Posts Tagged With: Ashes and Fire

Ryan Adams enters academia’s hallowed halls

SpanisDedRecently I happened across a picture someone posted on social media, of the thank-you page of a Master’s Thesis — in Spanish. Here it is on the right, and the relevant part roughly translates as:

Finally to all my friends for all the support they have given me, you know who you are. And why not…to Ryan Adams, Gary Moore and John Lennon for inspiration when I needed it most.

Figuring there was a story there, I got in touch with the author, a young man named Sebastián Chiwo from San Luís Potosí, México, to ask about his Ryan Adams fandom. As you can see below, he had a lot to say! It’s pretty cool that Ryan’s name is enshrined in an academic document on file at the library at Universidad Autonoma de San Luís Potosí, even though he himself didn’t go to college. Ryan’s fanbase is not just enthusiastic, but geographically widespread and diverse.

The first time I ever learned about Ryan Adams was in September 2001 when I was 13, after the tragedy of 9/11 — from the cool and lovely “New York, New York” video with many shots of New York City and a young guy with an acoustic guitar in his hands. I was very confused because my parents were fans of Bryan Adams, and I didn’t pay attention at first because I was busy learning classical guitar. But I became bored and began learning rock and blues, especially songs by John Lennon.

One afternoon I turned on the radio and heard a very beautiful guitar riff and voice, which the deejay said was “So Alive” by Ryan Adams. From that day, the music of this crazy guy has had an important effect on me, the guitar parts and lyrics both. Soon after was my father’s birthday and my mother gave me money to buy him a present. I went to Sears and saw a beautiful Zippo lighter that I thought could be perfect. But then I stopped in the music section and Ryan’s “Rock ‘N Roll” album was waiting for me. So I bought “Rock ‘N Roll” for me and the newly released “Let It Be…Naked” for my father. I think he enjoyed the CD more than he would have the lighter. After that, I was also listening to “Love Is Hell,” “Cold Roses,” “Easy Tiger” and so on.

Years later, I was in a severe depression. My only reason to live was playing guitar every night, for very little money — just for getting drunk and high. I can’t believe now that I was doing those stupid things. One of the few good memories of that time was playing all the “Love Is Hell” stuff every night; not the songs exactly, but the main guitar riffs. The feelings were the same, “poor guy” is what I was thinking about me. I knew Ryan’s life had been crazy and wild between “Heartbreaker” and “Easy Tiger,” but also sad like mine.

SebastianAfter a series of personal tragedies, I got clean and began working hard in my profession. Ryan’s music was always there, albums like “Ashes and Fire,” “III/IV,” “Orion,” “Ryan Adams,” “1984” and “1989.” They gave me a more optimistic (and weird) way of living. I bought a denim jacket and customized it with logos of OCP, Weyland-Yutany, Nuclear and Misfits Fan Club. Guitar is still an important part of my life and I’m always asking questions about equipment and guitar techniques of the guitar players in Ryan’s bands — Neal Casal, Brad Rice, Johnny McNabb, Ethan Johns, Mike Viola, etc.

ThesisNowadays I am an electronics engineer majoring in instrumentation and control systems, with a Master of Science in electrical engineering with a major in biophotonics and medical optics. I completed both studies in the physical sciences department at the Autonomous University of San Luís Potosí. My personal tribute to and acknowledgement of Ryan is a little paragraph in my Master’s Thesis, “Design and Construction of a Portable Raman System For Non-Invasive Medical Diagnosis.”

Definitely, Ryan’s music is the soundtrack of my life, and he is a very strong influence on me as a person. I commonly cite his statement, “Stay Weird,” in my own life.

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Halloweenhead: The next generation

DRAjrSay hey to Liam Gladden, age 5 and very possibly the most avid Ryan Adams superfan in his demographic. Young Liam lives in Salisbury, Md., with his family including his mother, Mandy Gladden, who does a parenting blog. She writes:

We started to play the (self-titled) and “Ashes and Fire” albums at home and in the car. Liam really started to love the songs. His favorites are “Gimme Something Good,” “Ashes and Fire,” “Dirty Rain” and “Kindness.” He really loves them all and plays drums and guitar while he sings (my husband is a drummer and Liam also has his own set and a little guitar). He loves the “1989” cover album and sings all those songs, too.

Liam watches Ryan on YouTube and says he wants to see Ryan in concert. He asked to be Ryan (he calls him by his first name) for Halloween and also to grow his hair out like Ryan’s. We got him the wig instead. He’s so excited to be Ryan and can’t wait for his “Ryan sunglasses” to come in this week to complete his costume. My other two kids like the music, but not like Liam does. He’s quite the little fan.

Come Saturday night, I bet this kid cleans up on Halloween candy.

FOLLOWUP (10/31/2015): It turns out that Liam’s big sister is going as Taylor Swift.

DRATScostumes

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Reckoning with Ryan Adams’ new album

It’s complicated
I just don’t love you anymore…

— Ryan Adams, “Am I Safe” (2014)


One thing that writing “Losering” did for me was to underscore the futility of music journalism and criticism, especially album reviews. The book forced me to reconsider release-date-vintage things I’d thought and written about everything from the Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown discography in the harsh light of the present, a process that induced a cringe or two. While I think I was more or less right about most of the records, there were definitely some I had significantly underrated at first (especially Love Is Hell) or thought too much of (Rock N’ Roll). And as I was finishing up the book in the fall of 2011, Ashes and Fire came out and I overrated that one, too. I should not have been surprised; just because I was writing it in a book rather than a newspaper review, that didn’t make my snap judgment any more long-lasting.

Something else “Losering” emphasized was the futility of fandom: the fact that if you follow anybody long enough, they will surely disappoint you. Whether I should feel that way or not, I am disappointed in Ryan. I wish I didn’t feel that way because I hate being That Guy — the dock worker in Liverpool who liked The Beatles during their Cavern Club days but thought they sold out when they went on “Ed Sullivan.” Or the guy in Greenwich Village who thought Bob Dylan should have stuck with old folk songs. Or the dude in Asbury Park who thought Bruce Springsteen’s calling was to stay a bar-band journeyman. So maybe giving up what he had in order to get to where he is now was the right call for Ryan; perhaps his upcoming self-titled album will one day be mentioned in the same breath as Rubber Soul or Blonde on Blonde or Darkness on the Edge of Town.

But…I don’t think so.

RyanAdamsCoverSo anyway, yes, Ryan Adams (Pax Am/Blue Note Records) will be released next week; in the meantime, you can listen to a stream of it here, here, here, or here. A few reviews are starting to appear, because right around or even before release date is when outlets tend to be interested in running them. Never mind that the pre-release period, when a given artist does a bunch of interviews (usually saying some variation on the same thing in each one), tends to be the least-interesting part of a record’s life cycle. It’s just how the game goes.

At least Ryan has been his usual swaggering, quotable self in his latest round of interviews, covering all his by-now-obligatory recurrent bullet points. Drug use, check; disavowing outlandish behavior he has supposedly outgrown, check; references to his prolific nature by way of another high-profile addition to his stash of unreleased music, check; tantalizing suggestion that he might actually release one of his “lost” golden oldies, check; and through it all, Ryan’s insistence that he always just goes with the flow — check.

As for the record itself, whatever I think about it at this point, chances are good I’ll think something completely different a year from now. But you know me, I can never shut the hell up even when I know I should. So here are a few initial impressions based on several days of listening to Ryan Adams:

(1) This might be damning with faint praise, but at least Ryan Adams is better than I expected it to be based on the lead single “Gimme Something Good” — a song that I still find pretty ho-hum after a decent amount of listens over the past few months.

(2) Tom Petty’s shadow hangs heavily over this album, which is not an inherently bad thing because Tom Petty is really good. Multiple songs (most notably “Trouble” and “Stay With Me”) have wailing guitar leads echoing Petty’s 1980 signature hit “Refugee,” and the overall vibe and dynamics are very similar to Damn the Torpedoes-era Tom Petty. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ryan Adams is a more engaging Petty album than Petty’s own current effort Hypnotic Eye. (ADDENDUM, 12/11/14: Stereogum agrees.)

(3) On the other hand, it pains me to say this, but other songs on Ryan Adams seem reminiscent of (God help me) Bryan Adams, especially “Feels Like Fire.” Now if you’re going to evoke Bryan Adams, “Run To You” would definitely be the right song for it. But still…Bryan Adams? Et tu, Ryan?

Elsewhere, “My Wrecking Ball” sounds like Whiskeytown’s “Avenues” as rewritten by Springsteen, while “I Just Might” sounds like a Springsteen demo. And speaking of popular rock-star dudes of a certain age evoked by this album, let’s see what Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Phil Wandscher thinks:

PhilRA

(4) It took me a while, but ultimately I decided that my main objection to Ashes and Fire was that it was a bit too subdued and monochromatic. While I wouldn’t call Ryan Adams jumpy or anything, it does vary tempos and textures enough to make me think I might someday prefer this one. But ask me a year or so from now.

(5) It’s tempting to read autobiography into anyone’s songs, but especially with someone like Ryan whose songs have been an open book for so much of his career. Maybe he’s turned over a new leaf, in which he’s no longer writing about himself. But if these songs are anything like an accurate reflection of his current mental state, he’s in a mighty grim place nowadays — and spending a lot of time in his own head. The opening couplet on the album, from “Gimme Something Good,” pretty much sets the tone: I can’t talk/My mind is so blank/So I’m going for a walk/I’ve got nothing left to say…

“I Just Might” is no cheerier: Everything’s broken/In my mind/Ain’t no place to run/Ain’t no place to hide. And “Shadows” likens the space between the singer’s ears to prison with a “field of razor wire” that “comes a little closer.” By the end, he’s “Tired of Giving Up” and decides to “Let Go.” And so he does.

(ADDENDUM (1/24/2015): In light of the two paragraphs above, this is not surprising.)

(6) A self-titled album, especially by someone who has been around a while, implies a statement-of-purpose declaration of sorts: This is who I am. And what bothers me about Ryan Adams is just how generic it is. It’s not bad — in fact, it’s perfectly pleasant while it’s playing — but it also sounds like something that any number of other people could have made. I’d rather hear another record that Ryan and only Ryan could have made. Given his thoughts on his own catalog, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Maybe ever.

And that, dear reader, is why I’m disappointed (though not quite as harshly so as this guy).

ADDENDUM (8/28/2015): I don’t agree with this, but it’s a good take.


EthanReckoningMeantime, I actually do have a current favorite Ryan record, sort of, an album that unobtrusively slipped into the marketplace last month. That would be The Reckoning (Three Crows Music) by Ethan Johns, a mate of Ryan’s who has produced a significant chunk of his post-Whiskeytown solo career (Heartbreaker, Gold and 29). In a role reversal, Ryan is listed as producer of The Reckoning and also credited with drums, bass, electric guitar, synthesis and “Trash can.”

There’s not much trashy about this, though. Understated and emotional, The Reckoning is a song cycle about a young immigrant on the frontier in pre-Civil War America. But never mind the storyline. This brooding little record has a lovely atmosphere that seems fragile but is powerful enough to linger and draw you in. Imagine Heartbreaker if Nick Drake had made it; take a listen here and see what you think.

I’ll keep listening to both these records, of course, and I’ll continue paying attention to Ryan for as long as he’s making music (yeah, even when he’s just goofing off). But down the road, I’m fairly certain that The Reckoning will be the record I’m still interested in hearing.

ADDENDUM (9/9/14): Ethan Johns interview.

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Kind-ish words over at the Ryan Adams Archive

As mentioned previously, “Losering” has gotten kind of a mixed response from Ryan’s truly rabid super-fans. Over at the fansite To Be Young, someone called the book a “cash grab” some months back — which amused me greatly, given the very modest advance I wrote it for. Another tough audience is the Ryan Adams Archive. One regular there called my book “an exhausting read,” which I have to admit made cringe and laugh at the same time (well-done, sir!). But on the upside, someone else on RAA called it an “absolutely great read [that] only builds on the mysteriousness about DRA” in the same thread. Then there’s the assessment below, which I was very glad to see:

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Onward through the fog: Peer review and other rituals

Returning to our narrative of how “Losering” came to be, you may recall that I turned in the manuscript more than a year ago, in August 2011. But it’s only now making its way into the world. I’m used to banging things out and having them appear in public a day or two later; maybe a few weeks later, if I’m working ahead, or a few months later if it’s for a magazine — or even instantaneously, if it’s going online immediately.

Books, on the other hand, move along at a much more deliberate pace. Most of them, anyway. The book business can move very fast when there’s a reason to; like when somebody famous dies and there’s a lot of money at stake (see: “Steve Jobs,”  a biography that had its publication date accelerated by six months and was in stores mere weeks after its subject died last year).

But that’s the fast track. For most of us lesser mortals, getting a book out takes a lot longer. And if you’re working with a university press, you also go through a round of formal “peer review” — although it’s more low-impact than what that phrase typically implies. I didn’t have to defend my book to a tenure committee or anything like that. But UT Press sent the manuscript to a pair of outside readers for feedback, and their reviews were in by mid-October.

Both recommended publication, with some revisions. I tried not to bristle at the suggestions, not all of which I agreed with; one reviewer asked for details that I felt like I already had in the manuscript. But I dutifully wrote a response in which I gave thanks for the feedback and promised to incorporate their suggestions. Many of which, I must confess, I wound up ignoring.

On the plus side, the reviewers did have some good ideas about how to make the book more accessible beyond Ryan’s immediate fanbase, and those suggestions I took. I even worked up a “nut graph” entry-point explainer about Why Ryan Matters for the preface (sometimes this really was just like writing for the newspaper). I was already well into the final write-through, including the addition of a segment about Ryan’s then-recently released Ashes and Fire album, when UT’s faculty advisory committee formally approved “Losering” for publication on Nov. 4, 2011.

I got the word from Allison Faust via e-mail: “Congratulations! There’s no turning back now.”

No indeed. I spent the rest of that month giving “Losering” one last tinker, buff and shine. The additions pushed the final word count up just a bit, to about 56,000 words. Just after Thanksgiving, I hit “Send” again.

But I still wasn’t done. The book went through a couple of rounds of copy-editing that stretched into early 2012. I double- and triple-checked every detail until my bloodshot eyes were a perfect chromatic match for my red pen. Typeset page proofs came back to me in early April and I checked everything all over again before sending the whole mess back for the last time. The book went to the printer in July, and UT Press had copies ready to ship by mid-August.

And now it’s out in the world. Finally. Whew…

Image by Gideon Burton

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