July 2005,” the statement read, “the agency issued a similar warning to the public and to health care providers, saying that the directions on the product label and on the patient package insert should be followed exactly in order to avoid overdose. FDA has continued to receive reports of deaths and life-threatening side effects after doctors have inappropriately prescribed the patch or patients have incorrectly used it … Recent reports to FDA describe deaths and life-threatening side effects after doctors and other health care professionals inappropriately prescribed the patch to relieve pain after surgery, for headaches, or for occasional or mild pain in patients who were not opioid tolerant. In other cases, patients used the patch incorrectly: The patients replaced it more frequently than directed in the instructions, applied more patches than prescribed, or applied heat to the patch — all resulting in dangerously high fentanyl levels in the blood.”

“He had really gotten his shit back together,” says Green, who’s still clearly sad and angry about his friend’s final days. “He was really doing well. He died from a prescription painkiller that’s a patch — it’s not like pills that you can abuse. There’s this storyline that Jay couldn’t even afford health insurance — not true. His hip had degenerated, and it was kind of bone-on-bone. His doctor says, ‘You need a hip replacement,’ but his insurance company refused to cover him. So that’s why he was on his pain medication — to hold on long enough until he could afford this surgery. It’s fucked.”

Wilco  released a statement soon after the news of Bennett’s passing. “We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy,” it read. “We will miss Jay as we remember him — as a truly unique and gifted human being and one who made welcome and significant contributions to the band’s songs and evolution. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends in this very difficult time.”

Bennett’s studio, Pieholden Suite, shared a name with a track from Wilco’s Summerteeth, his connection to the band cemented till the very end of his life.

“Certainly, it’s hard — it’s been a lot of years,” Tweedy said to Spin a couple weeks after Bennett’s death. “A lot of ambivalence has built up. A lot of the happier, more functional parts of our relationship have been stirred up by his passing. There was a point where Jay and I worked together really well. Sometimes, in a band dynamic, it’s probably good that some people hold back. But Jay was never that guy. He wanted to get involved and figure out the arrangement or learn to play an instrument he didn’t know how to play — sometimes, to be honest, to a fault. There were times when it would’ve been good to not have such eagerness, such manic energy in the studio. But speaking purely about the good times, that enthusiasm facilitated a lot of experimentation and a fun way to make something we hadn’t made before.”

Bennett died before putting the final touches on what would become his last solo album, Kicking at the Perfumed Air. The album came out on May 24, 2010, one year after his death. His old friend, Edward Burch, wrote some notes about the record and his longtime collaborator. “To fans, Jay Bennett was a master melodicist, artful arranger, exceptional engineer, and mesmerizing multi-instrumentalist,” Burch wrote. “To me, Jay was all of those things, but he was also just Jay. He was the guy who would replace the brakes on my car because it was cheaper than taking it to the mechanic.”

The self-released Kicking was very much emblematic of Bennett’s talents, albeit a bit more stripped-down than usual. Meticulously arranged pop songs with a hint of melancholy to them, Kicking’s tunes were beautiful little constructions, inspired by everything from John Cale’s Paris 1919 to David Bowie’s Hunky Dory to the BeatlesRevolver. There was a delicateness — a vulnerability — to the music (and to Bennett’s vocals) that was all the more poignant because its maker was no longer alive. It may not have been the best work of his career, but it still broke your heart with its simple instrumentation. “There’s a number of people who could take credit for saying this, but any good song ultimately should stand up with just a guitar and a vocal — or a piano and a vocal… or just a vocal, you know?” he said in an interview the year before his death. “I’ve sometimes justly been accused in the past of throwing the kitchen sink at things … but that can be fun, too, you know — providing it’s not start-to-finish kitchen sink.”

Of course, it’s his kitchen-sink enthusiasm that will forever be his legacy to Wilco — and it’s certainly what helped Tweedy at an early stage of his career find his own voice.

“When Jay was with Wilco, he really expanded the palette of the kinds of sounds and the instruments and arrangements that they were doing,” Loerzel says about him today. “You know, maybe Jeff Tweedy would have moved in that direction on his own, but Jay certainly helped him, and I think the two of them grew together in the band.”

As a tribute to their deceased former bandmate, Wilco played Being There ’s “Monday” at their next show. It was a song from those “good times” between Tweedy and Bennett. “I don’t know if I’d have been able to keep my shit together doing some kind of morbid, dirge homage,” Tweedy later admitted to writer Jon Dolan. “We didn’t have that in us. It felt much more appropriate to send him off with a blast.”

Wilco: Sunken Treasure excerpt courtesy of Omnibus Press. The book is available at Amazon and other fine booksellers. You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

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