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Few people laughed harder or more often than Jay French.
Few people laughed harder or more often than Jay French.

Remembering Jay French

It took about a year for me to stumble into the music scene after moving to Milwaukee in 1983. Jay French was already there -- firmly entrenched in that scene -- when I arrived.

He was a member of The Penetrators and had even done a little time before me as one of the many bassists in The Laytons. I think I was last in that lineage, but it's complicated.

Last week, Jay -- who was 46 -- died, leaving behind two great kids. Even if a lot of us didn't see him very often, his passing leaves a hole in the music scene. It's a hole that was once filled by one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet.

It leaves a bigger hole in his family. And Jay's wife Debbie wanted to be sure that I mention, "how proud Jay was of our children, Margaret 11 and Alex 8."

I'm sure Jay had his problems, as everyone does, but I always picture him laughing and even now, as I sit in a quiet office writing this, I can hear his gritty, gregarious laugh.

Jay's good nature is what our mutual friend Eric Beaumont -- who was The Laytons' drummer -- remembers most about him, too.

"Laytons bassists were all the sweetest, most easy-going guys," says Beaumont. "I remember there being some question about playing with or without a pick, and Jay being very good-humored about it. I'm pleased he went on to play with a variety of people who appreciated him."

"Jay was always a joy to hang with or bump into," Mike Benign told me.

"Few people I knew laughed harder or more often -- or was better at cracking up those around him. I hadn't seen Jay in years before running into him and his family at a street festival last summer. In spite of that, Jay showed himself to be the same guy I knew many years before: uber friendly, genuinely interested in what others were up to and then, of course, bringing the laughs. An all-around good human who will be missed."

After The Penetrators, Jay brought his bass and his game face to Dear John, Mean Reds, Daddy Needs A Drink and, most recently, The Money Shot, with his longtime friend and bandmate Brian Rooney and drummer Ignacio Catral.

"After a family and a real job as a letter carrier, Jay and I formed the latest version of the Jay French cover band, The Money Shot," says Rooney.

"The latest project barely gained traction, but never diminished his desire and need to play his songs if front of any size crowd. Anybody would be as privileged and honored as I was to help Jay work out his 'three-chord songs of desperation' -- in his words -- and to play with him live."

You can see some videos of The Money Shot in action on the band's Facebook page.

"Jay was a Lou Reed fan and tried to write songs in a common street language about the darker and bittersweet honesties in life; a celebration of humanity's flaws," his former bandmate and good friend Craig Halstead told me last week. "He never wanted much fame or fanfare, just a true voice of his own."

When I heard about Jay, I couldn't believe it and everyone I talked to seemed equally bewildered. It took me some time to realize why. It's because none of us could really imagine this town without him.

"His passing feels wrong in every way," says Eric, summing it up perfectly.

Jay's wife Debbie will host a celebration of his life this weekend for friends and family at a local park. All she's asking them to bring is a memory of Jay. For those that knew him, that's a pretty easy assignment.

I hope that you'll share your memories of Jay here using the Talkback feature below.

Talkbacks

Robbie | July 10, 2010 at 11:03 a.m. (report)

Somewhere just shy of 30 years ago, back when Debs was still driving her parents' car and Jay was cuddling his 500 lb cat, Thistle at night, he arrived at my parent's house that afternoon to pick me up for a night of hell-raising. Debs was also there that afternoon; there to pick up my sister Barb for a night of adventure. So there it was, in my parent's living room, where Jay met Debs. It took the better part of two years for them to hook up as a couple, but he had never forgotten her or that moment, as he later reminded me. He thought, she was forever incredibly beautiful in that moment! What he failed to realize was, how incredibly beautiful we all also thought he was!

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CarolV | July 8, 2010 at 12:07 p.m. (report)

Wow Bobby this is a really nice blog post. My heart goes out to Debbie and the kids. They are a great family in our 'hood and school. I didn't know Jay real well which is my loss. See you at the event.

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Massaconsin | July 7, 2010 at 7:15 p.m. (report)

I just learned of his passing a few days ago. He was our letter carrier and a nice guy. We're pretty devastated as we got to know him fairly well. Definitely a loss for our neighborhood.

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