[Editor’s Note: Memphis writer Andrew Earles considers the rocker, who died Jan. 13 in his sleep at age 29.]
Memphis, Tennessee, can be reliably fruitful for those who have chosen particular fields. Lawyers and advertising execs do well here, as do commercial real estate developers and the proprietors of catering businesses, liquor stores, and landscaping companies. Memphis can also be perfectly rewarding for the creatively-inclined, though a certain percentage of musicians, artists, or writers can always be counted on to split, generally before reaching the goal of self-sustenance, convinced of another city’s ability to speed the process. And finally, Memphis seems oddly hospitable to motormouths favoring pie-in-the-sky talk over any degree of noticeable creative progress. At the end of the day, however, Memphis is what you make it.
Jay Lindsey, better known to the world as Jay Reatard, was perpetually in the position to move from Memphis, but it was something he only entertained once (Atlanta), for a short time. He knew this town informed his creativity through the positive and the negative. Most everyone leaves for what they perceive as more culturally fertile, beneficial pastures, and sometimes they can’t be blamed, but it’s far more admirable to make a name for yourself, then use your newfound resources to help your local scene produce more notable exports. Williamsburg, Portland, Austin-they don’t need help. Memphis needs help.
Perhaps as early as age 14 (shortly after his last flirtations with school, where other kids tormented him with the slur he’d later adopt as his surname), Jay Lindsey started facing down the major adversity around him. He got out of the shitty Memphis neighborhoods, catching rides to Shangri-La Records, walking around the store in silence and ever-so-carefully choosing a seven-inch or a zine to take back as his artifacts from a world he was determined to first be accepted by…then rule. I worked most Sundays at said store, and my co-worker/boss Andria Lisle had told me about this kid, couldn’t be over 15, that came in sort of excited and asked about the local band he’d seen open for Rocket from the Crypt that he said “sucked.” She sold him one of the early Oblivians seven-inches; by the time he showed up on one of my Sundays, there was talk of him exchanging letters with an Oblivian member or two. He made no attempt to hide the automatic discontent at seeing a new face, yet he loosened up a bit when it was apparent I wasn’t an asshole with snotty taste or an extremely talkative type. The funny thing is, I could be both of those things, but I remembered when I walked through the same store, a year or two older than this kid, knowing not one person who liked what I liked and overwhelmed by a new universe of music to be fanatical about.
It seems like a blur now, but it started with one seven-inch in the mid-’90s. Then came album after album, and then the tours. This kid wasn’t old enough to smoke and he was touring. It always impressed me that Jay knew, at such a young age, that he had to make a name for himself outside of the Memphis city limits, and that this act would be an immensely satisfying way to erect his middle fingers at the terminally provincial indie rockers who considered themselves of great artistic importance because they drew 100 locals to a Saturday night show. Memphis finally caught up, and eventually tried to crawl straight up his ass, but he didn’t leave. His loyalty to this town was not a desire to be the big-fish-in-a-small-pond-though hardly a torturous situation for anyone-as it wasn’t long before Jay could be a big fish in big ponds. He responded by purchasing a place in his neighborhood of ten years, then moving a close creative partner and friend into the house so they could work on building a studio.
Jay Reatard’s discography is a daunting proposition; if this purely-wrong thing had not happened, it would always be a work-in-progress by an unapologetic maximalist building a unique and influential empire with the utmost care. It’s a larger body of work than what can be claimed by most famous musicians over the age of 60. These were “Memphis records” just like his initial mentors, the Oblivians, made “Memphis records” and Jon Spencer’s idol Jeffrey Evens makes “Memphis records.” Once during an interview, I asked the question I always asked: “Do you plan to stay here?” It was in the spring of 2008, his answer was a question with a question. He asked if I could imagine him doing what he does the labels and the producing and the music in any other city.
On Wednesday, January 14, Memphis suffered a loss that will resonate unlike any of our seemingly numerous and similar losses. As morning moved into early afternoon, a quiet chaos spread from the Midtown neighborhood to the rest of the nation. It was a confusing mixture of very bad, very real news followed by impossible questions and misinformation.
Three days later, upwards of 300 mourners attended Jay Lindsey’s visitation and eulogy service, and as I walked into the medium-sized auditorium at Memphis’ Memorial Gardens Funeral Home, I fancied myself mentally fortified in case certain fears became a reality. Over the previous two days, I slowly created this nebulous bogeyman out of certain sentiments flooding the Internet. I took drives, alone, practicing the cinematic slice ‘n’ dices I would verbally deliver if a scene erupted via the obtrusive gawkers, attention-seekers, or anyone attending behind brazenly dubious motives.
That it never did speaks volumes about who was touched and what was accomplished by Jay Lindsey in his brutally short time on Earth. It also speaks to the inherent goodness that people do still have. The grief was palpable, contagious, uncontrollable, and genuine. It moved backwards through the room, slowly carried by those upon whom Lindsey’s open casket had leveled a visceral impact. Knees were visibly weak. Social animals those always flanked by friends no matter where they are – found individual spots at the ends of pews where composure could be lost in a semi-private fashion.
It would be impossible to saturate the online universe with too many clearheaded, heartfelt, respectful and accurate statements about this unique and genuinely special personality. Jay was, at his core and frequently, the Real Deal. He was a topical updating of rugged individualism, something so rare in an era when people copy the musical favorites of seemingly cooler people then paste them into their own Facebook profile.
One of the scariest trappings of fame is questioning the motive(s) behind each and every unsolicited attempt at friendship. Even more disturbing is the possibility that an existing friendship might become dubious. This is symptomatic of fame on any level and especially rampant when one’s visibility is heightened by a mid-sized city’s small scene. Some of Jay’s older friends had become distanced colleagues over time, or married and domesticated, or residents of another city. Some were pushed away by the scene and biz static that followed Jay over the past two years. Some were pushed away by Jay himself, but these issues didn’t exist Saturday afternoon. This is what Jay would have wanted. Well, he would have wanted the Flying V to be mounted above the open casket like that, too. And not to symbolize a crucifix.
When people don’t understand something, the immediate impulse is to dislike rather than to consider and process, and this is not limited to the shortsighted or jealous. I recently became aware that an amateur comedian peppered his act with tasteless, hateful, and misinformed humor about Jay, and more than likely, Jay’s passing. It’s healthy to ignore this sort of thing and concentrate on positive memories or somehow find the bright side of a future with only Jay’s legacy to substitute for the authentic, breathing, screaming, and fighting real thing. But easier said than done. I wish more people could have seen Jay’s mother deciding at the last minute to say something to all of these strangers, shooting her arm out from a half-concealed side pew with a loud, “Wait a minute!” I cannot properly translate the intensity of hearing this woman come to conclusions and put things together in her mind, in real time, as if she were diffusing the pressure of grief to one family member during the drive home. It was not unrealistic or delusional when she ended with something she perhaps hadn’t considered until that very moment: “My son was a legend in his time.”
I want to remember the tone of Eric Friedl’s voice as the founder of Goner Records delivered his eulogy, and I want to remember that I heard something in it I’d never heard during the almost 15 years I’ve known him: Pain and confusion. It’s impossible to understand just how devastating it was to hear Eric disrupt his flow of poignant memories with, “This…this wasn’t supposed to happen.” I want to remember the words as I heard them, but you should read them here.
My relationship with Jay was a simple one, a casual friendship borne of a semi-professional dynamic, but it carried the potential for misunderstanding and brevity. I wrote quite a bit of copy related to Jay Reatard, spread fairly evenly across the past 12 years. All, or at least the majority of these reviews, interviews, promo one-sheets and bios are the result of regional proximity, hunger for work, pride and support of local music of a certain quality rather than simply local music of a local quality.
Jay and I exchanged not one cross word during those 12 years, and I must have screwed up a date or wrote something he found to be corny or unneeded. It doesn’t matter. It matters that Memphis is injured and sad, and that we miss Jay Lindsey so much. Those first couple of days, I knew it was going to be bad. This…this is something else.
WATCH: Waiting For Something – a documentary about Jay Reatard
LISTEN: Jay Reatard
“It Ain’t Gonna Save Me”(DOWNLOAD MP3)
“Always Wanting More”(DOWNLOAD MP3)