A Tribute To The Late, Great Punk Icon Jay Reatard, On The 10th Anniversary Of His Death

I remember fuzz. No songs, just fuzz. And a Gibson Flying V buzz-sawing a new riff into the atmosphere every 140 seconds with the support of a comically rapid, ping-ponging rhythm section. I recall the hair in his face, and the mouth-full of terse, angry-funny-sad lyrics garbled by a put-upon British accent that belied the singer’s Memphis upbringing. So full of life. Damn, he was resoundingly, furiously alive. He was also burning out. But I didn’t know that in the moment.

This video, as far as I can tell, is the only documentation of the final show performed by the late, great punk icon Jay Reatard. Otherwise I only have my memories. It was New Year’s Eve 2009, the end of the 21st century’s first apocalyptic decade, at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee. Jay was the opening act for Spoon. The pairing seems strange now and was even stranger then, but apparently Britt Daniel was a fan. So was I, though Britt and I were definitely in the minority that night. The audience’s stunned silence from the moment Jay plugged in created even more space for all of that frenetic fuzz to fill.

In the video, Jay plays — if “plays” is the right word, “works over” seems more accurate — one of his prettiest pop tunes, the semi-psychotic, almost love-song “Nightmares.” It actually feels a touch slower than his normal pace. I had seen him a couple of times previously — once at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2008, and a second time at an in-store event at the lamentably long-gone Milwaukee institution Atomic Records in 2009. So many things from that time are all already long gone.

Both times it seemed as though he played about 20 songs in two minutes. No banter, no pauses between songs, no time to even exhale. Just that buzz-sawing Flying V, the heart-attack drums, and that inarticulate British lilt. It was so fast that it was practically art-rock, an extended squeal of noise and petulance that was also inexplicably catchy.

But at the Riverside, Jay played “Nightmares” with just the smallest amount of patience. Imperceptible patience, perhaps, if you never saw him play live before. Every other Jay Reatard show I had seen burned with the incredible, queasy, unstoppable energy of a man desperate to get this over with so he can get the million other things he wants to do over with, too. Maybe this is projection, based on what I know now. But in that video, the energy feels different. It’s as if he almost wants to linger just a little bit, one last time. Or maybe his drummer was just sluggish that night.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Jay Reatard, in part because today, January 13, is the 10th anniversary of his death. Just two weeks after that Riverside Theater show, a roommate found his body lying in bed at 3:30 a.m. An autopsy revealed that he died of cocaine toxicity, amplified by the alcohol that was also in his system. It was the final encore. He was just 29 years old.

When I heard the news, I immediately flash-backed to my one conversation with him almost exactly one year earlier, in late 2008, when I interviewed him over the phone for almost an hour. Going into the call, I felt nervous about talking with someone with such a notorious reputation for being difficult, even belligerent. Even violent.

More than for his music, he was arguably most famous for punching out a fan at a show in Toronto, a moment captured on video and disseminated on a new-ish platform called YouTube. There were other stories about him, too. Almost all of them were bad, about “hissy fits, walkouts, punch-outs, pissing matches, lysergic hysteria, underage MySpace skanks, confrontation, obliteration, elimination,” to quote the music journalist J. Bennett, who wrote what came to be regarded as the definitive Jay Reatard profile for the magazine Self-Titled. It’s difficult to remember exactly how stories went viral in the pre-social media era. Is it possible that we were all combing the comments section of Brooklyn Vegan, looking for dirt on minor indie stars? However this stuff got out there, Jay was a magnet for negative buzz.

But from the moment he picked up, groggily, I liked him. He reminded me of the broken midwestern dudes I had grown up with — reflexively cranky, wary of strangers, allergic to pretension, and sneaky sweet though a little too damaged to express it without self-deprecation. One thing he wanted me to know is that he wasn’t a drunk or a drug addict. “I haven’t touched drugs or drank alcohol in months,” he insisted. “People also seem to think I’m overly violent. They’re like, ‘F*ck that music, he’s violent!’ and they’ll have a Black Flag tattoo on their arm. People are walking contradictions, man.”

More than anything, I respected how he genuinely did not seem to care about making people like him. He was, after all, born as Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., a name that would have granted him a thriving Americana career as a birth right. (He supposedly planned on recording a country album once he reached his 30s.) But he chose instead to call himself Jay Reatard, an offensive moniker he earned in middle school as he tried and failed three times to pass the eighth grade. He eventually left school at 15, and started recording infantile punk rock songs on his own soon after, playing all of the instruments himself. (For drums, he played on repurposed pickle jars.) All the while, he shunned the outside world, venturing out only for food and the job he worked at a stained-glass window factory. He had been cast out as an outsider, and decided that he enjoyed it. Thrived on it, in fact.

“I have a reputation for being kind of abrasive, or an asshole, but I think people are used to musicians looking outside of themselves for validation, and needing people to like them, because they’re trying to fill some f*cking void because Mommy didn’t give them enough attention when they were kids,” he told me. “People can’t get over somebody making music because they enjoy it, and not having some ulterior motive, like trying to get laid or trying to get the entire world to adore them. If I ever get to the point where I can get the entire world to adore me, I’m done, because my whole game is me against the world. If too many people are into it, f*ck, it just might kill it.”

Listening to Jay Reatard’s music this week made his untimely death seem much more distant than 10 years. At a time when pop and indie music are as mellow as they ever have been in my lifetime, Reatard’s music seems even more abrasive, caustic, and uncompromising now than it did then. He might have felt as though he didn’t belong in the late aughts, but it actually wasn’t inconceivable for a person like him to become at least indie-famous back then. Reatard was another link in the era’s middle-American garage-punk lineage, situated somewhere between The White Stripes as they wound down their career, and The Black Keys as they geared up for their arena-rock ascendance.

Living in Milwaukee, a figure like Reatard loomed even larger. This was a period when acts like King Khan & BBQ Show and the Reigning Sound could sell out large clubs in medium-sized midwestern cities where the PBR never stopped flowing. In that scene, Jay Reatard was a superstar. According to that Self-Titled profile, a record executive from a major label once whispered in Reatard’s ear, “Kurt Cobain killed hair metal; you’re gonna kill emo.” For about 12 to 16 months in the late ’00s, this sort of statement didn’t actually seem that ridiculous.

It helped that Jay had a legitimately inspiring and somewhat fantastical back-story, custom-made for rock ‘n’ roll myth-making. Born in 1980 in the tiny farming town of Lilbourn, Missouri, the young Jimmy Lindsey moved to Memphis at age 8. His parents were working class, which is another of way saying that they lived hand-to-mouth, working menial jobs. By the time he was 11, his parents had split up, and for the next five years they passed Jimmy back and forth. By the time he moved out at 16, he had lived in 18 different houses.

In an interview years later with the New York Times, Jimmy Lindsey Sr. claimed that his son was partly to blame for the family’s transience. “He got us run out of a lot of apartments in Memphis, playing his music too loud,” he said. “We’d stay three to six months in a place, and they’d make us move ’cause he wouldn’t turn that volume down. They even said, ‘Don’t worry about the lease, just go.’”

In this anecdote, Jay comes across like the protagonist in an AC/DC song – a young ne’er-do-well destined for rock greatness. But more often than not, Jay was put into dangerous and traumatic situations as a child that he could not control or escape. In the affecting documentary Better Than Something: Jay Reatard, Jay gives the filmmakers a guided tour of one of his old neighborhoods. At one point he sits in a parked car across the street from a shabby house where, as a teenager, he overheard a violent rape coming from next door, and then witnessed a subsequent brawl between gang members (who stopped the assault) and local police.

Among the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are social isolation, self-destructive behavior, hostility, and extreme sensitivity to surrounding environments, all of which seem to have afflicted Jay in some way throughout his life. In music, however, he found sanctuary. He even turned the horrific assault he witnessed into a song, “1620 Echles St.,” named after the actual address where it occurred. Turning pain into art offered temporary relief.

At the time of his death, Reatard had already amassed a lifetime’s worth of music: 22 full-length albums more than 100 singles, 7-inches, and other releases. He formed enough bands to host his own punk festival: The Reatards, Lost Sounds, Nervous Patterns, Digital Leather, Angry Angles, Terror Visions, Bad Times, Evil Army.

It’s an intimidating, downright impossible discography to navigate. But one album towers over the rest, and acts as an obvious and suitable entry point: 2006’s Blood Visions. It was the first LP he made officially on his own, though he had always been an unstable and controlling tyrant in his bands.

By 2005, his most successful group, Lost Sounds, had fallen apart in large part because of Reatard’s alienating antics. He later said the band demanded that he go on antidepressants in order to control his erratic behavior. But in the middle of a tour, he stopped taking the pills because he felt they robbed him of his ambition. Ultimately, as he told Bennett, he concluded that “music isn’t a group sport for me.”

Left once again to his own devices, he produced the purest distillation of the Jay Reatard aesthetic. As he did as a teen, he recorded nearly everything himself. Usually, he started with the drums, favoring mile-a-minute Motorik beats. Tightly controlled, almost mechanical. His guitar and vocals would seethe with rage, but on the drums is where he allowed himself to be a craftsman. The tension would then come from how he pushed against those self-imposed constraints. The same tension seemed to exist in Jay the person, in that he was both disciplined enough to build a music career out of nothing, and also inherently self-destructive in so many of his personal and professional relationships

Written and recorded during a self-described dark period when he had briefly relocated to Atlanta, Blood Visions was conceived as a concept record about an unstable man who stalks and kills his girlfriend, an attractive set-up for the horror-movie-addled Jay. Though the delivery is far from kitschy. In songs like “It’s So Easy,” where he sings in the chorus about how “when your friends are dead / it’s so much easier when you don’t even care,” he updated the comic nihilism of the Ramones with the irony almost entirely removed. It was unadulterated adolescent id — as guileless as The Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” filtered through the murderous rage of Slayer’s Reign In Blood.

And yet he could also be surprisingly melancholy. My favorite Jay Reatard song, “Death Is Forming,” revives the Beach Boys/Slayer binary, with a lonely boy in self-imposed isolation and thinking only of the endless void.

Alone in a room
Needless I sit
I close my eyes
And try to forget
Death is calling
Get in line

On the album cover, he’s a bewildered kid covered in blood. Is he a murderer … or the one who is destined to be murdered? Actually, Jay claimed that it was a metaphor for rebirth.

“This was the first record I made as an adult, when I didn’t have to answer to another collaborative member of the band, so it was supposed to be like I was a big fat baby,” he later explained. “Now I finally get to start my life at 24.”

After Blood Visions, Jay took incremental steps toward a more grown-up sound. His two excellent singles compilations, Singles 06-07 and Matador Singles ’08, include a healthy dose of acoustic guitars and brainy post-punk rhythms. But his 2009 album Watch Me Fall indicated that he wasn’t naturally suited to writing songs from a non-confrontational posture. He knew negative energy would eventually burn him up, but he hadn’t yet located an alternate form of fuel.

Because of his untimely death, Jay Reatard remains eternally fixed in his Blood Visions guise. A troubled kid making a lot of noise, who won’t be allowed to stay. As the years go by, it’s harder and harder to remember the world that he inhabited. But I’ll never forget that fuzz. The fuzz never fades.