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Columns > Brian Robbins - The Maine Line

Published: 2009/12/29
by Brian Robbins

Rain on the Snow: Thinking About Jay Bennett

It’s been a great Christmas here in Duck Puddle; family, friends, food and tunes (granddaughter Lydia shows signs of becoming the next John Molo – or maybe John Morgan Kimock – at 20 months). Now we’re on the quiet side of things, wood stove a’blazing while we enjoy our musical bounty from our stockings (Tigger: Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats; me: Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso … nothing new, just good). Outside, a steady rain chaws and whittles at the snow, sculpting things nicely before it freezes again tonight.

So, a damn-near-classic setting for a moment of end-of-the-year reflection, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time looking back. Not that it wasn’t a good year (it was a dandy one, as matter of fact), but it went by too, too quickly. A friend recently told me, “Life is like a roll of toilet paper – the closer you get to the end, the faster it spins off.” There’s all kinds of added comments you could glom onto that, but there’s no need to. Move ahead. Keep on truckin’.

With the news of Vic Chesnutt’s passing having come down the wire (on the heels of the deaths of guitarist James Gurley [Big Brother and the Holding Company] and Cardinals’ bassist Chris Feinstein), I can’t help but think about all the musical voices that were silenced this year. The reality is, as we get older, time catches up with our heroes. We’ll be saying goodbye to more of the people who have been making music for us since we first discovered the personal freedom that a transistor radio offered all those years ago. Reality doesn’t help one bit with those who leave too soon, though – whether by their own hand or unforeseen mechanical failure of body parts. Some deaths telegraph their punches better than others … the blows still hurt when they land.

For me, it was the passing of Jay Bennett back in May that struck the hardest. Officially, he died early on a Sunday morning; we heard about it the next day – in my mind, Memorial Day will always be a day to listen to a little Jay Bennett.

In a way, it feels like Jay was partly responsible for me landing this writing gig with Jambands/Relix in the first place: it was an essay that I wrote about taking my daughters to see Wilco in the tiny Camden Opera House up here in Maine back on 7/3/00 that got the ball rolling back in the summer of 2008. A week or so after the piece ran on Jambands.com, I received an e-mail from Jay himself saying how much he enjoyed the article and we began a correspondence that lasted up until the end. Sadly, included in that brief period of getting to know the man was a 2-1/2 hour phone interview that was like taking part in an audio cartoon – the sad part is, the recording is lost (vaporized in a computer swapover). Jay was equal parts humor and passion; both techno-crafted performance and totally from-the-gut-one-take’s-all-we-get spontaneity. The dreadlocked mad scientist/guitar hero who lurched around the stage in Camden, ME that hot July night back in 2000 turned out to be a hoot to get to know – and, for all his accomplishments, I never found him to be cocky or bitter … if anything, he always seemed hopeful but unsure whenever he shared a demo. And as far as the Wilco stuff goes, well, I guess everybody does what they have to do. The way it all ended was a shame.

I love the early Wilco albums with Jay, but as the rain pelts the snowbanks outside my window, my go-to for a little Jay Bennett fix is a promo album I found a couple years ago in a record shop bargain bin. Replace You + 5 is as advertised: the cut “Replace You” and a couple other songs off Jay’s The Magnificent Defeat album plus three previously-unreleased bonus tracks.

The song that symbolizes Jay Bennett’s talents as well as any I know is the title track of this beat-up disc I found for 3 bucks in a cut-out bin. “Replace You” takes off with walloping ol’ crunchy guitars and a monster B-3 organ over top of a stripped-down-but-perfect drum part from the Charlie Watts school of rock percussion. Jay’s vocal is all croaky growl, with lyrics that are both straight from the garage and smart at the same time. At the 2-minute mark, the song jerks to a halt and goes into a big swirl – a perfect example of everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-but-only-if-it-needs-to-be-there Bennett production. Suddenly’ the thick and whirling sounds drop away and a lone acoustic guitar plays some big Pete Townshend chords over a break-your-heart organ wail and – WHAM! – we slam back into the chorus for one last time. Somehow, the wall of guitar transforms into a poppy synth line by the song’s end and everything comes to a smoking halt.

There are any number of songs you could choose for a musical epitaph for Jay Walter Bennett; plenty of heart-yankers that you could pull all kinds of too-soon-gone lines from on a day like today. Me, I’d rather crank up “Replace You” and read the last note he sent me back in May one more time. I’d given Jay a friendly ration of shit about “goobing” on me – a term I’d picked up from him, meaning getting all sentimental and gushy on someone – in an earlier e-mail. Jay responded in his typical manner:

“I’ll goob on you as much as I want … damn it …

Thanks again …

Love, Jay”

And that was that.

The weather report just now gave the rain slacking up tonight and getting cold again – snow by tomorrow. Today’s snow bank art will be covered over and gone forever. (But not really – it’s just under the surface of the new stuff.)

So it goes with a lot of things.

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