There’s another nice Q&A about Ryan, Whiskeytown, “Losering” and the American Music Series, among other things, at The Misread City — a very fine arts blog by former Los Angeles Times writer (and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus) Scott Timberg. Check it out here.
His name only comes up once in “Losering,” regarding the Strangers Almanac song “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” but Alejandro Escovedo is a key figure in my musical cosmos. I’m not alone in holding him in such high regard, either. In 1997, when he did that “Excuse Me” cameo, Alejandro already had a reputation as an inspiration to younger generations.
“I’ve been told that some people consider me to be this ‘rock sage,'” he told me in an interview that year. “Somebody all these young musicians in bands now cite as influential. For a long time, I didn’t think much about the historical perspective because I’ve always been more interested in where I’m going next than what I’ve already done or where I’ve already gone. But I’m enjoying it now, y’know?”
Escovedo has always been near and dear to my heart, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him finally make some commercial-career progress in recent years. I wouldn’t say I grew up with his music, because I didn’t hear him until I was well into my 20s. But it’s no exaggeration to say I grew up as a music writer with him, going back to a highly amateurish interview I did with him, Jon Dee Graham and the rest of the True Believers in the summer of 1985 for the University of Texas student paper, the Daily Texan. In the quarter-century-plus since, I’ve written about the man…well, an embarrassing number of times.
My online blather about Alejandro goes back to the True Believers’ 1994 reunion and includes a few things from No Depression magazine — a 1997 piece about his contribution to “Excuse Me” as well as a 2001 Q&A. There’s plenty of stuff from more recent years here.
His performances are something like compass resets for me — regenerative rituals in which I am reminded anew why I write about music — and it’s difficult for me not to get carried away when I get to rhapsodizing about him. So I’ll just say that he’ll be in the Raleigh vicinity Sunday night to open for Heart at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre; which might not be the most optimal situation for maximum appreciation, but if you’ve never seen him…well, the man is worth your time.
If you’re in the greater Carrboro/Chapel Hill vicinity late Saturday afternoon, tune in WCOM, 103.5-FM, where I’ll be a guest on The Placeholder Show from about 5:15 to 6 p.m. We’ll be talking about Whiskeytown and Ryan and “Losering,” of course; and perhaps a few other worthy local current acts out there nowadays.
After that, maybe see you at YR15?
In an ideal universe, each copy of “Losering” would come with a compact disc of songs you’d listen to while reading the book. That obviously didn’t happen, but here’s the next best thing: a playlist of songs that I feel are particularly relevant to Whiskeytown’s story — which the book-centric music blog largehearted boy was kind enough to let me do as today’s installment of its Book Notes series. So fire up Spotify and plug in these 13 songs to optimize your reading experience.
So it’s time for that autumnal ritual of low-rent gluttony, the North Carolina State Fair. Actually, it’s pretty high-rent, given that I never seem to get away without spending at least $100 there. But the fair is still an annual occasion I enjoy, mostly because the kids get so excited about it, even though I don’t know how many more years they’ll still want to go. My twins are 13 (big brother is 17, so he can go on his own if he wants), and every October I wonder if this is the year they’ll stop believing in the State Fair and want to skip it.
But no, so far they still want to. So off we went for opening day on Thursday. We did the usual things you do out there — strolled the midway, ate breathtakingly unhealthy food, gawked, did some rides. And since I’ve got Ryan on the brain right now, I wondered if I’d hear any of his songs in the air out there.
I didn’t, just in my head. Including this one while watching the kids go round and round on the swing.
Yep Roc Records wasn’t a major player in the Whiskeytown saga; in fact, the label isn’t mentioned at all in the text of “Losering.” But some of the band’s music did come out bearing the Yep Roc imprint back in the day, on compilations the label released — including what I’d rank as the worst Whiskeytown recording ever to be commercially released. That’s “Busted,” a track on 1997’s Revival Volume II. “Busted” is a “track” rather a “song,” because it’s just 96 seconds of wanky in-the-studio noodling with Ryan freestyling about cigarette theft (a possible foreshadowing of some of the goofy rap stuff he would be posting on the “Cardinal Jukebox” some years later).
But don’t hold that against Yep Roc, a label that has put out a lot of fine music over the last decade and a half. Yep Roc is marking its 15th anniversary this weekend with a bunch of acts from its roster playing at the Cat’s Cradle. There’s a story about that here; and here is a 2000 feature, from back in the days when there were still record stores (remember them?).
While I was reporting “Losering,” I wanted to talk to a bandmate of Ryan’s from his last and best pre-Whiskeytown group, Patty Duke Syndrome. That meant drummer Brian Walsby because the third member of the trio is no longer with us. Bassist Jere McIlwean died in a 1996 drug overdose, which inspired the 1997 Whiskeytown single “Theme For a Trucker” (named for McIlwean’s post-PDS band Trucker).
So I asked Brian if he’d talk about the old days and we had the same pre-interview conversation about Ryan that we always do, in which he expressed hesitancy about reopening that can of worms. But then we talked and it was fine, and he had many interesting things to say about his old bandmate; most of them fond, some not so much. Both kind of quotes are in the book. Still, nothing Brian told me on or off the record was as harsh as a graphic essay he composed in 2003, which is nicely summarized by the headline:
RYAN FUCKING ADAMS OWES ME, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!
A twisted tale of almost obsession
Even leaving Ryan aside, Brian has an interesting history. He’s a fine drummer who has played in a dozen Triangle bands since the mid-’80s (highlighted by Polvo and Double Negative, who had some discussions with Ryan about signing to his label Pax-Am Records a year or two ago), and he’s also an excellent cartoonist of semi-legendary repute in underground metal circles. I’ve written about some of that history in a couple of features for the paper, one in 2004 and another in 2011. Honestly, though, Walsby is his own best chronicler, as set down in countless cartoons and compiled in his “Manchild” series of books. Volume Six is the latest and it’s subtitled “Bye Bye Punk Rock..Hello Adulthood!!”
Some of the inspiration for that mindset comes from Walsby’s young daughter, Willow, who has Down Syndrome — which he and I have bonded over a bit, since I have a daughter with Down Syndrome myself; that’s Claudia, age 13, and she rocks just as hard as her twin brother Edward and big brother Aaron (a budding rock star in his own right, dig his work on bass in the Raleigh teenage hardcore band Pure Scum).
Nevertheless, Walsby still gets out to rock a good bit. He’s been on the road a lot with Seattle proto-grunge band the Melvins in recent years, handling merch sales as well as drawing what he sees and selling his own wares. Get his attention when the Melvins play Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro Wednesday night, and maybe he’ll draw you.
…I think so anyway. Anyway, here’s where one of the copies of “Losering” that I signed at the Quail Ridge reading wound up –1,700 miles away from Raleigh in Boulder, Colo., one of my favorite towns. I especially like this because I used to live in Boulder and write for the Daily Camera, eons ago; that was my first job out of grad school, as well as my last one before coming to the News & Observer almost 22 years ago. Very kind of Camilla to “buy locally” from afar, and send back to Raleigh’s Quail Ridge to get an autographed copy.
They still have autographed copies at Quail Ridge (as well as The Regulator in Durham), Christmas is coming and they make a great gift. Just sayin’.
So our man Ryan has spent long stretches of the past few years out of the public eye, uncharacteristically quiet on the music front. There was the breakup of the Cardinals and his Meniere’s Disease, plus who knows what else going on behind the scenes. Ashes & Fire, released one year ago this week, broke a several-year silence — and it had me wondering what might be next, fingers crossed in cautious optimism; A&F seemed like a return to form, the best thing he’d done in eons.
Well, he’s gotten busy, all right. The last few months have brought reports of Ryan producing his wife Mandy Moore; producing and playing drums in the reunited Lemonheads; and working in the studio with Tennis, Liz Phair, Butch Walker and even electronic superstar deadmau5, among others. Which is cool and all, sure, plus the sort of headline fuel that makes the rock-media world go ’round.
Still…I have to admit that I’d rather see Ryan just bear down on another record of his own. And God knows where he’s finding the time, but it appears he might be gearing up to do just that, if his Twitter feed is to be believed. This weekend, Ryan has posted a couple of pictures suggesting that he’s in the midst of pulling together material for a new album, with tantalizing verbiage:
Work. Writing songs.
Sketching the blueprints of my new record. Only a month to go.
Two more new songs today. Damn.
ADDENDUM (2/19/13): Complete list of Ryan’s extracurricular credits.
There’s more yackety-yack related to Planet “Losering” out there today, starting with part two of the Music Tomes interview. Yesterday’s installment was specific to “Losering,” while today’s edition is mostly focused on the UT Press American Music Series that my book is part of.
Meanwhile, a “Losering” review on NoDepression.com has led to a quite-lively debate in the comments section. Not surprisingly, fans of Ryan’s late-period work are taking issue with my…well, let’s call it less-than-enthusiastic assessment of his recent output. One commenter on the NoDepression review said I come across as “bitter” — and as I replied to her, I’m not bitter but I do find the Ryan/Whiskeytown story to be quite bittersweet.
Similar sentiments turned up yesterday on the Ryan Adams Superfan Facebook page (and the initial version of this post concluded with Mr. Kampa saying, “Fuck you” — which he edited out before I could ask him if he kissed his mama with that mouth):