Posts Tagged With: Jenni Sperandeo

Ryan Adams: “Afraid of Ghosts”

ButchWalkerSo yeah, Ryan Adams’ self-imposed Old North State exile remains in effect, with no sign it will end anytime soon. But even if Ryan himself doesn’t come around here anymore, at least that doesn’t seem to keep any of his associates away. By the close of this coming weekend, in fact, two of his most recent production clients will have headlined shows here within the span of a week.

Following Jenny Lewis in Saxapahaw this past Monday, the next in line is onetime Marvelous 3 leader Butch Walker, who plays Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Sunday night. Ryan produced Walker’s lovely new album Afraid of Ghosts (Dangerbird Records), which (1) was released on a label run by Whiskeytown’s old manager, oddly enough; (2) is, like Lewis’ The Voyager and the most recent effort from Ethan Johns, yet another Ryan-produced record that I find vastly superior to last fall’s Ryan Adamsand (3) has kind an ironic title, given that something like a fear of old ghosts might well be what’s kept Ryan away for so long. The ghost has got me runnin’, indeed.

Anyway, a bit more verbiage about Walker from the paper can be found here.

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Another choice old souvenir — a sweet trickle of whiskey

SAWhiskeyBottleA few months back, a discussion about old times cropped up on Facebook, with people comparing notes about Whiskeytown-related tokens they had from back in the day. Whiskeytown’s old manager Jenni Sperandeo mentioned that she still had a stash of customized airplane-service-sized Whiskeytown bottles of whiskey that the band’s record company had made up as promotional items for the 1997 album Strangers Almanac. Naturally, people started putting in requests for Jenni to send them a bottle.

I threw in a “Me too,” of course, even though I didn’t expect to get one, especially when Jenni said that it might take her a while to find the right box in her garage. I had actually forgotten all about it until this week, when what should arrive in the mail but a miniature, still-sealed bottle of Whiskeytown whiskey; Seagram’s, of course, since that was the company that owned Whiskeytown’s label (which would be dissolved two years later in the Universal-PolyGram mega-merger, but that’s another story).

The label on the bottle is emblazoned with the name of the Strangers single “Yesterday’s News” as well as the logos for both Outpost (the major label that released Strangers) and Mood Food Records. If Ryan Adams ever saw one of these, the latter probably rankled him because Whiskeytown and Mood Food did not part on the best of terms — see Chapter six of “Losering” for more details on that — but I bet it wouldn’t have stopped him from cracking one of these bottles open and drinking it down.

Anyway, it’s a nice reminder of those heady days when some of us thought Whiskeytown was headed for the toppermost of the poppermost, and a blast from the past I am happy to have (and no, I have no plans to open it). Thanks, Jenni!

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Memories of South By Southwests past: Whiskeytown and Jenni Sperandeo

supabroadThis week will take me to Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest, the big annual music-industry hootenanny I’ve been attending for 26 years (check here for dispatches I’ll be filing for the paper). It’s a time and place that inevitably brings back memories of Whiskeytown because Austin during SXSW served as the setting for some key events in the “Losering” story, including the band’s big coming-out show in 1996 (see Chapter six); Ryan Adams making the deal for Bloodshot Records to put out his first solo record in 2000 (an event that happened in a bathroom — see Chapter 12); and the 2001 dust-up that inspired Ryan’s Gold song “Harder Now That It’s Over” (see Chapter 14).

But my most vivid personal SXSW memory of Whiskeytown is one of those small moments you remember without trying, or even really even knowing why you do. I was walking down Eigth Street in Austin’s downtown club district in 1998, when someone in a parked car waved me over. That turned out to be Jenni Sperandeo, who was then Whiskeytown’s co-manager.

“Get in,” she said. “I’ve got something you need to hear.”

So I did and she fired up a cassette tape of something Whiskeytown had recorded over Christmas; a scathing rocker that was the least twangy thing I’d ever heard them do. But it was great and I was pretty blown away. A desire to seize the tape and flee briefly flitted through my mind, an impulse I restrained. Later, however, I found myself wishing I’d made off with it. That was the first time I ever heard “Rays of Burning Light” from Whiskeytown’s Forever Valentine, one of Ryan’s greatest “lost” albums. Fifteen years later, it remains unreleased, so thank God for bootlegs.

Jenni and I talked for a bit that night before I resumed my club crawling, and in my memory the conversation was pretty upbeat. There still seemed ample cause for optimism about Whiskeytown at that point, even though Strangers Almanac hadn’t been a hit and the band was well into its revolving-door-lineup period. But they had just played a triumphant “Austin City Limits” taping that spring, and Ryan was still writing great songs. It seemed like only a matter of time before they would break through.

Alas, what none of us knew in March of 1998 was how much closer Whiskeytown was to breaking up than breaking through. Two months later, it was announced that Universal was buying PolyGram, a merger that would eventually liquidate Whiskeytown’s label and put the band into limbo; and Jenni would be out as Whiskeytown’s manager by that fall, dismissed in the wake of a semi-disastrous tour opening for John Fogerty (see Chapter 11).

All these years later, Jenni still works in the music industry. She became president of Dangerbird Records in 2012 — a label whose roster includes Fitz and the Tantrums, Butch Walker, Silversun Pickups and other notables. Her memories of Ryan and Whiskeytown are, shall we say, complicated. Not without fondness, but also rather jaundiced. When I got Jenni on the phone in 2011 to interview her about her time managing Whiskeytown, she had plenty to say, going back to Ryan begging her and Chris Roldan to manage his band almost as soon as they met.

At first I was, “You people are nuts. You’re great but you’re a kid and also crazy”…It was difficult to know who [Ryan] was at that time. He was self-mythologizing from the very beginning. Even as I was talking with him, I’d be thinking, “Well, there’s a very thick layer of bullshit on all of this except for the fact that you’re very talented.” He’d say all this shit about himself and his family and where he’d come from, a great deal of drama, but it was hard to tell if any of it was true…Me being a girl, I think he felt like he could stare soulfully into my eyes and get his way. He probably did, owing to my youngness and the stupidity of it all. Maybe a little less with Chris, but he was not as tied up with them as I was.

For all that, Jenni really believed in the band and the music. That was enough to make her willing to put up with it all.

It was challenging in some ways, but they were such a great band. What gets lost in translation about Ryan and how he ended up where he was was how great Whiskeytown was. I don’t know that he’s ever had that good a band around him, and that was the last time he had to take input from other people. I think Phil [Wandscher] gets lost a lot, he’s why they didn’t sound like just another rock-leaning alt-country band from that time. It’s not like Caitlin was a strong personality with him in that way. He encouraged her to be serious about it, and I don’t think she really was at that time. Phil provided the creative push for him there. Even now, I go see Jesse [Sykes] and Phil play and he’s amazing – and left-handed! Dude is a stunningly good guitar player, which Ryan was not. If you listen to those records, it’s that Phil piece on top of Ryan’s voice and the redeeming vocal part from Caitlin that makes it all work.

Maybe Jenni will have something else for me to listen to if I bump into her in Austin this week.

ADDENDUM: Jenni posted this link to her Facebook page with the following note, which engendered a quite-lively discussion:

I still don’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud of this, but it does sure remind me of that tingly feeling you have when you know you are right.

SECOND ADDENDUM (3/18/13): For those who care, I did SXSW 2013 recaps here and here. I’m just glad I didn’t have to contend with this guy.

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Ryan Adams — To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)

Something I have to keep reminding myself about the mid-’90s Whiskeytown period covered in “Losering” is just how young — I mean, how freakin’ young — Ryan was back then. He was a few months shy of turning 21 years old when we first met in 1995, but he seemed even younger because (a) he looked like he could have easily passed for a high school underclassman; and (b) he had such puppy-dog enthusiasm about everything that you thought he couldn’t possibly be old enough to drive, let alone drink. Below is visual evidence, two portraits of the artist as a (very) young man circa 1996-97, taken by Whiskeytown’s co-manager Jenni Sperandeo. That’s Peter Blackstock throwing gang signs in the picture on the left.

As it happens, Jenni and Peter are both in Austin this weekend to attend the Sept. 8 Grulkefest — a tribute concert to the late great Brent Grulke, one of the big movers and shakers behind South By Southwest. I’m an old Austin hand myself, and it kills me not to be there because so many of my favorite mid-’80s-vintage bands will be playing. Alas, I must settle for being there in spirit and making a toast. Salud!

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