Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. died four months shy of his 30th birthday, but packed a shitload of living into a short time on Earth. If he wasn’t playing a show, the man who dubbed himself “Jay Reatard” was practicing or recording with one of the dozen or so bands or solo projects he launched between age 14 and 29. Under the names The Reatards, Lost Sounds, The Final Solutions, Nervous Patterns, Angry Angles, Destruction Unit, and more, Lindsey released scores of singles and albums—some on vinyl, some on CD, and some on handmade cassettes. According to friends, he almost never wrote anything down; he kept songs, schedules, and venues in his head, and given his volatile temper and propensity for substance abuse, that made the whole Jay Reatard enterprise unpredictable. But over his last few years in particular, the songs Lindsey released as Jay Reatard were astonishingly accomplished, merging punk, garage, and new wave in ways that put him at the vanguard of the new power-pop movement.
It was because of Jay Reatard’s burgeoning importance—and the growing body of anecdotes about his onstage antics and offstage anger—that filmmakers Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz were hired to make the short promotional documentary “Waiting For Something” in 2009. They’ve now expanded that short into the feature-length Better Than Something: Jay Reatard, which tries to put Lindsey’s many contradictions into context. The footage of Jay Reatard from radio interviews, concerts, and in-store appearances reveals an angry man, always on the defensive, but in their personal conversations with Lindsey, Hammond and Markiewicz captured a much mellower dude, willing to talk openly about growing up in poverty and coming of age in the Memphis punk scene. That same split persists in Better Than Something’s recent interviews, in which friends, fans, family members, and bandmates describe an artist who was inspiring in his creative drive, sweet in private moments, yet still extraordinarily difficult to be around sometimes.
Better Than Something doesn’t really try to resolve the mystery of how someone could be simultaneously so productive and destructive. (Where did he find the time?) But given how briefly Jay Reatard was in the public eye, it’s a thrill to see so much performance footage in Better Than Something, as well as to hear multiple perspectives on some of the most legendary Reatard antics: ripping down disco balls at punk clubs, biting the head off a pigeon, et cetera. And Lindsey himself offers a lot of insight into why he did some of what he did, citing how frustrating it could be to entrust his musical vision to faulty technology and unreliable bandmates, and confessing that some of his drug binges were his way of destroying his life so he could rebuild from scratch. One of the friends who defends Lindsey’s violent rages shrugs, “Everybody deserves to have their fuckin’ ass beat, at least twice.” The glory and tragedy of Jay Reatard was that he directed those righteous beat-downs at himself as much as at others.