- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

The bare facts of Jay Bennett’s demise are sad enough: dead at 45; in terrible, debilitating pain — with the added psychic pressure of having no health insurance.

Even sadder is the last major popular impression of the man — as found in the Wilco documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” (2002).

Through that distorted lens, Mr. Bennett was not the multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer who helped transform the musicians of Wilco from alt-country castoffs into sonic envelope-pushers; rather, he was a pedantic, peevish excrescence who outlived his usefulness to the movie’s hero, singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy.

“I think that felt great,” Mr. Bennett is heard to say after the band runs down a rowdy, guitar-driven outtake of the track “Kamera,” a more subdued version of which eventually was released on Wilco’s celebrated LP “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Mr. Tweedy replied that the rendition felt “obsolete.” In the movie, the word echoes beyond its immediate context and ends up as a kind of scarlet ‘O’ on Mr. Bennett himself.

With the documentary still in progress, Mr. Bennett gets the sack — and Mr. Tweedy reports, between trips to a bathroom stall that doubled as his vomitorium, “I couldn’t be happier.”

In the documentary’s loving portrait, Mr. Tweedy is a kind of secular martyr; he suffers physically and spiritually to birth his beautiful art.

I came away with a very different impression of Mr. Tweedy from Chicago rock critic Greg Kot’s more sober band biography, “Wilco: Learning How to Die.” I would characterize the Jeff Tweedy who emerges from those pages as a ruthless visionary with limited musical ability who needs to outsource innovation and, consequently, sheds friends and band mates with unnerving ease. Mr. Bennett was both the beneficiary and victim of Mr. Tweedy’s creative cycle: from chief aide at his peak to marginalized hanger-on at the end.

Though Mr. Tweedy might not put it in such stark terms himself, the astonishing leap Wilco made from its 1994 debut, “A.M.,” to 1996’s double CD “Being There” was midwifed by Mr. Bennett. Left to his own devices, Mr. Tweedy would have remade “A.M.” — not a bad album, to be sure, but hardly remarkable in retrospect.

The heavily overdubbed “Summerteeth” (1999), with its whirl of analog synthesizers, Mellotrons and other keyboards, saw Wilco flee its alt-country origins and embrace more complicated layers of sound and melody — which, again, Mr. Tweedy could not have produced on his own.

Mr. Bennett functioned like a latter-day Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones founder who, according to Keith Richards, could elicit a hooky musical phrase from virtually any instrument (recorder on “Ruby Tuesday,” sitar on “Paint It Black”) that happened to be lying around.

Especially on “Summerteeth,” it was Mr. Bennett whose sonic fairy dust — the squealing synth that answers the verses on “I’m Always in Love”; the B-bender guitar licks of “ELT”; the repeating melodic arpeggio in the choruses of the title track — that made that album (the band’s best, in my opinion) shine.

On subsequent efforts, including the painfully gestated “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Mr. Tweedy grew even more restless. Ultimately, Mr. Bennett — however meticulous and crafty — was too enamored of the rock canon (circa 1966-78) for Mr. Tweedy’s evolving tastes.

Eternally fretful and fearful of cliche, Mr. Tweedy quite simply became embarrassed by rock music. The increasing experimentation — and, pivotally, the new avant-garde personnel — found on “Yankee” and, later, 2005’s “A Ghost Is Born,” was largely the result of Mr. Tweedy’s desire to be in the world yet not of it.

This, too, is what Mr. Tweedy meant by the aforementioned “obsolete” comment.

The “Kamera” that felt great to Mr. Bennett smacked of creeping arena-rock bombast to Mr. Tweedy.

It was on this sacrificial altar of progressiveness that Mr. Bennett died his first death.


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