Memphis is too accustomed to saying goodbye to its musical stalwarts, as the recent deaths of producers Willie Mitchell and Jim Dickinson attest. But the loss last week of Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. — aka Jay Reatard — was something else entirely.
Reatard was only 29 years old and a couple of years into an artistic ascent a decade in the making.
Reatard's friend and mentor Eric Friedl of Goner Records put the young musician's achievement into perspective last weekend with his eulogy at Reatard's Memphis funeral. Friedl remembered first meeting Reatard as a 15-year-old, a fan of Friedl's band, the Oblivians, who had sent him a homemade demo tape, recorded using buckets as drums.
"We took four songs off of his tape and that was his first record. I loved it," Friedl said. "Jay loved it. I think at that time he realized he could do it and that it would be all he ever wanted to do. Then came so many bands: Reatards, Lost Sounds, Angry Angles, Nervous Patterns, Terror Visions, Final Solutions, Bad Times. Twenty-two albums, more than 100 releases. More than 1,000 shows, 20 countries. All from a kid from a crappy part of Memphis, all by himself. He was fearless, relentless, and awe-inspiring. He was a force of nature. He could be a pain in the ass. He was my friend."
That "pain in the ass" is an unfortunately unavoidable part of Reatard's story. His admittedly well-earned persona — the punk-rock wild child — too-often obscured his artistry. But Reatard was not a sideshow. His music — so constant, so prolific, always growing — was built on a rare combination of talent and work ethic. His early "trash rock" with his teen band, the Reatards, was bracing and honest. But he bloomed into something more in the Lost Sounds, his fertile partnership with Alicja Trout. "1620 Echles St." was a very specific but expansive personal story of growing up in Memphis. "I Get Nervous" turned all that early noise and angst into something more eloquent and powerful. And then came another leap.
On his own, his self-created name now unadorned on albums and singles, Reatard embraced melody with no diminution of energy or independence. Once known only to Memphis and his garage/punk subculture, he now belonged to the wider music world. Some old fans found the new music lacking — too soft or compromised. This reaction was as predictable as it was wrong. Some new fans seemed more interested in the spectacle and persona than the artist. But musically, Reatard remained his own man throughout, and the art that poured out of him in what would be his final years was spectacular: Blood Visions, a series of singles collected on two different CD compilations, and, finally, last year's Watch Me Fall.
In a thread on the Goner Records message board, local producer Scott Bomar wrote about watching Reatard work on Watch Me Fall: "It was magical to see him work in the recording studio. It is the one place where sometimes time seems to stand still. No distractions, no fans yelling and throwing beer bottles, no show to put on — just the music."
Talking to people in recent days who knew Reatard better than I did, a common assertion was that Reatard was increasingly self-aware and conflicted about his persona and the demands placed on him because of it by some fans. I believe this because that is what Watch Me Fall is about. In "Rotten Mind," he steps back for a hard look at himself and the way others perceived him, finally asserting, "I know where I want to go." The whole album felt like real-time evolution. The song titles are depressive, but the music is not. It's the sound of someone confronting his own doubts and demons and vaulting over them. But Reatard didn't get quite get there. And that reality is nearly unbearable.
Another remembrance, from another friend and mentor, Friedl's old Oblivians bandmate Greg Cartwright, also from the Goner site: "I could not be prouder even of my own children as I am of Jay's accomplishments as a true artist. I wish I could tell him right now. I wish I could hug him and kiss him, but I can't."