There comes a point in every music fan's life that they gain a broader perspective on music and are no longer focused on fandom of a particular band, and that point happened to me in 1999 when I popped in Wilco's much anticipated Summerteeth album. With the amiable alt-country cleverness of their debut album A.M., injecting a humor and liveliness that I found lacking in Uncle Tupelo, and then the raggedness in their sprawling Americana epic Being There, I had found a favorite band, the last favorite band I would ever have.
The lush arrangements of Summerteeth pulled the rug out from under me; I loved it despite it clearly not being what I wanted it to be. It made me mad as I played it over and over again. The whispering among fans was that this album was the fault of Jay Bennett, the pop-obsessed jack-of-all-trades that gave this scrappy band its sonic complexity in the past. Now, he had gone too far, pushing a perfect little makeshift raft of a band into the choppy waters of ELO and Sgt. Pepper's. The band was going to have to change to handle that terrain.
At the time, it riled me, and every once in a while it still irritates me when something I feel strongly about evolves away from that point where we saw eye to eye, but now I can see it is essential. Anything cultural is a living, evolving thing and it has to keep changing or it dies off. Wilco went through a some more transmogrification with Bennett; their 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was deemed too weird to be profitable by AOL Time Warner base and was shelved. The band took their masterpiece with them, streamed it for free on the web and later released it on Time Warner subsidiary Nonesuch, allowing the recording giant to pay for it twice. The industry machinations were played out in the press as the personal schism between Bennett and Wilco songwriter Jeff Tweedy were in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, where Bennett was often depicted as a bit of a nebbish, consumed with a vision with which Tweedy and the rest of the band weren't necessarily comfortable. Bennett left the band shortly thereafter.
Wilco stands as one of today's great creative models in rock'n'roll, continually innovative and restless, coming a long way from their rustic beginnings, bringing their audience along with them, and it is doubtless they would not be the band they are today were it not for Bennett's contributions. As for Bennett himself, he pursued his own muse in solo albums - most notable of which is The Palace at 4am (again) recorded with Edward Burch in 2005 - and genius production work for others. But the real thing Jay Bennett left on this listener is that vision is the key for the artist, and that the world may indeed need to revolve to accommodate it and not the other way around, even if it means the one with the vision gets deposed in the revolution. It's how the potential for greatness is realized.
Jay Bennett died in his sleep on Saturday, May 22, 2009. He was 45.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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