The Jilting of Jay Bennett

A new documentary on the late Wilco multi-instrumentalist attempts to tell the story of an unsung studio wizard

Jay Bennett at the Riviera on Dec. 31, 1999, dressed to channel AC/DC, perhaps. (Image: Rachel Leibowitz)

Jay Bennett will forever be known as the man who was slighted by the band Wilco, the man who took them to the edge of experimentation and the sonic wilderness and got the boot just as the band reached the pinnacle of success.

Forever the jilted bride, Bennett’s life came to a sad end less than a decade later, thanks to a faulty fentanyl patch that ended his life at 45. 

Where Are You, Jay Bennett? is a new documentary that attempts to tell the story of this talented and complicated studio wizard. It starts at the beginning, with Bennett’s mother and brother relaying tales of the prodigious and mischievous young man who showed his musical acumen from a very early age. Hearing tales of his youth and seeing home movies of the young musician offers a truly moving portrait of young genius. 

 

AUDIO: Titanic Love Affair “Only In The Past”

He soon forms a band, Titanic Love Affair. They get a major label deal, but it soon falls apart, yet even the band’s breakup doesn’t stop him from keeping the band name alive and releasing material for his now-dormant group. In the mid-90s, he gets a call to join a young band based out of Chicago called Wilco, led by Jeff Tweedy. He’s first brought in as an addition to the live band, but it soon becomes apparent that this guy is a talented multi-instrumentalist, and he soon graduates from live band member to active participant. His input on the band’s second album Being There soon promotes him to full-on production role on the band’s next album, Summerteeth. After that critically acclaimed album’s somewhat lukewarm commercial reception, the band hunker down to make the album they want to make, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bennett, by this time, is full-on producer. It makes for a really interesting story, Bennett and Wilco.  

But if you’re looking for Wilco stories and insights into the band’s creative proces, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Aside from a few quick clips and a side-by-side plays of finished tracks from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Jay’s own mixes (which are rough and raw and oddly diminishing of the tracks—an odd move for a doc), you’re not going to hear much Wilco music. 

 

 

You’re also not going to get much input from Wilco, either. In one of the more bizarre moments of this film, the only comments from Jeff Tweedy are excerpted clips from his autobiography, scenes from the contentious I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, or various other older clips. Aside from Ken Coomer—who was fired from the band at roughly the same time Jay was—no other Wilco members past or present comment. It’s as if, twenty-one years later, there’s a gag order coming from the Tweedy camp. 

And that’s a damn shame.

Not that Bennett has nothing to say about the band. Through archival recordings and conversations, we hear just how hurt Bennett was that he was ousted in such an unceremonious way.  As time passes, he comes to accept what happened and has some very prosaic words to say about it all. 

One interesting take that is raised is that Bennett wasn’t hurt by being fired—he sort of realized that he had overreached his boundaries and was trying to take Wilco away from Jeff, and that he would have likely done what Jeff did to him had it been reversed.  No, the real hurt seems to stem from the aforementioned Sam Jones documentary, which he felt was designed to denigrate Bennett personally. (In business-speak—and in the film—the suggestion is the film was designed to “show cause” for Bennett’s firing.)

Case in point: one of the last scenes of him in the film is him playing a solo show.  It’s made to illustrate him starting over, and the impression that is given is that there are only about ten people there to see him. What’s not told, however, is that the show that night had actually sold out, as Bennett and partner Edward Burch were playing with Ivan Neville at The Metro that night. Bennett rails against the film’s selective editing, and it’s clear that the wounds still hurt. Jones, has reportedly ignored requests for comment or participation in the film.

Where Are You, Jay Bennett? film poster (Image: Idmb)

Bennett’s underrated solo career is discussed, but honestly, it’s anticlimactic; we know what’s coming next and it looms large over the music. 

And that’s another disappointment. 

At one point, it is pointed out by one commentator quite well, if not somewhat snidely: the story here is that one someone became the leader of one of the biggest and most popular bands of the alternative rock era, and that the other someone one died. That’s a hell of a cloud to hang over a good portion of the documentary. Perhaps it’s one of those things that couldn’t be avoided. Perhaps—and it’s no insult to Bennett—there truly was nothing there to examine, his quiet, unassuming solo career not offering much interesting information. Still, the documentary feels incomplete. It provides the viewer an interesting but very general, broad strokes painting of a complex and talented man. 

Which is disheartening, as the film seemed so promising, but because so much is either left out, glossed over, or ignored, the viewer is left asking the eternal question: 

Where are you, Jay Bennett?

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Joseph Kyle

Joseph Kyle is a contributing writer for RockandRollGlobe.com. Follow him @TheRecoup.

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