Directors Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz originally intended to create a short film when they followed Memphis punk rocker Jay Reatard (born Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr.) around his hometown in the spring of 2009. But when Lindsey unexpectedly overdosed less than a year later, the filmmakers fleshed out their work with interviews of his friends and family, resulting in the touching, accomplished feature documentary, Better Than Something. The film screened February 28th in Atlanta and began its first theatrical run on March 2nd, hitting several U.S. cities throughout the month.
Lindsey spent several pivotal months living in Georgia’s capital city in the mid-2000s. The liner notes of his 2006 album, Blood Visions, read in part, “Recorded July – December 2005 at Carbonas Headquarters (Atlanta GA)…Mixed at The Die Slaughter Apt.” The final credit in the brief thank-you section goes to “Atlanta folks.”
Lindsey first started recording his feral punk rock at the age of 15, and by the time Blood Visions was released, he had been doing it under more than half a dozen different band names, co-founding a pair of record labels and touring Europe in the process. But it was during those months in Atlanta, when his latest and most serious project to date, The Lost Sounds, was going through a particularly nasty break-up, that he turned his attention toward the solo career that would find him flirting with the mainstream for a time before his tragic passing.
Lindsey’s connection to Atlanta dates back to a night in 2004, in a Memphis warehouse space. Alix Brown of Atlanta punk band The Lids was on the road with her friends the Black Lips, who were on their way to play the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. “There was some weird chemistry, I could tell, but I was ending a relationship at the time so I kept it short. Jay [eventually] got my number somehow and called me asking for my address to send me some posters for a show. Then, his story changed to him coming to stay with me in Atlanta cause he wanted a break from Memphis. I told him I would show him around when he was here. I knew something was going to happen after that.” She and Lindsey began dating, and he moved into the apartment she shared with Die Slaughterhaus label founder and Lids bassist, Mark Naumann, and Black Lips bassist, Jared Swilley. It was in that very apartment where Lindsey would begin work on Blood Visions, while tensions would arise between him and much of Atlanta’s underground rock community both inside and outside the residence.
His move was serendipitous in that both he and his new roommate Swilley were in the early stages of working with Los Angeles garage-punk imprint, In the Red. For reasons unknown to Swilley, Lindsey called label founder Larry Hardy and told him not to sign the Black Lips. “He claimed Cole [Alexander] was a thief and was gonna try and rip him off,” Swilley says. “We ended up joking about it years later. It was weird, our relationship with him. We’d always butt heads and get in fights, and the next time we’d see each other, everything was cool.”
His conflicts with Atlanta musicians were many at first, and they were inspired by anything from good-old fashioned rowdy behavior to outright dislike. There was the time he snatched a bandana from Tuk, lead guitarist for glam rockers the Heart Attacks, and tossed it onto the roof of local rock dive, Lenny’s. At one of his first shows at that same venue, he got “insanely drunk,” and the show’s promoter, Ben “Bean” Worley, had to knock him out. Other times, his actions were a direct result of begrudging admiration or envy. “At first I thought [Deerhunter frontman] Bradford Cox and Jay were going to kill each other,” Brown remembers. “It was like a battle of the egos.”
Other times still, it was more personal, like when, fresh to Atlanta and now dating Carbonas singer Greg King’s ex-girlfriend (Brown), Lindsey attended a Carbonas show, yelling out the headlining band’s name (Baseball Furies) during the quiet pauses between their songs. “We were like, ‘Fuck you, guy,'” says former Carbona Jesse Smith. “We knew who he was because we had all his records, not that that made us not think he was an asshole at the time.”
Smith, who now performs primarily under the Gentleman Jesse moniker, dedicates his forthcoming album, Leaving Atlanta, to Lindsey. As is the case with many local musicians, Lindsey and he eventually reconciled, even if the peace was often temporary and easily disturbed. Swilley speaks warmly of the night Swedish rockers the Hives came to town for a show at the Masquerade. He and Lindsey took them to local strip-club novelty, the Clermont Lounge, after the show. “I don’t remember much of it, so it must’ve been pretty good,” Swilley laughs. Eventually, Lindsey, along with various Atlanta rockers, attended science-fiction, fantasy and comic-book extravaganza, Dragon*Con. Sporting a zebra-stripe shirt, Lindsey urinated all over a restroom stall. Black Lip Cole Alexander, dressed as a scantily-clad viking, was escorted from the convention for “getting caught stealing the beer,” according to a security guard, only to smooth-talk his way back in. The whole gang harassed a man in a Stormtrooper outfit until he forced his way out of the elevator car they’re sharing. A grainy, ridiculous, 11-minute YouTube clip documents the madness.
Lindsey’s time spent in Atlanta was largely focused on his work, though, and that work was largely Blood Visions. In addition to the guitar parts Swilley says he heard him working on in his bedroom, Lindsey reached out to Dave Rahn, Carbonas drummer and record producer. Lindsey came to the Carbonas practice space – which now houses a fine-dining steakhouse – to check out Rahn’s gear and to hear what projects he’d been working on. He’d go on to record all the drum parts and one guitar part for Blood Visions there. “The fucked up thing was that he recorded all of the drum tracks from the songs in his head, never needing a scratch track or any frame of reference as far as tempo goes,” Rahn says. “Still one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. He knocked most of the songs out in one or two takes.”
Fast forward about six years, past Lindsey and Brown moving back to Memphis together and eventually breaking up. Past the release of Blood Visions and its subsequent introduction of Lindsey’s career to a much bigger world. Past a tour with Carbonas and fellow Atlantans Beat Beat Beat. Past a label bidding war and his eventual signing with Matador for what would be his final full-length album, Watch Me Fall, as well as a series of 7-inch singles, one of which would find him trading cover songs with Deerhunter and posing for the cover shot with Cox in bed. Lindsey’s career took off in a fairly big way, as did the careers of his Atlanta friends in Black Lips and Deerhunter.
Better Than Something ends on Lindsey, rocking in a porch swing, the literal Memphis darkness encroaching around him as the viewer realizes the figurative, existential darkness is also not far off. He’s discussing how much time he’s got left in this world, and it’s a painful, prescient moment to watch. “When you die young, it’s almost like a curse, but it’s a benefit to your vision, you know?” Worley says over beers at Manuel’s, an Atlanta watering-hole institution located about half a mile from the apartment Lindsey shared with Brown, Swilley and Naumann during those heady days several years back. “You never have to compromise your values. He did it his own way. It’s almost like he knew he had a short amount of time. Like he had that in his mind.”