August 16, 2009
By MIKE RUBIN
ON a warm evening last month Stuyvesant Town celebrated the arrival of its first-ever mosh pit. This wasn’t an official new luxury amenity at the massive Manhattan apartment complex, but rather the result of Jay Reatard’s performance in its grassy courtyard, part of a free concert series. As this shaggy-maned Memphis musician led his trio through a bludgeoning set of relentlessly catchy punk rock — 14 songs in a mere 32 minutes — power chords buzzed like mosquitoes, one Mach 2-speed melody slamming into the next in a dizzying blur.
This was an all-ages show, but the proverbial “kids” were actual infants and toddlers lolling on the lawn, making the chanted chorus of Jay Reatard’s “Greed, Money, Useless Children” seem more barbed than usual. The only concession to family atmosphere was the presenter’s performance contract, which stipulated that any uttered expletive would lead to the show’s immediate shutdown and forfeiture of pay. Standard stuff, perhaps, but compliance was no sure thing, given Jay Reatard’s not-so-distant past as a transgressive punk rock provocateur, an artist whose titles for three of his more than 20 albums of home recordings are equally unprintable.
Obeying the rule turned out to be surprisingly easy, the singer, a bundle of frenetic energy, said in an interview the following evening in the dressing room of the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, wearing jeans as tight as spandex and occasionally swinging from an exposed pipe in the ceiling. “I just changed everything” that involved a common curse word, he said, “to ‘kid.’ ”
At 29, Jay Reatard, whose real name is Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., has been a public figure in Memphis for nearly half his life, though he only began attracting national attention after the release, in 2006, of “Blood Visions” (In the Red) and a barrage of shows at the South by Southwest Music Festival in 2007 and 2008. His first album billed as a solo artist — he played almost every note on the record himself — “Blood Visions” revealed Mr. Lindsey’s talent for distilling punk songwriting to its most elemental form, a mix of adrenaline, testosterone and sugary hooks. Delivered in an ersatz English accent, songs like “My Shadow” were reminiscent of late-1970s British punk, particularly bands like Wire and the Adverts, whose former leader, TV Smith, was tapped by Mr. Lindsey as the opening act for his recent tour.
“They’ve taken the original arrangements and the spirit, but they’re actually playing it well,” Mr. Smith said, referring to the tour’s nightly encore in which Mr. Smith joins Mr. Lindsey and his band (Stephen Pope on bass and Billy Hayes on drums) for blistering renditions of four Adverts songs. “With the Adverts one night could be great, and the next night could be terrible,” Mr. Smith said, “whereas with Jay’s band, you know every night they’re going to play it really great, and it’s going to be full-on high energy. I think he’s an absolutely brilliant musician.”
Other fans of Mr. Lindsey’s work include Beck, who asked him to cover his own “Gamma Ray” for a promotional single, and Ryan Adams, who said in an e-mail message that Mr. Lindsey’s songs sound “like summertime-let’s-get-in-some-trouble-type music.”
As a veteran of a half-dozen groups and side projects Mr. Lindsey has essentially treated punk rock as repertory, establishing a sort of canon of punk’s back pages. His band the Lost Sounds (circa 2001-5), for example, took their cue from the distorted synth punk of the late-’70s Los Angeles band the Screamers, while Angry Angles (2005-6) paid homage to the spastic art punk of early Devo and the Urinals.
“I definitely cherry-pick,” Mr. Lindsey said. “I’m not so much influenced by a band as I’m influenced by one part of a band. The whole concept for me behind pop music is to take your influences and filter them through yourself, and then they become something new. I’m not trying to move forward and create territory that hasn’t been mined before, I’m just trying to do my version of something that I like.”
“Watch Me Fall,” Mr. Lindsey’s new album, out on Tuesday from Matador Records, expands his influences to include the ’80s kiwi pop of the Flying Nun label from New Zealand and bands like the Clean and the Tall Dwarfs. Acoustic guitar features in nearly every song, and his nihilistic lyrics — “All is lost, there is no hope,” goes the la-la-la-like refrain from “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me” — now waft over wispy choral clouds as well as dissonant feedback peals. “I’m becoming more open-minded,” Mr. Lindsey said, “and allowing myself to absorb different things that before I probably wrote off out of ignorance.”
Despite his new inspirations, he remains committed to his home-recording methods. Although he has graduated to 24 tracks from 4, his records still sometimes sound like transmissions between tin cans connected by a string. “It’s like a Polaroid picture,” Mr. Lindsey said of his rough, spontaneous process. “I’m just trying to get the idea out before the inspiration is gone. Everything I do is motivated by the fear of running out of time.”
“I’m not trying to be low fidelity,” he added. “I’m trying to be handmade. You don’t go into a bakery and say, ‘That apple pie is handmade, that’s a “lo-fi” pie.’ You realize the crust looks a little rough around the edges, it looks like somebody’s grandma made this, and all of a sudden it’s comforting.”
Perhaps Mr. Lindsey’s most handmade offerings are his vinyl 45s, of which he’s released nearly 50, almost single-handedly, revitalizing the lost art of the punk rock single. His initial deal with Matador was for a series of six singles, each release more limited than its predecessor. For the final installment he hand-assembled the packaging for each of the pressing’s 400 copies, gluing the sleeves together and stuffing in inserts, so that every copy would be unique.
Mr. Lindsey was raised in the tiny farming community of Lilbourn, Mo. (“Population: 892,” he said), until the family moved to Memphis when he was 8. He credits the solitary rural setting — the nearest neighbors were a mile away — with his predilection for working alone. His father was employed as a roofer, while his mother, who was trained as a respiratory therapist, suffered from postpartum depression, she said in a telephone interview, and stopped working shortly after his birth. His parents split up when he was 11, and he bounced back and forth between them, living in 18 different houses in Memphis before he moved out on his own at 16.
“He got us run out of a lot of apartments in Memphis, playing his music too loud,” recalled his father, Jimmy Lindsey, in a telephone interview from Michie, Tenn. “We’d stay three to six months in a place, and they’d make us move ’cause he wouldn’t turn that volume down. They even said, ‘Don’t worry about the lease, just go.’ ”
The younger Mr. Lindsey said his father inspired his intense work ethic, while his mother encouraged his artistic side. “When he started picking on the guitar,” said Devonna May, his mother, from her home in New Madrid, Mo., “a lot of the neighbors, they’d call the house and say, ‘Don’t that get on your nerves?’ And I’d tell them, ‘My son has talent, I can tell.’ ”
After three attempts at eighth grade, he dropped out of school, but not before earning his sophomoric stage name. “I was ‘Jackass’ before ‘Jackass,’ ” he said. “My whole shtick was I’d act belligerently retarded in the middle of class, and people started calling me that.” It was an easy choice when he was looking for a nom de punk, never imagining that it would still be haunting him 15 years later. “It’s shocking that I’ve allowed my life to become this weird,” he said. “I don’t want to be a 30-year-old Reatard.”
His entree into music came at 15 when he was obsessed by a local garage punk group called the Oblivians — “the lousiest band I’d seen in my entire life, and they blew me away,” he said. Where the tight, martial precision of the Ramones had intimidated him, the Oblivians’ sloppy racket provided him with an achievable ideal.
While his peers attended high school, Mr. Lindsey filled his days with Big Macs and four-track recordings. Playing all the instruments himself, including banging on a plastic pickle bucket in lieu of a drum kit, he recorded a cassette — half original songs and half Oblivians covers — and mailed it to Eric Friedl, a member of the Oblivians and an owner of the Memphis garage-rock label Goner Records. Mr. Friedl was impressed and released several of the recordings in 1998 as the “Get Real Stupid” EP, credited to the Reatards. With Mr. Friedl’s help, Mr. Lindsey recruited an actual band of Reatards, which recorded its debut album, “Teenage Hate,” later that year.
“He was doing Buddy Holly covers,” Mr. Friedl said. “I didn’t know that 16-year-old kids listened to that at all. I thought it really showed that he understood basic rock ’n’ roll more than just a kid who wanted to get up there and pretend to be a punk rocker. ”
Live, however, the teenager cut a decidedly more infantile profile. “Throwing a fit” is how Mr. Lindsey described his confrontational performances. Nudity, bodily fluids, violence and vandalism were staples of his public persona, both onstage and off. “I was like a 140-pound baby with a bottle of vodka instead of a bottle of milk,” he said, describing his actions as “dumb terroristic acts of look-at-me” behavior. He cut such a swath of cocksure arrogance that one Memphis zine christened him “Little Lord Punkleroy,” and he eventually found himself banned from the city’s clubs and house parties.
“This is a real laid-back town, and people are pretty fun loving,” said Sherman Willmott, who was the owner of Shangri-La Records in Memphis at the time, “so if you’re banned from parties in Memphis you must be a real pain.”
In hindsight Mr. Lindsey agrees with that assessment. “I was the ultimate nihilist,” he said. “I wasn’t just mad at the system, I was mad at the people who were mad at the system. I hated everybody and everything. If a 16-year-old me would have met me, I would have thrown a beer on myself.”
While Mr. Lindsey has clearly matured since then, he continues to be dogged by his aggressive image. Last year video of an April 2008 incident at a Toronto gig where he punched a fan who had jumped onstage (and broken some of his equipment, he said) was posted on YouTube, edited so that the singer slugs the interloper again and again. The clip’s popularity — more than 140,000 YouTube views so far — suggests that more people may want to watch a guy named Reatard “throw a fit” than listen to his music.
That’s part of the challenge facing Matador, which signed Mr. Lindsey to a multi-album deal last year. Though “Matador Singles ’08,” a CD compilation of the six 45s that was released in October, has sold about 10,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, Chris Lombardi, a president of Matador, said the imprint expects “Watch Me Fall” to grow his fan base. “We’re looking forward to a pretty widely unanimous embracing” of it, he said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
Despite describing the new album as “an exercise in self-loathing,” Mr. Lindsey is fully committed to success. “People have a set image of what they think a guy named Reatard is going to do,” he said. “I’d like to say that I don’t deserve it anymore, but I still do dumb” stuff “every day of my life. I still feel like the name’s appropriate. I guess the day that I feel like I’m grown up, you’ll be seeing my alt-country album as Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. I’ll be hanging out, opening for Wilco or something.”