The phone call interrupts dinner around 6 p.m. on a Thursday. It's my girlfriend's birthday and our meals have just been served up at her favorite Italian restaurant. Normally, I wouldn't answer at a time like this, not even for my own mother. But the picture of B Jay pops up on my phone's screen, his arms outstretched like Mr. Bill when he's about to get squashed. I have to answer.
For the last nine months, Benjamin Jay Womack has been soldiering through terminal lung cancer that has spread to his brain, liver and God knows where else — at the age of 34. I answer, expecting to hear his voice on the other end asking for a ride to get something to eat or a pack of cigarettes. But it's his roommate Jessica. "I had to put B Jay into hospice care today," she deadpans. "His hips gave out and he's having a hard time walking. We're filling out paperwork with a social worker right now and B Jay wants to know if he can put you down for power of attorney." I answer yes, envisioning the worst-case scenario as a wave of denial sweeps over me.
One year ago, the man best known by his stage name Bobby Ubangi was a rebel without a pause, partying like a rock star and working as the grouchy door guy at the Drunken Unicorn off Ponce de Leon Avenue. Long considered a mascot of sorts for the Atlanta music scene that nurtured such bands as Deerhunter, Black Lips and Gentleman Jesse, B Jay was a founding member of Carbonas before he got kicked out because he didn't like to practice. He went on to play guitar and sing in such local garage-punk outfits as the Lids, the Gaye Blades, and Bobby and the Soft Spots. "B Jay is omnipresent around here," says Jared Swilley of the Black Lips. "He's been around forever."
Despite his notoriety, B Jay has only released a couple of singles over the years, and one Lids album back in 2004. Never one to take life too seriously, he had long since earned a reputation as a perpetual slacker. When the We Fun filmmakers came to shoot their documentary in 2007, they focused on Ubangi as a character who personified the scene. But B Jay got serious about his life, and his music, when faced with his death.
Following his diagnosis, he was battered with radiation, chemotherapy and steroid treatments, causing his slight, 5-foot-9 frame to alternately expand and contract. His brown hair vanished, then reappeared blond, and finally grayed. Doctors gave him six months to live. That was nine months ago.
"I'm supposed to be dead by now," he said as he shrugged his shoulders a week before entering hospice care.
B Jay's life has consisted of a series of hard knocks revolving around abusive women and chemical excess, yet he never fails to see humor in his predicaments. He often recalls details about ugly breakups that left him bruised and stewing in jail. Those scuffles were most eloquently chronicled when his band the Gaye Blades penned the song "Bobby Is a Lover," in which Swilley, who served as vocalist/bassist in the group, sings, "Bobby is a lover but his girl is a fighter and they can't get along with each other."
Swilley recalls being an 8-year-old kid the first time he saw B Jay bumming around his hometown of Conyers, skateboarding on a local half-pipe. B Jay was nearly 10 years his senior, so the two wouldn't become friends for almost another decade. B Jay had grown up in Covington before losing his mother to interstitial pulmonary fibrosis when he was 10. After that, he moved to Conyers to live with his dad — who was killed by a stroke when B Jay was 23. That's when he started playing guitar. "I was living by myself, so I bought a guitar out of boredom and learned how to play it roughly," he recalls.
Meanwhile, B Jay survived off of the grid, ritualistically pawning and buying back his guitar while working crappy bar jobs. Before he was diagnosed with cancer he was a misanthrope whose chemical consumption, flippant ways and dry humor were legendary among the local music scene. He once argued for a week about the proper pronunciation of the world oil, calling it "ohhl." That same week he called me a sissy for drinking a Blue Moon beer, saying, "That shit has coriander in it. Do you even know what coriander is?"
Swilley and B Jay eventually became labelmates on Die Slaughterhaus Records. While Swilley was busy touring with the Black Lips, B Jay stayed close to Atlanta with the Lids, banging out trashy pop and raw girl-group fuzz and melodies. He never had touring ambitions, and one of the few times the Lids did go on tour, they broke up somewhere in the Midwest. Later, Swilley and B Jay formed a short-lived country group called the Buddy Band, named after a diabetic Jack Russell terrier B Jay owned at the time. "We played one show at the Drunken Unicorn and covered ‘Johnny B. Goode’ for half of the set," Swilley says. "It was awful and everyone left."
The ragged punk strumming, harnessed later by B Jay in the Gaye Blades and in the Soft Spots, lent character to his musical mistakes and reflected his way of life. It was all underscored by the black heart tattooed on his left bicep proclaiming him a "Bad Boy." Only after realizing that his time was limited would he become focused.
One night at the Drunken Unicorn, before cancer loomed large over his future, he read aloud from a chapter in Moby Dick, curious to get a second take on the subtext. In the passage, the gang of sailors are celebrating after killing a whale. Then they start to antagonize Pip, the character in the story who symbolizes purity. They pester him to fetch his tambourine so he can play and dance for them, demanding: "Rattle thy teeth, then, and pound away; make a pagoda of thyself." That commandment, "make a pagoda of thyself," puzzled B Jay. Were the sailors encouraging Pip to cut loose and make a spectacle of himself, he wondered, or were they mocking Pip's chaste ways of treating his body as a temple.
It seemed trivial at the time, but it soon came to resonate within B Jay's own life.
After his diagnosis, many of B Jay's friends feared he would sink into a deep depression and drink himself to death. No one expected he'd take the clean and sober route. The only habit he's kept is smoking, since doctors told him that the damage to his lungs is already done. A drop of alcohol or a hit off a joint, however, could cause a life-threatening seizure. "It took something like this to put the brakes on me," he admits. "I have cancer, and I cannot drink, period. I cannot do drugs anymore, unless I want to kill myself. Why do it that way if you're going to do it at all? It woke me the fuck up."
With that awakening came a renewed spark to write and record his music. Within a month of his diagnosis, Rob's House issued a Bobby and the Soft Spots 7-inch, followed by a Bobby Ubangi split single with Bay Area joke-punk band Personal and the Pizzas. Another single followed via Douchemaster. Finally, Rob's House released his first full-length LP, Inside the Mind of Bobby Ubangi, last month.
The record sums up his life as a musician, and, like his personality, each song is a beautiful mess of smoothed-out mistakes and bedroom recordings. His warped voice warbles over primitive melodies in "That's Alright" and "Not My Fault," reminiscent of both Ohio Express and the Ramones. The album features a smattering of players — including Swilley, King Khan and Gentleman Jesse Smith — adding riffs and rhythms. "Musically I had been leaning on a lot of people rather than doing it myself," B Jay says. "Before, I was more concerned with being the party guy and not getting much done. With this record I wanted to show people that I could do this by myself, but I also wanted to highlight how much I rely on my friends."
Not everybody gets to use their craft to ruminate on their impending death, but B Jay was able to record a definitive work that reflects on his life and times. "Everyone has to face death sooner or later, and I've learned that life is really an off-the-cuff sort of thing,'' he says. ''One day you wake up and think, 'I'm not going to be around for another week.' Other days you wake up and feel great and just sort of go with it."
The 12 songs on the record were captured whenever, wherever and with whoever was around when the four-track was rolling. "I needed to do this record," he says. "I had this nagging feeling of racing against myself to get it done while I can. Now I feel like I've cleaned the clock, and I have not picked up my guitar since we stopped recording. I did it, and for me that's a major accomplishment."
Rob's House owner and former Gaye Blades bassist and Soft Spots guitarist Trey Lindsay points out that even though the new songs are still ramshackle, they are an evolved effort. "I can tell you from our time together in the Soft Spots that when B Jay had four chords together the song was done, and there was no second look," says Lindsay. "But with his solo stuff, he thought about the instrumentation and how the vocals should sound with the chords. A lot more thought went into the recording process, and the songs really benefit from all of this."
It's been two weeks since B Jay went into hospice. When he's not in bed watching movies, he gets around in a wheelchair. Because of his frail physical condition, he won't play anymore shows, but a benefit concert will be held at 529 on July 4 to cover his funeral expenses.
Following his diagnosis, B Jay developed a phobia of cremation, and the idea of being embalmed doesn't appeal to him, either. Instead, he's opting for a "green burial" at a monastery near Conyers. The procedure is basic but carries a price tag of $4,000 to $6,000.
It's a depressing affair to plan one's own funeral, but it's a task that B Jay has approached with the same resolve he applied to the creation of his final album. "Making funeral arrangements stresses me out, but I take my time with it mentally, and realize that I can't fix everything in a day," he continues. "Whether you're religious or spiritual or not, some things are out of your hands. In a situation like mine, you just have to bide your time. It's the uncertainty of life that makes it so beautiful, but it's also what makes it so torturous."
Correction: B Jay spent the last two weeks of his life in hospice care. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated otherwise.
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cool sunnys :)
This is great!