A couple of months ago, I was on YouTube checking out some live videos of Jay Reatard and saw that someone had posted one of those “This guy is going to save rock 'n' roll” comments. I'm usually quick to dismiss such hyperventilation, but I slowly began piecing the argument together until I finally concluded the idea actually isn't that crazy.
After all, if anybody has the weapons to shake up the current musical milieu, it's Reatard (aka Jay Lindsey). He's a talented, temperamental musician and a fantastically prolific songwriter who's been penning tunes since he was a teenager. Not that he's particularly eager to pat himself—or any other wunderkind—on the back.
“A lot of people start writing songs when they're teenagers,” Reatard tells CityBeat. “But a lot of people don't make their first record until their 20s, and then people are like, ‘Aw, you progressed!' A fucking monkey would have started writing better songs after 10 years of doing it!”
In this case, he's really progressed. He's been playing in bands like The Reatards, The Lost Sounds and Angry Angles since he was 15 and has recorded nearly 50 albums, compilations and EPs along the way. And that's all before his first solo full-length, 2006's Blood Visions, made a lot of jaws drop and mouths drool.
“At the start of the solo stuff, I made a conscious decision, where I sat down and looked at every band I've been in,” Reatard says. “I made a mental chart of what was good and bad about those [projects] and tried to take every aspect that was good and combine them into one thing.”
The result was an album that left a lasting impression, further cemented by his infamous live shows. A typical Jay Reatard gig lasts less than 30 minutes but still includes more rock than most artists can fit into a 90-minute set. It's pure, condensed punk delivered in a style that recalls Hüsker Dü, Black Flag and The Descendents. And, of course, those mop-haired guys in leather jackets.
“The first band I really got into—really dissecting and breaking them apart and thinking about why it appealed to me—was The Ramones,” Reatard says. “I was just kind of blown away. I was a teenager and their show seemed more like an assault than a performance.”
Reatard adheres to that aesthetic in part by eschewing conventional artist/audience banter in favor of a “Say it and play it” approach to introducing his songs.
“It takes a music fan that thinks unconventionally to get into that,” Retard says. “Most people want to be engaged…. They want to feel like they're having a fucking Q&A with the artist on stage. That just isn't me.”
His approach has rubbed some people the wrong way. Literally. His YouTube videos sport titles like “Jay Reatard punching kid at the Silver Dollar” and “Jay Reatard—Kicks a dude in the face in Vegas!” Yet on the phone, he's well-spoken and thoughtful, like a seasoned session musician instead of a precocious punk rocker just entering his mid-20s. He has the knowledge of someone who's spent years in the trenches without losing the fiery temperance befitting his age. He also has a slightly unconventional method to fueling his creative fires.
“Most of the time I just take a walk,” Reatard says. “I walk, like, four or five miles a day, and I write the songs in my head while I'm walking. I can't really sit down with a guitar and write a song. I just write the melody and the chord progression in my head, and then I go home and record it.”
The strategy obviously works, given his voluminous output during the last decade. Reatard recently signed a deal with Matador Records and will soon assemble a compilation of his Matador singles that will be followed by a new studio album in 2009. His music, if not his growing reputation, has increasingly earned him accolades from fans and critics alike. But even if one soul out there views him as rock's savior, Reatard is more noncommittal about his aspirations.
“I never really set any goals,” he says. “I just always thought I wanted as many people as possible to listen to my music before the people listening to it get so far away from who I am that I'm alienated from my own audience….
But, at some point, you just have to give into that. Your audience picks you; you can't pick your audience.”
Jay Reatard performs Thursday, July 31, with Cheaptime and The Sess at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/jayreatard