Our buddy Daniel Stewart has been feeding us great punk and punk-inspired music for a few years now via his record label and touring company Stained Circles
as well as his own band The UV Race
. Daniel became close friends with Jay Reatard when he brought his band out to play shows across Australia and New Zealand and he wrote this for us following the sad news of Jay's death.
Jay Reatard died last week at age 29. He was one of the most prolific songwriters of our time, and his recorded output, in both the bands he played in and the solo material of his recent years, is among the best in recorded punk history. His live shows attained legendary status, spreading stories of mayhem across the world. I was fortunate enough to see him play in a wide range of settings as my band toured with him each time he was in Australia. I got to spend a lot of time with him on these tours. Most people who saw Jay play have a story about him. I have a bunch and I would like to share some of them with you.
My first experience with Jay Reatard was typical. I was standing in the crowd watching his band play at an outdoor courtyard in Austin. It was 2007. Jay had recorded and released Blood Visions, packed up his guitar, said goodbye to his bedroom and started on the road. I was at the show to see Fucked Up, but had heard a lot about Jay through his Lost Sounds and Reatards records, and people had told me that his new record was the best punk record of the decade. Midway through the set he started foaming at the mouth and pestering the bassist, who responded by head-butting him, which is when Jay attempted to kick a massive speaker stack onto the crowd. I was standing underneath that speaker stack and watched it wobble, knowing there were too many people surrounding me to make a heroic dive out of the way. Luckily, in an instant, Jay realised he wanted a beer and stopped kicking the stack, grabbed a beer out of the crowd and slammed it while the band continued to play. That beer is probably the reason I can still walk today.
But it wasn’t over. Next, Jay grabbed the bars holding the protective structure together above him, and started trying to rip the entire thing down onto our heads. When this didn’t prove successful, he resorted to kicking the other bands’ guitars, until some local biker girl got on stage and told him to stop. He pushed her off stage, flipped off her friends, who seemed ready to stick a knife in him, and picked up his guitar again to close the song. A raver-biker-hippie-weirdo type then tackled Jay to the ground but he effortlessly straddled the waiflike forest creature in a lurid orange shirt and pushed the V of his guitar into guy’s throat. As the guy turned blue, Jay smiled and banged away on the guitar, until he wanted another beer and lost interest.
Shortly after this show, I found Blood Visions. It was briefly out of press, and every record store I went to in the US had sold out, but I eventually found it at the well regarded Bistro Distro which operated out of a closet in Portland. Plus, I’d sneak a play of the record at every house I crashed at across the country.
When I returned home from the US, I sent an email to Larry Hardy from In The Red asking to get in touch with Jay as I’d just started a touring company and record label with my friend James and girlfriend Johanna, and we wanted to license Jay’s records and tour him in Australia. Larry probably received a hundred painful emails like this a day, but he forwarded me on, and helped supervise the deal. This would have been a real crazy time for Jay, as his record was selling a fuck-load and major labels had started sniffing around, but he told me he’d always wanted to tour Australia. James had almost got the Lost Sounds out here five years ago, but they’d broken up just before in a most spectacular fashion.
On Jay’s first tour here, in early 2008, he was still touring on the Blood Visions record and was in a bit of a daze. I was a bit cautious initially about meeting him as some of the email exchanges had been made difficult by his acquisition of official management, and of course, given his reputation for vomiting acidic piss onto people and tearing their faces off with his teeth if they weren’t to his liking. To my surprise, despite being physically exhausted, he was very personable and excited to play these shows. He explained to me that his body had come to accept the delicate balance of stimulants and depressants that had defined his nocturnal activity since he was a teenager. I know he was an insomniac because we usually crashed in the same hotel room where he’d basically talk until his mouth fell asleep. His favourite topic was himself but unlike most people with incredibly uncomplicated existences who like talking about themselves Jay had lived a very long life rich with hilarious, mortifying, disgusting and tragic experiences that made for great late night conversation. He was definitely the exception to the rule. I usually couldn’t sleep because I was not quick to adapt to strange company or was too stressed about ticket sales and the like, so I was happy to hear all the stories that he’d hinted at in interviews and song titles.
On the first tour, I heard a lot about his early life. He’d grown up poor. Dirt poor — the kind of poor that I’d never known growing up; where meals were on the table every night and where the roof got fixed if it leaked. He also grew up poor in America, which is a whole different kind of poor. Jay grew up moving between small houses with paper-thin walls and trailers in the country. He also grew up poor in Tennessee, and he says he also felt very aware of being white.
Jay grew up fast, because he had to. He was a violent student, reacting to provocation from classmates with the kind of beating that would ensure they kept their distance in future. He even went so far as to stab a classmate with a pencil. Among early memories that he shared with me, the craziest was of early high school when he found a shotgun inside his dad’s trailer and decided to test if it worked by pulling the trigger against the wall. The shot sprayed through to the neighbor’s trailer, narrowly missing them. Around the same time Jay started skateboarding to channel the destructive urge, but had no balance and kept fucking himself up.
Jay’s real name is Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. but being a firm believer in everything that made the Ramones great, he decided that Jay Reatard worked better. For live Reatards’ shows, Jay recruited members from the Oblivians and they belted out a succession of records that were snatched up by collectors. Blood Guts & Pussy made the 1990s seem like a promising decade for punk music.
The best 1990s punk came from all over the country, but mostly from regional cities and small towns, like Cleveland or Memphis. Jay Reatard came out of this world, but quickly found it too small. One story he told me about was when, on one of the first Reatards’ tours, he received a couple of death threats from Washington band The Retards who were threatening to come down and beat his ass for stealing their name. Mid-set, Jay recognised one of the members on the street outside, and dropped his guitar to give the guy a chance to make good on his threats. Reatard beat Retard, and Jay returned with bloody hands to his band who’d continued playing the song.
After meeting Alicja Trout, Jay was turned onto the sounds of synth punk and new wave, and they formed the band Lost Sounds. Lost Sounds co-existed with Final Solutions and Nervous Patterns, and after this, Angry Angles played a few tunes that he would rework into Blood Visions. Jay told me about the Lost Sounds breakup, explaining himself as the primary cause, as well as the disintegrating relationship between he and Alicja, who he still held in high regard as one of the most important people in his life.
On the first Australian tour, we sold copies of Jay’s 7” demos and shortly after they were tripling in value on eBay, where practically anything Jay’s played on gets a constant recycling. Jay kept a stack of his old records aside, and told me he was constantly selling them to buy a pile of coke or pay a week’s rent in between tours. After his Australian tour though this wasn’t necessary. His stories of being courted by were obviously entertaining. Outside of the major label world, bands enjoy exchanging stories of career talent scouts or artist liaisons, because these people usually provide fodder for amusing anecdotes about what happens when a lack of knowledge and an overconfidence meet head-on with a couple of lines of cocaine. Some of the people Jay had to endure were straight out of the world of Entourage. During one such meeting, one ponytailed exec actually told him, with a nose full of powder, “man, we’re going to make you the next Kurt Cobain!” and Jay’s response was “haha, yeah, now gimme some of that!” One night on tour, Jay told me that he was going to be a millionaire by the time he was 30 if he played it right.
Around this time we were in the tour van with the windows rolled up and someone was passing a joint around and we were listening to one of the bands that Jay grew up watching, His Hero Is Gone. Jay hated smoking weed because it made him really paranoid, and he told me later on that he was not going to make music past the age of 40 because he hated seeing old punks on stage.
The day before the Australian tour Jay got fall-down drunk and tried to jump off the roof of a bar using an umbrella to break his fall, like Mary Poppins. He hit the sidewalk, hard, and his ribs suffered the blow. Thanks to this injury, he was pretty reluctant to throw himself around, and thus no speakers stacks squashed. He was also less inclined to drink, and after the shows we usually went for some food and hung out at the hotels talking shit. Only in Melbourne did he get really stupid: one night after a show, his bassist Steven was high on a pill and giggling like a schoolgirl. Jay had sunk a bottle of vodka, which made him angry to the point that he attacked Steven in the elevator at the hotel. Drummer Billy and I broke them up, and got them into their room. It was a little calm before Steven started giggling again, and Jay tackled him, punching his face until it was bloody, Steven smiling through it all and still giggling when we finally dragged Jay off him. Jay started yelling and pulled a light fixture off the wall to throw at us, before collapsing onto the bed. I put Steven into the bathroom to clean his face while Billy and I went back down to the van outside to lug the guitars up. “These guys are such faggots sometimes” he warned me, and when we came back into the room Jay’s feet were in Steven’s lap. Jay was cooing like a pigeon and Steven was popping his toes, dripping blood on them and giggling the whole time. “See what I mean?”
On the next tour, Jay had quit drinking altogether and every day he got a back massage. His drug binges had pushed his weight up and down drastically, and his back muscles were completely fucked as a result, so he was in continual chronic pain. He stayed off the drugs entirely until we got to Perth where we were given a handful of acid. In the hotel room, buzzing, we sat around listening to each others’ iPods, enjoying Hawkwind and Antidote as we fried. Jay told us about some books he was reading, and they were fascinating: one was about an anthropologist who moves to South America to study a tribe there, falls in love with a man in the village, and lives with him for the next few decades until his death, and then returns to “civilization” to write the story. Later, we tried to put our hands through the walls and he told me a little about the artwork to his record: like Blood Visions, he was spending more on the artwork than on recording the songs.
In Sydney, Jay played some of the demos for what would be his new LP Watch Me Fall, including a song that would also appear on a split 7” with Sonic Youth, and we swapped iPods while he went to NZ with No Age. I wish I’d had the foresight to rip the demos off his iPod, as they were far different to what would become Watch Me Fall. I was convinced he’d written his best record, from these unmastered and stripped down versions. During the entire tour, Jay spoke constantly about how healthy he felt, and would cook food for Billy, Steve and I in the hotel rooms to celebrate. He was a great cook, and it was great to wake early, check email to make sure nothing was going wrong, and go to the supermarket and buy a bunch of food for his kitchen. He told me that when he was recently touring with the Black Keys, one member actually pulled him aside to tell him that they were afraid that he was going to die. This obviously had an effect on Jay, and he was attempting to make good with the people that he’d been an asshole to in his life.
Jay liked being in Australia because people didn’t know him like they did in Europe and the US and he didn’t feel like he had to be over the top for them to dig the tunes. People dug the tunes, and he basically wanted to play them and spend the rest of the time eating beef Pho soup and getting massaged and talking shit about his life. At the end of the tour we made plans to see each other again the following year when he came to Australia again or when my band went to Memphis to record with him at Shattered Studios.
Since leaving Australia that time I could tell that things had gotten bad for him. One time I spoke to him he was really drunk and depressed that he told me he’d started drinking again. He told me that his girlfriend had left him because he was being a fuckup and that he’d fired the band. I was very sad to hear this, as I knew how much he loved their company, speaking about them with the kind of affection and frustration usually reserved for older siblings. He told me he was going to get his shit back together soon though and quit drinking, and he was excited to play some shows in the Midwest with us if we made it to the US.
Watch Me Fall was released to a lukewarm reception by myself most of the people around me and listening to it now it’s evident he was stepping even further outside of everyone’s comfort zones. The demos I’d originally heard had been polished to an almost painful sheen. Compared to Blood Visions, Watch Me Fall is self indulgent and strained, but it’s also more adventurous. He’d embraced NZ pop – one of his favourite tour experiences was hanging with Chris Knox, to whom he’d had to admit the heavy Tall Dwarfs influence on his new material – and this meant a little more experimentation was happening than he’d allowed with the effortless confidence of Blood Visions. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate this record more and more as an indication of where Jay was wanting to take his music, and despite its failings, it is still an excellent record because Jay can write songs. That there was no full stop after this record is all the more significant because it was his last record, effectively his last recorded statement as one of the most interesting and talented musicians and song writers of the last decade.
After his death, I received several emails from friends and people who knew him saying that he was turning it around again, very excited to work on new material, living with a good friend and fellow musician. I was happy to hear this, because I kept thinking about how elated he felt when he was here, and how miserable he was when I last spoke to him. That is how I’ll always remember him: he was a legendary individual with a reputation for completely insensitive asshole behaviour, but what I really appreciated about the time I spent with him was the self awareness that he had — that he knew his time was limited and he wanted to make his mark on the world through music. I believe he wanted to be remembered for his music, so I will read the requiem mass for him: remember him as a great guy, a troubled fuck up but a great guy. I’ll be spinning his records until I’m a pathetic 40 year old punk, and hopefully beyond.