I remember finding out that Kurt Cobain was dead. While it was surprising, it didn’t affect me all that much. I was (and still am) a big fan of Nirvana’s music, but I didn’t know Kurt Cobain. Strangers die all the time.
It was evident that friends of mine felt a deep, personal sense of loss the day Cobain died. The news made a group of people already prone to prolonged bouts of depression even more somber and solemn. I didn’t get it. And since I was something of a shit stirrer, I made sure I was vocal about that fact.
I made some crass remarks that day, and offended more than one person. I was fond of paraphrasing Cobain’s own assertion that what he did was nothing all that special or revolutionary, it was just rock music. He called Nirvana the Cheap Trick of their generation. I was an avid fan and student of lo-fi indie and punk music, and I bought into the anti-rock-star, “kill your idols” rhetoric that infused those genres.
In my mind, all the public displays over Cobain’s passing were the same sort of hero worship and deification that went on when Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison or Elvis died. They were anathema to everything my friends professed to believe in. It all seemed illogical and hypocritical to me. So, I’ve never been one to eulogize rock stars, or get shook up over the death of public figures.
Then, last Wednesday, a tragic event coincided with my latest sonic preoccupation. While checking the Magnet website I discovered that Jay Reatard was found dead in his apartment in Memphis. A little shock and sadness interrupted my nightly web browsing ritual. Yes, I actually felt sad. Strange...
I wasn't familiar with Jay Reatard until quite recently. I had heard of his old band The Reatards, and his other old band Lost Sounds, and I knew he had released a slew of music, but I had never listened to any of it. The only real reason for that was the whole "so much music, so little time" thing. In the past few months, a couple different web sites that recommend music based on my listening habits and what I buy suggested that my life might be better with some Jay Reatard in it. Boy, were they right.
I bought a download of his latest release Watch Me Fall (Matador, 2009), and haven't been able to stop listening to it since. It’s all but impossible to overstate just how catchy this album is. It will most likely make an addict out of anyone who likes high energy, concise pop music. Watch Me Fall should be required listening in the leave them wanting more school of thought. One post I saw on-line after Reatard’s death read, “Nobody could do more with one minute.”
It’s often been uttered that really great music cannot be described with the limited vocabulary of genres. Jay Reatard was a punk; it was the music he loved and the life he lived. Still, anyone who can hear a song like “I’m Watching You” (originally a bonus track on the compilation Matador Singles '08, and re-recorded for Watch Me Fall) and not concede that Jay Reatard was an incredible song writer—not merely an incredible punk songwriter, or rock songwriter—doesn’t know much about pop music.
So, obviously I had no personal connection to the man, but I've spent an awful lot of time listening to his work over the past two or three weeks. I was already anticipating how great future releases from him would be when the Magnet page appeared on my computer screen Wednesday night, and I read, "Jay Reatard R.I.P." Maybe my sadness was nothing more than pure selfishness as I thought about all that promise, the exceptional music I’d be robbed of. But, all grief is selfish when you get right down to it.
And the truth is, knowing how prolific he was in his life, I’m sure we’ll hear a fair amount of posthumous Jay Reatard releases down the line. Last night I listened to an interview recorded not long ago on the Needle Drop blog in which Jay said that he had completed 19 full tracks for Watch Me Fall. I’m going to predict that sooner or later an expanded version will be available. And I will undoubtedly buy it. Being new to Jay Reatard’s music, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are plenty of earlier recordings for me to explore.
So, if a dearth of Jay Reatard material for me to listen to isn’t the reason for my sadness when I learned of his passing, what is? Am I just getting soft and sentimental in my old age? I doubt you would get anyone who knows me to attest to that. I guess all I know for sure is that the world has lost another truly talented individual, and that is worth pausing to recognize.
In a tribute to Jay, Stereogum has posted a great cover of Nirvana's "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle" (MP3) he recorded. I highly recommend any music fan check it out and urge anyone to listen to Watch Me Fall if you have the chance.
— Matt Barber
Video: "Before I Was Caught" & "Faking It":