Rumpus Sound Takes: Jay Reatard, Wild Man with a Vision

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When Jay Reatard was alive, he got called anything from “possessed” to “total dick.”

Looking back on his recorded legacy with the ease awarded by hindsight, I see that he was consumed by his own aesthetic: a wild man with a vision. I can’t tell if he was taken over by an evil spirit — a rock and roll demon child that drank from the same Tennessee waters as one of his obvious forefathers, Jerry Lee Lewis — or if he had genuine nihilistic tendencies, seeing music as the only path to his redemption, which might explain his rapid fire output and early demise.

Maybe he thought his duty on this planet was to crank out record after record with a reckless abandon that eventually claimed his life at the age of 29 in January 2010.

In a short documentary made about Reatard (born James Lee Lindsay Jr.), he’s quoted saying, “if I wouldn’t have found music, I’m sure I would have been a petty criminal.”  With that in mind, I recall seeing him live and realize that there was a pretty good chance that for this guy, there wasn’t much else in his life besides the stage and the recording studio.

It all started with his first band, the Reatards, which he started at 15.  The bedroom project churned out a handful of singles, a few records (both live and studio recorded), and cult status with people who preferred noisy, raw bands like The Gories, Guitar Wolf, and Reatard’s foremost inspiration, fellow Memphis group the Oblivians.

The Reatards were short-lived, but Jay Reatard’s renown grew.  He spent the next ten years spitting out music fast and without abandon.  Under names like The Final Solutions, Bad Times, and Destruction Unit, Reatard spent the decade producing one of the largest recorded libraries of any artist in the American underground, save for maybe Will Oldham.  And though Oldham’s cryptic Americana shares very few sonic similarities to Reatard’s work, the volume of recordings and penchant for various monikers (for every new band Reatard was in, Oldham has his birth name, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, etc.) does link their craft.

The reality is that Reatard really had very few contemporaries.  His exploits could be traced in fanzines like “Horizontal Action,” and his meteoric rise aligned itself with a renewed recognition of American garage, or what Eric Davidson called the “gunk punk” scene.  His eventual death, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, came when his popularity had reached its highest peak – which seems to be the best way to go in rock and roll.  But his earliest recordings with the Reatards remain his greatest achievement: before success, before European tours, before Matador Records, the Reatards’ Teenage Hate was overwhelming.  It was a loud and raw album with no pretense.  It was undiluted garage rock created mostly by an angry teenage kid from the South who seemed to have lived his life by the old punk adage of “no future.”

Goner Records, the Memphis record label and store operated by former Oblivians member Eric Friedl, has reissued the Reatards first album, adding nearly 20 tracks from cassette recordings that predated Teenage Hate, a self-titled offering, as well as the brilliantly titled “Fuck Elvis, Here’s the Reatards Cassette.”

If you are only familiar with Reatard’s later work, released on In the Red and Matador, it might be tough adjust to his early sound.  While his work was never polished, the later recordings go down easier.  If your record collection isn’t littered with The Spits, The Mummies, or Reatard’s work besides his cryptically titled final LP, 2009’s Watch Me Fall, the reissue of Teenage Hate may not be your cup of tea; however, if you like your music on the messy side, this is a masterpiece.


Jason Diamond is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. He's the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, current New York Deputy Editor of Flavorpill, and writes daily for the eMusic blog, 17 Dots. His writing has been published by The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, NPR.org, Vice, A.V. Club, Tablet, Impose, Miami New Times, and the Chicago Tribune. He's working on a book, and you should ask him about it @ImJasonDiamond More from this author →