20 years ago I went to Chicago to make a record with Jay Bennett (RIP), a guy who has meant a lot to me over the years, gone now these too many years. I listened to this thing this morning and although the making of it was fraught with all kinds of mixed emotions — my first solo record, and Jay was still reeling from being booted from Wilco — it’s my favorite record I’ve made. It sounds the most like “me.”
The plan was to record these 5 songs and use the as a demo to sign on with a label and make the rest of the record, but they stand pretty well on their own.
At the time this was made, my Dad had died the previous January, Theresa and I were through our 2nd round of in vitro treatments (Vaughan would arrive in November), my previous band had wound down after making our second record together and then hit the brick wall that was 9/11 as we tried to go out and support it. I was in the midst of 9 months on unemployment after I convinced my previous job they should eliminate my position.
I bought 2 mics and a Zoom all-in-one recording multitrack box and spent those 9 months writing songs in the morning, playing Tiger Woods PGA on PlayStation in the afternoon and then meeting Theresa and friends at one of the Williamsburg watering holes where we often used food as an excuse to get our drink on. Muggs was usually the place. That Brooklyn Lager was so effing good. I might still drink if I could get that stuff on a regular basis.
When I got to Chicago to make this record I stayed for a night or two with my good friend Nadine, took in a Cubs game at Wrigley (standing room “seats.” Sammy Sosa hit a home-run with what was likely a corked bat.) On the appointed day, I took the El down to the warehouse where Jay had taken all his gear when he moved it out of the Wilco studio. It was a lot of gear.
To get into the studio you had to go around to the side of the building and enter through the fire escape. The first floor landing looked like it had been bombed out, but as I climbed things got a little better, until I got to the 3rd floor landing where the fire door to Jay’s studio was. An acoustic guitar lay on the ground beside a folding chair. The guitar had 2 woven throw rugs duck taped to the body. On the floor next to the guitar, was a microphone connected to half a broken boom stand. Flown from the stair railings was the other half of the boom stand and a cheap solid state amp, suspended about 10 feet in the air bungie corded to the iron railings just below the next floor’s landing.
All of that was weird, but what was even more weird — disturbing, really — was the trail of blood that ran from the chair, through the open fire door and into the darkened studio. This was not the nicest part of Chicago and I thought about leaving. Seriously thought about it. But my desire to get the record done pushed me forward.
I entered the studio into what was the very large live room. Guitars were racked along 2 of the walls. A drumset was set up toward the back of the room and in the center were a couple “isolation booths” made up of dingy tan office cubicle dividers. Beside one of the dividers was a blue plastic storage bin with 3 or 4 acoustic guitars stuck in like seedlings in a pot. One was a clearly vintage Gibson Hummingbird. It was just stuck in there, no padding, no given. I’d never owned a guitar nearly that nice or that expensive. It made me nervous just to look at it. The guitar I bright with me was a new $300 Epiphone Dot. Around me on the walls was thousands of dollars worth of guitars.
But no Jay. The place was quiet. We were supposed to get started that day and I only had 5 days to get this whole thing done, so I was anxious to get to work. I followed the blood trail from the live room, down a hallways to another room, where I say Jay, bloody-faced, passed out on an air mattress in the middle of the room. Or, I hoped he was passed out.
It took me another hour to work up the courage to go back in the room and wake him up. By that time I knew he was passed out because he was snoring pretty loudly. I startled him awake and it took him a few minutes to figure out who I was, why I was there and what had happened that put him on the air mattress with a bloody face. Turned out the night before he had flown a mic — somewhat precariously — into the stairwell to record the floor mat-covered acoustic for the reverb properties of the stairwell. At some point, the rigging let go or the mic stand broke and the mic swung down from 10 feet in the air and smacked him in the nose. Then the blood. Et cetera.
Over the next several days we brought in Tim the drummer to play and he and I tracked basics for the 5 songs, Tim on drums and me playing that worse for wear Hummingbird. It’s probably still the best playing guitar I’ve ever touched. And it sounded…old in the best way possible. After we finished the basic tracks, Jay and I started arranging the songs, layering on parts one at a time. I learned more about recording and what I was capable of in those few days than I ever had in any studio experience up to that moment. For the first 2 days, I played everything — keys, bass, lead guitar, whatever needed done. Jay played nothing. After a couple days, I said to him, “Hey, feel free to jump in and play whatever you want.” I don’t know what I expected. I would come to Jay’s place and he world lathe his magic Wilco tones onto my stuff and make it all amazing. He said to me, “You’re doing great, man. You can do all this. I’m just helping you make your record. This is you. I’ll jump in when I hear something for me.”
I’ve never thought of myself as much of an instrumentalist until that point and still today I’m self conscious about it. No one had ever forced me outside of my comfort zone like that, but I’m so much a better musician and artist because he did.
By the end of the week we had all 5 songs tracked and a plan to mix them in a couple months on another trip to Chicago. Along the way, Jay worked 36 hours straight and then passed out for an entire day. He worked like a crazy person. Every idea was a tangent branching off another idea. Nothing we did recording-wise was “right.” We did stuff like throw a cheap amp out the window to record the sound of it smashing on the pavement (it was the same amp from the stairwell). I learned that if you suck at piano you should record many takes all on top of one another. I double tracked the Epiphone through a Vox AC 30 with the guts cut out so the speaker could ring more. That was at 3am, the amp literally turned to 10.
Everything we did was a revelation to me, who still thought everything had to be done in a prescribed way. I’ve never felt that way since. Jay worked fast and didn’t think about what he was doing. He just did it. But he also stayed up all night tracking bass parts for one of the songs and when I woke up mid-morning he was jsut finishing up. As I walked into the “control room” (it was a big room off the kitchen that had a Mackie 24 channel mixer set up on a folding table and a 7 foot tall wall of outboard gear behind it) Jay said, “I just tracked 3 parts for this. One’s simple, one’s in the middle, and one’s crazy all over the place. I gotta go sleep.”
I can’t fully express how out of control but yet completely in the hands of a master I felt. There aren’t many people I would call a “genius” in the world, but Jay Bennett certainly was — as much for what he didn’t do as for what he did and as much for how out of control he worked rather than how in control of his gifts he was.
Goddamn I miss him. And I miss those days. It occurs to me as I write this that I needed to remind myself of the lessons I learned working with Jay. I need to let go more and trust myself.