News and Observations from Wapella, Illinois: Home of the Wildcats.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Backyard Tire Fire and a Testimonial to College Towns

Got this in my Facebook inbox this morning from a San Fran based Illini who knows his rock-and-roll Backyard Tire Fire is a band from Bloomington-Normal who storm through some country rockers perfectly suited to Hog City. I think this music video was shot in Bloomington.

I also penned this Jay Bennett obit for another publication, but the above video reminded me of how the creative types are drawn to Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal, forming a critical nexus around Wapella, as the source of all that is interesting. The obit is a bit overwrought, but I have an occasional valid observation (sort of like Judy Frazier without the weather radar or the good looks).

The Sound of Rolling Meadows

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 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.


sempleman said...

Love Wilco but don't think they are the same since Jay left. Saw them around 97 at ISU, about the time Being There came out. Obviously a talented guy, sad he left so young.

Anonymous said...

I think it was well written and also a fine song. One scene may have been shot from the roof of La Gondola. If Hitchcook only knew about that roof of La Gondola.

I don't think Judy Frazier will ever get the props she deserves as she is not a meteorologist. Sure she had doppler before most, but the lack of promo phrase "with meteorologist Judy Frazier" really will hurt her legacy. bbd

EEP said...

That was a nice piece, JBP. Very well done.

Being There was the only Wilco album I bought, though I would say I was/am a fan of generally much of what they did.

That record was a bit uneven (which, from reading about Jay, may be a good description of how he lived as well) as double albums often are, but the highlights were high (which, again, I take can also be said of Jay's own highs.)

Maybe the lead cut, "Misunderstood" speaks more volumes than we know.

"When you're back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you're so misunderstood
You're so misunderstood
There's something there that you can't find
Honest when you're tellin' a lie
You hurt her but you don't know why
You love her but you don't know why
Short on long term goals
There's a party there that we oughtta go to
Do you still love rock and roll?
Do you still love rock and roll?"

Anonymous said...

Radio contraire re: Judy Frazier...just listen to the weather line at 351-2900 to hear "this is WCIA chief meteorologist Judy Frazier with today's weather." Where's Wyndam Roberts when you need him?

JBP said...

I called Radio Doctors...they said that Bennett never worked there.

The guy was pretty charming who answered the phone, sort of like getting the shop phone at Rodden-Johnson in 1975 or so.


Chris Till said...

Circa 1992-1993, Jay Bennett worked at a video/stereo repair shop in Urbana, Illinois (not Champaign). It was just off Washington Street, I think on Race Street, next to a pizza shop. Circa 1992, I bought a broken VHS video camera from Alex Martirano (RIP Alex) and brought it to be fixed there. The shop took months and never could fix it properly. RIP Jay Bennett.

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