Been there, got the T-shirt!

draculaOne of the best results of writing “Losering” has been to introduce me to a boatload of great people all over the world, fellow Ryan Adams superfans whose enthusiasm for his music manifests itself in lots of really cool ways. One of those fans is Thom Bennett — a gentleman and a scholar who was kind enough to send along the last T-shirt from his latest batch, which is emblazoned with four of the alter-ego names that Ryan has used over the years. Here I am posed with it on. This is a followup to his previous shirt (see below), which I have to say is pretty genius.

Thanks, Thom!

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George Lawrence, fare thee well

GeorgeL.jpgWriting is a mostly solitary pursuit that involves a lot of what Stephen King (among others) calls “ass in chair time.” But there are times when other people do enter into it and leave their mark, especially when they turn up at a particularly opportune moment. That goes for George Lawrence, a former News & Observer co-worker of mine who passed away in his sleep Monday morning at age 58.

Not quite six years ago, I was slogging through the obligatory horrible first draft of “Losering” and doing what one does: trying to convince myself it would be worth the agony while dealing with the usual cocktail of insomnia, insecurity, self-loathing and various other emotional goodies induced by book-writing. In the midst of all that, I bumped into George at a Neil Young show in Durham that I was reviewing for the paper.

I hadn’t seen George in a while and we got to talking about Ryan Adams, who he’d known well enough to be one of his local party buddies back in the day. And as soon as he found out I was writing a book about Ryan, George perked right up and provided just the dose of enthusiasm I needed to get over the hump. George wound up being one of my best sounding boards as I worked to wrestle “Losering” to the ground, which earned him a place of honor in the “Acknowledgements” section on page 202:

A special few went truly above and beyond the call of duty: Dean Dauphinais, Tracy Davis, and George Lawrence for being extra eyes, and voices of enthusiasm when I was at my lowest ebb.

rsglLong before all this, George was an N&O fixture by the time I got there in 1991, holding multiple editing and managerial jobs in the newsroom. What I remember most about George back then was him being the life of the party at out-of-office gatherings or pickup softball and basketball games, always quick with a quip and a backslap.

Eventually he left journalism to go into PR and consulting, but it was a choice he seemed to regret. I’d hear from him intermittently, and he’d talk wistfully about how much he missed writing and wanted to get back to it. He’d send me the occasional piece of rock memorabilia, too, like this vintage framed Rolling Stones album cover (which I’ve got hanging on the wall right next to my record collection at home).

George did have his struggles in recent years, and he was in and out of the hospital repeatedly with a lot of health problems. But he’d still pop up now and then on Facebook, to lob a song lyric my way or ask a question about some band or other. Several times over the past year, I had the thought that I really ought to check in on him; right now I’m feeling a little guilty for not making more of an effort to follow up.

Of course, if George were here, I expect he’d brush that off with a self-deprecating joke — or maybe he’d drop another lyric. His last words to the world on his Facebook page came a few weeks back, a quote from the late great Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt’s epic of betrayal “Pancho and Lefty”:

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Somewhere in the great beyond, I picture George seeking out Townes to have a word about that.

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Putting the anger in “Strangers Almanac”

Last night, I threw out a very silly (even by my standards) status on my Facebook page:

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Lots of folks replied with variations — “laughter in manslaughter,” “fun in fundamentalism,” “punk in punctual” and even “bomp in the bomp bomp bomp” — which made for some fun back-and-forth. But my favorite response by far came from Phil Wandscher, Ryan Adams’ old left-handed guitar foil in Whiskeytown, who made reference to his former band’s 1997 magnum opus:

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To that I say: Amen.

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Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner” as canvass

andyaaronartMy eldest son Aaron is really good at a bunch of things I’m pretty terrible at, like writing poetry. And where I can’t hardly draw a straight line, Aaron is quite adept at drawing, too, rendering semi-surreal figures that look like outlines for the sort of paintings that Chris Mars has done over the years. In this, I think Aaron might take after his uncle, my brother Andy Menconi, a crackerjack multi-media artist and musician (whose heartbreakingly adorable daughter Cleo is also a rising star).

Anyway, Aaron dashed off a sketch inspired by the cover of Ryan Adams’ upcoming album Prisoner (based on the alternative apple version) and gave it to me for a Christmas present, and I really like it. So before framing and hanging it, I took a picture, which is below. At right is what it looks like on the wall alongside a few of Andy’s cartoons; Aaron did the two on the bottom.

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Ryan Adams on the record for his record

drainstagramprisonerA few days before Ryan Adams’ next album was to be released on its original Nov. 4 street date, word got out that it had been postponed for reasons unknown. Eventually, Feb. 17 was set as the new D-Day. But that didn’t stop bootleg versions of Prisoner from leaking out and showing up online in early December. By now, Prisoner has been heard and discussed enough that I decided to go ahead and publish my take on it, even though the album won’t be “officially” released for close to two months. My feeling is, no harm no foul — if someone still hasn’t heard it, wants to wait and keep their listening experience untainted by anyone else’s opinion, well, my review is certainly easy enough to avoid.

It’s worth noting, however, that Ryan himself strongly disapproves of this whole business of Prisoner being in premature circulation. Right around the time that Prisoner’s songs began appearing online, he published a plea via Instagram imploring people to wait and buy the thing when it actually comes out. But given the rabid loyalty of the DRA fanbase, I doubt the leaked version of Prisoner will cut into his sales too much; the people listening now will probably be the first to buy it as soon as it becomes available. And while I have some sympathy for Ryan’s viewpoint (especially since I’ve been bootlegged myself), there’s still no un-ringing that bell once something is out there.

Anyway, below is what he had to say about it.

HEY EVERYBODY 
I know you can stream this record 
I don’t know to stream records, personally 
BUT
It’s worth it to buy this. It’s worth it to buy a record you can hold, so you can feel it exist. So that you can have a moment with that record in a room. So it can age with you.
MOST IMPORTANTLY!!! It will help us get shit tons more lasers, keep our crew and band paid, keep us on the road 
And because RECORDS MATTER!
ART MATTERS! THERE IS HOPE THERE. It’s a place for us to dream togeher.
But no matter what, no matter how you listen… Thank you. You’re the smartest, most unpretentious, sweetly brash misfit toy bunch of fans an unsophisticated spazz like me could ask for. This thing we built, YOU guys, these songs, our crew, the bands… It’s a blessing. It’s the MOST metal sad music is ever gonna get. And I am gonna be here with you Til I can’t do it anymore. We need this shit back home right now and I’m ready to throw down and bring the dream. LETS DO THIS!
#PRISONERTOUR2017 
Maybe I’ll have that custom Strat done by then ; ) 
Maybe even than custom pedal!!! ; )

I LOVE YOU PEOPLE
XO

Happy Holidays: PEACE 
RA

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Ryan Adams shivers and shakes again

drapI think it was this past March when I decided once and for all that I was finally over Ryan Adams. It was after seeing him play at South By Southwest, the first show of his I’d seen in more than a decade and one where I went in expecting an emotional experience. But it really wasn’t. I mean, it was fine — and that’s all, just fine. Yeah, there were a few tug-at-the-heartstrings moments for us old-timers. But most of it felt like a lunch date with a long-ago ex where I had to finally admit that my fond old memories were nothing more than that, memories, and so far in the past that they just weren’t relevant anymore.

The whole experience seemed like a signal that Ryan really had moved on, and I should do the same. That feeling deepened a few months later when Ryan was in the papers excitedly describing his upcoming album as an unholy cross between AC/DC, ELO, BTO, The Smiths and Bruces Hornsby and Springsteen, which sounded like it would be another record along the lines of 2014’s stillborn Ryan Adams (an album I found to be a true test of faith). Then I heard its first song, “Do You Still Love Me,” which gave no cause for optimism. So I had zero expectations when an advance copy of Prisoner came my way a few weeks ago. My plan was to give the album just enough of a listen to dismiss it well in advance of the Feb. 17 release date, chalk it up as one more to ignore and get on with my life.

Except…

…somehow, against all odds, Prisoner is actually really, really good. Not just good but great, the best album Ryan has managed in well over a decade. I’ve been binging on it for weeks now, too, and it’s holding up. All of which makes for a turn of events that I find, well, shocking. It’s not that I thought Ryan no longer had greatness in him — his 2014 one-off single “Jacksonville” still stands as frustrating proof that he has all along — but that I had resigned myself to the fact that he’d never do another album that rang my bell the way he did with those old Whiskeytown records I wrote about in “Losering.”

Ryan being Ryan and me being me, it should come as no surprise that I have a minor quibble or two. Regrettably, the funereal “Do You Still Love Me” remains in the album’s pole position as track number one (although that does make it easy to skip — bonus!). And man, do I still wish he’d give the ’80s-sounding reverb a rest and put that voice God gave him all the way out front more often, dry and unadorned. But that aside, Prisoner is fantastic and evokes a vibe similar to Ryan’s dark 2003-2004 masterpiece Love Is Hell.

Love Is Hell emerged from some profoundly heavy real-life trauma, including the 2002 cancer death of Ryan’s girlfriend Carrie Hamilton. Similarly, the end of Ryan’s marriage to Mandy Moore casts a long and despairing shadow over Prisoner — and the context makes all the sense in the world. I initially found Ryan Adams to be a turnoff because of its musical blankness, but that actually proved to be a good sonic fit for what we now know about Ryan’s emotional state when it was being made (Ryan and Mandy reportedly separated some time before their split was announced a few months after the release of Ryan Adams). In retrospect, 2011’s Ashes & Fire now sounds like contentment with a slight tinge of complacency, leading to Ryan Adams’ depiction of scenes from a dying marriage, with Ryan coming around to the realization that he’d been going numb over time without even realizing it. His subsequent Taylor Swift 1989 tribute felt like a wallow in the depression of it all; and now Prisoner is the equivalent of pulling a scab off and letting the wound underneath air out. From “Broken Anyway”:

It was broken it was fake
I just close my eyes and shake
Last chance before it slips away
Throw it all away
Can’t go back again, what was whatever it became?
Whatever we were, we’ll still be together in some ways.

It’s hard truth and it hurts, but it feels like action borne of clarity and focus. Ryan sounds more like himself (or the person this listener imagines him to be, anyway) than he has in years. The album’s overall tone is subdued but with a few interludes of release and even catharsis, like the thunderous dive-bombing guitar solo that ends the album-closing “We Disappear” — which dissolves into the sound of faint laughter, supposedly from Mandy Moore herself. “We Disappear” seems like an acknowledgement that it isn’t either individual who is disappearing, but the life they had together.

Was I wrong, am I still?
Nobody gets it
And nobody ever will
You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change
We disappear and we fade away.

I think my favorite part of Prisoner falls right in the middle, tracks five and six, starting with “Shiver and Shake” — which has a quietly murmuring, drive-all-night momentum similar to Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. hit “I’m on Fire.” Ryan’s narrator imagines seeing his love with someone else, “laughing like you never even knew I was alive.” And he sounds shocked, not so much at the pain as the realization that he’s still capable of feeling this much pain. Oh, so this is what that feels like… “Shiver and Shake” fades into “To Be Without You,” spare and stoic and graceful, with lyrics that feel like a chunk of his heart carved out and set to music.

Everything you lose will always come find its way out
Every night is lonesome and is longer than before
Nothing really matters anymore…

He sounds utterly bereft yet also matter-of-fact about accepting his lot, seemingly believing it’s what he deserves — and it crushes me every single time I hear it. I just want to give the poor guy a hug and a mug of hot chocolate. Damn, Ryan. Come home sometime and the cocoa’s on me.

I really hate to say this, because it’s not a burden I would wish on anyone. But… Ryan really does seem to be at his best when he’s most forlorn. That is emphatically the case for Prisoner, an album I still can’t quite believe exists — one with real emotional stakes, that really does feel like life or death. I’m blown away.

And just like that, I’m back in love.

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“Madonnaland” — Rolling Stone digs it, too

“Madonnaland: And Other Detours Into Fame and Fandom,” the wonderfully quirky Madonna quasi-biography penned by the great Alina Simone, is shaping up as one of the most acclaimed books we’ve published with the American Music Series. On the heels of year-end honors from National Public Radio, “Madonnaland” has earned a spot in Rolling Stone’s “10 Best Music Books of 2016” list — alongside Bruce Springsteen’s memoir “Born to Run,” Bob Mehr’s Replacements tome “Trouble Boys” and other notable titles. Jason Diamond calls “Madonnaland” a “fuller, weirder and more interesting overview of Madonna than we may have thought possible.” Check the full entry here.

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Chris Stamey’s “New York Songs”

stameystudioLong before I ever moved to North Carolina and met Chris Stamey, I was listening to him in the dB’s, one of my all-time favorite bands. And I’ve loved pretty much all his solo records over the years, too, avidly following his many projects (including his new radio play). So it’s a huge, huge thrill for me to be able to welcome Chris to the American Music Series as our newest author.

University of Texas Press has signed Chris to write a book for the AMS, which he is calling “New York Songs.” Chris describes it as “a cross between annotated songbook, musicology and recording-technique tome, and memoir,” with his songs serving as reference points. And thanks to his time playing with Alex Chilton and various CBGB denizens in Manhattan and beyond, not to mention his current status as one of Chapel Hill’s top studio gurus, Chris has some pretty amazing stories to tell.

If all goes according to plan, “New York Songs” will hit bookstores in 2018.

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Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner” — apples to oranges

When Ryan Adams’ long-awaited new album Prisoner emerges in February, it will apparently be available with more than one cover. The primary cover art seems to be a reproduction of one of his paintings, but there’s also a vinyl version featuring a photograph of an apple that’s seen better days — a Barnes & Noble exclusive, priced at $18.99. That will be available on Feb. 17.

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BJ Barham gives “Oh My Sweet Carolina” a down-home feel

Not sure how the heck I missed this when it initially surfaced last month, but it’s really lovely. Singer/songwriter BJ Barham leads the heavily Whiskeytown-influenced Raleigh band American Aquarium; and in this segment recorded for “Under the Apple Tree,” he talks about and performs a wonderfully heartfelt version of Ryan Adams’ 2000 love letter to his native state, “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Check it out.

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