When Wilco Stopped Being a Band and Became a Brand

Ok, I know that sounds a little harsh, but truth is, in re-watching "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" for the Reelin' & Rockin' film series, I realized I never mourned the loss of Jay Bennett to Wilco, or this world for that matter.  (Wilco- I Am Trying to Break Your Heart will be shown at the Gateway Film Center Wed Oct 19th- 7pm. Doors/drinks 6pm. details below)

It had been 5 years since I had screened the film, yet somehow just the opening credits pissed me off. Why is Jay listed last? It's not alphabetical. It's not chronological. He's the most compelling character in the movie and he did co-write and engineer most of the recording of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" which this Doc is about right? Someone made a decision to list him last. And while we are at it, why isn't his picture anywhere on the DVD package? Alas.. I digress.... sorta.

Make no mistake,Wilco is Jeff Tweedy's band. They will always be good as long as Jeff is singing and writing. But when Jeff and Jay were working/writing together, Wilco was the GREATEST band in the world. I do not make that statement lightly. How many bands can ever claim that for even a short time, they were the undisputed champions of rock n roll? Beatles? Beach Boys? The Who? Rolling Stones? Led Zep? Ramones? U2? Nirvana? Radiohead? Wilco?

My point being, that Jay Bennett was no mere sideman. It's almost Spinal Tap-esque  the way his departure is portrayed in the the movie.

To quote Jeff Tweedy, "Jay, I can't make music with you anymore".

Flash to Tap: David St. Hubbins, "I Shan't see us working together again".

Marty (Director played by Rob Riener)  "David, I can't believe your are lumping Nigel in with all these other sidemen who have played with you through the years"

For some reason, real life"Trying To Break My Heart" director Sam Jones never asked the same question of Jeff Tweedy.

OR.. to quote Wilco's manager, "Jay wore out his welcome". Nice. That's easy. Yeah, well I'm sure he did get a little edgy recording and engineering all of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot while everybody else dropped by with their 2 cents. I've spent many long hours in the studio myself and unless you are Marc Bolan, it's tough to be cool all the time. Especially when you don't have final cut over the film.

Do you want absolute, irrefutable evidence how important Jay Bennett was to taking Wilco's sound in the fearless direction that made them famous? It's surprisingly easy to provide in an objective example. Simply listen to the last song Wilco released before Jay Bennett joined, ("Too Far Apart"-last song on -AM) and then listen to the first song Wilco released with Jay. ("Misunderstood"- Being There). Seriously. Go listen to those two songs and then resume reading........no hurry.....listen...

and... (assuming we are now all on the same page.)

The improvement is breathtaking. One minute they are a nice little alt-country rock band with nifty songs and a great singer, the next they are on another planet releasing a tour de force double record covering more musical territory than The Band in their prime. What had changed? Only one person, Jay Bennett.  "Being There" blew my mind. It's like The Beatles just skipping from "Beatles For Sale" to " Revolver". I was witness to the Wilco evolution in something close to real time. Watershed was touring and hitting the same spots as Wilco, both of our vans trucking down the same roads literally and musically when suddenly (not slowly-hah!)BANG... VAROOOM.....a cloud of smoke in our face as Wilco accelerated over the horizon.

 

"Being There" begat "Mermaid Ave." begat  "Summerteeth" begat "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". I would submit these consecutive records as being on par with the best in rock history. And what's more, upon further review, indisputable proof that every Wilco CD with Jay Bennett is better than EVERY Wilco CD without him. Hmm..

If you need further evidence of Jay's vital contribution to the inventing the Wilco "sound". He is credited with co-writing ALL of the music on Wilco's greatest CD, "Summerteeth". Jeff doesn't exactly toss credits around like leftover Halloween candy so rest assure Jay had major imput. oh..and Wilco never had keyboards until Jay. (another reason to go back and listen to the two song comparison)

I realize all this makes me sound like I dislike Jeff Tweedy and I don't care for Wilco anymore. That isn't true. It's just that Wilco with Jeff and Jay was my favorite band and I feel like I got cheated as a music fan. I wanted more from Wilco, the real Wilco. Not the dazzling rotating line-up touring today. Jeff and Jay had "something" the same way Mick and Keith had it. Sure, guys in bands want to occasionally strangle each other but that's part of the job. Real bandmates sacrifice a little ego and comfort but do what is best for the music. If not, you end up like Axl Rose. Can anybody honestly say that Jay Bennett leaving Wilco was best for the music?

My favorite scene of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" are the clips of Wilco playing live at First Avenue in Minneapolis. There is Jeff Tweedy, front and center, where he belongs, singing and playing his heart out. And next to him, Jay Bennett, his right hand man both literally and figuratively. It's obvious Wilco was their band and they both loved it very much. And I miss them together, very much.

 

link to Reelin and Rockin page  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Reelin-Rockin-at-Gateway-Film-Center/207061122680256 

Colin Gawel is a songwriter not essay writer, a dad, a husband, a member of Watershed and the Lonely Bones. He moonlights as the owner of Colin's Coffee and his fantasy football team is curently in last place though he won is fantasy baseball league this year.  colingawel.com