Jay Reatard doc ends up being way better than most things
Not long before he’d expire from a mix of “cocaine toxicity” and alcohol at the age of 29, Jay Reatard went on camera to describe his fear of death to Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz. Between that and the amazing access he gave the two filmmakers—not to mention a feast of archival live footage, plus the recollections of friends, bandmates, and family—their documentary Better Than Something ends up being well worth your time whether or not you’re a fan of the wildly prolific, notoriously ill-tempered garage-punk phenom.
As it happens, Reatard is a mesmerizing figure; a mixture of snot, charm, and a lot of sad wisdom once he starts talking. And boy, does he start talking. Reatard had agreed to make a 20 minute promo film for the filmmaking team (released as Waiting or Something, in 2009), but things changed once Hammond and Markiewicz turned up to capture their subject in his hometown of Memphis.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we first met Jay,” Hammond tells the Straight from New York, “As soon as we started shooting, he opened up, and it was really wonderful. We were both thinking at the time that this is really unusual.”
“The film was always a promotional thing, and I think Jay latched on to the idea that it could be more,“ says Markiewicz, joining his co-director on the line. He adds that they went back to their original footage when Reatard passed away in 2010. “We never felt complete with the short, so why hold it back?”
The expanded movie starts with Reatard’s testy performance of “Oh It’s Such a Shame” for French TV in 2008. “Do you feel angry when you’re on stage?” asks the hapless host. “No, I feel happy when I’m stage. I feel angry when I do shit like this,” is Reatard’s reply. Not that footage of the musician in confrontational mode is particularly rare.
“Jay was all over the internet, and he knew what people were saying about him, and what they thought,” Markiewicz offers, “and I think this was maybe the first time it was actually bothering him. It’s easy for people to read into it and say, ‘Oh, he knew he was dying,’ and these ridiculous kinds of things, but I think it’s really just an issue of growing up, and saying, ‘Wait a second, I don’t only want to be seen as this character.’ He says that, basically, in the film.”
It’s no secret that Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. had grown up in a world of poverty and violence when he started sending, as a 15 year-old drop-out, homemade tapes (using a pickle bucket for drums) to former Oblivian and Goner Records head Eric Friedl. Hammond and Markiewicz were shocked to learn just how brutal that world was when Reatard parked the filmmakers outside the old family home and recalled a story involving a naked and bloody rape victim, a bunch of bikers, and the two crackheads who lived next door. “It was probably the most intense moment of my life,” Reatard says, adding with a bitter laugh, “I wrote a song about it.” (The furious “1620 Echles Street” by Lost Sounds, for the curious).
“That was completely unprompted and obviously Jay took us there with the idea that it was something he wanted to say,” Markiewicz says. “But it’s not like he warned us, or anything. So that was pretty harsh the first time we heard it.” Hammond ominously adds that “there was more to the story… that experience of living there was just really, really rough.”
Hammond and Markiewicz report that they never saw Reatard’s “temperamental” side, adding that they caught him in a moment when age and success were starting to have a mellowing effect. Even then, the interviews they captured subsequent to Reatard’s death depict somebody whose considerable flaws were easily outmeasured by the impact he had on his friends and collaborators. Reatards bassist Stephen Pope (a current member of the terminally assholish Wavves—a job he’s uniquely qualified for) gives possibly the rawest and most enlightening interview.
“I think Stephen Pope is one of the best people to talk about Jay,” asserts Markiewicz, “because he had to deal with Jay on a professional level, and on a friendship level, and touring with him, and they spent a lot of time together, and it’s pretty intense. Stephen Pope wasn’t anything less than honest about, like, ‘Yeah, Jay can be annoying, but I like what we do, and I like him as a friend.’ I mean, that’s the other thing—they still ended up being friends after breaking up the band, so it wasn’t that horrible.”
Fans should note that Better Than Something features 43 Reatard songs. Those who have never heard Lost Sounds, Nervous Patterns, the Final Solutions, Digital Leather, Angry Angles, the Reatards or any of his other bands should also note that Better Than Something features 43 Reatard songs.
Better Than Something plays at the Pacific Cinematheque on Friday and Saturday (June 1-2)