THE OTHER “NEW YORK, NEW YORK”: Ryan Adams’ accidental anthem for a stricken city

The cover of Ryan Adams' second solo album, "Gold," released Sept. 25, 2001. By tragic coincidence, the album's lead single, "New York, New York," dropped Sept. 11, 2001.

The cover of Ryan Adams’ second solo album, “Gold,” released Sept. 25, 2001. By tragic coincidence, the album’s lead single, “New York, New York,” dropped Sept. 11, 2001.

The jarring image of an American Flag turned upside down on the album cover,  and the single “New York, New York” (no, not that one) that graced singer-songwriter Ryan Adams’s second solo album, “Gold,” were both mere (some might say awful) coincidence. So was the release date of that aforementioned single: September 11, 2001. The video for the single, a valentine to Gotham whose refrain was “I’ll always love you, New York,” featured many exteriors of the city, including its most prominent and (in retrospect) iconic visual backdrop: The Twin Towers. The video had been shot only four days before that terrible day of destruction and terrorism. At first, Adams was opposed to performing his new single, or airing the video, apparently not wanting to seem as if he was capitalizing on the tragedy. But in spite of Adams’s effort to downplay it — or have it vanish altogether because the sentiment seemed, well, sentimental and instantly outmoded, as if written from another world (which, in effect, it was) — the single, with its classic rock groove and rootsy warmth, became a kind of  healing balm.  A solemn dedication to all those who had lost their lives on 9/11 was soon added to the video, whose imagery immediately became far more poignant and powerful than anyone could have imagined.

In the weeks leading up to the album’s release on September 25, I  interviewed Adams for what was to be a front-page music profile in The Boston Globe that, essentially, was to serve as an introduction to this promising, yet already accomplished, 26-year-old musician who seemed on the verge of breaking big into mainstream music consciousness. By the time of the interview below, our paths had crossed before and we knew each other, if only professionally. I had already interviewed Adams twice (in 1997 and 2000, respectively) for both The Boston Phoenix (as part of a larger essay piece on the mid-1990s rise of so-called “Alternative Country” music) and for my music column in the Boston bi-weekly nightlife magazine, Stuff@Night.  My first piece was focused on Adams’s work with his acclaimed “alt-country” band, Whiskeytown, who were, at the time, riding a rising tide of critical, if not commercial, momentum. For well over an hour, Adams and lead guitarist, Phil Wandscher, had amiably cracked me Budweisers on their tour bus parked on Lansdowne Street outside Bill’s Bar in Boston, where Whiskeytown were headlining that night, and talked excitedly about what they were up to and where they, and rock & roll, were headed.

 The next time I caught up with Adams, Whiskeytown was no more, and he had just released his stark, gorgeous solo debut, “Heartbreaker.”  Adams was in good spirits, hopeful about the future, proud of his music, but prickly about his old band’s breakup and disparagingly (perhaps strategically) dismissive of Whiskeytown’s well-regarded collaborative catalog (and a recorded legacy his future solo work would inevitably always be compared to). In 2001, the last and final (so far) time I caught up with him, by phone from his home in Nashville, Adams was his typically canny, contrarian, and self-consciously provocative self. But the guy gave great quote and had a lot to say about topics both serious and silly. But neither he nor I could have possibly imagined what was soon to come. If we had talked only a week or so later, I imagine the content of our conversation would have been dramatically different. So I guess in a sense, this piece below was also, in its way, a dispatch from a different time, and a world that would never be, or feel, the same again.

The first rule you need to know about twenty-six-year-old songwriter Ryan Adams is that there are no rules. Not when it comes to the kind of music he makes, not when it comes to conventions about how, where, and when he makes it, and not when it comes to assessing what it all means – or doesn’t mean, such as the case might be. The second rule you need to know about Ryan Adams is that he reserves the right to change his mind about any and all of the above at any  time.

Taciturn, sentimental, contentious, effusive, brash and facetious are just a few of the words that begin to describe the Jacksonville, North Carolina-born musician, whose personality is, perhaps out of necessity, as mercurial as his music. In conversation, Adams is a bundle of canny contradictions that begins with his simultaneous love of  pop orthodoxy and a firebrand punk spirit borne in direct opposition to it. He’s an intuitive yet calculating artist who dismisses his press as so much “kitty litter” (“For me to be interested would be a bit like staring in the mirror for hours on end”) but who mugs – and mugs exceptionally well – for the camera. He’s a prolific songwriter who insists that his new, just-released disc, “Gold”, is merely “what naturally came out next” but then says he put a prior album’s worth of material on hold because “it was very sad, and I covered sad last year.”

Back in 1997, while still with his celebrated but doomed alternative country band, Whiskeytown,  Adams said he felt heartened by the prospect of people wanting to be “moved” again by good music and honest songwriting. Last year, after Whiskeytown had imploded amid internal squabbles and soured record deals (the band’s label, Outpost, had been a casualty of a massive industry merger), Adams said he didn’t care who was moved by his music anymore. He chalked up his earlier comments to youthful indiscretion.

“I don’t know what I was talking about back then – I was just a stupid kid,” said a dismissive Adams at the time. “I wanted to prove something. I wanted to win the rock and roll game.” His job now, he said, was to “make the best record I can make” regardless of who might –  or might not – be listening. Those who were listening heard “Heartbreaker” (Bloodshot), an achingly lovely, downcast solo debut from a romantically wounded but creatively kindled artist who had left lost love in New York for new beginnings in Nashville and come up with one of the year’s best records in the process. The disc  landed Adams rave reviews (including one by new pal Elton John, who called it “the most beautiful” album of 2000), sold-out shows, and fashion shoots for GQ magazine.

“Gold”, Adams’s second solo album and his first for the new Nashville-based Lost Highway label (an imprint that’s being distributed through Universal Music), will do little to quell the swell of momentum and industry buzz that’s been building around him since, well, as long as he’s been writing songs. In fact,  with “Gold”, interest in Adams  – and what he may do next – has   suddenly soared. The new disc feels as simultaneously familiar and unpredictable, as personal and universal, as its subject.

“Gold is a record about being in love,” says Adams, on the phone from Nashville, where he spends a good part of his time when he’s not in living either in New York or Los Angeles (he says he’s “bi-coastal” these days). “I think (Gold) sums up what it was like for me to be enthralled with the world and reinvigorated when I moved to Hollywood and fell in love again, and just my world changing.  Thank God for the budding and closing of love, you know? It does change the way that you feel and sense things. California does that to you anyway. It’s a very nurturing place.”

For a core but growing group of fervent listeners, Adams’s unabashed embrace of traditionalist country, rock, and pop styles – and his equal devotion to classic songcraft and doing things his own way  – makes him the heir apparent to a legacy of musical icons that includes Gram Parsons (to whom he’s most often compared), Neil Young, the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, and lately, “Blood On The Tracks”-era Bob Dylan (one need only listen to “Damn, Sam {I love a woman that rains}” from “Heartbreaker”, or “Nobody Girl” from the new “Gold” to feel Bob’s presence). His fans and collaborators have included Gillian Welch, the Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, and Parsons’s old duet partner, Emmylou Harris.

And yet until now, this wholly accessible songwriter with a fetching twang of a voice, tousled good looks, and potentially sizeable mass appeal has remained a cult artist who’s just  beginning to break into the realm of the mainstream. “Believe it or not, man, I’m an incredibly un-famous person – people do not know who I am,” says Adams. “I can walk into any Harris Teeter, or any grocery store anywhere in the country and trust me, I’ll have no problem.”

That may not be the case much longer, says David Avery, former Triple-A columnist for the music industry trade journal, CMJ New Music Report, and now president of Powderfinger Promotions, a Boston-based music promotions company. “We know it’s possible to make a mainstream breakthrough with this kind of music – we saw it with Lucinda Williams,” says Avery. “He has the potential to do it. If he keeps himself sober, I think he can do it. It’s funny – he actually seems to have gained more notoriety since he left Whiskeytown.”

Adams’s combination of youth, notoriety, and “a very American” sound, Avery says, is a potent alchemy. “The fact that he’s on the edge – the fact that he’s a reckless talent – there’s a rock and roll attraction to it, there’s no getting around that. You’re always rooting for him, and he’s starting to prove himself as a songwriter. Is there room for a male Lucinda Williams? We’ll find out.”

On “Gold”,  Adams continues to expand his voice, blurring, bending and borrowing from myriad sources and inspirations. From “New York, New York”, the breezy, bustling valentine to that city that opens the album, to Adams’s Van Morrison-esque vocal inflections that wrap like a velvet cloak around “Answering Bell”, to the Gershwin-styled strings-and-piano ballad, “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd” that closes the disc, “Gold” is a work that travels even further than “Heartbreaker” did from the narrow, often confining   “alternative country” world from whence Adams, and Whiskeytown, sprang. In effortlessly traversing genres, Adams appears to have finally freed himself of them.

“I have always been interested in lots of different kinds of music and I think all the Whiskeytown records, when you look back on them, up to my solo records, have always been influenced by songwriters – meaning Tom Waits and Randy Newman and Gram Parsons. And yeah, all of that’s country because those are real songwriters,” says Adams. “But there was always Bob Mould in my music and there was always post-punk, and I think there was always some Johnny Thunders and Rolling Stones.”

Luke Lewis, president of Lost Highway, grew up with Parsons in Jacksonville, Florida. “I don’t know if I would have discovered Whiskeytown as early as I did if there weren’t those references there,” says Lewis, 54, whose roster also includes Lucinda Williams, among others. “What makes this album peculiar for somebody my age is that sonically, it’s just totally comfortable for me. It seems as if young people, at the moment, are having an affinity for the kind of music I grew up with.”

“I’ve never tried to escape any genre,” says Adams, who talks with equal, animated  enthusiasm about the virtues of the apocalyptic metal group Slayer and blues singer Billie Holiday (he counts Alanis Morissette and the Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris as his two biggest inspirations). “When they thought that I was part of that (alt-country) movement, I went ‘okay, whatever. Maybe I am.’ I don’t know. I don’t categorize … I’m so tired of hearing people whine and bitch and moan about (genres). It’s like, you know what? Shut up and play your music. You almost want to tap ‘em on the shoulder and say ‘you’re just a dude who writes songs on acoustic guitar in your bedroom. You’re not that important’.”

What is important, Adams says, is exploring and exploiting  the opportunity he’s been given to do this for a living. Adams likens his approach to that of a  runner with a rigorous training regimen, which in part explains his manic work ethic. Besides “Gold”, he’s also finished recording what he claims will be a “loud and beautiful” album with his rock band, the Pink Hearts (due out, he says, in February or March early next year), as well as polished off another record he’s dubbed “48 Hours”, which Adams says he made in a blur after being inspired at an Alanis Morissette concert. Oh, and he’s also done some writing since then.

“I really like the idea that if you’re an artist, then you should double up the amount of work that you would normally have, because you’re being (bestowed) with a dream. I’ve worked on houses and built new plumbing and had really (bad) jobs. I’ve worked my ass off  – it was hard – and if I’m going to be a musician, that’s a pretty big responsibility. That means that I get  excluded from the working class – I better have something to show for it. So I’m writing silly songs, and I tend to write a lot.” At the same time, he adds, “there’s a lot of time and effort that goes into cultivating a song for the world to hear besides yourself. It’s a scary prospect. It’s not easy opening up to a very cruel and unusual world.”

Adams says last year’s solo tour – his first since the demise of Whiskeytown – was a pivotal turning point. “It was liberating. I needed to have (an identity) outside of that band,” he says. “It was impossible to see who I really was with me being in that band because I was just accepting the responsibility of a job I didn’t wanna have. The main issue was letting people know who I really was – that in truth I was actually a light person on stage and not very heavy. I guess it can get heavy because my songs are pretty sad, but mainly I’m just a big goof ball and I don’t take it that seriously.”  He amends the remark. “I don’t take myself that seriously. I take the song seriously.”

“I was glad to do that tour to let people know that I was an okay person,” he continues. “There’s a lot of talk about me being a big (screw) up and a drunk and a hell-raiser, but to be honest with you, I work all the time. There’s not a day that I’m not working like hell on music, or else I couldn’t get the kinds of things that I do done.”

Still, Adams claims he occasionally dreams of someday returning to a 9-to-5 job: “I don’t think I’ll be able to do this forever. I think at some point, I’m going to want to work down the street in a shop and just type on my typewriter and be a normal guy. Hopefully,” he says, “I’ll have gotten over all of this.”

Watch the video for “New York, New York,” from Ryan Adams’s album, “Gold,” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hmHgY_J63Ik

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4 comments

  1. I remember how strange the timing of all of this was, like a weird tapping into the universe kind of thing…Same with Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags” and “Jesus , etc”.
    You really painted an interesting picture of (what appears to be) Ryan’s complexities. He has written and recorded some great records both solo and with WT. I loved the quote about his work ethic…I have a lot of respect for an artist with that attitude.

    Great read Mr. Perry

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a remarkable set of circumstances in a story well told. Peter

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks John and Peter. Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags” and “Jesus etc.” are indeed great examples of how strangely coincidental art/rock/pop/music can be (is this art imitating life, or the other way around?). I also recall (and plan to post) the release of The New York City band Interpol’s debut album around that time — I recall listening for maybe a month or so to advance EP tracks of the album, so perhaps I’m a tad off with its proximity to 9/11 — but it was an album so steeped in NYC Gotham imagery and city life; it was a dazzling and romantic depiction of an experience that, in a matter of hours, had changed forever. Lastly, re: Ryan Adams: love him or hate him, the guy gave great quote and was always an articulate, quick-witted interview, and a songwriter dedicated, and even obsessed, with perfecting that craft and art. I agree he has built a very sturdy and occasionally brilliant body of work this past decade. Thanks for both your comments!

    Like

  4. Reblogged this on RPM: Jonathan Perry's Life in Analog and commented:

    Filtered through the narrow, isolated, and entirely subjective lens of an interviewer and his subject going about their respective businesses 15 years ago, here’s a retrospective look back to the days before, and immediately after, that devastating, shock and sorrow-filled day of September 11, 2001. I remember waking up to blue skies and a bright, gorgeous autumn morning in Massachusetts much like this one today, with another story to write (about the indie-rock band Beulah) and another appointment to keep (bringing my preposterously fuzzy cat, Memphis, to get her annual haircut). The next thing I remember is glancing at a small television set propped in a corner of the pet store with a handful of other people and watching, in the span of a few minutes that seemed to stretch and yawn into a horrifying forever, my and our reality ripped apart. It was all so sudden, so jarring, yet so utterly unbelievable that it seemed at first to be a nightmarish optical illusion; as if my own eyes and mind had conspired to play a terrible trick on a David Copperfield-esque scale of epic malevolence: an act of reducing a magnificent city glinting in the sun with life and people to a mountain of grey ash, smoking rubble, and extinguished lives. Of course the terror, incomprehensible as it seemed, was awful and real. And just like that, the meaning of everything and everyone inhabiting the world — the world itself, in fact — irrevocably changed. Life right down to our collective humanity and heartbeat felt impossibly fragile or already corrupted, destroyed — our worst selves causing us to be warped grotesquely beyond human recognition. Fifteen years later, I wish I could say that fateful morning feels like a lifetime ago. But a heavy heart always meets the memory of the violence, suffering, and loss visited upon us. Perhaps that’s a good thing as we go forward, live out lives, and pause to look back. If history has taught us anything, it’s that memory, and the lessons we can learn from it, is everything.

    Like

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