Monday, May 25, 2009

thinking about jay bennett, and wilco

If you haven't heard, former Wilco member Jay Bennett died on Sunday.

His untimely passing got me thinking about the band. I used to be a huge Wilco hater, especially around 2002 when the overrated Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was being hailed as some sort of visionary piece of music-making. Soon after the album's release, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a documentary about YHF's making, was released, and I was pretty merciless in a review at the time. Looking back on it, I'm clearly responding more to the band's hype than the band itself, although I still think the documentary is too fawning and glossy. But this paragraph from my piece is interesting, in retrospect:
For a songwriter too often referred to as a poet in the press, [frontman Jeff] Tweedy doesn't make for an engaging film presence. Even his aloofness feels unremarkable. And the much-discussed fission between him and chief collaborator Bennett -- a man more than a little responsible for the deepening of Wilco's music over the years -- never really takes hold. What you have here are two strong personalities fighting over the future of a band, but [director Sam] Jones clearly favors Tweedy and therefore reduces Bennett to an easily discarded side character. The real story is far more fascinating: Bennett's assertions in the film that Tweedy is a little bit of an egomaniac, desperate to control the band, have been repeated by others in the past. But the film doesn't even consider the possibility. Tweedy (the hero) triumphs, and Bennett (the villain) is vanquished. No muss, no fuss, no drama, no gray area, no interest.
Of course, Bennett was supposedly a bit of a control-freak himself, so it's hardly as if Tweedy was the only guilty party. Still, re-reading this reminds me of how sympathetic I was to Bennett -- the film is fairly cruel to him. (I still recall how the audience laughed derisively at Bennett when, after he'd been kicked out of the group, he plays a solo show to a small smattering of fans at a tiny club -- what, was this some sort of karmic comeuppance for something he'd done?)

After a while, I got off my anti-Wilco kick -- Sky Blue Sky went a long way to helping in that regard. But with Bennett's passing, it brought back the fact that I still think Tweedy gets too much credit and Bennett not enough for the band's musical evolution.