“Jay Reatard wanted you to think he was a son of a bitch, but he wasn’t. Just a good dude who wrote awesome songs. Tons of ’em.” – David Malitz, via Twitter
JIMMY LEE Lindsey, Jr. wasn’t my friend, but I broke down when he died.
I’ve never written an obituary. I copied down the information from the funeral homes and transferred it into the pages on a few hot Saturday afternoons working at a small Mississippi paper, but I never wrote an obituary. The one time I felt compelled to pen a real one—when my little brothers’ soccer coach died about this time last year—the loss proved too deep for words.
I’m also the last person fit to write an obituary for Jay Reatard. We had talked back in June for a story I wrote for the Washington Post’s “Express” edition, but before that conversation, my biggest experience with the floppy-haired guitarist had been sitting in an internet café in Costa Rica, watching Reatard violate himself with a flower on stage at Pitchfork Fest.
Anyone can throw on a guitar and extend the fist, but Reatard lived rock and roll. It was all that he had. Dropping out of high school at the age of 15, he created messy lo-fi garage noise as a means of escape. He told Terminal Boredom, “I just wanted to be someplace other than in my bedroom. I had no friends, no hope, and a lousy home life.”
So Jay made music. Despite never having a huge hit, he never stopped. The moniker under which it came out didn’t matter—Bad Times, the Lost Sounds, the Final Solutions, whatever. From 1998-2009, Jay never let a year go by without releasing something. He passed having recorded 22 full-length albums and releasing over 100 records.
The music is loud, short and gets played in a state somewhere beyond frenetic. Even if you didn’t particularly love the way he assaulted your eardrums, he himself was a creation; indeed, creativity was all he had. Well, almost all: “I had to get fucked up on coke or speed or booze just to enjoy myself and was just sick of the whole scene,” he once admitted.
There was nothing safe about a Jay Reatard show. He got into fights, quit shows early, kicked people in the face but still people kept coming out to see him. When he hit the backstage at D.C.’s Black Cat, Jay walked out, shot-gunned a drink and ripped into the music. The pit developed, two girls started ripping each other by the hair, and Jay didn’t miss a beat. The set was on the 20 side of 30 minutes, and every song had been sped up from its album-recorded pace.
Jay never apologized for being a little boy—a dirty, drunk angry little boy who always turned up the amps and the tempo. I always thought of of him as the Peter Pan of punk rock—a misbehaving little sonic hellion that refused to grow up. Even as he stared 30 in the face, Jay was still raising hell, even though he hated the notoriety it brought him.
“It’s like, ‘Who the fuck are you? Do you normally just go up to strangers and take pictures?’ People have such a sense of entitlement and think they have the right to, without asking, to come up, while I’m reading a book at five in the afternoon in the club and that starts to irritate you,” Reatard told me. “I used to be a really shy kid, and it’s taken a long time to be like, ‘Get the fuck away from me.’ Once you do that, I think it is okay. Everyone has a cell phone camera just waiting to find minute amount of celebrity and take a picture.”
It would be easy to label him a “total asshole.” He knew that’s how people saw him; called himself one on his Twitter page, and was probably mostly right. When his band quit on him in October, Jay tweeted, “Band quit! Fuck them! They are boring rich kids who can’t play for shit anyways. Say hello to your ugly and boring wives. Oops, I mean…”
Despite the foul tongue, Jay had a kind, reflective side that came out when I interviewed him earlier this year. Unlike Michael Jackson, he was still bursting with creativity, and his death feels like a loss of years of potentially great music as well as a great musical persona. His last album, Watch Me Fall, showed this remarkable promise, blending his standard frenetic sound with mature harmonies, hooks and choruses. It was easy to keep on repeat, and it’s a shame that we couldn’t hear what was going to follow.
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