October 12, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
In Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, David Menconi brings the singer-songwriter's early music career to life as well as presenting a biography of the seminal alt-country band and the indie scene of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill in the 1990s.
To the mainstream at large, Ryan Adams' public image is frozen at about a decade ago as a mashup of his "New York, New York" video in front of the World Trade Center, the infamous "Summer of '69" meltdown at Ryman Auditorium and hookups with various celebrity paramours. But there's a deeper and more interesting story about Adams' career, which had its most compelling phase in the mid-1990s – when he was living in Raleigh, NC, and leading the band Whiskeytown.
Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown is set in the prequel period to Ryan's solo stardom, and it tells that story. As a teenage would-be rock star, Adams' swaggering antics were brash, often obnoxious and never dull. Just about everyone who was around the scene in Raleigh back then has at least one Ryan anecdote, usually involving some outrageous stunt he pulled at a Whiskeytown show. The reason people still trade stories about him all these years later is how good the music was. Here's the Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown mix to accompany "Losering."
"Angels Are Messengers From God" – Whiskeytown had only been together a few months when the group recorded its 1995 debut single, a downcast dirge. Highlighted by Caitlin Cary's keening fiddle, "Angels" plumbs the depths of wage-slave purgatory (Ryan was working restaurant jobs at the time) while making a statement-of-purpose manifesto about punks playing country music. One person I interviewed for the book related a conversation where Ryan told him, "I want to start a country band, because punk rock is too hard to sing" – a sentiment repeated in the "Angels" chorus: "So I started this damn country band/'Cause punk rock was too hard to sing." Retitled "Faithless Street," a re-recorded version served as title track to Whiskeytown's full-length debut album.
"Blank Generation" – The best recorded evidence of just how wild Whiskeytown could be remains this cover of the Richard Hell punk landmark, done up as a boozy hoedown taken at about double the tempo of the original. Released on "Who the Hell," a locally produced Richard Hell tribute album, "Blank Generation" is almost impossible to find but well worth tracking down, because it's as gonzo a slice of cowpunk as you'll ever hear. "All right, let's cut this biscuit," Ryan drawls at the end before letting loose a startled-sounding, "Hey!"
"Midway Park" – At the other end of the spectrum is this pure-pop gem, leadoff track to Whiskeytown's "Faithless Street." And while Whiskeytown was undeniably an alternative-country band, there's very little twang on this song. Pathos aplenty, however. Titled after a military-family subdivision in Ryan's native Jacksonville, "Midway Park" is a desperate and beautiful evocation of doomed youthful love. It's a theme Ryan would return to repeatedly.
"Drank Like a River" – As for country bonafides, "Drank Like a River" fills that bill handsomely. Lyrically, it's a "Sunday Morning Coming Down"-style lament, except it's hollered rather than sighed. And musically, the crushing guitars are pure punk. Cary's woozy fiddle, which sounds like a buzzard circling overhead, closes the deal.
"Inn Town" – I was tempted to make the 13 songs on Whiskeytown's 1997 "Strangers Almanac" album this entire playlist, because it's such a perfect summation of Ryan's pre-fame time in Raleigh. And it starts with this downcast rumination about what it feels like to go back to the old hometown and "hang around with the people that I used to be." Titled after an old B-side by Mac McCaughan's pre-Superchunk band Wwax, "Inn Town" perfectly captures the ennui of feeling trapped in your own life despite your best efforts to escape.
"Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" – What should have been the second hit single from "Strangers" (after "16 Days") starts out as an apparently conventional drinker's anthem. But the longer it plays, the stranger it gets. For one thing, the title assumes a foregone conclusion; but the actual lyrics hedge that by changing "while" to "if." For another, the great Alejandro Escovedo turns up toward the end for a one-verse cameo that sounds like a mini-sermon delivered from a couple of barstools over. Stunning.
"Losering" – I toyed with using "Excuse Me…" as this book's subtitle. But I opted for "Losering" because I wanted something more ambiguous. The lyrics are open to interpretation and very spare (repetition of the title accounts for almost half the verbiage, in fact), evoking images of lovers exchanging knowing looks while waiting each other out. My own highly idiosyncratic interpretation is that it's about trying to make a decision and get off the fence, knowing full well that you might have to give up what you have to get what you want. I'd say that's a good metaphor for Ryan's career.
"Hey There, Mrs. Lovely" – The first time I heard Ryan play this was at a stunningly intense solo show in October 1999, and he introduced it as a just-written song "that I absolutely fucking hate." To his consternation, the crowd went nuts. I loved "Mrs. Lovely" so much I went to see him do it again the following night, where he said he should call it "I Have (Continual) Bad Luck With Women." It was just as wonderful and vulnerable, which is probably why Ryan hated it. "Mrs. Lovely" has never had a proper release, but Ryan exhumed and rewrote it as a lazy-sounding rock-star lament called "These Girls" and stuck it onto his 2007 album "Easy Tiger." My heart was broken; but I still cherish the bootleg version I have of the original.
"Jacksonville Skyline" – Over the years, Ryan has talked a lot of smack about his birthplace, a military-base town near the North Carolina coast. But you can try to outrun your roots all you want, and eventually they'll drag you back in. "Jacksonville Skyline" is the sound of Ryan giving in and giving the town a fond remembrance it may not deserve, but who cares when it's this pretty? As wistfully bittersweet as anything Bruce Springsteen ever penned about New Jersey, "Jacksonville Skyline" lopes along like an outtake from Elton John's "Tumbleweed Connection."
"Bar Lights" – By the time Whiskeytown's third album "Pneumonia" was released in 2001, the band was gone and solo careers were underway. "Bar Lights" sounds the perfect parting note. "You feel fine," Ryan croons over rippling accordion and breezy fiddle, "you feel fine." Then it falls apart at the end when Ryan breaks a string. At least they were able to laugh about it.
"Oh My Sweet Carolina" – "Come Pick Me Up" is the song from "Heartbreaker" (Ryan's 2000 solo debut) that got most of the attention. But that album's true centerpiece is this meditation on how far he traveled without really going anywhere at all. Emmylou Harris contributes an angelic harmony vocal on the chorus, and future Wilco member Pat Sansone turns up with a stately piano solo. This really should be The Old North State's official song.
"Dear Chicago" – In 2001, Ryan's not-quite-breakthrough hit "New York, New York" pledged to a former flame that he would "always love you." The bookend is "Dear Chicago," in which he claims he's finally fallen out of love – unconvincingly. And yet it remains one of his greatest songs, betraying a chilling fatalism in which Ryan confesses he'll "die alone and sad." Out of the blue, into the black.
"Lucky Now" – Ryan's past decade has been mixed, with records good (2005's "Cold Roses"), bad (2008's stillborn "Cardinology") and ugly (2005's "29"). He got his groove back with 2011's subdued "Ashes and Fire," produced by Glynn Johns and highlighted by this song. "Lucky Now" finds Ryan contemplating the years gone by and asking, "Am I really who I was?" And this time, he turns toward the light, discovering true love as something that can heal – "But only if you're lucky now."
David Menconi and Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown links:
Blurt interview with the author
Daily Tar Heel interview with the author
Music Tomes interview with the author
Raleigh News and Observer interview with the author
The State of Things interview with the author
UT Press podcast interview
also at Largehearted Boy:
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