A Few Words About Ryan Adams, The Writerby Joseph Riippi
The promo for Ryan Adams’ 2004 record Rock N Roll arrived manila-enveloped in the college radio station P.O. Box. Immediately, a friend called Jensen and I took it to the coffee shop where we both worked and let it play start to finish on the employees-only back porch. We smoked Jamestown cigars we’d been saving for the occasion and drank espresso. Our boss hung his head out the window, listened to a few bars, and declared that he still liked Heartbreaker best.
Rock N Roll was, after all, not the Ryan Adams record that college radio station audiophiles like us had expected. Jensen and I had fallen in love with Adams via the final Whiskeytown record, Pneumonia, and taken the solo LPs Heartbreaker and Gold as continued affirmation that this was a songwriter we would be listening to for the rest of our lives. He was not our Beatles (that was Radiohead) and he was not our Dylan (that was a combination of Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain). But Ryan Adams was someone whose greatness we certainly would hyperbolize to our children one day, the same way our fathers did Van Morrison and Neil Young.
“Gram Parsons,” Jensen would want me to say.
When the tour for Rock N Roll came through D.C.—the closest actual city to where we spent our undergraduate years—I abandoned Jensen in order to see a movie in Colonial Williamsburg with the art history major whom would eventually become my fiancée (the Adams song “When the Stars Go Blue,” off the Gold record, is in the running as a first-dance song for our wedding). I’d seen Adams twice before, touring for albums I’d liked better. And I heard this following story from Jensen, when he called me late that night. I was walking the two miles home from the art history major’s sorority house. Peach, our mutual bartender-friend, had taken my ticket:
Okay, so after a fucking great show Peach and I are sitting at the bar upstairs and Ryan shows up and sits down a couple seats away. I’m about to try and buy him a drink when this super-skinny and nervous guy comes up to him with a pillowcase. They were selling Ryan Adams pillowcases at the merch table, Joe, pillowcases! So this guy tells Ryan how his little brother has the flu at home, how he couldn’t make the show, and how it would be amazing if Ryan would, like, sign the pillowcase for him to take back to his brother. And Ryan just thinks this is like the coolest fucking thing in the world, and so he gets a Sharpie from the bartender and proceeds to write the sick kid a letter all across the front and back of the pillowcase. It must have taken 10 minutes—he just kept writing and writing. So naturally Peach and I find the skinny guy with the pillowcase later and he’s just beaming he’s so fucking excited, and he shows me this long, like, stream-of-consciousness Dear Abby advice column on the pillowcase, all about what to do when you’re sick, like what Ryan used to do when he was sick, and what books the kid should read and why, and what video games to play and why, what metal bands to like and why, just all this shit. It was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen a musician do for a fan. God I love that guy. And the show rocked.
Is this it?
Born in Jacksonville, N.C. in 1974, Adams fronted the alt-country band Whiskeytown when he was still a teenager. He’s released a stream of records since, but his commercial breakthrough came in 2001 with the record Gold and single “New York, New York.” At a time when videos still made a real impact for an artist, the video for “New York, New York,” was shot on September 8, 2001 and featured Adams playing an acoustic guitar on the Brooklyn waterfront, the Twin Towers serving as postcard-blue-sky background. A song not especially patriotic, it nevertheless featured the line, “I still love you New York,” and became a kind of national anthem when the video was released. What’s more, the album cover featured a denim-clad Adams before an American flag a la Springsteen. No one seemed to notice the flag was upside down on the Gold cover—an international symbol of distress.
For years, Adams drank hard and partied hard and smoked hard and rocked hard. (As Neil Young said, “It’s better to burn out than rust out.”) And while Adams’ musical output has earned him a loyal following—myself included—the inconsistency of the three years after Gold set him up as an incredibly polarizing artist. There was Love Is Hell, a pair of EPs almost universally panned for not being the “New York, New York” follow-up everyone wanted; Rock N Roll, the crunchy pop-punk album that seemed a kind of satire no one got but Adams himself; and Demolition, a hastily assembled disc of cobbled-together demos that would be all but forgotten if not for the tracks “Desire” and “Dear Chicago.” For non-fans, Adams was a one-hit wonder that just wouldn’t go away. And to fans, he was a guy who just needed to learn how to self-edit better. (Jensen’s words).
Despite releasing three more full-length records in 2005 alone (one of them a double-album, too) Adams is rumored to have several more records in the can (including a song-for-song bluegrass cover of The Strokes’ Is This It). It’s not hard to believe; writing semi-profound notes on pillowcases and changing his style with each successive album has always seemed to come easy.
But most artists find their own voice or style by mimicking their idols first, and then, usually over time. The “tragedy” of Adams’ inconsistency may be that he found success before he found his own voice; he found success in an image that wasn’t his, and kept trying to change.
Rats in cages
About a year ago, Adams announced through his website that he was taking an indefinite hiatus from music due to an inner ear issue and desire to spend more time at home. (Jensen emailed me the link to the announcement that day, with a subject line saying: “There’s no way a guy like this stops writing. He’d go insane.”)
Jensen was right. Although Adams released a few digital singles through a website before the holidays (as of the first draft of this writing that same site redirects all visitors to a Haiti earthquake relief fund), 2009 saw the release of two robust poetry collections from Brooklyn’s Akashic Books: Infinity Blues and Hello Sunshine.
I approached these books with a great deal of anxiety. I did not expect to like them; singer-songwriters have released collections of poetry before, with generally anticlimactic results. And while it’s tempting to cite Leonard Cohen as a success story example, Jensen was quick to point out that Cohen was a poet-turned-songwriter, not the other way around. Even for some of the best lyricists, it seems that taking away the instrument is akin to taking away the power of their words. Billy Corgan’s Blinking with Fists was a national bestseller, but nothing in it approached the energy of his singing “Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage.” And I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t rather listen to Paul McCartney sing “Blackbird” than read his collection, “Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics, 1965-2001.” I brought up Bob Dylan to Jensen as a notable exception, to which he replied, “Yeah, but that’s Bob Dylan. He’s an exception to everything.”
Infinity Blues is a very difficult and dark book. To read it is to descend into nearly 300 pages of not so much poetry but a written record of catharsis. The opening lines to the title poem: “nobody is going to be able to save me / and i AM going to die / but not old / and not slow / but suddenly / in a flash.” The book is full of these short line negations: nothing in Infinity Blues is, but rather it isn’t something else. Likewise, the book isn’t good, and it isn’t bad. Like those post-Gold records, Infinity Blues is defined by its isn’t-ness. The difference is that, in this case, that seems exactly the point.
As Ryan Adams the musician, Adams could only satisfy the demands of his fans and critics by not ever satisfying himself, never getting to the heart of it all. But in recent years, Adams has cleaned up, quit drinking, gotten married, and more or less settled down. The relative leveling-off of his most recent records, Easy Tiger and Cardinology (released with now-staple backing band, The Cardinals), seems to also indicate a self-satisfaction that complements the more stable lifestyle. And while Jensen and I still look forward to a new Adams record or digital single, it’s not with the same excitement we once did. Consistency means we no longer expect to be surprised, and so we’ve stopped being so interested.
After Gold, people wanted honesty and sincerity from Adams; we wanted the Neil Young quality found on Heartbreaker and the Whiskeytown records. It’s there in Easy Tiger and Cardinology, but not to the same degree as those early records. It wasn’t until I opened Infinity Blues for the first time that I found Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams again. It was in the foreword: “Once in a life, if a person chooses to go through these things, then maybe the act of writing them down could be a gift, so that others might know that should they suffer their romances or their love of things, they’re not alone.”
If Jensen and I ever wondered what the real Ryan Adams sounds like, we needed only look to this foreword, in which he proclaimed, “I no longer know the author of this book,” and then read what came after.
The line to see “Ryan Adams in Conversation with Mary-Louise Parker” at the New York Public Library reached halfway around the block and obstructed the entrance to the F train. Passers-by kept asking, “What are you waiting for?” and the response, “Ryan Adams is doing a poetry reading,” got a few blank stares. The reading and conversation, hosted by the NYPL and Akashic Books, was a few weeks prior to the release of Hello Sunshine, the counterpart to Infinity Blues. If Infinity Blues was “the tar black shit” of rock and roll living (Adams’ words that evening), Hello Sunshine was the joy of having lived through it.
Hello Sunshine features the same short lines and free-form verse as Infinity Blues, however, the content is opposite. In Hello Sunshine, things not only are, they are better—all that negation is past (“It’s nice to be away from all those mirrors,” he writes). What we discover of this new Ryan Adams are poems like “Nonsmoking Dream”: “water-skiing in a cosmic void / baby / now THAT / is a nonsmoking dream / also / hot librarians doing stuff / in knee-high socks” and wonderful little similes, like the sun being compared to a “loud boss” rising from the ocean.
In “Plus Dreams,” perhaps the best poem in the collection, and one Adams read at the library that evening, he describes his newfound hold on life: “nothing goes as fast as / this / whatever this is…words guide the fastening / of a bushel of new days / plus dreams.”
Whatever “this” propelled the writing of Hello Sunshine, there is no “tar black shit.” Watching him read at the library that night, my fiancée whispered, “He looks so much happier than I remember him.” Later, reading at home, I couldn’t help but be happy for this new Ryan Adams. He had found a voice.
About a month later I took the BoltBus to D.C. to give a reading from my new novel. I met Jensen for a night of drinking and catching up after, and I brought a copy of Hello Sunshine as a thank-you gift for letting me crash on his couch. I knew he already had Infinity Blues; we’d both pre-ordered the limited-edition signed copies when Akashic first announced them over a year ago. But as we’d had little to talk about with the latest records, we hadn’t ever discussed the book. The days of saving special cigars and savoring that first listen seemed a long time ago.
“Oh man,” he said, laughing when I handed him the poems. “I never got through the other one. I was hoping for pillowcase ranting, and instead it was so fucking depressing. I’d given up on him.”
“Don’t,” I said.*
*NOTE: As of this writing, Adams’ website alludes to a new heavy metal project, Orion, which has garnered a bit more anticipation from Jensen and me, if only for its name. Memories of his 2003 punk project, The Finger, and their album We Are Fuck You, have us both wary and doubtful—but that’s not to say we don’t check his website for updates every other day.
JOSEPH RIIPPI is the author of the novel Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! (Ampersand Books, 2009). New writing can or will be found in Ep;phany, The Bitter Oleander, KNOCK, La Petite Zine, PANK, and others. He lives in New York, where he is finishing his MFA.