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- Posted on Jan 13th 2011 9:00AM by Kenneth Partridge
Despite this reputation for bad behavior, Reatard's death -- the result of an apparent cocaine and alcohol overdose -- came as a shock to friends and fans alike. Months earlier, in August 2009, Reatard had released 'Watch Me Fall,' his first proper full-length for indie bastion Matador Records. It was the most personal and accessible album of his career, and after more than a decade in the underground in which he released well over 50 singles and LPs, the hyper-prolific punk craftsman seemed poised for a commercial breakthrough.
"He was going through a transformation," Matador co-founder Chris Lombardi tells Spinner. "I think he would have made an even poppier album. He wanted to make a record that can get played on the f---ing radio. As self-defeating as he was sometimes, as angry as he was, he wanted to f---ing win."
Although Reatard never cracked the Top 40 or outgrew his self-depreciating stage name -- a tag he earned as a troublemaking teenager and had every intention of dropping -- he was, by almost all other measure, a success.
Over the course of his career, Reatard played in more than a half-dozen groups; cut dozens of singles, EPs and full-lengths; founded his own label, Shattered Records; and toured the world, leaving a trail of blown eardrums and beer-splattered stages wherever he went.
Not bad for a guy who never finished middle school.
That decision stemmed in part from his discovery of Memphis garage favorites the Oblivians, a group whose raw energy and imprecise musicianship inspired much of his early songwriting. Lindsey's break came when he sent Oblivians multi-instrumentalist Eric Friedl a copy of his demo, a cassette he credited to "the Reatards," despite the fact he'd recorded all of the parts -- guitar, vocals and plastic-bucket percussion -- himself.
Friedl liked what he heard and began issuing Reatard's music via his local Goner imprint. By 1998, Reatard had put together a backing band and released the first Reatards full-length, 'Teenage Hate.'
It was the start of a multifaceted career and, over the years, Reatard established himself as a home-studio production whiz, incendiary live performer and savvy merchandiser. As Lombardi puts it, he was building "a little bit of an empire."
In 1999, Reatard formed perhaps the best known of his many side-project bands, Lost Sounds, a collaboration with then-girlfriend Alicja Trout. Lost Sounds added searing synthesizer to Reatard's ragged punk bashing, evoking '60s garage, '80s New Wave and even early Prince jams. The group caught the ear of Larry Hardy, whose In the Red imprint released several of its recordings.
"I had heard all these stories about him being this really wild punk-rock guy before I'd even met him," Hardy says of Reatard. "When I did finally meet him, he was incredibly smart and really well-mannered and easygoing. He could be explosive, as well, but more than anything the impression of him was that he was a really bright guy."
In 2005, while Lost Sounds were on tour in Europe, Reatard and Trout's romance hit the skids. Faced with the impending breakup of both his relationship and his band, Reatard began writing what would become 2006's 'Blood Visions,' his solo debut. Hardy remembers listening to the demos and realizing immediately Reatard was creating a masterpiece.
"I think he was hitting his stride then," Hardy says. "He was getting poppier; the lyrics were becoming more introspective. You could tell he was becoming a really great artist."
Jered Gummere, whose band the Ponys were signed to In the Red around the same time as Reatard, remembers 'Blood Visions' as a turning point for his labelmate.
"It's funny -- after 'Blood Visions' came out, he started recording some more mellow songs and he was like, 'Yeah, I started playing acoustic guitar just to piss those garage rockers off,'" Gummere recalls. "He would actually bring it onstage but put it through a distortion pedal so it didn't sound even like an acoustic guitar. But he just did it to piss those guys off."
'Blood Visions' earned Reatard widespread critical acclaim, and in 2008, after a reported major-label bidding war, he signed with Matador. During the next year, he released a series of six 7-inch singles -- limited pressings that further heightened his profile and led to festival appearances around the world.
"It's kind of been the most prominent format in my career," Reatard told Spinner in 2008 about the singles series. "I've probably done 18-19 full-length records and probably 40 or 50 singles. So it just made sense ... leading up to the first album, like, 'Well, you know, every year before this I've done five or six singles every year. Why don't I do them all in a row for the same label?'"
Among those who discovered Reatard's music via those 2008 Matador singles was Spoon frontman Britt Daniel, who became an instant fan.
"That was really when I first started looking into him," Daniel tells Spinner. "I remember looking at a bunch of the live videos online and feeling like ... I don't know. That's not how I usually learn about music. I remember for some reason being really turned on by looking at these live videos. It just felt like really great pop songs with a sort of very odd Midwestern punk sensibility to it."
Rahav Segev, Retna
"It was a totally different experience live," says Daniel, who invited Reatard to open Spoon's July 2008 show at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, N.Y. "They were the same songs but performed in a totally different way. I think that's what he thought a live show was all about. There were two Jays: the live-show Jay, the person that was at the shows, and the person who was at home, recording in his bedroom. The person at the show was very loud, fast and hard."
Matador co-founder Gerard Cosloy remembers the first time he saw Reatard perform live, in 2007, about a year before Jay signed to the label.
"He just sort of blasted through the entire thing," Cosloy says. "It was super-fast. The level of precision was almost off the charts. It was super-exciting, a really great live show. There was nothing about it that left you wanting more at the end."
That intensity sometimes manifested itself in negative ways, and in April 2008 footage of Reatard beating up a fan at Toronto's Silver Dollar Room became a YouTube sensation. Although the victim had jumped onstage and damaged Reatard's equipment, the incident solidified Reatard's reputation as a volatile performer prone to acts of violence.
Addressing the propensity for occasional violent outbreaks at his show, Reatard told Spinner in 2008, "There's been tons of crazy stuff that happens, like, I don't know if I necessarily at this point of my life even want to give that s--- attention anymore. It's just I play songs now and if people want to see violence, go see UFC or something."
Jonny Bell, lead singer of organ-wielding psych-punks Crystal Antlers, witnessed another of Reatard's infamous dust-ups, this one at a California bowling ally. Despite the incident, which involved Reatard getting into a shoving match with opening act Mr. Free and the Satellite Freak Out, Bell remembers Reatard more for his music than his misbehavior.
"I think it was the sloppiness of the whole thing," says Bell, who'd been a fan since the Reatards days. "It felt like what I was doing. It was really easy to relate to, because it was simple, straightforward stuff. It sounded like some kids in a garage. And very sincere, in that way, which I always appreciated."
While Reatard's sincerity never waned, his music became less sloppy and simplistic. On 'Watch Me Fall,' an album he felt tremendous pressure to finish, he dialed back the distortion and brought his melodies to the fore, creating a scuzzy power-pop sound. The album was a hit with critics, but it confused at least one longtime fan: Henry Rollins.
"I thought he was a great artist," Rollins says. "I have all his records. I have all his solo stuff. I have all the Reatards stuff. The last album I didn't understand. It was very pop, and his vocals were very affected. It was strange. I didn't love it."
Despite its clean sound and catchy melodies, 'Watch Me Fall' is no carefree pop album. Lyrically, Reatard turned his focus inward, writing candid songs about heartbreak, alienation and death. The music was indicative of his mindset, particularly as he toured in support of the record.
"He melted down a bit on that tour," Matador's Lombardi says. "There was some f---ed-up s--- that happened, and he really couldn't handle it. He was self-destructing a little bit."
"He seemed kind of more stable and happier than I'd ever seen," Daniel says. "He was always happy, and he was always a talkative guy, but he just seemed really centered and cool and chill the last time I saw him, so I was pretty shocked to hear two weeks later he was no longer with us."
In the Red's Larry Hardy, too, was surprised by the news, and despite the wealth of music Reatard left behind, he can't help but think about what might have come next.
"I still can't believe he's gone," Hardy says. "I definitely think we were a long ways from seeing the best of what he was gonna do."
Bradford Cox of Deerhunter Pays Tribute to Jay Reatard
By way of tribute, on their massive tour of North America in the summer of 2010, Arcade Fire exposed Jay Reatard to a wider audience with their transformed version of his 'Oh It's Such a Shame,' recirculating his name and music into the zeitgeist.
As for Jay Reatard's enduring legacy, Matador's Cosloy says, "We still have the records. We don't have him. That's what sucks. I wish he was still with us, whether we were working with him or not. For his family, his friends, for the people that knew him a lot, I wish he was still here."
Fredy Perojo, AOL