Primer is an ongoing, introductory guide to the varied and often elusive careers of iconic artists.
“I operate on an animalistic level of fear that I’m constantly running out of time."
But somewhere in the story of the drug-snorting, fan-punching, curly-haired hellion from Memphis gone too soon, we lost sight of the very thing that Reatard was scurrying against his own cosmic egg-timer to build. Over his 12-year recording career, which included a long stretch writing a song every day for practice, Jay Reatard amassed a catalogue over 100 releases long. Often masquerading thinly as punk (appearing on your album cover caked in blood will help there), his discography contains some of the best songwriting this side of the century.
His 2006 solo debut Blood Visions has already been canonized. His '09 Matador follow-up was just as rich in earworms (though the crustiest of hearts will tell you otherwise). Ditto on the two singles collections that fell in between. But the truth is: Reatard has been writing memorable songs since well before Blood Visions. When Reatard was 15, he saw a pretty drunk, pretty shambolic Oblivians open for Rocket From The Crypt in Memphis. They were primitive and sloppy, but they were catchy as shit. He thought he could do that, too — so he did.
At the time of his death, Reatard's genius was just beginning to gain traction beyond the underground. The buzz of his passing got a few of his pre-Blood Visions projects dusted off and re-issued, but the bulk of his catalog remains criminally unrecognized. For the curious, he's left us a lengthy breadcrumb trail of excellent songwriting that winds back through his 12-years on record. In this Primer, we'll look back beyond Blood Visions (though we'll look there, too) to the many, many projects of Jay Lindsey Jr. and the story of the "underdog creep who prevails in the end" that he kept telling.
To start, a little history on the project we may or may not be most familiar with:
Reatard was born in the small farming community of Lilbourn, Missouri (population: <1000) before moving to Memphis when he was 8. His nearest neighbour was a mile away; that solitary rural life helped shape his proclivity for working solo, he told the New York Times. It's bites like that that make it easy to think of Reatard as the consummate lone wolf, but the Jay Reatard solo enterprise actually began as a side project.
In 2005, when the Blood Visions recordings began, his main squeeze was Angry Angles, a lo-fi pop act with then-girlfriend Alix Brown. Though he played all of the parts, Blood Visions wasn't a wild departure from the Angles — Reatard feigned a British accent and bit on Roxy Music. He inhaled late '70s Brit punks The Adverts, whom he was introduced to while recording (He later told Andrew Earles: "I sort of avoided listening to any old U.K. punk that wasn’t Gang of Four or Wire because the garage rockers sort of led me to believe U.S. punk was better.").
In The Red Records agreed to release Blood Visions in early 2006 followed closely by a heavily promoted release by Angry Angles, but sometime in between, Reatard and Brown broke up. Blood Visions, absolute masterclass in pop punk that it is, started selling, so he recruited a band to support the album. He stole both Stephen Pope — who he knew from hanging around a Memphis drughouse (or so the legend goes) — and Billy Hayes from local act Boston Chinks and toured Blood Visions.
The live show was a powerhouse — songs were performed at double-time, Jay would break into every track shouting the song title, people got hurt. They made good on the paranoid-to-pummelling dynamic Reatard had distilled on tracks like "Blood Visions" and "Death Is Forming," without burying more delicate turns like "My Family" or "Oh It's Such A Shame." Occasionally, his bravado overshadowed his songcraft. Reatard's reputation was cemented in Toronto in 2008 at the Silver Dollar when he punched a fan in the face, stormed off stage, and local legend Dan Burke jumped on stage for some classic crowd-inducing (they later buried the hatchet).
Throughout extensive touring for Blood Visions, Reatard released singles through a handful of outlets. They were collected in 2008 by In the Red as Singles 06-07. Though Singles is not without its brutal patches — "Night of Broken Glass" — the driving, jangly instincts are dialed back, for more songwriterly pop efforts like "Hammer I Miss You," "Don't Let Him Come Back," "All Over Again," and "I Know A Place."
On the success of Blood Visions, majors and larger indies began to court Reatard. He got Myspace messages from an A&R guy at Universal who took the band out for steaks. Columbia asked if he wanted to meet Rick Rubin. Ultimately, Reatard decided on a trial commitment with Matador, who agreed to release a series of singles through 2008, collected as Matador Singles '08.
To the chagrin of some early fans who tracked Jay since his garage days in The Reatards, the two singles collections saw the songwriter grow closer to his acoustic guitar — an outrage that was the inverse of Dylan "plugging-in." But no matter your preferred flavour, Matador Singles '08 kicks off with quintessential Jay — a bipartisan classic (if there are only two parties on how you best like your JR) — in "See/Saw" (left).
The singles series set the stage for Reatard's sophmore, Watch Me Fall, which would be released on Matador in a deal including two albums and an option. Despite a concerted push on the behalf of Matador, the record, released August 2009, didn't ascend Olympus like Blood Visions had. It was received as Reatard's mellow, introspective album, alienating fans who wanted the doom on Blood Visions or the violence of the live show.
Pope told Pitchfork: Reatard himself said he knew it wouldn't be a classic, but he promised the next one would be. And Pope admits, it wasn't the most solid album, but there were some truly standout tracks on Watch Me Fall — he singles out "Wounded." It is perfect pop songwriting — so perfect that you can't help but agree with Reatard (adding the wilt of hindsight): the next album would have been classic.
In the midst of touring the album, Pope and Hayes quit the band (in-fighting, the usual), quickly joining as Wavves' rhythm section. Reatard continued on, playing through Europe and opening for the Pixies in the States with conscripts from Cheap Time and the Useless Eaters. But quite soon after, the force that Reatard feared, that something would snatch from this world, had arrived. The album was called Watch Me Fall for god's sake. He died January 13, 2010.
That's the part we already know. Now for the exciting part: how exactly do you make a Jay Reatard? Where does a character like that come from? Through what gates must he pass?
Jimmy Lindsey Jr. didnt go to high school. After a few stabs at the 8th grade, he dropped out to write music. Around that time, he got a four tracker for Christmas — following in the footsteps of Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, and his hometown role-models the Oblivians. He recorded a demo performed entirely by him (playing drums on a bucket) and gave it to Eric Friedl, founder of Goner Records and member of Reatard's beloved Oblivians. Freidl released the demo as a 7" on Goner entitled Get Real Stupid under Jay's chosen moniker — The Reatards. Around that time, Greg Cartwright of the Oblivians and Reigning Sound played drums for Jay live and on his self-released debut full-length Fuck Elvis, Here's The Reatards.
For his sophomore, Jay recruited Steve Albundy and Ryan "Elvis Wong" Rousseau (replacing Cartwright whose role was temporary; Rousseau would become a frequent collaborator), releasing their proper full-length debut Teenage Hate via Goner in 1998. When I call the album an angsty, nihilistic garage-punk racket, I mean it with much affection. Reatard had the kind of work ethic you'd need if "dropping out of school to write music" was meant with any sincerity.
He took The Reatards to Europe on tour before '98 was out. They followed that with Grown Up, Fucked Up a year later. The Reatards toured aggressively. It was the sandbox where Jay honed his a-frontman-possessed routine, and though The Reatards remained in tact in one form or another until 2006, after the '99 release, the project fell on Jay's back burner.
Sometime after Teenage Hate, Rousseau gave Reatard a cassette by L.A. synth-punk pioneers The Screamers. Being the garage rock hardhead he was, Reatard didn't care for it. But he picked it up again a year later and, magically, something clicked. From then on, in his head, punk music could be much more than just guitar-bass-drums. Around that epiphany, he'd grown bored of The Reatards. He had to be on coke or speed or boozed up real good to have any fun in that band, he told Terminal Boredom. He was sick of the whole garage rock scene.
In March 1999, he started up with a project called Lost Sounds, trading vocals, synth, and guitar roles with new-girlfriend Alicja Trout, who'd brought a collection of synthesizes from her tenure in The Clears. The pair, along with Rich Crook on drums and Patrick Jordan on bass, carved out a gothy synth-punk sound with early garage influences — The Sonics, Question Mark and the Mysterians — peeking through. Trout had Reatard hunker down and work on his musicianship and songwriting instead of his already-reputed madman showmanship. She kept the terrorist at bay, and under her control, Lost Sounds released a string of acclaimed records in a quick burst.
In 2001 alone, they released their debut full-length Memphis Is Dead, a 7", a 2xLP sophomore release called Black Wave, and a full-length compilation of outtakes and rarities. "1620 Echols St.", a standout from Black Wave, tells a harrowing story from Reatard's upbringing in poverty-stricken Memphis about the night his neighbour was sexually assaulted by crackheads, only to be rescued by the gang bangers from the drughouse down the street. Abysmally dark, but that was typical Lost Sounds fare.
The band toured globally and released two more LPs, before a blowup on tour in 2005 disbanded the Lost Sounds and precipitated the end of Trout and Reatard's relationship. After the breakup of these two grounding unions, Reatard took a nose dive. He spent three months that summer as a full-fledged crackhead, a detail he shares in the excellent documentary Better Than Something: Jay Reatard (named for a Lost Sounds song).
He says he had to destroy his entire life to build it back up again and crack seemed like a good way to do that. "It was like dropping a big fucking atom bomb in the middle of my life." Is it any surprise that when looking back on his days in Lost Sounds, Reatard concluded in Self-Titled magazine, "Music isn't a group sport for me."
Around the start-up of Lost Sounds and the initial wind-down of The Reatards, Jay played in a one-off band called Bad Times with Friedl and Louisiana swamp punk legend King Louie Bankston of The Royal Pendletons and The Persuaders (who wrote the garage standard "Heart of Chrome" that Reatard covered on Grown Up, Fucked Up). The group purportedly only practiced once before recording a self-titled LP in '98, released in 2001 by Goner.
When Jay left his mom's house at 15 or 16, he moved in with the members of Final Solutions, then a hardcore band called the Jack Monkeys. For one show, the band conscripted Reatard on drums, performing a set of Oblivians covers at a battle of the bands hosted by a local fraternity.
Years later, while playing in The Reatards and Lost Sounds, Reatard rejoined the Final Solution boys, again on drums, as a side project. The group released two full-lengths between 2003 and 2007. Premised around ripping off early Eastern European punk — and often doing so pretty sloppily — Final Solutions was a pressure valve for Reatard, a counterbalance to the Lost Sound's airtight operation.
While playing in Lost Sounds, Trout and Reatard made a short-lived alter ego project called Nervous Patterns, releasing a self-titled LP in 2003. Abrasive, industrial-leaning, and certainly, still apocalyptic — if you read for old NP interviews, you'll find some gobbledygook about accepting the abject horrors of the world instead of recoiling from them (supposedly, thematic of the Lost Sounds). Garbage! Nervous Patterns would fit seamlessly within the Lost Sounds discography, but that by no means devalues this excellent record. Evidence: "Not Living In A Modern World."
While the "Sonoran Desert-based psychedelic noise band" now signed to Sacred Bones is an entirely different animal, Destruction Unit started with Ryan Rousseau of The Reatards, Jay Reatard, and Trout. To be certain, this is Rousseau's baby, but Reatard and Trout's hallmarks are all over Destruction Unit's 2004 debut Self-Destruction Of A Man and the 2006 follow-up Death To The Old Flesh — both heavily indebted to Lost Sounds.
In 2007, a year after Blood Visions, Reatard released World of Shit as Terror Visions, an electro-punk divider under which he could file all of those creepy industrial jams that didn't fit the new Jay Reatard brand. Another pressure valve or a counterbalance in a career of many. It seems justified — I can't imagine "Medicating Dreams" here sitting beside a poppy organ fling like the chorus on "An Ugly Death," and moreover, "Blood Is Sweet, But Semen Is Sweeter" sounds like something Pop. 1280 might have been nursed on.
If any of Reatard's past projects hint at the material on Blood Visions, it's the work he did with ex-girlfriend Alix Brown (formerly of The Lids) in Angry Angles. Sugary garage, cutesy boy-girl parts. They even played some of the same tunes — "Death Is Forming," "Nightmares," and "Blood Visions," all also by Angry Angles. The pair never released a long player, but instead, a handful of 7"s over 2005 and 2006 — some on the label they jointly founded, Shattered Records, which also put out work by The Reatards, Final Solutions, Terror Visions, and Jay Reatard proper.
Angry Angles was the project, the testing ground, with which Reatard took his allegiances to garage rock and synth-punk and aimed them towards a much poppier understanding of punk — a bend that owed much to his collaborator Brown and her pedigree. In many ways, this was the incubator that birthed the legend.