A little while ago, it occurred to me that the reason I write, or do just about anything, is not because I have something to say but because I’m trying to understand. And sometimes through that process of trying to understand, a few interesting feelings or micro-revelations occur… and maybe, when it’s at its very best, someone somewhere might find some use in observing that process. I mention this because I know, full well, that I was not the closest dude to Jay. I’m not taking proprietorship over his story or suggesting my perspective is anywhere near comprehensive. There are people—his wife and sons and mother and sisters and very closest friends—who can tell the truest stories about what an awesome person he was. I’m just a guy who woke up this morning and realized I’m short one really, really good friend in a time when really, really good people can on bad days seem like an endangered species. I’m thinking about Jay. And when I think, I usually write.
I think Jay would like to know that I got this disclaimer out of the way: he could be one cranky bastard.
I came to love him for it, and watched over the years as he integrated that crankiness into an endearing way of being and seeing the world. Because, much larger than his cynicism and grumpiness was the fact hat he was a big, bloody-hearted lover. A real softie. A totally sentimental sap lurking inside that six-foot-whatever tower of man-vibes. I liked watching him manage these energies because, in so many ways, I struggle with similar phenomenon. We once had a conversation about that song “Feel The Pain” by one of his favorite bands, Dinosaur Jr. There’s that lyric, “I feel the pain of everything/Then I feel nothing.” Very simple, yet it says so much. Jay got that; so did I. The more I knew Jay, the more he seemed to be feeling everything rather than nothing. It made me aspire to be more like him.
It’s hard to know which memories to share when trying to characterize a good friend. I usually just start with the first thing that comes to mind, hoping the memory is arising for good reason. Jay came to see me in New York a few years back. I’d broken up with my fiancé and was living in a roach-infested box in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a forty-five minute subway ride from just about anyone I knew. It wasn’t the best of times. Jay was on the upswing after a rough patch, with a new tattoo on his forearm, and by the time I picked him up at LaGuardia, I was so sick I could barely swallow. When I smiled, my facial muscles felt like shattering glass. Everything ached. But here was Jay, in town for two days, and I intended to show him a good time without letting on just how horrible I felt. How do you complain about illness to Jay, after everything he’d already come through?
It was just the two of us, checking out the city, the record stores, a couple museums, mostly just walking and talking. He was raving all the while about the Detroit band Protomartyr and, as it sometimes happens in New York, when we checked out the evening’s entertainments we learned that they were, in eerie synchronicity, playing in a matter of hours. We got there just in time. It had been a while since I’d watched a band standing beside Jay. He did that tall-guy, white-dude head-bob-to-the-beat thing; he raised his beer when the songs really got going. Always a loudmouth on the verge of heckling, he hooted and yelled encouragements at the band. They were great; for the duration of their set I could swallow without wincing. They may have seemed even greater (I may have temporarily felt better) because Jay was enjoying it so much. “The crowds here get into it more than Detroit,” he said; which was weird, because New York crowds are stereotyped for their disaffection. Maybe everyone was feeling Jay’s excitement. He loved music in a special way and got obsessed with things. Anyone who knew him will tell you about it. It was impossible not to think about his health when I was around him. That night he was strong, energized. We went back to my box and listened to more records.
I measured his health by the strength of his bone-crushing handshake. As we said goodbye at the end of the weekend, he gave me the old Jay knuckle-crush. Once he was home, he sent an odd email telling me that my erratic city driving needed to stop; that I was going to give myself an aneurysm. It was true. I’d been driving a beaten-up Ford Focus to New Jersey every day for work, negotiating what must be the worst rush hour traffic in North America. As an operator of moving vehicles, I’d lost any sense of control. I have many stories about my rages of the road—Jay must have intuited how far gone I was. It touched me that he’d notice, and send a note. He was the last person to be worried about, of all things, a buddy’s driving. I was nearly befuddled. But if Jay was telling me to chill, I supposed I should. I moved to the country shortly after, a decision made partly as result of that email. It was my time to leave the city.
I soon confessed to Jay that I’d been sicker that weekend than I let on, that my flu had required antibiotics, and I apologized for my lack of mojo. He said that he’d not been feeling well, either. A few weeks later, he told me his cancer was back. We’d talked about a lot that weekend, but very little about his illness. He seemed to aspire—at least around me—to keep life in the moment when it came to all that. And he seemed good at it. Laughing, bullshitting. Bopping his head to Protomartyr. I’d been so in-my-head at that time, he inspired me to do what I had to do to bring things back to the present tense. That, by the way, was another tune he liked: “Present Tense.” (Although he told me he’d disowned Pearl Jam once they got in bed with The Target Corporation.)
Jay and I made some music together. Many who’ve played with him knows he could be a “band-breaker.” He’d come in hot and lay down a whole lot of sweet bass and then get bored and quit, but never before a trip to the recording studio. He loved recording, and reading about bands recording. Like anybody who loves recording, I don’t think he was ever satisfied. You go in with dreams of big, fuzzy analog tones and come out with whatever happened once the tape rolled. Actually, I think he may have been happy with the Whiskey Tenor EP he made with some of his best friends and fellow residents of 5525, a flat in Dearborn. Also his last recordings, Watershed Council, which finally documented his own music, are wonderful and hard for some of us to listen to. Who’d known he had such a good voice? It’s good stuff because it’s honest, just like the guy himself.
In my mind, Jay was kind of the good-ole’-boy among our clique of friends. Grew up downriver; always had a dog (even when he lived with two other dudes in a smoke-hazed flat); drove trucks; worked with his hands; loved his flannel; had little tolerance for the fancy-pants, artsy-fartsy stuff (even though I think he secretly liked some of it). In 2003 our band was rehearsing in a stone, cabinlike house he was renting on Whitmore Lake. The music we made in the basement is some of the best I’ve done. There also were nights after gigs when things got smeary and I’d wind up sleeping on the couch. One morning I awoke in considerable hangover pain to a full-spread breakfast Jay had prepared. He’d already walked the dog and gone to the store. The eggs were fried. The coffee was going. “Get up, boy,” he was saying.
I am admitting here that I despise three foods above all others, and those entries are, in no particular order: pork, eggs, and mushrooms.
Jay’s entrée featured at least two of these, pork and runny eggs, and possibly also the mushrooms. I also tended to avoid breakfast altogether, especially after a night of drink. But was I—by comparison a fussy city-boy type—going to turn down this man’s hospitality? I suspected he’d hold it against me eternally; worse, I feared I’d hurt his feelings. I scarfed that slimy plate of eggs-and-ham as fast as I could, washing it down with sips of water when he wasn’t looking. Only those with strong aversions to certain foods will believe me when I admit to gagging, focusing my mental energy on keeping down these masticated proteins on this most hungover of mornings.
Sometime later, my revulsion for pork-and-eggs became known to him.
“What about that morning I made you breakfast?” he said.
I explained my reasons for suffering through his cuisine and he said, “Ah, shit. You should’ve thrown it to the dog.”
But years later he wrote me about something or other and while doing so recalled that time I gagged down his eggs. “That’s the kind of man you are, Hoen.”
I’m not sure this ranks among the highest of high compliments—a man willing to gag down some eggs out of politeness—but it brightened my day to know that this somehow touched Jay. Maybe he saw something decent in me that morning as I sat shivering-with-hangover at his table, while he seemed strong as a horse and ready for the day. Anyway, it was a tiny anecdote we shared, and I’m sharing it now because it says something about Jay, or what he means to me. It’s one of a hundred or so I could tell.
I’ve lost some people very close to me. It took me years to realize that most friends, even the best of friends, don’t necessarily know what to do around death. There’s sometimes not much to say, so people say “anything you need,” and because so many people say it, you think it’s just a line. Just words.
When my dad died shortly after my sister had passed, I fell apart a bit. I wasn’t answering the phone for a few weeks. But Jay, that bastard, kept calling every day and leaving messages on the answering machine (I’d been protesting cell phones). “I’m not going to stop until you pick up,” he’d say. He began to sound annoyed. I was even getting annoyed back at him. But as years wore on those nattering messages came to mean so much. A lot of people say, “Whatever you need.” Jay wouldn’t give up until I’d dragged my ass out of the house and made some music with him.
He also once told me that he thought of me every time he passed that wretched funeral home on Michigan Avenue where both my sister and father were once displayed. No one had ever said that, or really even mentioned their passing once the memorials were over. Now, when I pass that terrible place, I think of Jay thinking of me, and I feel a little better. I can’t describe how much it means to me.
He was like that, I guess.
A sometimes-crank who’d shock you with his compassion. He had the nerve and the heart to breach uncomfortable lines, to say those important things many of us intend to say but never do. At one point, he was in a rough spot—as we all are at some point—and called me most nights for a week or two. I was not the closest guy to him, but for some reason I was someone whom he felt could hear him about a few difficult matters. I was taking these calls in back of that roach-box apartment, standing on a concrete slab surrounded by razor wire. It was weirdly peaceful; for both of us, I think. If any good has come out of some of the unpleasant things I’ve gone through in life, it’s that sometimes good friends can sense that I’ll be able to comprehend the depth of their feeling. I was never going to give a guy like Jay advice—it’s never about advice. I was just able to listen, and I’m pretty sure that meant something to him. For all he gave me, I am so glad I could give him a little bit back, however small it was. I can still hear the sound of his voice those nights.
I’m probably leaning into the heavy feelings on a heavy morning, but what people will probably remember most about Jay are the good vibes and the smiles and jokes and what a warm, sincere human he was. He always had a way of tripping me out of my moodiness, sometimes by way of pissing me off. He liked to get under my skin just enough to get us laughing. He took it well when you gave it back to him. He was a funny motherfucker, and I doubt he’d want anyone crying for him too long, though I’m sure there are many who will.
I wish I knew his kids better. Based on my few observations and the gleam in his eyed when he’d talk about them, he was the kind of dad I wished I’d had. Rock solid and fun and devoted and also tough in a way that I’m not sure young people are getting so much anymore. He could never stop talking about playing music with those boys. I never knew Jay to want to “make it” or get his music heard, really. I think it was all about being in a room with people he loved, chasing sounds, having a moment. I’m glad I got a few with him.
One last thing:
Not too long ago he sent me audio of the isolated vocals for “Under Pressure” (the Queen/Bowie collaboration) and said it brought him to tears. He was, as often happened, astounded by the beauty of music. I confess that I couldn’t listen to it all the way through; I didn’t really want to come to tears that day. Today, I’m going to play that track and think of Jay, his love of music and family and friends. I’m going to think of his wife, Shannon, and his boys, Levi and Truman, and his best friend, Drew, and his mother and sisters, and all his other friends. I’m sure a lot of people are playing songs and thinking of Jay today. I’m not one who thinks we humans are equipped with the hardware to comprehend what happens when our bodies and neurology cease to function, but I know that, in one way or another, the energy we generate here resonates on-and-on, in ways we can’t understand. When it comes to Jay, I feel nothing but goodness and I hope to pass it on—some of that sweet, cranky love—whenever I can…