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.
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 Beatles’ Revolver. 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.