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Not Retiretarded, Barely

April 30, 2008

Tuesday morning, in a blog post titled “Retiretard,” garage-punker Jay Reatard announced that he is quitting music. While later admitting it was a joke, the post made reference to Reatard’s recent fracas, centered on an incident earlier this month in Toronto, when he punched a fan in the face. Of course, it was all filmed (and then looped for hilarity) resulting in a viral video and flurry of online discussion (ahem) that could definitely turn one’s thoughts to an early retirement.

Reatard, who got his start as a teenager in the late ’90s with his sloppy, ferocious bedroom recordings, has been steadily gaining fans–such as including Bradford Cox of Atlas Sound and Deerhunter, another Southern musician made good who has, like Reatard, been pegged as something of a bad boy by the indie press. In the last two years, Reatard has toured relentlessly with his backing band, released a collector-baiting 7-inch series on Matador Records, performed at big-time indie showcases such as SXSW, and is slated to play the upcoming Pitchfork Festival.

Along the way, even before the Toronto punch-out, Reatard has had several clashes with audience members. Another online video, from a Las Vegas show late last year, caught a man climbing onto the stage, bumping into Reatard, and getting a swift double kick to the chest. Meanwhile, in classic punker fashion, Reatard played on without missing a beat. In an interview from October 2007 on the Turn It Down blog, Reatard explains yet another fight–this time during a Memphis hometown performance at Gonerfest (an annual showcase for Goner Records, a label that released much of Reatard’s earliest material). Detailing the incident, he claimed the fan–apparently angry about Reatard’s use of acoustic guitar for his set–threw a drink at him. In response, Reatard decked him in the face.

“Some of those people cross the line,” Reatard says in the interview. “They think they own musicians, they think they own a band and if the band changes they take it personally. [I]t’s really strange. I can’t relate to it. If a band I like change into something I don’t like, I just stop listening to them. I don’t go to their show and throw vodka in their eyes.”

Of course, such altercations between musicians and fans have a long, oft-revered history in underground rock. Compared to the legends surrounding Iggy Pop or G.G. Allin, Reatard’s on-stage fisticuffs have been pretty mild. Still, when heading out to the Black Cat for his show last Saturday, Noise was definitely ready–hoping?–for a skirmish. Instead, it was a subdued and perfunctory evening.

The first surprise was that the show actually occurred on schedule, meaning Noise–assuming a late start thanks to Baltimore-bred notions of “punk-rock time”–missed both opening groups, Cheap Time and the Shirks. In a prescient indicator of what was to come, Jay Reatard and backing band launched into the set with a mere mumble of introduction.

The performance, which suffered from woefully submerged vocals, was heavy on songs from Blood Visions, including standouts such as the title track, “It’s So Easy,” and “My Shadow.” Between songs the band remained tight lipped, expertly chugging through the set list like fluffy haired automatons, with only the briefest of respites and no effort to engage the audience.

For its part, the large-ish crowd was strangely mellow and seemingly content with polite pogoing and mouthing–not singing–along. It wasn’t till midway through the very last song that a small, lackluster circle pit opened up in front of the stage. Before the last notes rang out, much of the crowd was headed off to close bar tabs or to queue up at the merch table. Eerily, people expressed more excitement in buying t-shirts than they had in seeing Jay Reatard perform. All in all, it was a deflating evening–an otherwise good set done in by the detached band and disconnected fans.

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