Ryan Adams: Saved By R’n’R

Ten Things You (Don’t) Want To Know About Ryan Adams: He spills the beans on his romantic foibles, his phobias and chocolate.

WHAT’S THE greatest misconception about me?” muses Ryan Adams, running a finger back and forth along the edge of his jaw line. “I’m not really sure. Maybe that I’m really not a drama queen. What do you think Johnny?” Adams asks his friend-cum-co-writer and currently human shield, Johnny T. Yerrington, who he has brought with him in this latest conflagration with the press, nudging the tape recorder across the Formica table at the quaintly but rather erroneously named “Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger,” located in the trendy bowels of Manhattan’s lower east side. “What do people think about me that’s not really true?”

“That you’re an asshole?” answers Yerrington, who is credited on Adam’s new album for “Drums and all Complaints.” Reporter’s questions ostensibly must fall under the later category. Adams reaches for the tape recorder, and moves it back in front of him, then announces in perfectly articulated English, as if he is delivering a grave and ponderous oratory, “I believe the greatest misconception is that I’m a jerk,” he says, punctuating the statement by banging the back of a soup spoon against a bowl, before he dives into a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup.

“Nah,” counters Yerrington. “It’s that you’re difficult to work with, that you’re flaky, and that you’re an egomaniac.”

“Well if all of that is untrue – and I stress the word if – what am I like normally?” quizzes Adams, actually seeming quite fascinated by his drummer’s answers in this interview once removed.

“Easy going. A late sleeper,” answers Yerrington, warming to his task. “Generous.”

“Afraid of confrontation?” queries Adams.

“Yes, very non-confrontational, with a rare exception.” Yerrington answers solemnly. But not altogether truthfully, since the Whiskeytown shows of yore, and Ryan Adams’ solo shows are littered with dramatic moments, from Adams flinging monitors off the stage, insulting audience members, to inter-band fisticuffs. Last year he demanded that a London crowd quiet down, only to have them shower him with loud boos and sundry abuse. According to Caitlin Cary, his former band mate in Whiskeytown, such bombastic behavior is not an aberration. “Ryan is hard to deal with and he knows it.”

More often than not, much of the bad behavior stems from Adams’ extreme stage fright, a condition that often forces him to perform with a towel draped over his head, or with the house lights turned all the way down, so he can hide among the shadows. But it’s difficult to reconcile the charming, almost impish and affable man sitting before me with the phobic musician.

“I am shy. In fact there are times I don’t even go out of the house. Shy people react two ways. You either get have a couple of drinks and you shrug it off and say ‘I’m going to get through this,’ and that’s like being on a roller coaster and pretending not to be afraid. Which can come off differently. Or completely closing down. That’s always a reaction of me being unsure,” explains Adams with a grimace. “When I was in Whiskeytown I was so much shyer than I am now, so shy that it was really painful. I wasn’t good at maintaining my own life. I didn’t know how to be responsible about partying or touring. I didn’t know how to say, ‘I’m not having fun, this sucks.’

The only time I was able to do anything was when I was wasted, because I was just so agoraphobic,” he says, taking a deep breath.

“People think he’s out every night getting totally wasted on like a whole cocktail of pharmaceuticals. And he’s not,” Yerrington interjects, attempting to deflect any notion that his friend is indeed still a wastrel. But to his credit, Adams does not want to participate in this abject whitewashing.

“Although that is not sometimes untrue, for anyone who lives in the East Village,” Adams smirks, relaxing for the first time during this grilling, relishing his persona of one of rock’s baddest boys, a latter day Keith Richards, who incidentally recognized the young Adams as one of his own brutish tribe, advising Adams when he opened up for the Stones in 2002 that if he intended to last in this shambolic business, he’d be better served by switching from brown liquors to clear. In return, Adams wrote a paean to his role model, aptly if not imaginatively titled ‘Song for Keith’.

“For me personally I think that the thing that I find the most shocking or weird is that most people think I’m provocative to the point of being controversial about it. And maybe like a little cocky, and I actually believe it or not, I spend most of my creative life being very unsure but very dedicated to making lots of music, because I love that part of it,” he asserts. “It’s all of the psychobabble that comes with it being communicated to other people, that freaks me out, makes me want to internalize, and makes it hard for me sometimes to complete the good feelings of the things that I’ve done because I’m shocked and afraid of the response of other people. And one of the defense mechanisms is to be very tight-lipped or very reactionary.”

“When Whiskeytown stopped, my agoraphobia got more and more increased. And I didn’t go out at all. I’m talking weeks and weeks inside my apartment and never leaving. Maybe going out for cigarettes. But maybe not. When I go into depression the agoraphobia comes back. I just went through that at the end of recording Love Is Hell, and Johnny kind of pulled me out of it and we started playing music together, that’s how we got to Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Adams’ record company, Lost Highway, considers the prosaically titled album the “official” follow-up to the musician’s 2001 opus Gold, discounting both last year’s batch of 13 demos cleverly called Demolition that gave the world the first glimpse of his inner rocker, as well as the suite of songs that makes up Love Is Hell produced by John Porter, who had worked with Adams’ musical heroes, the Smiths. “Love is Hell is like nothing I’ve ever done before,” explains Adams. “And it was something that I needed to do. It’s me totally being me. It was the record I needed to make.”

But apparently not the record that his label needed to release. Lost Highway label head Luke Lewis didn’t exactly reject the 2-CD opus but convinced Adams to go back into the studio and try again, certain that the musician could aim higher. As a consolation for putting the musician through such artistic anguish, Lewis agreed to release Love Is Hell 1 and 2, over the next two months the first instillation coming out the same day as Rock ‘n’ Roll, but it’s the latter record, a rather raucous and willful slice of rock history recorded in a blinding 23 days this past summer that the label is pinning it’s hopes on to return Adams to the aesthetic high water mark of his solo debut, Heartbreaker.

But in true Ryan Adams fashion, there needs to be a twist in his cocktail of life, and he decided he wants to have the script run backwards to read “llornkcoR” as if you’re reading the title in a mirror. But the disc he insists on calling Rock ‘n’ Roll Reverse is anything but backwards, rather it’s a step closer to who Ryan Adams really is. “Yeah, well, I thought it was time to make an album about it was like being in your twenties, since I certainly have spent most of my 20s writing songs like I was twenty years older.” He says.

“This is the most rock thing I have ever done.”

The album’s producer, James Barber concurs. “I’ll admit to being over 30, but even before we agreed to work together, I told Ryan, ‘stop talking to people who are over 30. Stop hanging out with old guys; stop playing with musicians who are older than you are. Start being a kid. And start playing for the kids. Your peers are Jack White and Julian Casablanca. You don’t need to be talking about James Taylor and Hank Williams.”

Ryan took his advice to heart, and produced a record for his best friend the notorious dissolute and former D-Generation frontman Jesse Malin called the The Fine Art of Self Destruction, which the two of them took on the road in what was a rather hedonistic tour de farce, with Adams continually playing practical jokes on the band. He regularly impersonated hotel clerks in various stops along the way, demanding Malin and the rest of the band vacate their rooms sometimes in the middle of the night. “You’re not going to believe this, but I do a very credible English accent, but it’s nothing compared to my Swedish one,” Adams confesses, a propos of nothing.

Following that, the two friends formed a hardcore punk band called Finger. Their first single released on U.K. label One Little Indian ‘We Are Fuck You’/’Punk’s Dead Let’s Fuck’, under the pseudonyms Irving Plaza (Adams) and Warren Peace, initially only putting out a mere 1,000 copies. So after that, it’s not really a surprise that Rock ‘n’ Roll is absolutely nothing like Adams earlier records, neither the stark confessional pangs of thwarted romance of Heartbreaker, or the more uneven but still lyrically scalding Gold. In fact with the exception of the anxious vulnerability of ‘Anybody Wanna Take Me Home’, there isn’t a whisper of anything even remotely resembling country, alternative or otherwise.

Instead this is a much more coherent and focused album, that finds Adams unleashing his more raw and feral instincts as he filters some of the better riffage of the past two decades through his surprisingly nimble guitar playing, making the not-so-arcane music into a trashy rock karaoke of the better-known artists of his not-so-misspent youth, from Paul Westerberg to the mighty Stones. Beginning with his homage to glam rock on the sneering ‘Shallow’, with its ‘Bang a Gong’ intro, to his slab of Stooges and New York Dolls – posturing on the anxious ‘1974’, the song that celebrates the year of his birth; Adams shamelessly pillages both style and content of his forebears that he grew up listening to in Jacksonville, the costal North Carolina military town only 342 nautical miles from the military city of the same name in Florida that spawned those tragic yet seminal Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. But perhaps most importantly, this record does not catalog the intricacies of Adam’s romantic missteps. Instead it glorifies love, or in the case of ‘Burn Your Photographs’, resolutely turns its back on past relationships, having absolutely everything to do with the singer’s relationship with indie actress Parker Posey.

“We were going to name it Steal This, and I wish we had,” say Adams, his eyes open so wide it’s impossible to tell whether he’s telling the truth. But the one thing you can say is that the singer songwriter is nothing if not preternaturally self-aware. “I just thought that sounded great. We actually had three names, the other one’s really crap. It was Diamonds, coked-out name for sure. Diamonds is so coke. And then it was Rock ‘n’ Roll. Then we flipped it. Well, I like our titles to be kind of obvious. I mean, when I get super high and I read the titles of my records, I start laughing really hard. Because they’re like really dumb, like Heartbreaker? That’s fucking funny. Gold is way funnier. Demolition is almost crass, and then Love is Hell and Rock ‘n’ Roll it’s like, come on.”

It wasn’t really as if Adams actually stole the songs, rather it was as if his very being had been taken over by the uneasy and hungry ghosts of rock’s recent past who demanded he give them a second life. And he does, most obviously on ‘Note To Self: Don’t Die’, a song (co-written with Posey) that couldn’t be anything but Adams coaxing Kurt Cobain back from the great beyond; reinventing every primal howl and doomed epitaph of the poet laureate of grunge, turning his ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, into a deft and arresting act of spiritualism as he catalogs the reasons to stay alive. It’s ironic and rather controversial that Adams would even dare to ape Cobain, given that fact he was hamstrung by that early sobriquet given to him by the British press that he was the Kurt Cobain of alt-country. Instead of trying to live it down three years later, Ryan seemingly tried to have fun with it, not only hiring Courtney Love inamorato Jim Barber to produce the album, but also pressing Hole’s former bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur into service, singing background vocals on two of the album’s songs. Although this may be just an ironic ploy to show that Ryan Adams doesn’t see himself as Kurt, as much as he sees himself as Courtney Love, complete with her loutish behavior, public outbursts and still untapped talent.

“I don’t think we have even scratched the surface of Ryan Adams’ talent,” says Jim Barber. “Nor do I think that Ryan had ever made a record to show why he was great. I think it’s almost as if the boy who gave the interviews and the guy you would see live was not the person being marketed through these records. I thought that the guy who people thought was troubled was the interesting Ryan.”

For such a winsome and emotionally angular singer, Adams is oddly sturdy, with a low center of gravity, belying his reputation as ethereal princeling of alt-country. Barely skimming 5′ 7″, he has the well-fed look of a high school wrestler, in his battered jeans, that are an inch or so too short, his ratty striped socks that have migrated down into his pointed brown boots, and navy polo shirt with it’s aggressively pointed collar, much like the kind that were de rigueur on school boys during the last dregs of the 70s. His boyish apparel is a little at odds with his rather postpunk hair, haphazardly hacked at irregularly intervals, that sits like an unruly shrub atop his head. But it’s his eyes – which are as pallid and watery as the faithless heroine in the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, a quality that Adams has often been accused of – befriending and lionizing acquaintances, then discarding them when they have outlived their usefulness, like his former producer Ethan Johns, and more sensationally his girlfriend Leona Naess, who did not take his defection lying down.

Instead the sultry English chanteuse, who had the dubious honor of counting Diana Ross as a stepmother for fifteen years, chastised Adams on her third album cautioning him: “Don’t use my broken heart to pick up girls… yours was broken too.” As if that weren’t enough she made up T-shirts that she sells on her website for a reasonable $17, proclaiming “MY X IS A WANKER!” materially disputing Adams’ claim he is on good terms with all his former girlfriends, which seems at odds with the fact that his first two albums were littered with the romantic roadkill of the breakup of two of his relationships.

“I guess sometimes my songs are revenge, but on the whole I would say that I’m still decent friends with most people I’ve dated if not all of them,” Adams says, tracing invisible circles on the tabletop with the tip of his index finger. “Of course you lose touch. I lost touch with my first girlfriend from North Carolina, but besides that I still know all the people that I’ve dated. You don’t just end it by smashing their window out and spitting on them. I’ve never been like that. I’ve always wanted to call and check in and say hello, and I try to do that regularly.”

But for a such a normal looking guy, Adams has had an impressive string of high profile girlfriends (Alanis Morissette, Winona Ryder, Beth Orton), and his public persona of the wounded minstrel has set fan’s hearts ablaze since he first set foot on a stage, but no one could legitimately call him a victim of love. He claims he never wallows in self-pity but that he’s more of a romantic realist, taking his emotional lumps and stoically moving on, only stopping to send a heartfelt missive to the object of his thwarted affections. “I write the songs for the person who they’re intended for. I don’t really care if anyone else gets them or not,” he says a little stuffily and seems truly offended when asked whether he found that some girls didn’t want to date him for fear of ending up in a song.

“People not dating me because they didn’t want to end up a subject of criticism musically? You’re kidding right? I don’t really think so,” he says, elongating the last word a beat too long, the first indication of the fact he actually was born south of the Mason-Dixon line. “I was in a pretty long relationship and before that I was in a long one as well. There were stopgaps. But I guess I date as much as anyone else. You meet people, you date, and if you’re a writer you write about it. I am able to make sense of things that way. But 95 percent of that stuff turns into conversation between two people and never goes public. It’s stranger to go through those relationships than to write about them. The writing is the easy part.”

As for his reputation as a rock Lothario: “I’m just like anybody. I get in a relationship and I’m like, whoa, and I go through all the dynamics of it and then I have a rock life, and it seems like the perception is that rock life negates normalcy. But actually I think that for me, rock life turns up normalcy. I crave things to be normal more. I don’t crave more drama, because I have it, or more partying, because it’s inherent. I can’t believe we’re getting away with, like, playing gigs every night, living on the road. You always think the dream is going to come collapsing down and they’re going to take it away; because it’s something you want to do. And then sometimes it gets really hard, and your head gets caught in it, and the first thing that I want to do is decompress, and to talk to somebody about something normal like ‘did we send my brother his anniversary gift? Or, do you really think I made a mistake by getting those three spider plants? Who will water them? Things like, are the amazing things for me.”

And apparently for Parker Posey, too, Adam’s current girlfriend. “Hey Parks, babe, it’s me,” Adams breathes into his cell phone. “Did you happen to see my album art,” he asks a little anxiously “Ring me back as soon as you get this.” Within seconds his phone rings, and Adams coos into the receiver giving Parker his location. “We do everything together,” he says a little abashedly. “My girlfriend is my best friend.”

The twosome just returned from Jamaica, where Posey was filming the latest Blade sequel with Wesley Snipes. They were the invited guests of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and were staying in the guest cottages of his palatial digs called Golden Eye, located in the costal town of Oracabessas. The home is renowned because it was once the winter home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming from 1946 until his death in 1964, and where he wrote 10 of his Bond novels. But it wasn’t the pop culture history of the place or even the scent of frangipani that captivated Adams, instead it was the opportunity to confront one of his long-standing fears.

“‘Note to Self: Don’t Die’ began as a list of things I needed to remind myself of,” says Adams, taking a gulp of Cherry Coke. “It was supposed to be kind of funny. I was having an open dialogue with myself and telling myself to remember to do things like: ‘Don’t beat yourself up. Stop being afraid of being different, you’ve always been different. Let yourself make mistakes. Speak to other people the way you’d like to be spoken to. Don’t try to always be in charge.’ Lately I’ve been trying to look for deeper meaning and trying to pay attention to details and trying to let go, but mostly I keep telling myself to go deep and find deeper meaning because it’s easy when you want to control yourself or box yourself to just sort of, like, make most events to be topical and unemotional so that you can escape through them.”

“Like in, ‘sylvia Plath’?” I ask, adding “But you didn’t really escape did you? I suspect that a song is very much like a dream. All the characters in a dream represent some facet of the dreamer, as all the characters in a song are usually pulled from the author’s autobiography.”

“It’s funny you say that,” Adams counters. “What’s really strange is I feel like I just lived a line in that song two days ago. There’s a line in ‘sylvia Plath’ about ‘rain falling fast on the sea,’ and when we were in Jamaica we took a couple of Jet-Skis way out, maybe a mile or so out into the sea. We turned them off and I dove into the ocean. I was really scared because I’m afraid of the deep. And when you’re in it, you’re kind of at the mercy of it. But it wasn’t just about that, it was about the unspecified amount of territory of water between me and the bottom. We were about ten or fifteen feet apart, and then my friend Cliff went in and I went – and that’s like one of my most tragic, biggest fears. I just said, ‘goddammit’ and I just clinched my fists and went in, telling myself, ‘I gotta do this for myself.’ When I went underwater I was like, ‘whoa, this is very heavy.’ And then it started raining on the sea. It made me face myself. I just had on so much armor and so many defenses. It felt good to just have that experience. The thing is I really went deep right after I had written all those things down the day before. All the defense mechanisms that I use to protect myself from being discouraged and disappointed from other people or by other people, and all that was sort of forestalled. It just gets stronger and stronger as you get better and better at using those techniques, and I think that at some point it gets really claustrophobic and I feel like I’m too brainy. I get all germophobic and weirded out.”

“But do you feel that your songs are a cry for help, allowing people in to your private hell?” I ask.

“I’m less public than people think. A lot of it is invented. While these revelations make me seem like a public person, when in fact in my own life very few people know me,” he says stoically.

“Hi,” he says as Parker Posey flounces into the restaurant. And flounce is the operative word. She is tall, preternaturally slender, and has her dark hair cut in choppy shag. Adams leaps up to greet her, taking her kittenish face in his hands and squishing her full pink lips together until they make a comic moue. “Don’t do that,” she giggles, clearly not meaning it. “Ooooo you’re so warm,” she laughs, running the side of her hand down his face.

“I just had a bunch of –”

“Hot sauce in your soup?” Parker finishes, knowing she’s right.

“How did you know?” ask Adams.”

“Oh you’re just so predictable,” she coos.

“Stop it, Parker, that is not nice and is un-called for. One day, baby, you can be famous like me,” he says, knowing full well that she is more famous than he is. Posey, who learned the mandolin for her role in A Mighty Wind (the folk music follow-up of sorts to Spinal Tap) wears the uneasy crown of “Queen of the Indies” bestowed upon her by no greater a source than Time and has appeared in over 40 films since 1994. Posey also had the dubious honor of serving as “Ex-Cute-ive” producer on Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Isn’t that cute,” she groans. “But I really didn’t do anything,” she reveals. “He would just make up the words when the music started playing. And I don’t remember really doing anything, and I certainly didn’t tell him to do anything.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone telling Ryan Adams what to do. His mother, Susan Floyd, remembers her son as a toddler, demanding to be taken out of his car seat so he could examine the trees on their drives through Jacksonville. “I watched him look out the window,” she told the Jacksonville Daily News last year. “I asked myself, ‘What in the world am I going to do with this gifted child?'”

Floyd also goes on to dispute the fact that her son doesn’t have a high school diploma. Although he did drop out of Jacksonville High in the tenth grade, his mother points out that he did return to the area to earn his high school diploma through the G.E.D. program at Coastal Carolina Community College. Although traditionally untutored, the singer is rather an auto-didactic and a voracious reader, and a more voracious record collector, his tastes running from Dinah Washington to Dinah Shore with some Hüsker Dü thrown in for balance. Prior to making this new album, he had plans to enroll at NYU.

“I got some information from the New School at NYU, and nearly signed up for classes before Johnny and I made Rock ‘n’ Roll. I was a payment away from going to four classes,” says Adams. “I was going to take a class on Dostoyevsky. I was going to take a class on urban memoirs – it’s a writing course – French II and a class on the life of Arthur Rimbaud,” he enthuses. “I’ve been taking turbulent rock career for five, six years. And it’s a good one. I highly recommend it.”

But after logging in those hard years, how did Ryan Adams know that he had truly made it? “The day before yesterday I was 21 across in the New York Times crossword puzzle.” He says a little diffidently. “I was shocked, and the funny thing was I didn’t see it myself, friends of mine had and they called. I didn’t call my mom, although Parks told me I should. I just don’t want to bother her with that. Plus I don’t want to hang on to being part of a crossword puzzle, because there’s going to be many more crosswords down the line.”

Tools of the Trade

“I LOOK for guitars that have personality and that have a feel and a sound a little out of the ordinary for the model. It’s usually one made in the second or third year of production that I eventually pick up. Most guitars take a year or so of tweak in manufacturing before I can tell the designer found the weaknesses and flaws and played those faults up to make the model that can really shine.

“I use a ’62 Strat, wood finished, a blonde ’72 Telecaster, a ’74 Telecaster sister model of that in sunburst purple/red, an ’84 Rickenbacker. A Guild acoustic with a hummingbird pickup that I got as a gift. For basses I like the violin neck Ampegs that Rick Danko was fond of in the Band and Fender Precision jazz basses.

“Whew! What a nerd I am.”

© Jaan UhelszkiHarp, December 2003

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