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.