Discouraging words

We all talk a good game and pretend not to care, but every writer (including me) is desperately insecure regarding negative feedback. It comes with the territory when you put stuff out there, and developing a thicker skin is a survival mechanism. I’ve been writing in public for long enough now that it doesn’t bother me much to get bashed over record and concert reviews. There are times when it’s so far over the top that it’s funny — like how worked-up some people got over a John Mayer review five years ago (Seriously, people? John Mayer?). And in 2010, a record review prompted a torrent of rage from people who felt I wasn’t nearly gushy enough. Alas, that review’s online comments seem to have vanished into the ether. But the one I remember best is something I had as my Facebook profile-page tagline for a while:

Who is this David Menconi f—-r?

Still, that’s the dayjob. When what you’ve put out there is a labor of love you’ve poured everything into, you can’t help but feel every jab — even the little ones. “Losering” is still early in the press cycle, and the only “official” review to turn up so far was a nice one in Publishers Weekly. And while it wasn’t a review, I also got a little shout-out from San Antonio magazine.

I was feeling pretty good about that, along with some of the feedback from people I know who have read the book. But humility is always just a mouse click away. Last night, I was seeking a link for one of my upcoming readings when I came across the following, which surfaced a few months ago on someone’s blog after the book’s excerpt went online:

Well, it sounds like this person might actually buy the book, so that’s good. Still, typos (?) and some not-very-stellar writing…That was, um, not-very-stellar to see, thank ya very much. My first bad review! Kinda. Yay? Still, as long as I’ve been slinging barbs, I can take it.

But do tell: Would it be catty of me to point out the grammatical mistake in this dude’s first sentence?

Meow!

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Yackin’ it up

As cool as a lot of my old stuff was, it still wasn’t going to be enough to fill out “Losering” all by itself. I had already started interviewing people in and around Ryan’s past, and I kicked that process into high gear during January-February 2011. I set a goal of at least one Ryan-related interview per day, and some days I managed two or three. It was most often in the evening (very late in the evening, if they were on the West Coast) or early morning, or weekends — whenever I could get people on the phone. Everybody at the N&O had to take a week of unpaid furlough days that quarter. I put those days to good use working on Ryan.

I caught a few breaks, too, where the Ryan book dovetailed nicely with other work. For example, Carol Burnett was coming to Durham that spring, and I got to interview her. Ryan had dated her daughter for a stretch, the late Carrie Hamilton (she’s the woman pictured in the Gold CD booklet), and they wrote at least one song together. Along with a nice Q&A for the paper, I got a Ryan-related quote from Burnett, who called Ryan “very sweet.” How could I not use that? In my household growing up, “The Carol Burnett Show” was a weekly ritual.

Then there were the Old 97s. Before I’d even made up my mind to try and talk to Rhett Miller about Ryan, I got a magazine assignment to interview him. So I did that assignment, got some hilarious stories about the 97s’ late-1990s “feud” with Whiskeytown for the book and also wrote something for the paper when the Old 97s tour came through Chapel Hill. Triple-plus-good; quadruple, if you count the fact that the story also ran in the N&O’s sister paper, the Charlotte Observer.

When I queried potential interview subjects, I just told them I was writing a book about Ryan and asked if they were willing to talk; nothing more, nothing less. Most people readily agreed without asking any questions, but a few did ask whether or not Ryan himself had agreed to participate. If anyone asked that, I always told the truth: No, he hadn’t. That put the kibosh on a few folks I’d hoped to interview, but it turned out to be not as much of an issue as I’d feared.

Like reporters always do, I fretted about whether or not I’d have enough material. But I had plenty, arranged in stacks of papers and notecards in file folders with circles and arrows and asterisks and such. There was still some interviewing to do, which continued as I wrote the book. But as 2011’s spring thaw set in, it was time for me to begin my private version of March Madness: the herding of the words.

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Relics from the mists of time

Upon getting the definitive “No” from Ryan Adams Inc., I sighed heavily and got busy. Since I was working without input or approval from my subject, that meant I was writing the dreaded “unauthorized biography” — although I sure do hope that “Losering” is less tawdry than what that phrase typically implies. I certainly had no interest in going all Perez Hilton or Albert Goldman, digging through trash and focusing on the icky stuff. I’d like to think the book turned out fair and even-handed, the good as well as the bad. Whether or not it is, well, that’s not for me to say.

But here’s the thing about “authorized”: Even if Ryan had cooperated, he wasn’t going to get any sort of prior-approval veto power over the end result, or even to read it any sooner than the rest of the world. Which did not, however, solve my immediate problem of how to write the book.

Fortunately, there was a paper trail. I had a voluminous archive of vintage Whiskeytown material I’d kept over the years, notes and interview quotes and clippings going back 20-plus years. I also had some peculiar artifacts, like a feminine hygiene product (unused, thankfully) upon which Ryan’s old bandmate Phil Wandscher had written Dave — Whiskeytown ❤ you during an evening of heavy drinking circa 1996. I don’t know why he did that, other than it seemed like a good idea at the time; I have a dim memory of telling Whiskeytown’s members that their records gave me “that not-so-fresh feeling,” so maybe that was the inspiration. Neither do I know why I hung onto it, but I did. While that didn’t make it into the book, it was a fun little reminder of how non-serious and even goofy all this seemed back in the day.

One golden oldie that did make it into the book was a souvenir from one of my earliest interviews with Ryan, from 1995. As recounted in Chapter Five of “Losering,” he once showed up with a restaurant receipt he’d used as stationery for a statement-of-purpose manifesto, and I think it offers a priceless look inside his head. Here it is:

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Going it alone

I was apprehensive about attempting a biography of Ryan for a number of reasons, one being that my opinions about his career fall well outside the mainstream narrative. That was why I’d never bothered with trying to sell a book about Ryan to the big New York publishing houses. Such a pitch would have boiled down to something like this:

Yeah, the Ryan Adams record that everybody seems to know and love — “Gold,” the album that broke him through to the masses, got the Grammy nominations, cemented his “Almost Famous” career arc and already inspired one not-so-great book about him — actually isn’t very good. In fact, that might be the least-interesting record he’s ever done. Everybody needs to go back and listen instead to the obscure records he was doing with Whiskeytown, which are far, far more compelling…

I didn’t want to be “That Guy,” the one whining about how a favorite artist was so much better before the proletariat caught on. Besides, coming from an unknown writer in Mayberry, that wasn’t going to fly. I’d already had one frustrating go-round with the book world over “Off The Record,” a novel I’d written and set in the music industry, centered around a crazy brilliant rock star whose fictional flamboyance was very much like Ryan’s.

“Rock novels are a tough sell” — I heard that over and over from agents and publishers, many of whom said nice things about “Off The Record,” and all of whom passed on it. Rather than leave it in the drawer, I eventually decided to put it out myself and it did okay. I sold enough books to break even, and Greil Marcus was kind enough to put it at No. 6 on his “Real Life Top 10” one week (an indescribably huge thrill, since he’s always been an idol of mine; I don’t think I slept for a week). But after the book industry’s response to “Off The Record,” I wasn’t in a hurry to put much effort into pitching another book that didn’t comfortably fit the standard pigeonholes.

Then, suddenly, someone did want me to write that Ryan book. My bluff was called, forcing me to confront my biggest cause for apprehension of all: I was pretty sure Ryan wouldn’t cooperate. I’d tried to interview him repeatedly during his post-Whiskeytown years; the answer had always been nyet, and no one would ever come out and say why. He and I had a break, but I didn’t know what it was over. Still don’t. I did hear mixed reports over a 2000 No Depression magazine feature I’d written, and I’d also written an unenthusiastic review of “Gold” when it came out. But neither of those seemed like enough to put us on the outs. It seemed like others had done worse without earning the cold shoulder.

The closest I ever got to an explanation was a 2002 phone call from his then-manager, who called me in an agitated state to basically tell me that “some people were saying some things.” He wouldn’t specify who or what, only that he and Ryan were disgruntled because I’d done…something. One thing he did specify was a Magnet magazine profile the previous fall, which painted Ryan in a less-than-flattering light. I was quoted in the story and I’d also given the writer some phone numbers to find other people he interviewed, which the manager seemed to believe represented a breach of ethics. I was confused and couldn’t understand why everyone was so upset, so I asked if I could talk to Ryan directly about it.

“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” the manager said, laughing mirthlessly.

I didn’t get to talk to Ryan then, or ever. Ryan doesn’t seem to play in Raleigh anymore — except for a show in 2005, he hasn’t played his old hometown since 2000 — so I’ve periodically tried to get interviews for pieces I’ve written about some of his records. Nope. Naively, I hoped that enough time had gone by for this book to be different. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Part of my procrastinational busy work during 2010 involved sending backdoor messages to Ryan via mutual friends who were still in touch with him. That went nowhere. Finally, in December when it was coming on Christmas, it was time for the direct approach. I screwed up my courage and e-mailed Ryan’s manager. John Silva, a heavy hitter whose other clients include Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Beck. I made it as neutral and straightforward as possible:

Mr. Silva — I wanted to get in touch about a project concerning Ryan Adams, which I hope he’ll be willing to participate in. University of Texas Press is starting up a “No Depression Biography Series,” and Ryan is to be one of the artists profiled. It has fallen to me to do the book. Below is some information about the series from the UT Press catalog.
 
Ryan and I have a long history going back to his days in Raleigh with Whiskeytown, although we’ve not spoken in years beyond a cordial e-mail exchange a few Christmases ago. But I’ve always been an admirer, from back in the day (http://archives.nodepression.com/1995/09/a-short-interviews-journey-into-hell/) up to the present (www.spin.com/reviews/ryan-adams-and-cardinals-iiiiv-pax-am).
 
My hope is that he’ll agree to be interviewed. The book will come out on a university press, so the focus is to be very much on the music. Beyond a bit of interview access over the next six months, this is a process that should demand very little of him.
 
Happy holidays and please do holler back,

David Menconi

That letter went unanswered, as did several followups. So I turned to someone I knew I could at least get on the phone, Josh Grier, Ryan’s lawyer and someone I’ve known for 20 years. Josh has some history in North Carolina, having studied at Duke University Law School before going on to run Dolphin Records in the 1980s. His client list is as impressive as John Silva’s, and he’s worked with a lot of North Carolina acts over the years. I was hoping for some help here. But when I asked him about Ryan being interviewed for the book, it was the same answer as always.

“I know about this, I’ve heard talk,” Josh said. “Ryan’s not going to participate.”

Why not? I asked

“He just doesn’t want to revisit that time,” Josh said, adding that Ryan’s memories of his time in Raleigh had grown “fuzzy.” And that was that. Josh and I talked for a while that day, the way we always did about bands and the music business and projects he was working on. But it was clear that interviewing Ryan to get his modern-day perspective on the past was not going to happen.

(ADDENDUM, 9/27/12: I have been told by a friend of Josh Grier’s that Josh remembers this conversation a bit differently. His memory of it is that he used the word “faded” rather than “fuzzy” in describing Ryan’s memories. I’m not sure that makes a huge difference, but said friend seemed to think it was important. Anyway…so noted.)

By the time I hung up the phone, I was overcome with depression and dread. That was the early spring of 2011, and I’d accomplished little beyond some interviews with secondary characters. My Sept. 1 deadline loomed not much more than six months off, and I had to write a 50,000-word manuscript about someone I hadn’t interviewed in more than a decade. New interviews with Ryan could have simplified the process by suggesting possible structures for the story; a framework, a roadmap of where to go. But I wasn’t going to get any of that from him.

Truly, I was on my own this time.

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Newspaper rituals

So I have this book coming out, and it’s both exciting and nerve-wracking. But life (such as it is) still goes on at the News & Observer, diminished though it may be. And while the staff and the paper have both grown smaller, we’re still putting one out every day, which is not the case everywhere.

Although we’re smaller, the paper’s comfort-the-afflicted-while-afflicting-the-comfortable mission lives on. I do a bit of that myself, when the occasion arises on the arts beat. But most of what I do is about the art itself. I’ll be reviewing a concert Sunday night (My Morning Jacket, and it’s an outdoor show so I hope the weather’s decent), and Sunday’s paper has that time-honored newspaper ritual — the fall arts preview. This year, there’s the added benefit of a particularly intriguing series that pays tribute to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” one of my favorite pieces of classical music.  Take a look.

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The waiting is the hardest part

I am starting to learn that “publication date” in the book world is a rather fluid concept. Earlier this year, UT Press set the publication date for “Losering” as Sept. 5. But when I asked about scheduling readings for that same week, they were aghast. Apparently, publication date means “available for shipping” rather than actually in stores. Just to be on the safe side, they advised me not to schedule anything until October.

Eventually we compromised on a series of readings commencing Sept. 27 in Raleigh (followed by Sept. 28 in Chapel Hill and Oct. 4 in Durham), preceded by a mid-September launch at the Americana Music Association festival in Nashville. There’s other stuff pegged to September as well, including excerpts in the N&O and American Songwriter magazine. But at a certain point, that Sept. 5 release date turned into Sept. 15, leading me to fret about the AMA reading set for Sept. 13. Would books be ready by then? If not, gulp.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. UT Press sent out an announcement via Twitter on Aug. 13 that “Losering” was “in-house and ready to ship!” People who pre-ordered it started getting their copies in the mail shortly after that (thank you, Morgan McGuire!), and I’ve also heard from a few folks who have seen it in bookstores.

Best of all, however, was something very cool that happened on amazon. For a wonderful but regrettably brief period one recent evening, “Losering” nestled into the top-100. Not the overall top-100 (I wish!), just amazon’s listing of “music biographies.” Still, I was thrilled with the company. “Losering” came to rest at No. 73 — right behind Dylan and ahead of Elvis. It didn’t last long, of course, but that’s why screengrabs were invented.

So will that be the commercial peak on this thing? A few minutes posed with the gods weeks several before the actual publication date? Maybe, maybe not. Stay tuned!…

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Waiting to derail

After the Artiste X debacle, it was early 2010 and I had to regroup. On the plus side, I still had a deal to write a book. But on the minus side, I still had no subject. While I was in Austin that March for South By Southwest, I met with my UT Press editor to discuss possibilities. None of them seemed to move her too much, and she also seemed pretty noncommittal about everyone I mentioned — until Ryan Adams’ name came up. She asked for elaboration. I hesitated because it felt like I was about to jump off a cliff into an unknown chasm. I knew what would happen if I told this story, and also that there would be no turning back.

“Well,” I finally said, “I was one of the first critics to write about Ryan way back when, before hardly anybody outside of Raleigh really knew who he was. And the first time I ever interviewed him, a drunk went crazy in a bar and took the place hostage…”

We were having lunch at a little taco joint in East Austin, and the editor put down her fork. “That,” she said brightly, “sounds like the book to do!”

I gave her a pained smile, groaning inwardly because I knew this was going to be difficult. And yet… I think I’d been kidding myself about the Artiste X biography being anything like “fate.” That one would have been convenient, fun and relatively easy (which is not the same thing), resulting in a book that anybody could have written. But Ryan, if I may be so bold, is a book that only I could write. It’s the one I was truly meant to do, and only a situation like this — a university press where I had an in, and therefore didn’t have to explain my rather unusual take on Ryan in too much detail  during the pitch process — even made it possible.

Sure enough, after the editor conferred with her peers, the verdict was unanimous: Ryan was the one UT Press wanted. I had until September 2011 to turn in a manuscript. With much trepidation (which turned out to be well-founded — more on that later), I set to work. Or rather, I signed the contract and then set to procrastinating for the better part of a year before really getting started. I convinced myself I was working on it because I was listening to Ryan’s records a lot, but all I did was peck at it here and there through the rest of 2010; wrote a few outlines, started asking interview subjects for Ryan stories and so on. I had a couple of boxes full of relevant papers and artifacts, and I was overcome with fatigue every time I thought about diving in. So I really didn’t start the heavy lifting until the beginning of 2011. We’ll get to that.

Anyway, that is how, God help me, I undertook “Losering.” You’ll find the story of that first time I interviewed Ryan here; as well as in the book’s Preface (a.k.a. the “Ryan and Me” part of it).

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It began on a golf course

I can trace the beginning of “Losering” to a specific occasion, a round of golf back in October of 2009. It was at Lakeshore Golf Course in Durham, NC, with my buddy Peter Blackstock, founding co-editor of the late great music magazine No Depression (moment of silence, please…Okay? Okay). After the magazine’s final issue in May 2008, the No Depression brand had continued on with a couple of “Bookazines” published by University of Texas Press. That deal was winding down by the fall of 2009, so I asked Peter what would be next. A book series, he said.

I don’t know why, but I still remember the exact location: the fourth hole, a short par-three. As we were walking down a hill toward the green — which we’d both reached with our tee shots, on the way to a pair of routine pars — Peter explained that the books would be short-ish (50,000 words), about the sort of “Alternative Country (Whatever That Is)” artists that the magazine used to cover.

Since the books were for a university press, advances would be small-ish. Nevertheless, I wanted in. I’m not even sure why, just that I did. A lot. Maybe it was because the newspaper had done a fairly radical staff-downsizing that year and everyone in the newsroom was wondering who might be next. In the interim, I needed an extracurricular project to take my mind off the axe hanging over my head at work. A book seemed like just the thing.

I had just the subject in mind, too, a well-known singer-songwriter I probably should not name here. Let’s call him Artiste X. While I can’t go into details, I can say that Artiste X was perfect for the series — critically acclaimed, commercially popular and someone I actually had a history with, having interviewed and reviewed him repeatedly over the years. The whole thing kind of seemed like fate. Peter enthusiastically endorsed the idea, and a deal was put in motion.

I approached Artiste X the next time he came through my part of the world, to tell him about the book, give him some UT Press literature about the series and make my pitch to interview him. This happened right outside his tour bus, and I was one of several dozen people crowded around trying to get a moment of his time. Not surprisingly, Artiste X was noncommittal and told me to call his manager.

A few months later, when I finally got Artiste X’s manager on the phone, he wasn’t noncommittal at all. The conversation began with him declaring that he hoped I’d give up on the idea of writing a book about his client. And just in case I didn’t get his point, he proceeded to drop a bomb on it, strafing the wreckage and survivors afterward for good measure. That didn’t leave me with much of a hand, but I still played every card I had. I cited both my own and No Depression’s long history with Artiste X; pledged that I would focus on the music rather than gossip; and assured him this would require very little of Artiste X — nothing more than a couple of interviews, and maybe being allowed to hang around backstage at a show or two.

To my enduring disappointment, the manager was unmoved. He explained that Artiste X would someday do a book of his own for a tidy sum. Until then, they’d make sure no one else wrote any books about him by refusing to cooperate and asking everyone in his circle not to, either.

The money quote I most remember: “Why would [Artiste X] cooperate on something he wasn’t being paid for?”

Welcome to showbiz. I was crushed, and back to square one…

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A few thoughts on writing books…

        So you want to know what writing a book is like? Well, Skippy, let me tell ya – it’s incredibly glamorous and exciting, a process that makes the average “James Bond” flick look like blue-collar labor. All one has to do is dial up The Muse ™, step aside and let her take over. And once The Muse ™ is in charge, it’s all downhill sledding, baby! The verbiage flows forth into prose that sings, moving your story forward at a gallop. Before you know it, you’ve constructed a masterpiece of narrative story-telling that critics will love and the reading public will buy. And all the children of the universe are moved to join hands in a song to the heavens praising your (apologies to Dave Eggers) heartbreaking work of staggering genius…
          Um…No. It’s nothing at all like that. In truth, writing a book involves a lot of what Stephen King quaintly calls “ass-in-chair time,” in which the view is something like what you see here, as you try to wrestle an idea to the ground. That idea is your vision of what your book will be. In the abstract, it shimmers invitingly in the distance, a shiny palace. And so you eagerly approach that palace.
          Getting this from your head onto paper should be a snap, right? Wrong. The closer you get to that palace, the more it starts to resemble a fetid swamp. Before you know it, you’re neck-deep in slimy water doing battle with nasty creatures, wondering how you missed them earlier. I’m not saying it’s not rewarding, because it is. But like most things worth doing, man, it’s really hard. For lesser mortals like me, anyway.
          Thus we have “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown,” a book that’s either been two years or two decades in the making, depending on how you reckon it. “Losering” is a biography of Ryan Adams, a musician of some note who tends to elicit strong opinions both ways – “mixed” is as close to neutral as feelings get when it comes to Ryan (a sentiment that goes for me, too).
          “Losering” isn’t particularly long, about 56,000 words. But getting it done still drove me plenty crazy, and for better or worse it is now making its way into the world. I hope you like it. And even if you don’t, I hope you’ll let me know either way – here or at dlmenconi@gmail.com.
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Hello world!

Hello, good people. I started this blog to go with the book “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown,” which is coming out in September on University of Texas Press — a thrill for me for a number of reasons, including the fact that my dad and I both went to UT and I grew up going to Longhorn games at Memorial Stadium. Having a book out on UT Press is the closest I’ll ever come to lettering in football there.

There will be plenty more to say about Ryan and the book and UT Press’ “American Music Series” (of which I am co-editor). But for now, welcome! And here is an interview that will serve as a primer for the book and the series.

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