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August 3, 1995
One hot August night in 1995, I went to a downtown Raleigh nightspot called the Berkeley Café. I had a show to see, and an interview to conduct a typical working night out, one of thousands I've spent over the years. There was no reason to suspect it would be anything out of the ordinary. But it turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of my career, and not just because it would be my first direct brush with the subject of this book.
That night's show was a regular monthly happening, the Songwriters Alliance Series, organized and hosted by a local musician named Jeff Hart. Under this format, five musicians would gather in an acoustic setting to play and talk about favorite songs. There was a hootenanny-among-friends vibe, with other musicians comprising most of the audience of several dozen.
My interview subject was Ryan Adams, a last-minute addition to the bill when someone else had to cancel. At the time, Ryan was leader of a fast-rising country-rock band called Whiskeytown. I had seen one of his earlier groups, Patty Duke Syndrome, but I am embarrassed to confess that they hadn't made much of an impression. But Ryan sure made one that night, especially when he broke out his old Patty Duke song "Sara Bell." Even with the velocity and the volume turned down to a solo acoustic rendition, it was drop-dead amazing, the outro refrain of "your eyes" made all the more haunting by his hushed delivery.
A couple of things were immediately apparent. First, even though he could have passed for a high-school freshman, Ryan was good really good, easily one of the best singer-songwriters I'd ever seen. Second, he did not lack for brashness, because the titular subject of "Sara Bell" (a woman every indie-rock boy in town had a huge crush on) was sitting to his left onstage and turning a bright shade of crimson. And third, even though he was playing a borrowed guitar and reading the lyrics from a crumpled piece of paper balanced on the dirty denim knee of his jeans, Ryan had It, a presence that lit up the room. It was not unlike walking by a pickup basketball game and noticing Michael Jordan on the court.
Between songs, Ryan did exude a modicum of uncertain shyness, which manifested itself as self-deprecation. He introduced one number as "a song I never do the same way twice because I don't really know it," drawing a decent laugh from the audience. But once he started to sing and play, Ryan's obvious talent overwhelmed his modesty. Music seemed to just pour out of him, perfectly and beautifully formed, and he sang in a keening wail that cut straight to the heart. Ryan was a natural, and it was obvious he wasn't going to stay Raleigh's little secret for very long.
I wasn't the only person in the room that night who thought so, either. One was sitting in the audience not far from me Dana Kletter, Sara Bell's bandmate in a folk-rock band called Dish, who had just released a major-label album that summer on Interscope Records. Kletter had seen Ryan in both Whiskeytown and Patty Duke Syndrome, but it took seeing him solo to win her over.
"That was the first time Ryan really stood out to me as a songwriter, that night at the Berkeley," Kletter said in 2011. "It was the power of the songs by himself, and the fact that he had to sit in one place without much posturing. He played some amazingly beautiful songs that night, despite the fact that he infuriated Sara Bell. That song about her really was great, though. So was another song he did, about how he used to get drunk behind the furniture store but he don't get drunk no more."
Speaking of alcohol consumption, out-of-control intoxication figured prominently into the memorably bad part of that night's events, which began when a crazy drunk managed to talk his way onto the stage at the end of the show. Identifying himself as "Kenneth from Nashville," he took the event hostage once he got behind a microphone, mumbling a surreal string of non sequiturs. Of course, he couldn't play or sing at all, and it had been a mistake to let him try. But he seemed harmless enough. Jeff managed to usher the show to a close, and that appeared to be the end of it.
Afterward, Ryan and I sat down to talk at a table by the bar. The interview was for a short Whiskeytown feature in No Depression, to run in the magazine's Fall 1995 debut issue. Ryan was an eager interview subject, a totally open book. I could not have asked for a more accommodating conversationalist. And even though he still hadn't done many interviews at that point, he already showed a flair for rock star dramatics in body language as well as quotes.
"My life is my life," he said in his barfly rasp, lighting another in an endless string of cigarettes, "and as bad as it is, that's how bad the songs will be. If my life is bad, then the songs will be bad. If it's good, they'll be good."
Ryan was just getting started, but I wasn't going to get much more out of him that night thanks to the man from Nashville. Kenneth (described in subsequent police reports as a forty-six-year-old white male) had been sitting nearby muttering to himself, which was easy enough to ignore. But then he startled everybody by picking up and slamming down a bar stool. It boomed like a gunshot, and the bartender told him to cool it. That was when he started making threats, about killing himself as well as others.
The police were summoned, and they entered the room with flashlights. Kenneth retreated behind the bar, vowing to cut anyone who came near him. Then he said the magic words:
Don't make me shoot.
Not wanting to trigger a shootout, the cops cleared the room and a standoff ensued. Hostage negotiators couldn't budge the guy, and the stalemate stretched long into the night. Finally, the police department's Selective Enforcement Unit donned helmets and riot gear to forcibly remove poor Kenneth who, as it turned out, had no weapon except for a can opener. Casualties were limited to some broken bottles, a few scratched-up guitars, a broken video camera, and everyone's night of sleep. After his arrest, Kenneth was committed to the local psychiatric hospital, Dorothea Dix, from which he had recently (and prematurely) been released.
Unsure of what to do, Ryan and I went outside with everyone else. I considered trying to continue the interview on the sidewalk, but the mood for that was gone. So we stood around in the late-night heat, chatting about the oddity of the situation. The musicians were all stuck because their instruments were still inside, which made for some crankiness. But I remember Ryan expressing sympathy for Kenneth and his down-and-out demeanor.
"Ryan," Jeff said, "you need to start writing down some of these emotions."
Ryan just shrugged and lit another cigarette.
"I've got a backlog," he said through an exhaled cloud of smoke. "Unfortunately, I'm one of those people for whom introspection has never been a problem."
Sixteen years later, Ryan was singing a different tune. In a contentious LA Weekly interview that ran the same week his poignant Ashes & Fire album was released in October 2011, Ryan tried to downplay any connection between his life and his music: "I just think it would be a weird thing for somebody to make a judgment on me based on the records."
Ryan probably meant that when he said it, but anybody who has spent any time around him knows better. He's always been a fascinating artist and personality, and those two aspects are inextricably intertwined and often contradictory precisely because he just can't hold anything back, whether it's emotions or torrents of songs. He's one of the finest songwriters of his generation, and also one of the thinnest-skinned; complicated in some ways, simple in others; alternately humble and arrogant; your best friend and his own worst enemy. He'll break your heart in song one minute, then have you shaking your head the next with antics that would seem immature for a twelve-year-old. His swagger would have overwhelmed his music long ago if that music wasn't so damn good, and sometimes the music got overshadowed anyway. Long before he had a large and rabid audience hanging on his every word, those tendencies were already well established.
When he hit my radar back in 1995, Ryan had been on the scene for a couple of years. He'd dropped out of high school in his hometown of Jacksonville and run away to the comparatively big city of Raleigh to become, in his words, a "rock personality." He was already that, and also well on his way to becoming a star even if the rest of the world didn't know it just yet. But Ryan sure did, and he lived and breathed the part. The earliest Ryan interview I've found was a February 1994 Durham Herald-Sun newspaper story. Ryan was still a teenager, and the story closed with the sort of rock star–Masterpiece Theatre quote it would take most lesser mortals a career to work up to: "Rich and famous or not, I'm still going to be buried with a guitar, under a big oak tree in Memphis, Tenn., six miles shy of Graceland."
You could say that Ryan was literally born to be a rock star. His birthday is November 5, a date he shares with the likes of Ike Turner (of Ike & Tina fame), Art Garfunkel (Simon & . . .), Sam Shepard (a rock star among playwrights), Canadian pop star Bryan Adams (of "Summer of '69" fame) and most momentously, the late, great cosmic-cowboy icon Gram Parsons, who drank himself to death in 1973, the year before Ryan was born. So not only did Ryan play in a band that was a direct stylistic descendant of Parsons's Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers canon, he even had the same birthday. It was all just too perfect, especially since Ryan looked at rock stardom as more calling than mere avocation.
"If you've ever picked up a guitar in a bedroom and done a Pete Townshend windmill, you're a rock star because you've made yourself feel good and identified yourself as a rocker," he told me in a 2000 interview. "As stupid as that sounds, we need those secret fantasies to make life tolerable. Some do it with love, or drugs, working out, their car. Or by being stars in their own mind."
Ryan spent plenty of time executing Townshend-style guitar windmills in his bedroom while growing up in small-town North Carolina, daydreaming about escaping. He found a way out in music, and its cultural icons. Every record, book, and issue of Rolling Stone or Spin that came his way was a textbook, and he devoured and absorbed them all.
"Ryan was a kid from this crappy little town who grew up reading that stuff and really believed in it," said Angie Carlson, another local musician and onetime music editor of the Independent Weekly newspaper in Raleigh/Durham. "He especially liked the rock clichés. He figured that's how it was done, and he was by God gonna be one of those guys. He came from nothing, and he did it. You've got to give him props for that."
By the time I heard Ryan's solo act, he was pretty much fully formed like I said, one of the best singer-songwriters I'd ever seen and the first recordings he'd made with Whiskeytown were spectacular. I wasted no time getting that into print, wherever I could. I've written a lot of words in a lot of places about Ryan over the years. Most of them ran in Raleigh's daily newspaper, the News & Observer, but also in magazines including No Depression, Billboard, Huh, and Spin, plus MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide and various places online.
At one time, I was something like Whiskeytown's unofficial propagandist. An early press kit had so many of my bylines that the band's manager whited some of them out so it wasn't obvious how many had been written by the same obsessive fanboy. I also wrote a novel, a roman à clef set in the music industry, starring a charismatic and troubled genius who bore more than passing resemblance to Ryan. He proved to be a perfect model for the character, and a lot of the reviews noted the similarities. But if Ryan ever read that book, he never let on.
As for this book, I'm either the best or the worst person to write it, depending on your perspective. My dynamic with Ryan was never friendship so much as symbiosis; he was always great copy, and I was happy to play Howard Cosell to his Muhammad Ali, which was fun for the both of us even if the lines sometimes got murky. Getting too chummy with the people you cover is an occupational hazard of rock journalism, especially around the hometown, and I've always done my best to walk the right side of that line.
Keeping it businesslike was an especially good idea with Ryan, because you just never knew how he'd react to things. The longest story I ever wrote about him ran in No Depression in the fall of 2000, when his first solo album was coming out as Whiskeytown entered its death throes. The story had been a lot of work, but I was proud of it and thought he'd like the way I'd captured his swagger. A year to the day before the World Trade Center would fall to earth, here's what Ryan had to say about that story in an e-mail (reproduced verbatim, including typos, as all e-mails and Internet postings in this tale will be):
i am very angry with you but only out of love. ive discovered that you dont know me very well. it isnt event important. you are much moreb beautiful without me to consider.
im 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-
Ryan and I came to a final parting of the ways in the fall of 2001, for reasons that are still unclear to me. He put out a record I didn't much like Gold, still among my least-favorite of his despite its Grammy nominations and I wrote an unenthusiastic review. Then another journalist wrote an unflattering magazine profile that quoted me, and I heard that Ryan somehow blamed me for the whole thing. I didn't hear from him much after that, just his manager. Aside from a few e-mail exchanges, Ryan and I haven't spoken in years.
By the time Gold put Ryan on the mainstream map, Raleigh was in his rearview mirror as surely as Jacksonville was. He had moved on to New York, then Nashville, then Los Angeles (where, at last report, he resides as a paparazzi target with movie star Mandy Moore, his wife since 2009). Despite what he may say in interviews, Ryan's records seem like a pretty good chronicle of his travels and travails.
For the most part, Ryan is fondly remembered in Raleigh, although the sentiment is not universal. Not surprisingly, there's still lingering jealousy among those he left behind and plenty of hard feelings. More than one person I interviewed said some variation of, "If not for me, he'd still be washing dishes." Of course, he had plenty of help along the way. But I don't believe dishes were ever in his future. For whatever reason, however, Ryan has kept his distance from his former stomping grounds since he moved away. In 2003, he posted an explanation of sorts on a message board run by his record label:
I am happy to be far away and safe from the hell hole that was NC. that was a group of people to afraid to succeed for fear of reprimand. mutiny on aa small ship in an ocean of nothing.…
At the time of this writing, Ryan has played exactly one show in Raleigh over the last decade, in June 2005 shortly after the release of his album Cold Roses. It was a strange and tense performance, and Ryan was so agitated that he appeared to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But he still played beautifully, and his former Whiskeytown bandmate Caitlin Cary joined him for a few songs at the end of the show, which seemed redemptive. The evening concluded with Ryan onstage at Slim's, a bar just a few blocks away from the Berkeley Café, playing an impromptu late-night jam with Cary and Whiskeytown's old drummer Skillet Gilmore.
I bring all this up not as an attempt to overstate my importance, but because it seems dishonest not to acknowledge my small role in this story. Some parts of this book are unavoidably first-person, while some parts are unavoidably based on secondary sources. That was not by choice. I have attempted to interview Ryan repeatedly since 2001, only to be turned down every time. And when it came to this book, he went so far as to ask other people not to talk (some didn't but plenty did, as you will see). So I've subtitled it Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown rather than The Story, which I would not presume to tell. Maybe Ryan himself will write that someday. Until he does, consider this to be one longtime fan's perspective on the most interesting part of Ryan's career when he was almost famous, and still inventing himself. In a lot of ways, Ryan himself is the best song he's ever written. And a lot of his other songs are pretty great, too.
In 2001, Skillet Gilmore was quoted as saying about Whiskeytown's mythological reputation, "You could probably blame all of this on David Menconi." He had tongue firmly in cheek, of course. But even if he didn't, I am reminded of Pete Seeger's reaction to being told he'd "discovered" Joan Baez: That would be like claiming you'd discovered the Grand Canyon. Ryan was hard to miss back then, and if it hadn't been me writing all those reams of words about him, it would have been somebody else, because he was just too good to stay unknown. It was simply my good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to bear witness.
And whattaya know, I just happened to be taking notes.
Rock N Roll, the album that Ryan Adams released in 2003, could almost pass for a back-pages scrapbook about his early underground-rock influences, starting with the packaging. The cover of the compact-disc booklet looks like a photocopied flyer for a punk show, depicting Ryan blank-faced and pigeon-toed, wearing a studded leather belt, and holding a broken guitar. Lyrics take up most of the inside pages, along with pictures of New York City; Jesse Malin, a longtime pal and D Generation frontman whose album Ryan had produced that year; and his then-girlfriend, actress Parker Posey. The booklet's back page displays an iconic set of tattoos on Ryan's left arm: a coiled rattlesnake and the word "Heartbreaker," title of his 2000 solo album; an "X" in the old-English typeface favored by the Los Angeles punk band X; and just below his wrist, "1974."
Also the title of Rock N Roll's third track, 1974 is the year that David Ryan Adams was born in North Carolina, the son of building contractor Robert Adams and English teacher Susan Dedmond Adams. He was the second of their three kids, falling between an older brother and a younger sister. The Adams family lived in Jacksonville, a green-collar town near the coast. The marine base Camp Lejeune is Jacksonville's primary feature, and the town's biggest employer. In 1991, the deployment of troops to the first Persian Gulf War depopulated Jacksonville so much that North Carolina Gov. James G. Martin declared surrounding Onslow County an "economic emergency area."
For most people farther inland, Jacksonville isn't much more than a string of generic pawn shops, fast-food joints, and gas stations you drive past on the way to Morehead City or Emerald Isle's beaches. The main thoroughfare through town is Highway 24, and it takes you right by Camp Lejeune and Midway Park, a fenced-off subdivision for military families. When local troops are on the move, bedsheets turned into makeshift "Welcome Home" or "Bon Voyage" banners cover Midway Park's fences out by the highway.
Thanks to the area's military infrastructure, much of Jacksonville's population is young, male and transient. For those not in the military, the townies, finding more than minimum-wage work in Jacksonville can be a challenge. By his own account, Ryan found it a difficult and oppressive place to grow up. There wasn't much for young people to do there besides hang out at Putter's Palace indoor miniature-golf course and skating rink.
"Jacksonville itself is a really old-fashioned place," Ryan said in one of our earliest interviews. "You can't get Spin there or anything like that, and when you say 'beer' to those people, all they think of is Natural Light. It's a dismal town with a military base. Every time I think of going home, I think about going through Midway Park, either leaving Jacksonville or to get there. The houses there are all exactly the same, row upon row of them, all drab blue."
But just as you can't choose where you're from, you can't completely shake off your roots, either. Jacksonville and its totems have been a consistent presence in much of Ryan's music over the years. The first song on Whiskeytown's first album was called "Midway Park," and it was inspired by a girl who lived there. One of the best songs on Whiskeytown's 2001 swan song Pneumonia was "Jacksonville Skyline," a remembrance set to a lilting acoustic shuffle as wistful as anything Bruce Springsteen ever wrote about New Jersey. And when Ryan made a 2005 solo album trying to reconnect with his country roots, he called it Jacksonville City Nights and credited it to Ryan Adams & the Cardinals (which may or may not have been a reference to Jacksonville High School's mascot, or North Carolina's state bird). That album's second song is "The End," on which Ryan sings of "suffocating on the pines in Jacksonville" in a wounded yelp.
Compare "The End" with "Jacksonville Skyline," however, and it's the latter song's bittersweet affection that rings truer. In an early "autobiographical fragment" composed during Whiskeytown's mid-1990s heyday (and later archived under the heading "Drunken Confessions" on the website answeringbell.com), Ryan detailed some of his conflicted feelings about his old hometown:
Most all of the songs I write now concern Jacksonville. For a very long time I wouldn't write about it or even think about it because I had a very hard time growing up there. And the town itself has been going through a very hard time since before I was born. But I dropped out of high school there I bought my first records there and I will probably die and be buried there eventually and for some reason I can identify with that place now all those fucking people live there because they can't imagine living anyplace else. It's all they know and they're scared and don't like change. So that place is inhabited by all these old fashioned people with ideas about the world that just aren't viable anyplace else. They all drink a lot or not. It is the oldest wrongest place in the world and it's where I'm from and it's where my songs are coming from.
Ryan's parents split up in 1981. After their divorce, he was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, Geemaw, and both women left a profound mark on him. Ryan likened his mother to "a psychedelic game show" in a 2003 interview with Blender magazine, adding, "You don't know what you're going to win, you don't really know what the point of the game is, you just play."
With his mom's encouragement, young Ryan developed a voracious appetite for reading. Favorite authors included Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Miller, Hubert Selby Jr., and, of course, William Faulkner he grew up in the South, after all. Tom Cushman, a roommate during Ryan's Raleigh days, remembers him writing a cross and the words "THE BIBLE" on a paperback copy of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Another favorite was North Carolina novelist Reynolds Price, whose name Ryan later adopted as an alias for a private friends-only Facebook account.
As for Geemaw, Ryan spent a lot of his wonder years at her house, watching television and discussing cultural matters large and small. Country music was always in the air in Jacksonville, thanks to radio station WRNS, 95.1 FM (slogan: "Your country!"), but especially at his grandmother's house although Ryan also conned Geemaw into buying him independent label singles and the occasional Black Sabbath album, and he even got her to listen to some of it with him. He also pursued art beyond music, borrowing Geemaw's typewriter to write short stories. And he had aspirations in the visual arts, too.
"I used to paint, all through school," Ryan told me in a 2000 interview. "My attention to detail is more to colors and less to form. Growing up in Jacksonville, I probably did five years of art classes with this same teacher, Mr. Young, who was migrating on up through the grades with me. He got me into some things, had a few paintings in the Onslow County Art Museum. My family was shocked I became a musician. They thought I'd become a commercial artist or go to art school. But then I heard a Johnny Thunders record and that fucked it all up."
Punk rock was something else young Ryan took to, along with skateboarding two things that go hand in hand. Unfortunately, Jacksonville was not the best place to cultivate an interest in underground music, because there wasn't anything like an independent record store anywhere in the vicinity. That left the Record Bar at the mall as the only game in town. But that's where Ryan connected with two employees who would become some of his earliest bandmates.
One was Jere McIlwean, an older-brother figure to a generation of young punk kids in Onslow County. McIlwean played in a band called Pumphouse, and he was well versed in hard-to-find punk records he would buy on shopping trips up to Raleigh and Chapel Hill. He took Ryan under his wing when he noticed the kid buying up every punk record he could find at Record Bar.
"It all kind of started with Jere," said Brian Walsby, who later played with Ryan and McIlwean in Patty Duke Syndrome. "He was the motivator, mover and shaker of a lot of those kids down there, kind of like the dad."
Unfortunately, Record Bar was poorly stocked when it came to the punk records Ryan was reading about in underground magazines. But revelation arrived courtesy of Shane Duhe, another clerk at the store and a skateboarding friend of Ryan's. One day, a guy came into the store and asked Duhe if he liked punk rock. Sure, he answered.
"The dude said, 'I'm going to Okinawa and I can't take my records with me, so do you want 'em?'" Duhe said in 2011. "I said yes, and this guy brings in a stack of stuff that would be priceless now Black Flag, GBH, Descendants just a gold mine of old punk rock. I was the coolest guy in Jacksonville for a while thanks to him, and some of Ryan's first exposure to punk rock was me bringing records over to his house when he was in ninth grade. I remember letting him borrow Black Flag, and he was just buzzing over that one. 'You've got to listen to this,' he said the next day. 'You hear what he just said? I don't want to live/I wish I was dead oh my God, who has the balls to write like that?!' He was just wigging out over that stuff. It made me happy that he was so into it."
To be a fan of punk rock is to start playing it yourself, which Ryan and his Jacksonville pals were soon doing. They called their first band Blank Label, and Ryan played drums. McIlwean was on guitar, with a high school friend named Michelle Horn on bass and Duhe as frontman/lead vocalist. Blank Label stayed together long enough to record three Duhe-composed songs in 1991 "Non-Existence," "Sonic Issue," and "JLW," all pretty standard-issue hardcore of the sort you'd expect from a quartet of Black Flag fans. They scraped together enough money to press up two hundred copies of a seven-inch vinyl single, "and we got rid of 'em all," Duhe said.
After Blank Label ran their course, various offshoots sprouted up and branched off. Duhe and McIlwean started another punk band, Green Legged Goat, which lasted for a couple of years and played as far away as Virginia. Ryan put down his drumsticks and picked up a guitar, forming the first version of Patty Duke Syndrome with McIlwean and drummer Alan Midget. Patty Duke Syndrome were named after the 1960s-vintage TV star, who played multiple characters on The Patty Duke Show and later developed bipolar disorder.
"We never played any shows, really," Ryan said of the Jacksonville version of Patty Duke Syndrome in an early interview. "A party in a barn every now and then, maybe."
The Jacksonville Patty Duke Syndrome played something along the lines of Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü's noisy yet melodic punk, and Ryan had another band called Kotten going at the same time. He took to songwriting with intense enthusiasm and became a dervish almost immediately, generating songs at a pace feverish enough to annoy everyone he knew.
"Ryan was playing guitar, taking photos, doing everything a hundred miles an hour," Duhe said. "After he got ahold of a guitar and figured out a couple of chords, he was always aggravating the shit out of us. He'd write another song every ten minutes and make us hear it. 'Ryan,' I'd say, 'I've already heard ten songs by you!' 'Yeah, you have. Here's another!' That's how passionate he was."
As passionate as Ryan was about music, however, he was anything but when it came to school, dropping out of high school in the tenth grade (he would earn a GED later). Things were tense at home, too, and when things there got too unpleasant he'd leave the house to go stay with McIlwean for extended periods. Eventually, Ryan decided he'd had enough and ran away to the nearest big town. That was Raleigh, 120 miles away. He was still just a teenager.
"Ryan was upset with his parents over something," Duhe said. "I can't remember how I got word, but I heard he wanted to run away. 'Okay, dude,' I told him, 'I'll help you.' So I went to his house, packed him and his stuff up in my '86 red Chevy pickup, and drove him on up to Raleigh. He wound up staying in Raleigh for a while."