One day, Casey Taylor will become the poet laureate of Gus’ Fried Chicken.
It was August of 2010 and I was drunk, unemployed, and hanging out at the Mann Center outside of Philadelphia waiting for Arcade Fire to take the stage. They were touring on The Suburbs and their frontman (or maybe his brother, I couldn’t tell) was a few seats away from me, watching Spoon deliver the type of tight, near-studio quality live set you’d expect from a band allergic to musical accoutrements. Arcade Fire took the stage and strummed that opening repetitive “bong bong bong bong” note from “Ready to Start”– if you name a song “Ready to Start,” you are legally obligated to start shows with it from that point forward . The show was off.
It’s true that you lose your memory as you get older. In my 30s, I’ve found that this is more akin to a box of crayons melting together than losing entire pieces of the collection. The memories are all there, it’s just that they’re kinda all melted together. You remember events and feelings and even verbatim thoughts from decades ago but you can’t place the day or the time. They just exist. As such, I can’t say for sure whether I thought of Jay Reatard’s death that day or not–he’d passed earlier in the year in January–and it seems unlikely I did unless I’d put on “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me” on the car ride in. But that night is when the fascination with it and everything that came before it started.
Around the midpoint of the set, Win Butler — dressed like an extra from Cold Mountain — introduced the next song as “a song by Jay Reatard” and launched into the opening lyrics of “Oh, It’s Such a Shame” but in his haunted mansion vocal style. It shouldn’t have worked but it was rousing, with the band’s hallmark background graveyard “oohs” and “aahs” adding gravitas to Jay’s most memorable extended outro, like it was being played in an abandoned cathedral on the side of town opposite Graceland. One of the hottest bands in the world was touring on an eventual Album of the Year winner, but the standout performance was of a song written by a punk from Memphis.
It’s a simple track. Most of his songs are. It’s rare when one bleeds over the three minute mark, and “Oh, It’s Such a Shame” in particular feels almost like three different unfinished songs stuck together, with three different tempos between verse, chorus, and outro. No waste, no excess, a tight controlled burst of aggressive introspection. What’s remarkable about this song (and most of his songs, in truth) is his uncanny affinity for picking the exact right notes to convey varying moods to simple tracks. The outro for “Oh, It’s Such a Shame” is only a couple of notes, a repetitive riff played over and over with increasing distortion and a quick round of tremolo picking to finish things off. Despite that, it still beats the shit out of you, and when delivered by a different band whose entire gimmick is making music that’s over-the-top for the sake of evoking melancholy (while inebriated, while unemployed, while outdoors in August heat to boot), well, I guess you could say it resonates. I left the show and spent the next decade with a new favorite artist.
At that point, most of my familiarity was with Jay Reatard’s latest (and last, as it turned out) album, Watch Me Fall, released the year before in 2009. It’s a great album, but in retrospect it was about the worst possible entry point to his work. I’d love to pretend that I was cool enough to know about the underground Memphis punk rock scene, but like most people into independent music at the time much of my information came from Pitchfork or some of the more notable music blogs. I got a late start to the oeuvre as a result, and walked away from the record thinking that Jay Reatard was really into 70s Brit Pop or something. The paranoia and anxiety and disdain are all there, but he’s already succumbed to them. “All is lost / there is no hope for me” is how the first song on the album ends; the album is many things but it’s not especially subtle. His death months after its release was tragic and the years since have been worse for it, but it also felt somewhat inevitable, even expected, after the album’s 33 minutes were up.
Only with the context of his career does the album make any sense. Why on Earth would a 29 year old release a record with the same levels of world weariness (though opposite tempos) of the late period morose Johnny Cash recordings? Probably because at that point, the 29 year old had already released about as many records as Cash did in sixty years. Jay Lindsey’s legend was built in his work ethic, perhaps better described as a compulsion. In an interview with Pitchfork from 2008, Lindsey described his process for songwriting as Jay Reatard, which involved writing and recording at least one song per day. At the end of the week, he would collect the songs and pick a handful to take past the demo stage so that the following week, while writing five new songs, he could also be finalizing and mastering a few others.
It’s easy to romanticize — especially when the music is as good as it is–but it’s also fucking insane.
When he recorded Watch Me Fall, Lindsey had already written hundreds, if not thousands of songs without a break. When he wasn’t touring, he was practicing, and when he wasn’t practicing, he was recording songs in the studio or in his bedroom. His band had quit due to creative differences, the pace, and what they’d later describe as Lindsey becoming significantly more demanding as a solo artist. He’d isolated himself until a roommate found him dead in his room, with the coroner ruling that cocaine toxicity and alcohol were contributors.
“I feel like I’m racing against the clock” Lindsey said in the 2012 documentary Better Than Something, most of the footage originally captured as a promotional film for his album. The context is his frantic pace, and Lindsey is refuting the cursed thinking that musicians are born with a certain amount of songs in them. In his eyes, the race is against the time when you stop being interesting enough to write anything worthwhile; when you become complacent enough to lose your point of view on the world.
His magnum opus turns 15 this year, 2006’s Blood Visions, and it feels like an appropriate time to revisit an album built on heartache, claustrophobia, and uncontrollable impotent rage. On its face a break-up record (Lindsey said he had “a couple” women in mind when writing the album), the album is mostly a documentation of someone who has seen the void stare back into him; once everything you believed about the world is shattered, how do you go back to normal? Unlike some of the emo breakup records of the time or even something more modern in an entirely different genre, like Future’s lamentation of losing one of the hottest women on the planet on HNDRXX, Blood Visions doesn’t carry messages of empowerment and moving on, nor bitterness and fraught metaphors of grief at a specific relationship.
There’s some of it on there (“Nightmares” with its chorus about continuing the search for his love, or fantasies of murder on “Fading All Away”) but the majority is a dissociation with what the world expects of him. The fourth track, “My Shadow,” is the only song he’s had that borders on being a hit (it was featured in MLB2K8), which opens with the general thesis of the album: “If this is the way it’s going to be then I am so sure / that life has lost it’s only thrill and is a total bore.”
While technically a debut–the blood covered Jay Reatard on the cover is meant to signify his birth as a solo artist — Lindsey had released dozens of records at that point with other bands. The morose act wasn’t a put-on. He grew up poor in Memphis with a father whose drunken exploits are growled in broad strokes on the Jay Reatard single “Screaming Hand” (“But instead I got a man / With an empty beer bottle and a screaming hand”) and left home at 16 to write and record music. His first project, the Reatards, is where he adopted the moniker he’d carry for the rest of his career. The shock factor of the name is as much embracing the spirit of punk rock as it is an aesthetic rebellion against the musician whose shadow covered Memphis and he hated most: Elvis Presley.
Even his guitar felt like a rebellion against the blues his city was known for. In a scene dominated by blues artists strumming hollow bodied Gibsons, Lindsey thrashed on a Flying V, the guitar legendary for its speed. You don’t get a Flying V by accident; nobody gives their kid a V, usually opting for a Stratocaster or something basic. The V is sought normally by those needing a combination of speed and varying styles. And Jay Reatard made it iconic through the late 90s and the aughts, rarely seen playing anything else.
The first cassette, which still carries the greatest punk rock album title of all time, was Fuck Elvis, Here’s the Reatards. It started mostly as borderline rip-offs of songs by Memphis’ other lo-fi royalty outfit, Oblivians. What came after is too lengthy to rattle off in even a meandering remembrance like this one. A dozen bands at minimum, constant vinyl and cassette releases, European tours where he gained notoriety for smashing disco balls–the clubs would lower it to play him off so that drunken singles could dance to something other than screeched lamentations of growing up poor and bitter. Through all of it, the same drive and compulsive need to stay busy that feels familiar to anyone who grew up working class or lower, or from a family that suffered financial destination. When money isn’t guaranteed, working becomes your hobby. Anything to keep you from going backwards. Constant forward momentum. Hoping you reach some imaginary endpoint–you can’t picture it, you’ll know it when you get there — signifying security before you burn out.
Blood Visions feels like that endpoint, despite the technicality of it being a debut. Jay Reatard has seen the world and has risen far enough above his hardscrabble upbringing to tell you his gospel: it doesn’t fucking matter. The hurt you receive growing up won’t leave you, no matter how hard you work to leave it behind. The tension, the paranoia, the agoraphobia; it’s all hardwired. Might as well give in.
The album brought him attention he never seemed to want from the more mainstreamed independent music scene. A decade and a half later, it remains a masterpiece. Just under thirty minutes of perfectly arranged, aggressive distortion-heavy punk rock. From track to track Lindsey floats effortlessly along the neck of his Flying V, delivering loud and, considering their simplicity, remarkably memorable and energetic riffs. Fantasies of violence are interspersed with what sounds like unconvincing, pained statements of rebellion; a man insisting just a little too much that he’s not interested in the companionship of others. After the self-explanatory “Greed, Money, Useless Children,” he delivers the exponentially faster spiritual sequel to Trent Reznor’s 1994 single “Piggy:” “It’s so easy!” he booms, “when your friends are dead / it’s so much easier when you don’t even care. All your faces mean nothing to me.” The aforementioned breakup is clearly on his mind in songs like “Not a Substitute” and “Nightmares,” but nihilism is more dominant an influence than heartache throughout. His debut record as a solo artist was more of a farewell address.
You can hear it in his interviews, almost all of which are archived on YouTube with varying degrees of video and audio quality. What should be a joyful discussion of his breakout with Pitchfork feels more like an interview with a fading icon. In his mid-20s, he’s already tired of going out, partying, breaking shit. He gives himself a couple of times per month to live it up. But, other than that, he locks himself away in his room and makes music. The substances stuck around, evident by the manner in which he died, but it was the rest of the world that got tiresome.
The midpoint of the album — the one that the Canadian hipsters burned into my memory in 2010 — is his masterpiece. There are two places on the record where he lets his guitar do the talking for him, and “Oh, It’s Such a Shame” is the first, with an aggressive outro that builds layers of distortion onto one of the trademarked simple riffs. “Think about time gone / Let’s hope it’s not wasted” he mutters in the slower tempo before speeding up again for the chorus, then one final uptick in tempo to take us out. You can tell a lot about how an artist feels about a song by how they perform it live, and Lindsey consistently let loose when playing it. It’s the turning point of the album, a decent portion of the stages of grief delivered in about two and a half minutes.
Jay Reatard has never left my rotation for long, particularly considering how easily he switches between styles on his compilations of singles for Matador Records–you can find a record that fits just about any mood you, though self-loathing is usually easier to satisfy with his catalog. But, last year, Blood Visions in particular began feeling more prescient than ever, making this fifteenth anniversary of it a decent occasion to revisit for those that may have forgotten that the DIY / garage-rock movement of the aughts ever happened in the first place.
It’s not hard to draw thematic parallels between a record about feeling socially disconnected or disillusioned with existence and American life in 2021. The pandemic has accelerated it, but we’ve been headed towards isolation for much longer than this past year, even well before the Trump years. The past few years have felt like nothing more than a culmination of an increasingly nihilistic, self-obsessed culture; a proving period for our most cynical beliefs. Everyone reaches a breaking point. What brings them back from it is a belief in something greater, or a search for that ever elusive meaning we’re promised. But what happens when you lose sight of one, or conclude that there is no greater meaning? How do you come back from that? How do all of us?
After fifteen years, Blood Visions feels more prescient than ever. Beyond the content of the record, at its core is a man who had already seen the future and decided the most appropriate response was self-imposed confinement. If there’s no meaning to any of this, then your existence and your legacy are nothing more than the sum of your output.
The last song of the album is the second and final time that he lets his guitar do the talking for him. “Waiting for Something” is a sparse stomp, mostly drum and bass behind a repetitive verse about how much he hates being around the rest of us. “Oh no no no / they won’t get me” he shouts in the chorus and even he doesn’t believe it, the vocals less a defiant call to action than a sarcastic acknowledgment of something all of us know, at least deep down: they already got all of us. They got us as soon as we were born. The outro is even more simplistic than that of “Oh, It’s Such a Shame,” 9 notes strummed and plucked with decreasing precision, increasing dissonance, but a different end. Instead of increasing the speed to the point of tremolo picks, he stops and switches from aggression to something closer to whimsy; a few notes plucked lazily into something that sounds like acceptance.
“I was tossed into this place and I’ll be tossed out and all the stuff in between is a fucking fight,” he says in Better than Something. Existence is tragedy, and we all choose how to author our own. As the notes fade out, Blood Visions ends with a sound effect. The door to Jay Reatard’s room slams shut.