Jay Bennett helped create one of pop’s most mythologized albums. Then he left the band. Now whose album is it?
By Mark Guarino
Jay Bennett sits in the basement of his home in downtown Arlington Heights. Guitar in hand. Cigarette in mouth. Eyes on the TV. Staring.
Sometime next year, Wilco, the Chicago-based band he was in for almost seven years, will release what is already being called not just its greatest album, but one of the all-time great albums ever by one of the all-time great American pop bands.
Wilco’s former record company, however, didn’t see it that way. After listening to “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Wilco was dropped from the label, leaving the future of the critically-acclaimed album in limbo.
But when “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” eventually comes out- if it comes out at all – Bennett will largely be roped-off from the glory. Even though he engineered, performed on and helped write the album, at the time of its release, he won’t share in the acclaim. Instead, he’ll likely be quietly working on solo music on the very machines Wilco used to record its greatest moments.
He is not in Wilco, but a part of him is still in the band. The line is hazy.
This fall, Bennett left Wilco. Or was kicked out. Or both. By now, there is so much mythology surrounding the band, and its psychology-rich music, that the truth seems irrelevant.
Like all compelling music made by compelling bands, the truth now belongs to the fans who decide what matters and what doesn’t. Myth – the very ingredient that gives rock music its potency – has been Wilco’s greatest friend, but it’s also the fuse that made the band implode.
Bennett had a front-row seat for the detonation.
“There’s a lot of (expletive) mystique about this record,” Bennett said. “I never felt in the making of this record that we were doing anything other than what the next Wilco record should be. I tend to give simple, honest answers. I have no interest in mystique. But that’s not a good story.”
Repeated invitations to Wilco’s management to participate in this story were refused. But in 1998, when Bennett was a very active member of Wilco, the band’s frontman, Jeff Tweedy, told the Daily Herald he too questioned the restrictions that illusion create.
“Careers of musicians go both ways. People start to believe in the myth at some point and start regurgitating stuff,” Tweedy said. “And then there are people who manage to keep an eye on the fact they don’t completely trust themselves.”
The latter half – Wilco in this case – are adventurers who take their fans on wild, daring rides, chasing great art. But a ride fueled by constant change can be frightening and swift. Sometimes even the band members themselves don’t see the turns coming.
A shot in the arm
No one has yet figured out the chemistry that makes one band brilliant and the other a joke. What we do know is that when great bands crumble, it’s usually when one member in the equation quits – Robbie Robertson leaving The Band; David Byrne, Talking Heads.
Even the auteur theory has trouble holding water. Pete Townshend is considered the mastermind behind The Who, yet when drummer Keith Moon was killed, the band’s spirit went with him.
When it comes to great rock bands, the only certainty is that something is created between musician and fan that takes on another life outside of them both. It lives in the myth that the listeners – you and I – have sculpted in our heads in reaction to the music. It’s that special something that, for some reason, sets us dreaming.
Wilco is considered one of those bands that, for whatever reason, unleashes that type of power.
The band’s early incarnation was as a solo project for Tweedy, who became the reluctant crown bearer of alternative country, a movement unwittingly sparked by his former band Uncle Tupelo, in downstate Illinois. In that band, Tweedy and Jay Farrar were the principal songwriters whose distinctively different styles ultimately pushed them to split.
Tweedy asked Bennett to join the band’s first-ever tour right before Wilco’s debut, “A.M.” (Reprise), was released.
Up to then, Bennett was a member of the cult pop band, Titanic Love Affair. He was also a closet academic, teaching junior high for a year and earning three degrees: two at the bachelor level in math and philosophy and one masters in education policy studies, all at the University of Illinois at Champaign.
“A.M.” was a likable collection of country rock tunes, all with great pop hooks. But when the revamped Wilco followed it up with “Being There” in 1996, things changed drastically.
The epic, two-disc album was recorded swiftly while the band was on tour. It clearly reflected Tweedy’s love of music.
It was “especially written from the fan’s perspective,” Tweedy said. “I needed to free myself from a little bit of that otherwise that’s all I would ever write about.”
To this day, the album is Wilco’s highest seller, selling 155,000 copies, according to Soundscan. (Of course critical achievement and commercial success aren’t always connected. By comparison, Michael Jackson’s little-praised “Invincible” album sold over 366,000 copies in its first week of release this month.)
Someone else’s song
Although Tweedy is largely credited as the sole songwriter in the press, Bennett says that he is largely responsible for the sharp left turns the band took in the studio.
Bennett brought keyboards into what was then basically a country rock band. And being the only member whose early influences were pop kingpins like Burt Bacharach and the early Bee Gees, he helped send Tweedy’s melodies into orbit with backward reverb, clunky pianos, swelling Hammond organs and assorted odd arrangements.
“It was pretty much ‘OK, the basic track is done, let’s hand it over to Jay.’ That’s an oversimplification, but there’s some truth to that,” Bennett said.
The artistic leap between Wilco’s first and second records can not be denied nor can the fact that the missing link is Bennett. Without him, he says now, “Being There” “would have sounded like ‘A.M.'”
As “Being There” solidified their sound, it also set the stage for the band to become one of America’s most lauded pop bands. In the four records to come (including two Grammy-nominated albums that set new music to lost Woody Guthrie lyrics), Wilco both reached to the past to embrace its roots while lunging fast-forward to tackle electronic sprawl.
“They’re very versatile,” said Roger McGuinn, leader of the pioneering ’60s country rock group The Byrds, who had Wilco back him up a few times in concert. “I admire them tremendously. There are very few bands I can get up with and you can feel the beat in your foot and it’s rock solid.”
Too far apart
The two albums to come – “Summerteeth” and the still-unreleased “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” – are the ones that set Wilco far from the pack of slick, mindless, but more commercially successful, pop bands of its day like Sugar Ray or the Barenaked Ladies.
The mystique about the band had been building among its incredibly loyal fan base, but internally, the musicians were restless. They needed to produce something fresh.
Instead of reporting certain emotions like most pop songs do, Wilco used those two records to actually re-create the emotions themselves.
Through chaotic keyboard effects, fragmented computer effects, deconstructed song structures, abstract lyrics and Tweedy’s stoned numb singing voice, the albums drew the listener into an emotional storm. The melodies were there, but the tension inside them was endlessly haunting.
The aura around “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” heightened with the participation of Jim O’Rourke, who mixed the album once it was finished. O’Rourke is a darling of Chicago’s “post rock” scene who worked with avant gardists like Tortoise and Sonic Youth.
But because most mixing engineers come in at the last phase of the studio process, O’Rourke’s involvement has been blown out of proportion, Bennett said. “He was not there one single day when we recorded the record,” he said.
Bennett says Wilco’s continued pushing of the envelope came naturally.
“There’s a certain joy in exploring pure noise, that I think we found. Just getting the instruments to do things they weren’t intended to do. The feedback, playing an egg beater, playing an out of tune piano by banging it. We wanted to use the dissonance to make the prettier parts of the songs sound prettier,” he said. “There was a lot more emphasis on the overall feel than perfection.”
“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” may have been artistically gratifying for the musicians, but the record company wasn’t buying it – literally.
In their attempt to push the boundaries a step further, Wilco took its music so far that executives at Reprise didn’t understand what they heard. Seeing no commercial potential in the album, Reprise – the boutique branch of Warner Bros. that groomed artists like Neil Young and Van Morrison – released Wilco from its contract.
But with critics later calling the unreleased album lost gold, Warner Bros. was left reeling.
“They’re bemoaning the fact that it ain’t like it used to be,” said Bob Merlis, who, after 29 years, recently retired as Warner Bros.’s vice president of worldwide corporate communications. “Someone put a gun to the head of music marketers and said ‘you have to have results on this timetable and if you can’t do it, there’s not a lot of slack.’
“It is philosophically at odds with the early days at Warner Bros. where, even if the artist was not profitable, it was prestigious for the label to have signed them,” Merlis said, “and Wilco certainly had that credibility.”
The fervor over “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” has picked up steam via the Internet, where fans have been finding and downloading bootleg copies for months.
“They touch on so many different levels,” said Greg Van Dyke, a Chicago fan who found a copy online. “There’s a lot more going on. It’s still kind of sinking in.”
Starting with “Summerteeth,” the auteur theory around the band still maintained that Tweedy was in control.
But Bennett insists that’s another band myth. “We were flat out writing songs together. If anyone wants to look at the credits, they can see,” he said.
Wilco bassist John Stirratt – today the only original member of the group besides Tweedy – told the Daily Herald this spring that “over the years, there was Jeff and he was the constant. But then having other people come in like Jay … they developed a songwriting relationship that I really couldn’t develop with Jeff.”
Somewhere in that fog, things swiftly became as dissonant inside the band as the music they were making. With music so laden with raw emotions and textured sound, who exactly is responsible for what? And how would it change if one person walked away, changing the chemistry?
“Jeff didn’t feel like he needed other people as much. Which, to some extent was true,” Bennett said. “Jeff is perfectly capable of making a solo record. And it would be good. But it wouldn’t be a Wilco record.”
The “golden era” as Bennett calls “Being There” and “Summerteeth,” where “everything magically worked and everyone liked everyone else’s ideas,” was stunted in a rush for recognition.
“What is the whole band anymore?” asked Ohio-bred pop songwriter Tim Easton, whose last album was recorded with Wilco minus Tweedy. “This new record is fantastic but there are contributions by Jay Bennett that can’t be overlooked.
“It seems that it wasn’t as much of a band as we might have thought as listeners (in terms of) the power structure,” Easton said. “But as any married couple, only they understand the relationship best.”
The revamped Wilco – or the distilled Wilco depending on your disposition – started with the firing of drummer Ken Coomer, who was replaced by Glenn Kotche. Bennett has been replaced by Leroy Bach, previously a touring member.
The band bought back “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” from Reprise for a reported $50,000 and is fielding offers from labels. Their fall tour arrives at the Riviera Friday for a two-night stand.
Far, far away
Bennett is back on his couch. There is no clarity with what happened with Wilco. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t certainty in his life.
In January, he’ll marry his long-time girlfriend Kristin, a physical therapist. The two have known each other since 1982.
A majority of his days are spent at his nearby studio, mixing new songs he is talking to labels about releasing. One lush pop tune called “Pieces of My Puzzled Heart,” could have been a leftover from any Wilco record – except this time, he plays every instrument and is singing lead. “If Jeff walked in and sang that song, people would be assuming he wrote it,” Bennett shrugs.
He turns the volume up on the TV. A bootleg copy of a 1978 BBC documentary on the British country pop band Rockpile rolls. Bennett watches Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds – two personal heroes – stand behind studio glass and watch in awe as guitarist Albert Lee effortlessly records some immaculate solos.
A moment before, he said, “people don’t know how normal we are. (Music’s) just what we do. But Jeff loves myth-making. Jeff loves taking on a character. And people get confused. Jeff tried to make Wilco the Jeff Tweedy solo band, I tried to make it my band. I obviously was up against greater odds.”
He watches Lowe and Edmunds practically weep, listening to Lee play. “That’s it, that’s music to me right there! I just want to walk back into the studio and hear something and get that look on my face and grin,” he says.
But even Lowe and Edmunds ended up enemies. Only one album was recorded under the Rockpile name.
Bennett points his remote at the TV and the volume lowers. The tinny laughter from the speakers vanishes and we watch the band in black and white, celebrate in silence.
“I guess egos,” he says, watching the screen. “It’s inevitable.”