On a day meant to memorialize those who have sacrificed their lives in combat, it may seem a tad off-topic to offer some thoughts on the passing of Jay Bennett, Illinois musician and songwriter, best-known for his stint in the alt-country / indie rock group Wilco. Bennett's death came at the young age of 45, after a rather public battle for health insurance and the need for a hip replacement, complicated by Bennett's financial struggles after being forced from Wilco back in 2001. Sam Jones' 2002 documentary film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart chronicled this period of the band's existence, showing onscreen battles and disagreements between Bennett and singer/composer Jeff Tweedy. An extremely poignant moment in the film came after Bennett's departure, as he sings a gentle rendition of an old Wilco tune to a small audience in a folk club, as off-screen somebody wonders aloud as to what kind of a following Bennett may discover he actually has or doesn't have.
I'll admit to not being the most vocal Wilco fan, but this has less to do with their sound and ability and more to do with the rashes of critical hosannas that seemed to follow the band's every move a few years back, and also a sense that Jeff Tweedy's lyrics often failed to keep up with the enormous musical strides the band was making. In recent years, this seems to have changed a bit - Tweedy's "Hate it Here," from 2007's Sun Blue Sky, is a fantastic piece of songwriting. Yet for me the impressive nature of Wilco resided in their complex, swirling and pleasingly melodic backing, and Jay Bennett played a large role in crafting this sound. He was a fine guitar player and an even finer organ / piano player. And in an era of finely-tweaked idols and pretty-boy posturing, he looked great, too - an unkempt mess, cigarette dangling from mouth and forehead wrinkled in concentration.
If anything, the early death of Jay Bennett is just another sad reminder that the road of rock and roll is littered with plenty of lost opportunities and missed chances. Outside the stadiums and endorsement deals dwell countless numbers of working musicians, who need paying gigs to stay afloat and pay the doctor bills. It's an indisputable fact that some of the most talented musicians around are the ones holding regular jobs and living down the street. It's a sad coda to a rather sad tale.