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Jay Bennett: The Sound of Rolling Meadows

John Powers 29 May 2009 No Comment

Jay Bennett, the guitarist for the Chicago band Wilco, has died at age 45. Bennett a native of Rolling Meadows, Illinois had a long career in the music business, and could easily be dismissed as just another job related fatality in his chosen industry. Years of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, some serious cigarette smoking, and the erratic nature of royalty checks do not figure well on actuarial tables.

Reading through the Chicago Tribune reader comments, within some heartfelt eulogizing, there are some vile put downs of Benett (and musicians in general). A Tribune reader “ouchbabe from Hanover Park, Illinois” spits “again who is this person? and why should I care?” which is unpleasant in general, but struck me as at least a valid request requiring more than a blog post for compliance.

Jay Bennett was a guy who worked at the Video Repair shop in Champaign (2 points if you can name which one). He was in school at the University of Illinois a long time, starting around 1982 and continuing till recently. He received three degrees, in Secondary Education, Math, and Political Science, as well as a Master’s Degree. He taught math and was a tutor in Champaign-Urbana. When he came off tour with the band Wilco, he would return to work at the Video Repair shop in Champaign, as well as participate in local Champaign-Urbana based music production.

There are literally hundreds of guys like Jay around college towns all over the country. Only occasionally do they break out of the lifeline tethering them to the University, but Jay Bennett made the big-time, and still returned to Champaign. Wilco, Bennett’s band with frontman Jeff Tweedy (from Belleville), had some big selling records, and 4 albums in the Top 1000 on Amazon.com as I look. Wilco’s 2003 DVD “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” is a best seller 6 years later (and currently sold out). Bennett was a highly regarded session musician, recording with Sheryl Crowe and Blues Traveler, among others.

I crossed paths with Bennett in Champaign a few times in the 1980’s, where he was part of legion of creative types constantly educating themselves, while playing in bands, working part-time in record and stereo stores and striving to make a living in a very uneven musical marketplace. It was certainly possible to write off this type of personality as a daydreamer who could not possibly have the talent to make it in the big leagues, thus sentenced to repeat his tales at repair shops, bars, and coffee houses.

Yet, it is exactly this type of person who makes college towns interesting and provide a farm-team for the creative world. Bennett had a very successful musical career, which (as usual) was not matched by financial success. Hardly anyone gets a contract with Warner Brothers, then go on to botch it, only to become more even appealing to independent minded music buyers.

Bennett also had a vivid stretch of imagination that pressed others around him to expand their productions to bigger and riskier if not necessarily better things. His music was generally tuneful, while dramatic, and more than a bit off-kilter with the mainstream. His techniques with Betamax conversion to DVD are probably more memorable than his Rock-and -Roll career to most of his audience, but there are more than a few of us who really enjoyed his technical competence coupled with his fascinating drifts into the artistic genre.

The Jay Bennett’s of the world are complicated sorts.  There is not a recognizable pattern to the behavior that makes for such a talented artist, perhaps more a lack of pattern.  Still I find Jay Bennett types fascinating, perhaps from lurking around college towns for 20+ years myself. It is not all that useful to glamorize the occasionally-disturbing-chain-smoking-heavy guy, but there is more than enough in his career to care about him.


John Powers is the President of the Chicago Daily Observer and a 1987 Graduate of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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