Jay Bennett, Gone, But Not Forgotten

It's been more than fifteen years since the late Jay Bennett left Wilco but his separation is still being discussed to this day--and some eight years since he died prematurely in his sleep. And now a new documentary Where are you, Jay Bennett? is being made about his music and life. 

This Spring on the television show Billions, Bennett’s separation from Wilco and partner Jeff Tweedy came up in the season's fourth episode. Describing the relationship between Bennett and Jeff Tweedy as “the perfect mind meld,” character Wendy Rhodes expounded about the communication between the two--and how it was on a level few reach. 

“Somehow, even though each had to know the other made him better, they just couldn’t find a way to keep going together,” she said, lamenting to Elana Gabriel that after Bennett left, Wilco was never the same.

“Makes you wonder how you can find a true partner and keep them.”

The still image of Bennett walking off a Chicago stage and waving goodbye with Wilco for the last time, remains ingrained in our minds. It was one of the striking scenes of Sam Jones’ documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, chronicling the making of the band's breakthrough Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the dissolution of the Bennett-Tweedy relationship.  

The multi-instrumentalist began his solo career with the release of The Palace at 4 a.m., the same day Wilco released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Hotel. Bennett released six albums but in need of a hip replacement and without health insurance, he tragically passed away in 2012 from an accidental overdose of a painkiller, likely released from his pain patch.

It was the same weekend Bennett was expected to appear in a reunion of his old band Titantic Love Affair. A group of fans stood outside waving signs that said “Jay Bennett, We’re Here, Where Are You?” Nearly a decade later they are the inspiration for the title of the new documentary Where are you, Jay Bennett? This week a Kickstarter campaign has been launched by filmmakers Gorman Bechard and Fred Uhter celebrating Bennett’s life and legacy.

Uhter was inspired to begin the film based on a random conversation in a bar. Talking to someone about Wilco, he said he thought the band was at their best in the Jay Bennett era. That prompted a quizzical response: “Who?” Uhter began filing interviews with that resulted in an eight-hour rough cut.  Along the way at, he began to lose sight of the story and sought out the advice of director Gorman Bechard whose credits include Color Me Obsessed A Film About The Replacements and documentaries about the Archers of Loaf and Grant Hart of Husker Du. Bechard's newest film Who Is Lydia Loveless? is coming out on DVD in November. He is currently finishing a documentary about Sarah Shook and collaborator Uhter is working on a film about Michael McDermott.

“it's been so long you forget how much of a huge part Jay played in those three albums,” Bechard says of Being There, Summerteeth and culminating in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He ranks them alongside the greatest consecutive albums by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. For the director who has seen Wilco some sixty times, Wilco also presented the same dilemma he faced seeing the Stones. "Do you watch Jagger or Richards? With Wilco, was it Jeff or Jay?"  

Watching the footage Uhter had shot, Bechard saw the old Wilco he fell in love with. It triggered his own memories. Likening Bennett to a bit of a mad scientist, Bechard saw one of his top five Wilco shows at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts. Bennett had just bought a new banjo at the since defunct guitar store down below. The price tag still dangled as Bennett played every part on the new instrument he took up earlier that day.

“Was there anything the man couldn't do?”wonders Fred Uhter who remembers being entranced by Bennett running around the stage in his sport coat during the days of Titanic Love Affair, his blond hair flying about. Bennett's musicality reminds of the late Brian Jones whose versatility defined many of the unique sounds of the early Stones records. In the studio, Bennett's multitude of instruments filled the liner notes of album credits. Perhaps Bennett best captured it best in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, describing  the open spaces of the songs and holes he heard ithat became his sonic landscape.

Bennett's life story will be forever shadowed by his falling out with Tweedy and the moment during Jones’ film in which Tweedy says “I don't have to understand you all the time.” Edward Burch, who made The Palace at 4 am with Bennett and had plans for a sequel,  has speculated that if the cameras weren't rolling, perhaps the two might have worked things out. In the end he and the directors conclude that maybe there wasn't enough room on one stage for two geniuses.

The filmmakers begin shooting new interviews in Novemeber with the goal of having a rough cut of the film by summer 2018. They hope to get at the passion that drove Bennett and the circumstances that led to the tragedy that befell him. One can only wonder if the Affordable Care Act had been passed, would Bennett have had the insurance that might have helped him get the transplant he needed.

Bechard has confirmed that the fans who gathered with their signs at the Play or Pose reunion in Champaign-Urbana will be featured in the documentary. They never got an answer to their question that fateful weekend. But now their voices will be heard.