Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why Jay Reatard Mattered

I've spent a fair amount of time over the course of the last few days reading about Jay Reatard and watching videos of him. There's a lot of great stuff out there of both sorts, but I find the videos especially great largely because performance is the medium of punk music in way that is distinct from even the most performative musical genres, like jazz. A live jazz record is far better than a live punk record for the simple reason that the experience of the musicians themselves, while nice, is not essential to the jazz experience. This is not the case for punk music, which has always been about the relationship between performer and audience. And it's also why when punk goes mainstream it always fails to retain its punk-quality -- in the arena, everything that matters is lost, no matter how good the music itself may be.

I feel pretty lucky to have seen Jay Reatard perform a couple of times, and as recently as six weeks ago. Part of his appeal was his distinctive attitude on stage. He didn't bullshit around talking to the crowd and trying make friends with the audience. He came out and played his set all the way through, only taking breaks to hydrate, or breathe, or take a shot. There wasn't a moment of silence coming from his amp at any point during any of the shows I saw. In that, he employed a kind of Ramones aesthetic that manufactured energy out of the sheer relentlessness of the performance. But this performative style was something more than just a desire to keep things simple or to impress the audience through a show of stamina. There was a kind of hostility toward the audience in the way Jay played, and I think that is actually a very important part of how I understand his music.

As I've read the obituaries over the last couple of days, I've realized that one of the common things that people say about Jay is that he was intense in a way that implies that he was out of control. Many of Jay's fans, oh course, base this on the fact that his shows on occasion featured violence on his part or violence directed at him. Alijca Trout, one of his band mates from The Lost Sounds, told Rolling Stone that he “was very erratic and volatile with his own life. You never knew what was going to happen next.” He was, on these counts, naturally accused of being a jerk or an asshole, and this is certainly a justifiable thing to say of him. But not just because he punched this or that kid at a show; it's justifiable because his stage presence itself, while not openly hostile, was of a take-it-or-leave-it variety. It was a sort of intensity that didn't beg for your adoration. He just didn't care about what we thought nearly as much as we might want to think he did. That's not how it worked with him, and that's not how it works with punk music in general.

Between these two forms stridency (the physical and performative), we have Jay Reatard in a nutshell. And I would not have it that he had been a nicer guy as a performer (whatever he was as a private person). Say whatever you will about whether or not he was likable; if he had been more likable, he wouldn't have been Jay Reatard, and there would be no high-profile obituaries, no inevitable Elvis comparisons, no cause for grief. It's a hard thing to say that you are mourning for an asshole, but there would be no reason to mourn if Jay Reatard hadn't been an asshole. He'd just be some other indie guy.

But I don't think Jay was "indie," whatever you take that to mean. In his unrelenting, strident tone, we see his punk genius. And while this quality may seem relatively simple, it is the least replicable punk rock gesture--and its most essential. What does punk rock really have left? How many artists can we name that approach their music in the same way? To play songs one after the other is one thing; to release records one after the other--around 100 in 14 years--is another. It requires both a sort of abandonment to the creative process and the inability to give a shit about how a particular project is received (or if it is received at all). It's a kind of hostility toward us, but it is one that we crave because it is the signal of artistic integrity in the face of an all-too-worshipful audience. That is what Jay Reatard offered us a musician, and that is why his death is, above all, a terrible loss for punk rock, which finds itself currently devoid of committed artists of Jay's caliber. That is why Jay Reatard mattered.


ROOFCANO said...

Great words. Growing up on punk it was painful to see everything go downhill year after year. When Blood Visions came out I felt like it all paid off, this is what we were waiting for. Every time I'v listened to Jay I had the feeling that when punk started it intended to evolve into his style. Jay Reatard IS punk rock. It's sad to know that he won't be making any more music but lets hope his family and friends get on top of releasing his demos and unreleased tracks as soon as possible. I can't wait.

The last time I saw Jay I bought the Watch Me Fall LP about a month before in was released. Stephen Pope and Billy Hayes both signed the back and Jay just drew and upside-down cross on his forehead. Punk Rock! You will be missed Jay.

Timo said...

I once told someone that I thought Jay was the Ramones of the 21st century, though I couldn't really justify it. It's not that he made music that sounded like the Ramones; it's that what made punk great then survived in him in a way that was novel and adapted to the musical currents of our time. So, yes, in a way it felt like punk was meant to evolve into Jay Reatard. And though I'm sad that he's gone, I take comfort in thinking that his influence will be enormous among kids learning about punk now.

traxus4420 said...

great post -- i only saw him once, and it was at a big bandshell type show so a lot of the intensity was sort of dissipated. but everything you say here is right on.

timsored said...

Never saw him live. I saw a doc on his music on line and was much impressed with the way he viewed his music and the way he lived his life.
Too young to go.