“What I do is not about being comfortable with the world.”
—Jay Reatard, in Better Than Something
There’s a part in Better Than Something, the Jay Reatard documentary, where the musician talks about being “so tired. . . and I’m only 29.” He laughs a little and adds, “There’s nothing to look forward to.” Anyone who sees this and doesn’t agree with this statement just a little—even secretly—is probably not going to like Jay Reatard’s music and may not even care about this documentary.
First, there’s the name, which turns off a lot of people who might otherwise be fans if they heard some of Reatard’s shockingly prolific output. But you can’t hold someone accountable for going the Ramones via Oblivians route and picking a fictional musical moniker at age 15. (Even Iggy Pop was a Stooge once.)
Then, there’s Reatard’s (born Jimmy Lee Lindsay) reputation: drunk, crazy, unpredictable, angry, violent, difficult . . . I think you know where this is headed. At the risk of sounding as pretentious as Lindsay definitely was NOT, there are times when you have to separate the art from the artist, or in this case, the artist’s shenanigans from the art.
Interestingly, it isn’t until the end of the film that directors Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz reveal one of Lindsay’s mother’s most significant insights about her son: on stage, he was like an actor. We get a hint of this in the beginning when friend and fellow musician Shawn Foree says that Lindsay’s reputation of being a dick was “more of his persona compared to what kind of person he actually was.”
Better Than Something does not attempt to define the Jay Reatard persona, or speculate if it was real or assumed. It also doesn’t shoehorn in any sentimental platitudes about tragic deaths; in fact, no specific mention that Lindsay is dead is made until his father mentions it almost halfway through. Clearly, Better Than Something is a film about Jay Reatard’s life, and not the cessation of it.
By intercutting between clips of Lindsay when he was alive and interviews with friends and family members talking about him in the past tense, it almost feels like he’s still around. The sad realizations that he isn’t—when his father relates being woken up with an uncanny feeling at the precise time Lindsay died or when his sister talks about picking out his casket—are moving in a completely unforced way.
Some of this can be attributed to the simple reality that Better Than Something was originally intended as a short film and most of the interviews with Lindsay were conducted about nine months before his passing. The movie was expanded after Lindsay’s unexpected death at 29 from cocaine and alcohol in 2010. Yet Hammond and Markiewicz could easily have turned the doc into something maudlin, or worse, cautionary.
For someone who was such an alleged dick, Lindsay comes across as down to earth and intelligent (the opening clip from the French TV show speaks volumes). He has many wonderfully relatable observations and insights, which I won’t spoil by listing them all. There are also more than a few eerily prescient ones, which are painful to watch in the same way that James Dean interview about racing cars is painful to watch in retrospect.
Anyone who will admit to living in the parts of Memphis they don’t show to tourists (or any similar place) is going to understand where Lindsay came from, both literally and figuratively. It’s pretty inspiring that Lindsay was able to do so much in such a short time, and transform from a screaming, flailing punk kid to a screaming, flailing, honest-to-goodness talented songwriter, musician, and singer. The various clips of Lindsay performing live will give you that all-too-rare rare gut wrenching feeling you get when witnessing something genuinely amazing.
That Lindsay was able to create such magnificence—yes, even with . . . no, especially with all the nihilism and anger contained within it—is something that listeners (and viewers of this film) will either understand, or they won’t. Like Lindsay himself says at one point, “People’s taste is way too mysterious of a thing; there’s too many variables.”
It’s obvious that behind, or perhaps intertwined with the “persona” of Jay Reatard, the real Jay Lindsay was not some punk rock poseur fabrication. Friend and former bandmate Alix Brown says he “came from nothing” and was “self-made.” Some of the interviews reveal the more difficult facets of Lindsay’s personality, particularly the ones where he owns up to his bad behavior. However, he is clear that he is not proud of some things, but accepts them.
Although he chose the Reatard moniker when he was still an angry, confused teenager, he could have ditched it as he got older. Maybe he kept the name like some kind of armor, to purposely keep away the people who might not understand what he was trying to say. For those of you who’ve avoided or never listened to Jay Reatard’s music, I urge you to reconsider and watch this documentary. We were lucky to have him around, even for such a short time. Thankfully, his music remains. Better Than Something is a great introduction to his legacy (though he’d probably hate that word).
Better Than Something will be released on DVD December 18. The Limited Edition version includes the DVD and the following:
– A 14 track vinyl LP of Jay Reatard rarities including 13 unreleased songs
– 50 page 12″ book with essays by TV Smith (The Adverts), Cole Alexander (Black Lips), King Khan, Alicja Trout, and more
– Includes an unreleased interview with Jay Reatard, and never before seen photos
– DVD features 20 minutes of additional interviews with Jay and friends