Jay Bennett, Ex-Member of Wilco, Dies at 45
By BEN SISARIO
Published: May 25, 2009
Jay Bennett, a singer and songwriter who was a former member of the rock band Wilco, died on Sunday in Urbana, Ill. He was 45 and lived in Urbana.
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Jay Bennett in 1999.
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The cause is still unknown. Representatives of his management company, Undertow Music Collective, said he died in his sleep. Edward Burch, a friend and collaborator, told The Chicago Sun-Times that an autopsy was being done. No information about survivors was available.
Last month Mr. Bennett complained on his MySpace page about severe pains in his hip. He needed hip-replacement surgery, he said, but did not have proper health insurance.
A burly, dreadlocked figure with a cracking, plaintive rasp, Mr. Bennett played in the Replacements-influenced power-pop band Titanic Love Affair during the 1990s, and released four solo albums. But he is best known for his role in Wilco, the Chicago band that expanded the earthy, folk-influenced sound of the alt-country genre with more abstract, experimental rock.
Mr. Bennett joined Wilco in 1994, shortly after the recording of the band’s first album, “A.M.,” which was released the next year. Beginning with “Being There” in 1996, he played keyboards, guitar and various other instruments, and gradually his role grew. With “Summerteeth” in 1999 and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” released in 2002, Mr. Bennett became a key part of the band’s songwriting, often as a darker foil to the more fragile style of the lead singer, Jeff Tweedy. A perfectionist in the studio, Mr. Bennett took an active hand in the recording process.
He also played on “Mermaid Avenue,” the band’s Grammy-nominated 1998 project with Billy Bragg, which set unpublished lyrics by Woody Guthrie to music, as well as on its sequel, “Mermaid Avenue II,” in 2000.
But as documented in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” a 2002 film about the recording of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and the band’s extended struggle with its record company, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Tweedy frequently clashed in the studio, as Mr. Bennett bristled over the band’s increasingly noisy direction.
Mr. Tweedy fired Mr. Bennett from Wilco shortly before the release of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which became the band’s commercial breakthrough. Relations between the two men remained chilly. This month Mr. Bennett sued for breach of contract, contending that he was owed royalties from his work on Wilco albums as well as money from the film. The suit has not been settled, a Wilco spokeswoman said.
In a statement on Monday, Mr. Tweedy said: “We will miss Jay as we remember him — as a truly unique and gifted human being and one who made welcome and significant contributions to the band’s songs and evolution.”
Born in Rolling Meadows, a suburb of Chicago, in 1963, Mr. Bennett graduated from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, with degrees in secondary education, mathematics and political studies. He was working in a VCR repair shop when Mr. Tweedy recruited him for Wilco, and according to “Learning How to Die,” Greg Kot’s 2004 book about Wilco, Mr. Bennett often worked there between tours.
In 2002, shortly after leaving Wilco, Mr. Bennett released “The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part I)” with Mr. Burch. He also founded a recording studio in Champaign, called Pieholden Suite Sound, after a song on “Summerteeth.”
Mr. Bennett released three more albums of country-tinged folk-rock, and on his most recent MySpace post said that he was hard at work on a new one, “Kicking at the Perfumed Air.”
Sign in to Recommend More Articles in Arts » A version of this article appeared in print on May 26, 2009, on page B8 of the New York edition.