By Lee Cahill
When I was in college, people like 2-time Grammy-nominated producer Howard Benson would come speak to the students about the music industry. He, as well as every other speaker who ever rolled through campus, would inevitably recall stories about how they slept on couches, interned, and were in debt for the first few years of their careers. Knowing that a career in the music industry is hard to come by, even for people as talented as Benson, I always wondered if (or when, mostly) I would need to throw in the towel. At what point are you reconciled to the fact that you’re either just not talented or not lucky enough to “make it?” This thought never seemed to enter Jay Reatard’s mind, as evidenced by his first “breakthrough” record, which was only his, oh, 20th album!
Jay dropped out of high school at the tender age of 15 in 1995, not because he was an actual retard, but so that he could pursue music. On those first twenty records, he often produced, wrote, and performed every instrument. Jay’s feverish enthusiasm for music infected his friends and fans. Two of his bass players recalled him saying, “You’re coming on tour with me.” To which they each replied, “But I don’t know how to play an instrument?!” “Just learn bass – it’s easy.” These artists continue to make music today in indie bands like Wavves and Golden Triangle.
After the release of his “breakthrough” record, Blood Visions, and an indie label bidding war, Jay signed to the esteemed Matador Records. As Jay’s music was still somewhat under the radar, Matador commissioned a short promotional bio video as a part of his EPK for his final album, Watch Me Fall. Once Jay passed away, this footage, accompanied by interviews with his friends and family, became the framework for the feature documentary, Better Than Something: Jay Reatard. As a result Jay got to tell his life’s story in his own words. The directors Alex Hammond & Ian Markiewicz even stated, “Jay secretly directed this film.” Jay took the directors to all his favorite local spots in Memphis, his hometown, spewing out stories, philosophies, and – most of all – his true punk-rock attitude. As a viewer, you feel like Jay is taking you under his wing – just like those bass players who hadn’t played a single instrument yet. Rather than dwelling on what his friends and family describe as an “accidental” drug overdose, this film celebrates Jay’s life and art.
The emotional intensity of this film made me so disoriented that I took the train home after the screening even though I’d driven there… UGH. Go see this film, but remember how you got there.