Back in May of this year, when I woke up on Memorial Day to find out that musician and friend Jay Bennett had died in his sleep, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Jay in the previous month before his death had been on a lot of people’s minds that month after announcing that he needed hip replacement surgery for a long time injury and then opened a case against Jeff Tweedy, his former band mate in Wilco, over unpaid royalties from recordings and the documentary film on the band, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.
Cynical minds had speculated that the lawsuit was an effort to get the surgery he needed paid for, but Jay’s musical partner and best friend, Edward Burch, thinks otherwise. Jay was not the type to do something like that frivolously and if he brought about the lawsuit it no doubt had merit, Burch told me.
But that case is closed and a great musician is gone. However, tonight, on what was to be Jay’s 46th birthday, a celebration of the man will be held in Chicago at the Hideout (1354 West Wabansia).
Featuring Burch, members of Dolly Varden, Steve Frisbie, former Wilco member Leroy Bach, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra and many more, the $8 cover charge is to help musician’s health care issues. Come join the Rock ‘n Roll Ghost and these great musicians as well as Jay’s fans and friends in celebrating his life and his music.
Below is an interview with Burch where he talks about the show and about his dear friend Jay.
Were you the one that basically got the ball rolling (on the benefits show)?
Yeah. Over Labor Day was when the memorial proper was. Bands and musicians and friends and folks all came in to Champaign. At one point when I was sitting in with Steve Pride and His Blood Kin, me, my band mate Kip and our friend Alex who had drummed for Steve Pride at one point, the three of us attempted to fill the shoes that Jay could do as one person. We still couldn’t match up to the presence that he brought to that band. A lot of our Chicago musical comrades had not been able to make it down to the memorial event over Labor Day. So I thought it might be nice to have a birthday celebration and get a bunch of those folks to come out.
So I actually approached the folks at the Hideout a couple of months ago and said ‘Hey is that particular date open?’ I’m glad it all worked out. We had Titanic Love Affair and Steve Pride at the memorial thing. But folks are scattered all over the country, so I don’t think we will have that for this one. Ken Hartz, the lead singer of TLA told me, he’ll try to make it out. He lives in Chicago. If he shows up we may drag him up onstage.
When Wilco played in town recently, I went to meet lunch with John (Stirratt, Wilco’s bassist) for lunch. He said if they got back to Chicago in time that he was gonna try to make it out. But I thought that their Europe dates were going into the 16th.
So it doesn’t look like he’s going to make it.
Who do you have confirmed now?
Leroy Bach, Dorian Taj, my old band The Viper & His Famous Orchestra, Quartet Parapluie, Brian Krumm and Brian Leach from The Great Crusades (who had started in Champaign and ended up in Chicago), certainly members of Dolly Varden, quite likely the entire band, Steve Frisbie, myself, Brad Elvis and Chloe Orwell from The Handcuffs will be part of my backing band for one part of the show, and other Chicago area musicians that I played with at the Hideout over the years will be hopping at different points in various sets.
Is this going to be off the cuff or will there be rehearsals?
I’m getting in on Thursday and we are scheduling some rehearsals that will be sort of catch as catch can. In some instances people have rehearsed the songs on their own and whoever can meet for rehearsal will, otherwise what happens on the stage in a lot of cases be the first time that that whole group of people are playing together. And Lord knows Jay and I did plenty of that type of shit when we were touring and such. That approach is nothing new to my world. I just hope that my choosing of amazingly talented people that they will make the whole ensemble and me sound better than I should be allowed to sound.
With regards to music you’ll be specifically performing, is it going to concentrate mostly on the album you did with him or will you be performing some solo stuff of his?
For the most part I will be pulling from The Palace at 4 AM although there are certainly songs from all of his records after that where either I appeared in some form or I had (a hand in) songwriting as well in some form. We’ll probably pull out at least a couple of Wilco tunes, probably pull out at least one TLA song, someone’s picking out a couple Steve Pride tunes. So different points of his career will be…I think on the whole we will get a decent overview…up through that Whatever Happened I Apologize record. I think one of the songs that Donna and I are doing, if I’m not mistaken, is from Kicking At the Perfumed Air, which is the record he was working on when he died. And, to the best of my knowledge, and someone could call me up next week and tell me that this is wrong, but my understanding is that that record was far enough along that they are going to put it together and master it and put it out.
Who’s working on that? His manager?
Certainly Jeff is involved, but it’s also our friend Matt, who’s the Pieholden Studio manager. He’s been assigned the task of going through…luckily Jay had already organized and labeled a lot of stuff, but there’s certainly lots of tape and various things to go through. The man had piles and piles of recording. I remember this when he and I lived together years ago back when he was in Wilco and we lived in downtown Champaign. We had this huge loft space. It was great because it was mammoth. Everyone had their own bedroom and it was dirt cheap because the landlord didn’t care about real estate speculation or anything. As long as we could pay our mortgage. Jay had this room that was just packed full of all kinds of stuff. He would call me up on the phone and say, ‘Hey! I need you to find this particular tape. Go to this big suitcase and you pull that out and then you get the third box and you grab that and there’ll be a tape and I think it says blah, blah, blah’. That’s just one example of the degree to which could be extremely meticulous. And even something that looked like a mess, he knew exactly where things were. Certainly, a particular pile of recordings he left behind were already documented in notebooks and there are records of what these things are, but there’s still some of it to go through.
You hadn’t started doing anything proper as a follow-up to The Palace had you?
Unless we were going to pull upon some of the older recordings that we had. And if I ever get around to putting out some type of solo record of some form, I would likely check with Jay’s folks and try to figure out…I’m sure they’d be more than happy to let me put it on a record. At the same time it would feel slightly weird just as anything when you’re dealing posthumous stuff does, it would feel slightly weird having a record come out, a so-called new record and part of the things on it are these old tapes there were left behind. At the same time if we look over the span, I’ll use Jay’s solo catalog as an example, but over the span of those records, we’ll start with Palace. Palace has recordings that he and I had done as early as ‘94. Coming up to things we worked on…initial tracking began after he left Wilco. So they run that kind of gamut. We had so much backlogged material that every record he put out since always pulled something from the past and incorporated it into some newer bodies of work. That holds even in the new one that’s going to come out. Given that he had the willingness to dig into past material to put together a new album…if a song seemed to make sense within the context of these other songs than he was like, ‘Well, let’s go for it’.
How are you dealing with his passing?
With any significant loss like that, to a degree, I don’t know if you ever get over it. Except that now you live in a world that is different because this person that you loved and cared about is not there anymore. It’s certainly not as acute as a shock as getting the phone call that day. I’m not exaggerating the least when I say that I still think about him multiple times a day. When someone is that much a part of your life, all sorts of everyday things will remind you. Or something comes up and you think, ‘Aw! Jay would love to see this’. It’s definitely the type of loss that will never completely go away. It’s just that this is what your life is now.