Better Than Something
Let’s Talk Music, Not Tragedy
“The most shocking thing to me [was] when we went to Memphis for the funeral. It was the first time that I ever saw him still. I remember other people saying the same thing. Jay, who was always the guy who was the most excited – joking, talking, eating, drinking, doing something – was all of the sudden totally still and the calmest person in the room. I think that was the most shocking thing,” Philip Sambol recalls.
Sambol, bassist for the Strange Boys, describes the late Jimmy Lee Lindsay Jr. – or Jay Reatard, as most folks knew him – in the same paradoxical way many of his friends and acquaintances do. He was smart, supportive of his peers and far savvier than his punk-rock antics implied. Still, he was a loose cannon, prone to fiery blowups and a deep downturns that slapped his reputation with either stigma or enviable notoriety, depending on your preference.
But when filmmakers Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz collected footage of Jay just months before he died at 29 years old, they found his demeanor somewhat settled. Jay was visibly self-aware and retrospective.
“It was as if he wanted to… tell everything and be honest about everything,” Hammond says.
The pair was commissioned to create a promotional short for Jay and Matador Records, the imprint that released his last LP, Watch Me Fall, in 2009. When the embattled garage-rocker was found dead of a reported drug overdose on January 13, 2010, Hammond and Markiewicz couldn’t simply sit on the footage.
“We were thinking of making just a longer short originally, because we had a bunch of good footage with him,” Markiewicz explains.
“Timing never worked out,” Hammond adds. “He was touring so much…You look at the calendar and every day for, like, 100 days straight he would be going, traveling. We definitely discussed it with him. Unfortunately it had to happen when it did, which was he died, and we decided to take it on.”
Anyone who’s seen the short, which is still floating around the Internet, has ultimately seen the full-length documentary. Aside from additional interviews with friends and family, little is expounded upon in Better Than Something. That’s not to say the film is untouched by Jay’s death. It’s addressed, and drug use is, too. But Hammond and Markiewicz deliberately downplayed the tragedy. Jay’s parents and friends speak about it, and it’s sad. It’s absolutely sad. But the gory details of his generally raucous lifestyle are mostly omitted.
“There are two main issues,” Markiewicz clarifies. “One is the fact that there’s not really any footage or something that can go there, and we were pretty against just doing kind of hackneyed things like throwing in title cards [that read]: by the way Jay died of an OD. Literally, of all of his friends and family, not a single one was willing to talk on camera about that. Everybody felt like it was a fluke. The closest we got was with Adam Shore, his manager, who kind of wanted to address it, and he does say something to that effect in the film. But the reality is that everybody knew he was in a bad place, and they did think he was invincible.”
Markiewicz’s second bit of rationale for avoiding the obvious is that the intent of the film wasn’t to glorify the stereotype Jay had fallen into. The point, both directors note, was to highlight his history and work. And though it would have made for a more heart-wrenching viewing, they took the right route. To make the negative aspects of his personality the focus would have been another layer of fog on what was an impeccable career.
Jay had been churning out amazing work since his teens. His first demo was championed by Eric Friedl of the Oblivians, who subsequently released Jay’s first 7-inch on Goner Records, the iconic garage-punk label he co-owns. He made records and EPs so regularly – and through at least nine different outlets over time – that his repertoire more than rivals that of his elders. It trumps them entirely.
“He was already a professional by the time he was 17,” says Louie Bankston.
Bankston came to know Jay in the late ’90s when the Reatards hopped on Bankston’s tour with one of his former bands, the Persuaders. Professional by Bankston’s definition, to be clear, doesn’t refer to Jay’s behavior. He remembers a show in St. Louis where “the Reatards pulled all the toilets and sinks out of the bathroom, super-glued the light sockets, graffitied everything” and even finagled a power outage of sorts.
“We cruised to the next town and left them shattered,” Bankston laughs. “And that was probably the second night.”
Destruction of property and related behavior shouldn’t necessarily be equated with self-destructive behavior, though. There’s a difference, Bankston makes clear.
“Jay could be having fun and it would look like anger and be destroying shit, but it was totally out of fun,” he says. “And at the same time, Jay could be angry and destroying things and you’d think it was just Jay having fun.
There isn’t much point in using Jay’s plight as an anti-drug campaign, either. Making martyrs of even the biggest rock stars has always failed in extracting the catastrophic clichés from the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Bankston doesn’t think Jay would have wanted that job, anyway.
“I’ll tell you right now, Jay Reatard is not sitting wherever he’s sitting saying, ‘Don’t do drugs and file away my records and sell them in 10 years for 50 bucks,’” he affirms. “Jay Reatard’s saying, ‘Do what you want to do, party down and break my records against the wall and buy another one, asshole.’”
What Better Than Something does best is explain Jay’s frame of reference. The Memphis native grew up poor and at one point, a neighbor to crack addicts who he hears raping a woman. On the same tour of his run-down childhood homes, he drops another devastating bomb – he was a crack addict himself for a few months.
“That was an intense thing to hear about,” Markiewicz remembers. “I think…having to re-watch [that scene] a few times in order to make the film was kind of a difficult thing to do. Because if you’re really listening to it, it is a horrible thing to have to imagine going through that as a kid.”
The film doesn’t dwell too long on the pitfalls of Jay’s youth, though. Instead, the main topic of conversation is music. Markiewicz and Hammond both claim they “took a lot of cues” from Jay himself, and in turn he ended up justifying himself as a musician. His knowledge of music was vast and his fascination with it was even greater. He mentions a few off-the-wall instances at his own shows but rarely indulges in praising himself for them.
“[Jay] created a persona. He was crazy, but he knew what he was doing,” Markiewicz asserts. “He wasn’t just wild and out of control and flying by the seat of his pants. There was really an attempt to create an image and a feeling and a sound. It was something he had crafted. He says in the film, ‘I’m getting old.’ But it’s true, I think he was just saying, ‘I can’t still be Jay Reatard, but I’m still a musician.’ And that’s kind of where we caught him.”
Obviously, Hammond and Markiewicz stumbled upon a lull in Jay’s life. It happened by chance. The out-of-control stories are rampant, but scattered. Jesse Smith of Gentleman Jesse sums up Jay’s back-and-forth succinctly: “You either got the Jay that was eating brie or the Jay that was trying to score crack.”
It is quite possible that Jay hoped to calm down. Regardless of his late-night pursuits, however, he worked hard and kept a strict business strategy at the forefront. He’d just sold Blood Visions, his 2006 LP originally released on In the Red, to Fat Possum for $60,000, according to his former roommate Jeffrey Novak. They lived together in the house Jay bought with that sum.
Jay didn’t keep his music business know-how to himself, Novak attests.
“Pretty much as soon as I met him, he was giving me advice,” he says. “It just seemed like he was instantly interested in what I was doing. He was the kind of guy who had an opinion about everything.”
Novak says Jay predicted the rise of bands like Wavves, Vampire Weekend and MGMT and speculated about why they’d succeed despite how awful he thought they were.
“He was so pushy with information because he was just so excited and he wanted to turn his friends on as much as he was turned on,” Novak elaborates. “He definitely had that sort of force in him.”
The Strange Boys were hooked up with In the Red records through Jay. He recorded what was supposed to be the outfit’s first LP, but neither Jay nor the Strange Boys liked the outcome. Jay was slated to record Davila 666’s Tan Bajo, but died a couple weeks prior.
Gerard Cosloy of Matador also backs Jay’s smarts about his career. He describes the lead-up to Watch Me Fall as an “old-fashioned bidding war” between labels.
“I hadn’t seen anything like it in years, and I may not see anything like it ever again,” he laughs.
That’s the kind of accomplishment Jay should be remembered for, and although that particular situation isn’t mentioned, Markiewiscz and Hammond managed to bottle most of that relentless zeal into Better Than Something.
“It’s a film about coming up out of something difficult. Regardless of if he died [before] 30 or whatever, those achievements are still there and that life is still there,” Markiewicz says. “We’d rather the sense that he lives on in a way than make it something morbid and something that’s just about the death…If that’s something that people feel that they missed, they can look it up on Wikipedia and see that’s how he died. But they’re not going to get a lot more than that, and we couldn’t either. It kind of ends up being what it is.”