Posts Tagged With: No Depression magazine

Ray Benson is an author!

ACLfestAs noted earlier, Asleep at the Wheel is on the Austin City Limits Music Festival schedule again this year in the band’s traditional Friday-afternoon opening slot. And after today’s set, Austin American-Statesman music critic Peter Blackstock (founding co-editor of the original No Depression magazine, and also one of my oldest, dearest friends) did a brief interview with Wheel main man Ray Benson talking about “Comin’ Right at Ya” — in which Ray declared, “I’m an author, folks, and don’t you forget it…not just a guitar player.”

Heck, yeah. Check the video for that here. 

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Fifteen years of “Heartbreaker”

HeartbreakerHere’s another reminder of just how much time has slipped away since the Whiskeytown era: Today marks exactly 15 years since the release of Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams’ first solo album. Even though the band hadn’t “officially” broken up at that point, and its in-limbo album Pneumonia wouldn’t be released until the following May, I’ve still always thought of Heartbreaker as the official end of Ryan’s Whiskeytown period. He was certainly talking about Whiskeytown in the past tense in the No Depression magazine feature I wrote for Heartbreaker’s release. And a year later, the mainstream was in the process of finally discovering Ryan with his second (and inferior, at least to me) solo album Gold.

Here’s a pretty solid track-by-track dissection. I am a little embarrassed to admit that, as noted in chapter 12 of “Losering,” my initial reaction to Heartbreaker at the time was disappointment that it didn’t have any of the astounding material I’d seen Ryan play live during his fall 1999 shows (“Hey There Mrs. Lovely,” “Oh My Sweet Valentine,” “Born Yesterday” and other songs you can find nowadays on bootlegs like Destroyer). But that feeling didn’t last because Heartbreaker was and is extraordinary — a perfect snapshot of Ryan finding himself artistically at a moment when his life and career seemed to be falling apart. I still think it’s the best of his officially released solo albums, and it would have outsold Gold by multiples were there an ounce of justice in this world. At least it’s the top-selling album in the history of Bloodshot Records, so that’s something.

Ryan himself has had some harsh and flippant things to say about Heartbreaker over the years, including this dismissively withering 2006 self-assessment:

If you are a redneck or want to be disappointed with me buy Heartbreaker. But it’s utter shit and I didn’t mean a word of it.

Maybe he really meant that. But Ryan says a lot of things, and I think it matters more that a decade and a half later, he still plays Heartbreaker tunes like “Come Pick Me Up” and “Oh My Sweet Carolina” onstage pretty much every night. And it seems as though his feelings toward Heartbreaker have softened just a bit. In the wee small hours of this morning, Ryan tweeted this:

Happy 15th Anniversary, Heartbreaker!!!

You’re too long, overly earnest & a lil’ wordy but damnit you’re all mine.

That’s fair. So here’s to Heartbreaker — and the ongoing hope that the heartbreak kid has still got another record like that in him.

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No Depression goes back to the future: print!

NDprintSo yeah, this fall marks 20 years since No Depression magazine started up as a real-world print publication (remember those?). As you can see from the picture below, various folks including Ryan Adams have been sending birthday greetings. And not only that, plans are in the works to expand No Depression beyond its current online incarnation by bringing it back as an actual print publication under the auspices of its current management, with the first issue scheduled to be out in September.

The revived print No Depression will do a lot of the long-form pieces that were a staple of the old magazine. But it won’t have advertising, so the editorial braintrust has turned to crowd-funding to get started. A Kickstarter campaign went live yesterday, and it’s already more than halfway to the $40,000 goal after one day. So get in on the ground floor, y’all. Check details here.

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Ryan Adams sends birthday wishes

RyanNDBetween his latterday performances and disavowal of country music, it would be easy to get the idea that Ryan Adams has completely forgotten about his old band Whiskeytown and the alternative-country universe it once inhabited. But — maybe not!

Here’s a picture that turned up in No Depression editor Kim Ruehl’s inbox, in which Ryan sends birthday greetings for the old No Depression magazine’s 20-year anniversary. It was taken by photographer C. Elliot in Tucson, where Ryan played the other night (check this review).

Yes, there’s lots of history between Ryan and No Depression. A nice gesture, I’d say.

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No Depression falls off Sugar Mountain

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 1.38.19 PMBack during the band’s heyday, much of what I wrote about Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, Steve Grothmann and the rest of Whiskeytown originally appeared in the pages of No Depression magazine (remember magazines?). No Depression billed itself as “the alternative country (whatever that is) magazine”; and if you haven’t figured it out before now, yes, the reference at the top of this blog to “Losering” as “The official unauthorized Ryan Adams biography (whatever that is)” serves as both inside joke and cheeky little tip of the hat.

I was one of around a dozen contributing editors for No Depression, but the magazine’s primary editorial braintrust was Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden (two writers I very much hope will someday write books for our American Music Series). No Depression was a very cool magazine back in its day, covering the far-flung ins and outs of Americana music like no other publication. It had a great run over its 13-year existence, finally shutting down in 2008 because of the simultaneous and cacaclysmic decline of both the print and recorded-music industries. I still miss it, both as a reader and a writer. There’s more about the magazine’s origins, including its connection to various books I’ve written, here.

NDno1Post-print, No Depression lives on as a website that’s still actively covering the Americana universe (including a very nice “Losering” review, thank you very much), and it will be marking the magazine’s 20-year anniversary through the rest of 2015. No Depression’s first issue — Vol. 1, No. 1, weighing in at a grand total of 32 pages — came out in the fall of 1995, featuring Peter’s Son Volt cover story. I think that still stands as the definitive story about Son Volt, and Jay Farrar thought enough of it and the magazine to send birthday wishes all these years later.

That first issue also had a little piece by yours truly in the short-feature “Town & Country” section. Headlined “A short interview’s journey into hell,” it recounted the first time I ever interviewed Ryan. That story figures prominently into the preface of “Losering.” And for better or worse, the book probably would not exist if not for No Depression, so I’m grateful. Happy birthday, No Depression! Let’s close with a song from Ryan.

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Old friends: Ryan Adams and Peter Blackstock

RyanPeter

Peter Blackstock, left, and Ryan Adams circa 1997.

So Ryan Adams played an “Austin City Limits” taping Wednesday night down in Texas. Alas, I was not there. But UT Press American Music Series co-editor Peter Blackstock was, reviewing the show for the Austin American-Statesman, and his presence did not go unnoticed from the stage. Ryan spotted Peter in the crowd during his opening solo acoustic set and gave him a shout-out as founder of No Depression magazine while noting that he’s “looking more and more like Jerry Garcia every day.”

Later, Ryan happened to be looking Peter’s way when he yawned, and he called him out on it: “Peter Blackstock, you come to my show and fucking yawn? What the fuck is that?” That led to Ryan inviting him to go jogging the next day (Peter replied via Twitter that he was game; but no word yet on whether or not that happened). And Peter’s name also came up while Ryan was telling stories about NASA and the band Kiss, with Ryan asking if Peter was getting everything down in his notes. At the end of the three-hour show, Ryan singled out Peter to thank him for coming.

As you can see from the picture above, Peter and Ryan go way back, to the mid-1990s Whiskeytown days, when Peter was putting Ryan on his magazine’s cover. It hasn’t always been friendly, especially when Peter unfavorably reviewed Ryan’s 2001 album Gold by likening it to “Pyrite” (inspiring one of Ryan’s more infamous online blowups, as recounted on page 151 of “Losering”). That came up Wednesday night after Ryan played a version of that album’s “When the Stars Go Blue” so beautiful, it reduced at least one person in the audience to tears. Ryan gave the audience member in question, an Austin musician named Nakia, a hug before declaring that Peter “fuckin’ hates that song” and dubbing him “the Austin Music hall monitor.”

A lesser person (me, say) probably would have recounted at least some of this in the show review. But Peter stuck with the music, and you can read his review here. I’ll be curious to see if any of the banter winds up in whatever “ACL” airs, which should show up sometime in 2015. Meanwhile, based on the Twitter exchange below, Ryan and Peter seemed to end the evening on friendly terms.


PeterRyanACL


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Friends near and far, throwing rocks at the moon

SadlacksRIPFor those of us who were in Raleigh during our town’s glory days as epicenter of mid-’90s alternative-country, this holiday season has been just like the old times of the “Losering” era. It seems like we’ve all been saying hello again, as well as goodbye for good.

December brought the end of the building that housed one of Ryan Adams’ favorite Whiskeytown-era watering holes, the Comet Lounge, which was finally torn down two years after the demolition of the adjacent Brewery nightclub. And New Year’s Eve brought the end of Sadlack’s, the Hillsborough Street sandwich shop/bar where Whiskeytown formed two decades ago, which is closing to make way for a hotel. I went to Kenny Roby’s show there last Saturday night to report this story about the end; and while I was there, a Sadlack’s regular who may or may not have been drunk got in my face to rant, because I apparently chose the wrong person to interview. On the whole, I’d say it was a very Sadlack’s interaction, along with the following response from an angry reader (reproduced here in all its sub-literate glory):

Sadlack’s not well written at all, lame and denigrating you so called journalistic hack, you must be a smart ass never traveled punk yankee go home…news and disturber another rag with paid articles written to favor their advertisers

Golly, guess he told me.

Come New Year’s Eve, the Backsliders presided over the end out on the back patio with a last-rites set that included a couple of new songs good enough to qualify as encouraging. But just like always, it was “Throwing Rocks at the Moon” that put a lump in my throat. Title track of a 1997 album that really should have launched the Backsliders to stardom (or at least beyond dayjobs), “Moon” is a pretty-much-perfect evocation of bittersweet goodbyes. I found myself thinking about Ryan, of course, who left Sadlack’s and Raleigh behind long ago; and also my old friend Peter Blackstock, for whom I wrote that first No Depression Whiskeytown story all those years ago — and who just left the Triangle to move back to Austin and take the rock-writer job at the American-Statesman. I really wish he could’ve been there, so I sent a silent toast in his direction

6SDI’m also wishing Peter was gonna be here this weekend for Saturday’s reunion show by the third band from Raleigh’s alt-country kingpin troika, Kenny Roby’s 6 String Drag. Of course, the principles get a little twitchy about calling this a “reunion,” a word that carries the baggage of expectations. But no matter what they’re calling it, 6 String Drag’s four members have reconvened to record new music, which they’ll do later this month at Mitch Easter’s splendid Fidelitorium recording emporium over in Kernersville. I can’t wait to hear it. Meantime, here’s a preview of Saturday night’s show. Yes, of course, I’ll be there.

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News about the American Music Series, and me — I’ll be Asleep At The Wheel

So “Losering” is still semi-current and getting some attention here and there; I’m curious to see whether or not the next Ryan Adams album (whenever one emerges) might generate some more interest. But the book has been out there for more than six months, which means it’s high time to move along to the next thing. I’m happy to have some news about that, as well as the University of Texas Press American Music Series.

RayBensonMy next book will be co-writing a memoir with Ray Benson, founder and guiding light of the Western swing band Asleep At The Wheel, and it’s a project I could not be more excited about. I grew up in Texas during the ’70s progressive-country era, and I wrote my UT Master’s thesis about the Armadillo World Headquarters. I’ve always had a soft spot for that era’s icons, and as icons go Ray is one of the best — a fantastic musician and raconteur who, as the saying goes, has been around the world twice and talked to everybody at least once. This should be a raucous good time.

So that’s what I’ll be working on for the next year or so. While the Benson book is also for UT Press, this one won’t actually be part of the UT Press American Music Series. But work there continues apace. As mentioned previously, David Cantwell’s “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind” is next up, out in September, to be followed by John T. Davis’s “The Flatlanders: One More Road” in 2014. I’ve been asked to keep mum about several other titles in the works, but here are the ones in the pipeline that I can tell you about:

Los Lobos, by Chris Morris
John Prine, by Eddie Huffman
Vic Chesnutt, by Kristin Hersh
Ray Charles, by David Cantwell
Mary J. Blige, by Danny Alexander
Madonna, by Alina Simone

Obviously, the last two names are what jump off that list, possibly leaving you to wonder what the heck is going on here. Thus far the American Music Series has had an Americana focus, which is not surprising given that it’s an outgrowth of No Depression magazine. But the series is still developing an identity, and the truth is that we were always going to have to broaden it in terms of both styles and approaches to make it work. Thus, Mary J. Blige and Madonna.

UTPressLogoNow it’s certainly possible that American Music Series might eventually come to mean just “books about music.” Nevertheless, even though Blige and Madonna are both outliers (and probably as far as I’d care to go in this direction), I think you can build a case for both being a better fit than they might seem at first glance. Blige, The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, is firmly grounded in the r&b tradition, and I’ve always thought of her as more soul than hip-hop. A decade from now, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she were singing straight-up gospel because such an evolution would make perfect sense.

That brings us to Madonna, who is admittedly more of a stretch. But I think the real draw here will be Alina Simone, one of the most exciting new writers out there. I first met Alina a few years back when she lived in Chapel Hill and was playing intriguingly dark indie-rock along the lines of Cat Power and PJ Harvey. She really found her voice on 2008’s Everyone Is Crying Out To Me, Beware, a tribute album to the late “Yanka” (Soviet-era punk icon Yana Stanislavovna Dyagileva, who is Russia’s answer to Patti Smith). Sung entirely in Russian, Beware is a fascinating album with an even-more-fascinating back-story; you can read some of it here or here. Better still, read Alina’s wonderful 2011 memoir “You Must Go and Win.”

If Steve Earle, Jon Langford or another writerly Americana icon wanted to write a book for our series, I think we’d jump at the chance even if the subject they proposed fell outside the Americana universe. While Alina doesn’t have as high a musical profile as those two, she’s still part of this century’s indie-rock flock — someone that No Depression probably would have been reviewing if the magazine were still publishing when Beware came out. I think Alina’s idiosyncratic take on a cultural icon like Madonna will make for a great book. I can’t wait to read what she comes up with, and to be a part of sharing it with you.

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Phil Lee: You should have known him then

PhilLeeXMASI’ll never forget the first time I interviewed Phil Lee. It was late 1991, the year I’d moved to Raleigh, and it took place in a trailer park just off Interstate 85 in Durham. Phil was living there in a small silver Airstream that looked like a toaster from the outside, a place that had inspired a shit-hot rocker called “A Night in the Box.” Check out the video, with a spoken-word preface by Phil in full-on Mighty King Of Love mode. Pay attention to the bass player, too. That’s Danny Kurtz, later of the Backsliders and (yes) Whiskeytown.

Some 21 years later, Saturday night found me standing in a parking lot looking over Phil’s shoulder as he scrolled through the pictures on his mobile phone to find this album cover — packaging for an opus coming out in 2013. It was the sort of night that connected straight back to the Whiskeytown era. Phil moved on from Raleigh years ago but never cut his ties, and he was back in town to play a Christmas party at a joint called The Office Tavern. Opening the show was Chip Robinson, last heard from in this space a week ago. The aforementioned Danny Kurtz was back on bass. And the crowd included lots of folks I used to rub elbows with at alternative-country shows around Raleigh back in the day.

I’ve interviewed Phil a good bit over the years, including this 2000 piece (one of my favorites from the No Depression era). Saturday night, Phil was his usual hilarious mix of impishness, swagger and self-deprecation. As always, he was On The Verge. He mentioned a well-known band that was supposed to have played on his new album, which fell through when their frontman called them back to duty; an upcoming movie he’s in, as himself; a live DVD, shot at the fabled North Beach nightspot The Purple Onion — all while holding court with passersby and keeping up a steady line of chatter about stuff like one of his odder recent hobbies. As we talked and he hunted for pictures on his mobile device, a car alarm started going off nearby and we all looked up. Except for Phil. Without missing a beat, he cracked, “Don’t ask,” and we all snickered.

I told Phil he needs to hurry up and get famous, either by lucking into a hit or committing some sordid deed, so that I can write the book. But he just laughed and I did, too. I think we both knew that when the time comes, he’ll write that book himself. Meantime, when he fired up “A Night in the Box” Saturday night, it still rocked pretty formidably two decades on.

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No Depression in heaven, or down here

So it was the News & Observer that got me to Raleigh all those years ago; but as recounted in “Losering,” it was No Depression that led to my first direct contact with Ryan way back in 1995. No Depression was a great magazine during its 13-year run, and a wonderful thing to be  part of. I miss reading and writing for it, very much. But the swift decline of both print media and the record industry was too much of a double-whammy to overcome, and No Depression ceased publishing in 2008.

In the summer of 2005, however, the magazine was at its peak in terms of heft. That was when University of Texas Press published the second anthology of No Depression writings, “The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music.” A profile of Ryan from the fall of 2000 was included in the book, and I did some bookstore readings for it around the Triangle. Below is a spiel I worked up as a preamble, tracing the magazine’s history, my involvement in it and also my relationship with Ryan (and his part in inspiring a character in my 2000 novel “Off The Record”). If you’ve read “Losering,” some of this will be familiar.

Ten long years ago, a friend of mine named Peter Blackstock began talking about a music magazine he was starting. “No Depression,” they were going to call it, after “No Depression in Heaven” — a 1936 Carter Family song covered by the upstart band Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo was one of a number of young bands coming to country music by way of punk rock in the 1990s, alongside the Jayhawks, Old 97s, Freakwater and others. No Depression was going to cover these bands, as well as oldtimers like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris.

It was an ambitious undertaking, and I’d like to be able to say that my response was, “Wow! What a fantastic idea!” A decade later, I am mortified to confess that I didn’t take No Depression too seriously at first. In fact, when Peter asked me to write something for the magazine’s first issue, I told him I wasn’t sure I’d have time.

Peter was an old and dear friend, and I had some familiarity with his quirks — his obsession with the songs of Jimmy Webb, for example, or his habit of driving halfway across the country for a dinner date. When I lived in Boulder, he showed up from Texas semi-unannounced more than once. Another time, I remember Peter calling from a payphone somewhere in the Texas Panhandle to ask if I could make him a cassette tape of Joe Jackson’s new live album. He had an assignment to review it, and he was going to pass through Colorado on one of his spur-of-the-moment driving trips. So he was wondering if he could come by and pick that up on the way, from a different time zone.

I’ve watched a lot of startup magazines come and go. At the time, there seemed no reason to think that No Depression would be more than another of Peter’s quixotic quests. But he was persistent. Peter wanted me to do a short feature on a Raleigh band called Whiskeytown, and he had already developed an editor’s knack for just which button to push to get me to do it. “If you can’t do it,” he wrote in an e-mail, “we can probably find someone else, but not as good a writer as you.” I like flattery as much as the next guy. So I finally said yes, even though Peter did not yet have the wherewithal to pay any of his writers. But I would not come away from this assignment empty-handed.

That summer of 1995, I was deep in the trenches of attempted literature, writing a novel about a fictional rock band. The leader of this band in my head was a self-conscious young man with some very screwed-up ideas about stardom and celebrity; a guy who was equal parts brilliant and crazy; and a person at war with himself because he desperately needed people to like him but could only express that as arrogance.

In short, this character I was struggling to bring to life was Ryan Adams, leader of the aforementioned Whiskeytown. My fictional rock star was named Tommy Aguilar. I originally envisioned him as Dexter Romweber, unhinged guitarist in another local band called Flat Duo Jets. That took care of Tommy’s crazy and unstable half. But he was still missing the boundless ambition and rock-star swagger I had in mind. For that, Ryan turned out to be the perfect model.

I went to every Whiskeytown show I could, lurked nearby whenever the opportunity presented itself and wrote about them often. Whiskeytown moved swiftly up the local and national totem pole, signing a major-label deal in 1996 and earning big plaudits for 1997’s Stranger’s Almanac — still my favorite record from Ryan’s entire catalog. Likewise, No Depression magazine was an immediate success. After paying all the contributors with a T-shirt for issue number one, Peter was able to start paying his writers actual money by the second issue. The magazine also went from quarterly to bi-monthly publication in the fall of 1996.Whiskeytown appeared on the cover of the July/August 1997 issue when Strangers Almanac came out, although Peter wrote that story himself instead of letting me do it, the no-good so-and-so. But it has been a pleasure and an honor to be associated with No Depression over the years, and to watch it grow from those modest beginnings to the very impressive magazine it is today. I believe I’ve had a byline in every single issue except one.

Meanwhile, I was still spending the wee small hours of every morning working on this novel, now called “Off The Record.” Tommy became Ryan, although there were times when it seemed like Ryan was becoming Tommy. In 1998, I was commissioned to write liner notes for a Whiskeytown record — the reissue of their first album, Faithless Street. It was an utter fiasco in which Ryan behaved so neurotically, I felt like I was being held hostage by my own fictional creation. I wrote multiple drafts, each of which was found wanting. Ultimately, the album came out with liner notes by Caitlin Cary rather than me, which was probably karmic justice.

But having Ryan as a model for Tommy Aguilar was a God-send. Like Ryan, my fictional Tommy is dark-haired, kind of pigeon-toed and sometimes wears the same thick-framed glasses favored by Brian Wilson. WWRD (What Would Ryan Do?) was a handy guide for whatever the Tommy character should say or do in a given situation. And imagining dialogue in Ryan’s voice was very useful.

Predictably, Whiskeytown fell apart after a few years, and Ryan started a solo career. His first solo album was called Heartbreaker and it came out in September of 2000, the same month No Depression published my profile of Ryan that’s in this book. And that was also the month that “Off The Record” finally came out. Early on, I tried to be circumspect about the connection between Tommy and Ryan. But enough reviews noted the similarities that I soon gave that up.

As it happened, this No Depression profile would mark the beginning of the end of whatever personal relationship I had with Ryan. I was pleased with how the story turned out, and I felt like it really captured him. But lots of people were very unhappy with it. Ryan’s ex-girlfriend, the subject of many of the songs on “Heartbreaker,” was furious about being identified by name. Ryan’s manager didn’t like the story, either, for reasons I never really understood. And Ryan himself responded with a puzzling e-mail — dated September 11, 2000, eerily enough.

“I am very angry with you but only out of love,” Ryan wrote. “I’ve discovered that you don’t know me very well. It isn’t even important. You are much more beautiful without me to consider. I’m drunk and in Seattle and I just went to see a spiritualist guide (they call him a shaman) and my life is changed. Hard changed. I hope to think about you in my meditations. Peace and cookies, R.”

(NOTE: To see this email reproduced in all the typo-ridden glory of Ryan’s original message, see the “Losering” preface.)

The last conversation I ever had with Ryan took place the following spring, in April of 2001. He called me at home one night, angry about a bad review someone else had written, to ask if I thought he should confront the writer about it. No, Ryan, I said, you should really just let it go — even though I knew he wouldn’t. And sure enough, I heard that he left a screaming rant on that other writer’s answering machine later that night.

(NOTE: “That other writer” was none other than Angie Carlson.)

We talked for a while that night. Ryan said he was working on a screenplay, a book and three different records. One of the albums was called Gold. “It’s so fuckin’ good, man,” Ryan said. “I hope you like it.” But I didn’t much like Gold when it came out a few months later, even though that was the record that made him a star and picked up multiple Grammy nominations. So what do I know?

In our last conversation, Ryan never mentioned this No Depression feature that seemed to upset him so much. He did, however, bring up “Off The Record.” He hadn’t yet read it, but he said, “I’ve been told that the lead character is like an unholy cross between myself and Dexter Romweber.” Well, Ryan, I said, you’ll just have to read it and let me know what you think. “Maybe I’ll do that,” he said.

I’ve always thought that if Ryan were to read “Off The Record,” he would claim to be pissed off. Secretly, however, he would be pleased to be a central figure in a book about rock mythology — because Ryan is nothing if not all about rock mythology. Maybe that’s what happened, maybe not. I guess I’ll never know.

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