My Shadow: Six Months Since the Loss of Jay Reatard

 The death of an artist standing at the doorstep of reaching their musical potential has tainted generations since the trinity of drugs, sex, and rock n roll became almost necessarily dependant on each other. Elvis, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobaine, Joplin, Mercury… and that’s just the standard rock list not even taking into account the equally tragic rap game. I personally don’t remember Cobaine’s death, and though I remember the passing of John Cash and a couple of other older musicians, the emotional heaviness didn’t compare to that which swooned me after the news that Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. aka Jay Reatard had left the scene for good six months ago.

Jay had been playing music well before he dropped out of high school and whetting his insatiable appetite for do-it-yourself-don’t-give-a-fuck rocking. He shredded a white Gibson flying V, was known to come out of a tour without remembering a moment of the last month, and still holds an immense discography to his name.

Certain tight collared, fat pocketed pigs at the Grammy Awards neglected to mention his name the Sunday after he passed away during the memorial section of the ceremonies (if they should even be called such) without explanation. Their lack of comment was enough of one on its own: they knew Jay stood against everything they stood for and couldn’t pay homage to someone outside the industry.  In Jay, Indie music had found an energizer bunny with the work ethic of a fire ant, and he showed an incredible promise and drive to spread his sound without sacrificing the integrity of the process and the person behind it. But just as he began to grow with a new label capable of taking him to new heights musically (Matador), his life was suddenly vanquished in one night that probably started just like any other for Memphis madman.

Jay was the kind of artist who drew energy from the tension of subtle contradictions that life frustrates most peoples’ minds with. Jay was a white, nerdy looking kid who grew up in a racially polarized, all black section of Memphis. He put out more singles and EP’s and LP’s and vinyl delicacies from his stripped down home studio than most artists could milk out in a lifetime with Steve Lillywhite, but he is quoted saying, “Music isn’t supposed to be about compartmentalized little songs where people are supposed to feed your ego by clapping.” The world saw him as an aggressive, intoxicated liability; his friends saw an abundant source of positive energy who had just begun to fit into his person within the last couple of years.

Peers in the business said Jay was “honest and transgressive,” “talented and troubled,”  and that “there were few men who could do more with one minute of time.” Of course, all of these statements were procured posthumously and contained an undercurrent of grief and pain, not exultation.  Jay was found at 3:30 AM at his residence in Midtown, Memphis on January 13th 2010 at the age of twenty-nine. A memorial was held in his honor three days later where he was laid to rest near the grave of the late Isaac Hayes, and in February his cause of death was attributed to alcohol and cocaine toxicity.

His music is as indefinable, sporadic, and rocket fuel driven as he was. Some peg it as garage rock, others post-punk, noise, or just about any word you can daintily juxtapose with ‘pop.’ In any respect, no catch phrase can sum up the raw emotion and pistol firing ambition that came through in his sound. At live shows audience members could witness a man bleed a flying V dry and then finger pick an acoustic ballad so soft it hovered above the pot smoke and sweat. His bass player could barely read sheet music and all he cared about onstage was making sure he had paid the music its due. He might be piss bitter drunk and/or less than interested in your approval, but hell, it’s about the message not the messenger (at least that’s what I always heard at parochial school).

He recorded constantly because, as he bluntly put it, “You can’t make records when you’re dead, so I wanna make records.” This monolithic sense of urgency coupled with catchy, in your face, refreshingly conceived, thoughtful outbursts of guitar created the perfect environment for his “blood visions.” Jay wanted us to glare at our greedy, misguided, bullshit riddled tendencies and not take ourselves so seriously. No dream was passed down for Jay to buy into, and it became an important part of his music to explore what kind of society we have bought into and why. He was a man of action and wanted us to look NOW, to stop puttering and start living each day like it is our last, just as he did.

The scene, the terra noir in which Jay produced his art, is something to be examined after his passing. Diabolical questions like nature versus nurture and responsibility come to mind when examining a death like Jay’s, and since he sought his sound through such intense mechanisms and processes his early departure may have been an inevitable outcome of his work. Beer can spattered yards, running on fumes and no food for days, mirrors on the floor, freeloading dope heads looking to constantly party: it may have all been too much for any man. It is unfortunate to brandish the reputation of being one of those musicians who parties destructively, but Jay had acquired it through his years of heavy touring(“I’m more like the jack off of all trades” he quipped in an interview). Though he had been mellowing out the last few years and found melody in his music (which friends attribute to his rise at Matador), it is hard to give up every aspect of the nail-biting road-grinding lifestyle.

It is easy for the history books to forget about Jay Reatard. Misguided youth uses punk rock to backlash at his circumstances, fights on the fringes for years, makes a break after a great many a sacrifice, eventually is destroyed by the things that got his feet off the ground in the first place. Such an unfolding drama sells quick in our celebrity era where we have become addicted to watching other people fall. But that’s the point, we watch and do no action. Did Jay know he was on the fringe and had to be there because of who he was and the music he made, or did he desire those feelings of inclusion like any man does? Whatever it was or is, Jay’s success would end in yet another contradiction: the years of hard work that had finally paid off went uncollected, and the voice that needed just a little more exposure to reach the ears it was intended for would fall silenced forever. Our only recompense can be to continue to play Jay’s music, tell his story, and conjure up his energy and enthusiasm for being alive.

The coolest cat in the alley.

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