One thing about taking on Ryan Adams as a biography subject, you don’t want to blow it because he’s published a couple of books himself — “Hello Sunshine” and “Infinity Blues,” both of which came out in 2009 (not quite as robust a display of productivity as his musical 2005, but pretty impressive nevertheless). And while neither book was unanimously acclaimed, they still established enough of a literary reputation for Ryan to land on a recent listicle about “10 Rockers With Serious Literary Cred.” Ryan comes in at No. 8, just behind Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and ahead of Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz. Patti Smith, Tom Waits and Nick Cave are all further on up the list, too. And fittingly, the top dog is Leonard Cohen.
Posts Tagged With: Tom Waits
The 20 years or so that “Losering” covers is just a small subset of a bigger story that goes even further back in time. That was one reason I started this damn country blog (groan), to fill in the picture a bit; only so much can fit into 200 pages, after all. My own history in the Triangle goes back to 1991, when I arrived to take the rock-writer job at the News & Observer. Alas, that was a few years too late for me to experience Chapel Hill’s Pressure Boys, who broke up in the late 1980s.
The Pressure Boys were kind of the ultimate party band in a town full of them, and former members went on to notable careers elsewhere — note the band’s prominent place in the upper left corner of this slice of the “N.C. music galaxy” I did in 1995. In the big picture, the Pressure Boys served as a transitional bridge between the ’80s wave of bands including Arrogance, dB’s and Let’s Active; and the alternative-rock generation that came of age in the ’90s, including Superchunk and Whiskeytown.
After the Pressure Boys broke up, frontman John Plymale became a very fine producer, in which capacity he worked with a ton of acts from multiple generations of the Triangle music scene. Maybe the best illustration of his career is a record that ties it all together in a most wonderful way, Songs for 65 Roses: Re-Working the North Carolina Jukebox, a 2006 compilation to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (the album’s title came from how his young daughter Allie, who has cystic fibrosis, would pronounce the disease when she was very young).
The concept of 65 Roses is North Carolina acts covering North Carolina songs. Plenty of players from the “Losering” story turn up on both sides of that equation — Caitlin Cary, Superchunk, Chris Stamey and Squirrel Nut Zippers among them. Check this 2006 feature for further details on the web of connections that the album spins.
My favorite 65 Roses song is Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No,” recast in a Tom Waits-ish arrangement by Eric Bachmann, leader of 1990s-vintage Chapel Hill indie-rock titans Archers of Loaf. Not far behind, however, is Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” as performed by Portastatic, the solo incarnation of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan. It starts out quiet and acoustic like Ryan’s 2000 original before revving up into an electrified version, a great tangent that turns a prayerful song into an exuberant one.
Check out this lovely little rumination about it, which has a Spotify link helpfully included.
While he wasn’t an onstage performing member of the group, road manager Thomas O’Keefe was a part of Whiskeytown for longer than just about anybody except for Ryan and Caitlin. So he was there for some of the most notable onstage dust-ups of the “Losering” story, including Kansas City, East Lansing and San Francisco — and if Caitlin was the one doing the apologizing afterward, O’Keefe was the one who had to pick up the pieces. Fortunately for him, he is a stout individual that few people want to mess with.
Post-Whiskeytown, O’Keefe has managed the Ohio rock band Watershed (subject of this book, which you should read immediately if you haven’t already); and also worked as road manager for Train, a fairly ginormous pop band from San Francisco. For more on just how busy Train keeps him, see this. One reason Train has been so much more successful than Whiskeytown is that they’re willing to play the game.
“I always figured Ryan would be Tom Waits, someone you and I know but the average joker doesn’t,” O’Keefe told me in 2010. “Going to work for Train has shown me the work they do to be successful. They still get up at 6 a.m. and visit the radio station. The amount of that kind of thing it takes to be massive is incredible. We just did two weeks of top-40 shows with Katy Perry, and that was just us kissing butt at the radio stations that played us all year. But it’s a necessary evil, and Ryan would never ever do that. So he’ll never have the commercial success that Train has, but that’s never been his motivation, either.”