When an entertainer dies, it’s always a strange event. Suddenly, millions of strangers mourn the passing of someone they never knew, simply because they made a few movies, starred in a TV show, or cut a few albums.
I never “got it”. Until a few days ago.
“The most devastating entertainment death of my life” was the text I sent to a friend when I heard of the death of Jay Lindsey, a.k.a. Jay Reatard. Only four days ago, early Wednesday morning, Jay Reatard, age 29, was found dead in his Memphis home. When I read the news late that night, it took a few seconds longer than usual to process what I was reading.
Jay Reatard was dead.
It’s tragic that it may take death for people to discover Jay Reatard. But better than never discovering him at all. His music is a lot of things — loud, fuzzed out, ramshackle, lo-fi, abrasive, angry, emotional, therapeutic. In only two official solo full-lengths, along with hundreds of recordings dating back to when he was 15 or so, Reatard managed to marry a punk spirit with traditional rock, along with a healthy dose of pop and a sprinkle of blues.
Reatard’s standing in the musical landscape had yet to take hold right up to his untimely death. His first solo record to garner a lot of attention — Matador’s Watch Me Fall — was released in August of 2009. With a much pop-ier sound and widespread critical praise, it seemed as though Jay Reatard was poised to make some sort of breakthrough. At least as much as an “indie” musician can make these days. Jay Reatard had a lot of music left to make. And maybe, just maybe, there was a chance he could become big. Not Jonas Brothers big. But White Stripes big? Possibly. But now we’ll never know.
“It Ain’t Gonna Save Me” – Watch Me Fall, 2009
Jay Reatard the performer had a reputation. He fought fans and band mates alike during shows. He smashed things. He was generally a jerk on stage. He had broken up with his band a few months ago over who knows what. Jay Reatard was a very divisive personality.
There’s an undercurrent on many music blogs’ comment pages that somehow Reatard’s death was expected. He lived too hard and didn’t take care of himself. He was asking for it. This is further complicated by the mystery surround the circumstances of his death. “Died in his sleep” is what you’ll read if you look the news up. A homicide investigation was whispered, now since removed from the Memphis paper’s site. Almost a week later, and we still know very little.
I was musically conscious for the death of Kurt Cobain. I regard Nirvana as the reason I got into music in the first place, but that death feels like a million miles way. Every angle and theory has been discussed. The band has been cemented in history as important.
“See Saw” – Matador Singles ’08, 2008
But Jay Reatard’s death feels like a taunting mystery. Something that, as the days go on, I wonder if it will ever be solved. Taunting me further is the music of Reatard’s I am left with. Songs like “Let It All Go”, “I Know a Place”, and “Not a Substitue” take on a much more tragic meaning now. Here was an artist with so much to say, so much creativity, so much drive to be great. To have that taken away, at only 29, is a true tragedy.
Prior to the release of Watch Me Fall, a 20-minute documentary (the spectacular “Waiting For Something”) about Reatard surfaced online. Watching it now is eerie. Near the end of the film, Jay talks about the fear of death and constantly racing against time to keep making music. “I know I won’t be able to make records when I’m dead,” he muses, “and I’m not dead right now, so I want to make records.” It’s heart-wrenching to see how prophetic he actually was.
Jay Reatard was the definition of a throwback. Someone who grinded away on tour, put out records as often as he possibly could, and held his artistic vision above all else. He also made some damn great music.
Jay Reatard the person was not a part of my life, Jay Reatard the musician was. And that is no longer.
I guess my biggest fear is that Jay Reatard will be forgotten. In a few years, maybe we’ll all forget about his two great albums. We’ll forget about the maniac on stage who bared his soul — for better and worse. We’ll forget about the workman-like approach he took to simply doing what he was put on Earth to do: make music. Don’t let that happen.
From all of us who have been affected by your music, we will miss you Jay.