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When Edward Burch thinks of Jay Bennett, he remembers discussions about music that went all night. “I would ask a question like, ‘What is this crazy chord?’ and not only would he teach me how it was and why it was but he’d get into why the note changes its name,” says Burch, a collaborator on two albums. “He’d obsess over it in a way that showed he loved knowledge.”
In 2001 Bennett told me, “There’s a certain joy in exploring pure noise. . . . Just getting the instruments to do things they weren’t intended to do. The feedback, playing an eggbeater, playing an out-of-tune piano by banging on it.” His philosophy was that dissonance could “make the prettier parts of the songs sound prettier.”
That hyperfocused attention to detail led Bennett to become one of the chief creative forces behind Wilco—though by the 2002 release of the commercial breakthrough Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, he had been fired from the band. There was little mystery as to why: His clashes with frontman Jeff Tweedy were caught in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a documentary that friends say misrepresented Bennett. In August, Bennett’s contributions come back to light, as Warner Bros./Reprise rereleases three of Wilco’s early albums—A.M. (1995), Being There (1996), and Summerteeth (1999)—all of which bear his influence. (In early May of this year, Bennett filed a lawsuit against Tweedy seeking compensation he said was due him from his work on those recordings.)
The reissues arrive at a bittersweet moment: In late May, Bennett, 45, died in his sleep from an accidental overdose of pain medication. He was in need of hip replacement surgery and had reported on his MySpace page that he was suffering from “severe pain” in his right leg.
According to friends and former band members (Wilco would not comment for this story), Bennett’s contributions helped transition the group from its ragged folk and country roots to the multidimensional pop that gave them critical and commercial flight. “The great thing about the work that he did is that it’s there for others to hear forever,” says Ken Coomer, Wilco’s former drummer.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Bennett family