I interviewed Jay Reatard when he played The Earl in Atlanta during the first week December. We talked for 45 minutes. I asked him about his band quitting and the pressure of living up to being “Jay Reatard” every night. What he really wanted to focus on, though, was the next move. He talked about wanting to get away from the persona, but he worried how he was going to rock in his next incarnation. He laid out plans for bands on different continents and lamented about how he’d probably end up as a country musician. Sadly, he died in his sleep two nights ago. The tragedy here is two-fold: Not only did we lose Jimmy Lee Lindsey and Jay Reatard, but we’ll also never know his full potential as an artist, songwriter, and performer. Not nearly enough people will realize the void he left. I wish he would have stuck around.
Below is the piece as it was written in December, a snapshot of the frontman from Memphis. I hope it’s a fitting tribute. ~Mike Burr
Jay Reatard seems tired. He walks into the club’s grotty dressing room, experiences a coughing fit, and covers his face with his hands. He says that he needs a beer and, in an unexpected move given his reputation as a DIY enfant terrible, he asks me if I want one. He sinks down into a couch that might be older than the venue, and he stares at the floor. Neither of us talks for a second, and I’m tempted to get up and leave without interviewing him. He still seems like the type of artist that lowers himself to doing press and considers reticence a small victory. Instead, I offer my condolences on his recent loss at the Woodies, and he says that he didn’t care, that he didn’t even go to the ceremony. I say he must have cared a little, or he wouldn’t have asked for votes on his website. Jay Reatard might not be the biggest asshole in the room. He cracks a smile and says that he has nothing to do with what happens on his website. The Jay Reatard on the website isn’t him.
Internet aside, Reatard has spent the year going through a larger identity crisis. The punk thing may be wearing a little thin. He says the things that used to be cute aren’t so cute anymore. He’s that boxed into a corner by the expectations of on-stage antics, that he spends seven hours a day riding in a fucking van and just wants an hour a night to do his thing. He says that he’s finally getting comfortable on stage after all these years, but people just want to see him get drunk and punch somebody.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy to Reatard: The fans come with an agenda, and his hand is forced. He meets expectations and ends up on YouTube. It’s not the most mature outlook, but Reatard is still working within the persona he created as a teenager. He’s paid his dues and established himself in the indie-rock community, which delights in cataloging artists. An evolving Reatard risks alienating the people who made him, got him signed to Matador, allowed him enough financial breathing room to think in the first place.
Reatard knows it’s a no-win proposition. Fans are fickle. The only permanent things in indie rock are the tattoos, and he doesn’t necessarily want to be remembered only as Jay Reatard. It’s a name that’s followed him since his middle school days, where the only way he could fit in was to not fit in, by being the loudest, most obnoxious character in the room. The identity increasingly feels like a reaction instead of an idea. He doesn’t harbor any illusions that the persona has been good to him. The invented Jay Reatard carried Jimmy Lindsey through his first few albums and generated enough positive buzz to land him on Matador, where he released a critically acclaimed collection of singles and his first true full-length album for the label, Watch Me Fall.
Watch Me Fall is a polarizing record. Reviewers backed off the praise a little as Reatard presciently delivered poppy melodies and lyrics about isolation and failure. Even now that the furor has quieted over the edges he’d sanded off his sound, Reatard doesn’t give the album the hard sell. He says it was the record he needed to make at that point in his career, before he’d painted himself into a corner.
There’s regret below the surface, however. Watch Me Fall was recorded in his house, as the majority of his other albums were, but this time around the songs might have benefited from improved production values. Reatard stuck with what had worked in the past, and, even though the results were good, something was missing. Next time he’s going to go into a studio and work with a producer, release it under his own name, go solo within his solo project. He wants the next record to be “full melodic,” and open up the instrumentation. It’s a project very much in its infancy. The songs sound like Rocket From The Crypt, but not in a good way. Reatard is also trying to picture his future live show, noting that it would be hard to rock out next to an oboe. That will probably piss a lot of people off, but it’s all part of the process.
Growth is messy. The majority of Watch Me Fall is a meditation — as much as Reatard meditates — on the subject. There were psychedelics involved that precipitated a freak-out about old friends, new money and increased expectations. Reatard laughs off some of the darker lyrics now, but “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me” and “Rotten Mind” speak for themselves. This is a collection of swan songs. He freely admits that he has self-destructive tendencies, but he says he’s not just another dumbass sitting on his couch on a self-hate trip. Even with the bravado, it’s not a stretch to think that a reckoning is coming sometime soon. What remains to be seen is whether the character or the man is the casualty.
There’s already been collateral damage. His touring band quit in October, forcing a temporary replacement by the rhythm section from Reatard acolytes the Cola Freaks. Reatard is visibly bummed about it. He regrets that it happened in the first place, and that he took out Twittervenge on Stephen Pope and Billy Hayes. They’d been touring together since Blood Visions, and Reatard says that he and Pope are still close enough that he loaned the new guy his bass to finish out the tour. Hayes is another matter. Reatard says that the drummer “never wanted to be my friend,” with a depth of feeling that borders on the pathetic. For the first time, the façade cracks. For just an instant, the signed DIY darling is the kid again, wondering why he doesn’t have any friends. The moment of weakness is fleeting. He says the ball is in Hayes’ court, and then he outlines an ambitious plan to have a band on each continent. If Jay Reatard can’t have one band, he’ll have six. There’s no reason to worry about him. He’s the indie-rock king of the world.
Given Reatard’s guileless delivery, the hype is nearly believable. He takes the stage after two punk bands that sound more like R.E.M. than the Ramones and spends 20 minutes putting the tune on what might be the ugliest guitars ever played professionally. He disappears for a moment and then saunters back onto the stage. He doesn’t say a word, just rips through three straight songs, ending with a nearly unrecognizable, speeded up version of “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me.” This doesn’t sound like any softened Matador material. This is Jay Reatard getting full-on stupid.
Two guys try in vain to start a mosh pit. Guys in skinny jeans try to protect their cigarettes. Reatard soldiers on, taking a break only to invert beer bottles and switch guitars. The crowd is into it, but they’re sneaking looks at each other, wondering from which direction the first salvo is going to come. The single security guard and Reatard’s tour manager, Baptiste, who might weigh a buck twenty wearing a coat, survey the audience, looking for any potential trouble spots. Despite their efforts, a beer bottle comes skittering onto the stage, coming to rest in front of the drum kit. A local scenestress beats Baptiste and hits the stage, picking up the bottle and admonishing the crowd with a wagging finger. She exits to a smattering of applause. Reatard drains another and picks up where he left off. There’s no altercation, and a few audience members look dejected.
For a second there, it seemed like the old Jay Reatard might be present. Turns out, though, he’s moved on. Punk rock is kind of a young man’s game.