Author David Menconi's Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown (out now via University of Texas Press) has already stirred up much heated talk regarding the work of Ryan Adams. In a recent book review by Mando Lines on No Depression, a number of comments poured in the message board from fans across the spectrum (ranging from die-hard/ "Ryan-can-do-no-wrong" loyalists to post-Heartbreaker detractors, etc.). Wherever you may fall along these lines between admiration, "burnt-out rock personality disdain", and/ or "Ashes and Fire-salvation" regarding Ryan's work, it leaves room for much conversation.
Now that I am finishing up Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown for myself, I was inspired to reach out to the author to discuss the book he has written, and share his insights with readers/ listeners. Losering draws from many interviews David Menconi has had with Ryan Adams during the formation, trajectory, and demise of Whiskeytown, as well as during Ryan's launching solo career.
Personally, as a fan of both Whiskeytown and much of Ryan's solo work, I have really enjoyed revisiting the Whiskeytown era with Mr. Menconi. There's a lot here for both longtime fans, as well as those who have discovered the work of Ryan Adams and are working their way back to his earlier days in Whiskeytown.
Hi David. Thanks very much for taking the time to discuss your new book.
I'd like to start with a recent book review of Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown I read on No Depression. A lot of the people leaving comments debated about this book being a biography or "one guy's opinion". So with this in mind, I'd like to start by asking you how you see it?
David Menconi: I think of it as a critical biography, one from a definite viewpoint that some people might find interesting, simply because I was there at the beginning. Even though I write for a newspaper, I’m not a big fan of the mainstream media’s faux-objectivity, where you have he-said/she-said stuff that never takes a stand, which creates an atmosphere where you have way too many people getting their “news” from rabid foaming-at-the-mouth talking heads screaming at you from the lunatic fringe.
I feel like it is more honest and real to acknowledge your perspective and then try to be as fair as possible, which was my goal here. Subtitling it A Story of Whiskeytown rather than “The Story” was my way of owning up to the fact that this wouldn’t be “just the facts.” Whether or not it’s fair, well, that’s not for me to judge.
How and when did you get the idea for writing the book? Can you describe your initial vision for the book?
David: Early on, I did hope that Ryan would allow me to interview him (see http://loseringbook.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/going-it-alone/). Had he cooperated, that might have shifted the focus more to his recent history. But Ryan not cooperating kind of naturally moved the focus back to the Whiskeytown era because that’s when I had the most firsthand access. I happen to think that is his most interesting period, anyway. In some ways, it feels like a better book without the present-day Ryan in it, given his penchant for revisionist history.
What would you say was most challenging for you writing this book and why?
David: Well, there is the stigma of the whole “unauthorized biography” thing, although I hope it’s less tawdry than what is usually associated with that phrase. This isn’t the "Ryan-is-a-jerk book", although his less-than-pleasant side is certainly represented.
I also kind of hate being the jaded old dude who whines, “[Popular artist] was sooo much better before they got all big and YOU caught on.” Nevertheless, sometimes that narrative is true. And if I was going to put forth that viewpoint about Ryan, who a lot of people care about with rabid devotion, I had to back it up and bring the music and that era to life. Whether or not I did, well I hope so!
What were your feelings on Ryan not participating, and going so far as encouraging others not to be involved?
David: Ryan’s non-cooperation wasn’t the least-bit unexpected, and it was the main reason I was hesitant about taking this book on in the first place. It made me uneasy, no doubt about it, and I wondered if I could pull it off. But once I got to work, it didn’t seem insurmountable, and it wasn’t.
How would you say the Rural Free Delivery EP and Faithless Street prepared the band for what would become Stranger's Almanac?
David: They’re both wonderful records, especially Faithless Street, which is the closest they ever came on-record to capturing the shambolic all-over-the-place grandeur of the live experience (except for their “Blank Generation” cover, maybe). I still get a bit of a lump in the throat when I hear “Drank Like a River,” remembering those fantastic Whiskeytown shows at the Brewery in Raleigh. It was really exciting to see Whiskeytown and the Backsliders and 6 String Drag back then, and feel like a part of something really great that was happening.
As many readers, I discovered Stranger's Almanac upon its release. Why would you say that this record is Ryan's and/ or Whiskeytown's high-water mark?
David: Well, that felt like Whiskeytown’s promise fulfilled. Everything about Strangers is perfect: the songs, the sequencing, the arrangements and most of all Ryan’s vocal performance. And for me, it’s such a wonderful artifact of that time and place. Strangers is great no matter where or how you hear it.
If you know some of the stories and reference points, it’s even better. Oftentimes it’s better not to know, to keep the mystery, but I feel like this is one case where it helps- which is why the chapter in the book about Strangers takes the form of that night-on-the-town narrative (which I wrote in almost a fever-dream state).
How would you say it connects most to the previous work, as well as Pneumonia?
David: Strangers really brought Whiskeytown to a point where I thought they were going to break through to a large audience, maybe even huge. I still think that if things had worked out differently, “Sixteen Days” could have been an enormous hit. The whole album is a more polished, better-focused version of what the band was doing on Faithless Street, and it seemed to set them up for big things.
Even though it never broke through commercially, Strangers Almanac established Whiskeytown as a band that a sizable amount of people cared a lot about. That failure to break out raised the stakes for the band’s next record, Pneumonia, which has some more overt pop moves.
Can you discuss what you believe Heartbreaker brought to Ryan's work?
David: Heartbreaker also feels like a summation of sorts. During Whiskeytown’s in-limbo period, 1999, Ryan played some solo shows that were drop-dead astonishing. He’d always been great with just a guitar, but this was almost otherworldly-good. Playing solo and getting a mesmerized response from crowds seemed to give Ryan confidence he really could do it alone.
Even though his personal life seemed to be in a sad and messy place by the time he made Heartbreaker, there’s still a sort of exuberance to it. Maybe it was just him realizing that even if nothing else was going right, he really could get through it with music.
That album’s commercial success has also been remarkable, especially given the complete absence of expectations for it at the time. Ryan thought it would be “amazing” if Heartbreaker sold 20,000 copies. Worldwide, it’s sold more than 20 times that many. The little record that could.
When did you begin to see Ryan's work change?
David: I don’t think it is coincidence that Ryan has done his best work (in my book, anyway) when he had bandmates to answer to, and in the case of Strangers Almanac, a producer (Jim Scott) who really bore down hard on him, pushing him to do better. When Ryan got to where he could start indulging whims, it seemed like he lost focus. His 2001 album Gold has its ardent defenders, and it’s the record where most of Ryan’s fanbase discovered him. But to me, it sounds like Ryan losing the plot. Not bad, but more self-indulgent and unfocused in a way he hadn't been through Heartbreaker.
As a fan of Ryan's work, what has been most surprising, challenging, and/ or unexpected for you when listening to Ryan's post-Gold work?
David: Maybe that there are people willing to defend every one of his records to the death, even the less-than-great ones like 29 and Cardinology. That’s part of what makes it interesting and fun, different strokes and all. I still just don’t understand how anybody could listen to Strangers Almanac and Gold, and then claim that Gold is the better record. But I fully acknowledge that Strangers Almanac might be a record I’m just too close to.
Cold Roses is a very fine record with much to recommend, even if (yes) it could use some editing. At the time, I hoped it heralded a new and better period for Ryan, which unfortunately, wasn't borne out by the two records that followed that year, Jacksonville City Nights and 29.
Jacksonville City Nights is a record I tried to like and wanted to like before concluding that it just wasn’t as good as it should have been. Part of it was arrangement choices, like the uptempo arrangement of “Heart Is Broken” (wrong, wrong, wrong- seek out the original version on the “Theme for a Trucker” B-side). And part of it was the desperate-sounding yelp he sang some songs in. “The End,” my God, the poor fellow just sounds completely lost, like he’s trying to infuse it with the sort of passion that used to come naturally.
What is your take on Ashes and Fire? Do you think that it lived up to the "return to form" kind of hype surrounding it?
David: I probably overrated Ashes and Fire when it first came out, and I wasn’t alone there. In retrospect, I think it wasn’t a return to form so much as a return TOWARD form. It is a positive step in the right direction, especially after the still-born Cardinology.
Ashes and Fire didn’t knock my socks off, which I was hoping it would do. But “Lucky Now” was great, and it kind of put the bow on the closing stretch of my book: “Are we really who we used to be, am I really who I was?” It was almost like he’d read it.
What would you say the book offers to both longtime followers of Ryan's days since his Whiskeytown days, as well as to those fans who discovered his solo work first and then retraced back to Whiskeytown?
David: I hope that people who discovered Ryan in recent years will go back to those old Whiskeytown records, which I think are still the best music he’s ever made. I won’t say they’re the best he ever will make, but that might turn out to be the case.
As for those who have been there all along, maybe this will connect some dots. It’s a great story, him coming from nowhere and making something of himself through talent and sheer force of will. If nothing else, there are some funny anecdotes from back in the day.
What has been your response to the various feedback of the book? Let's face it, Ryan's fans are about as loyal, passionate, defensive, and enamored with the man's legacy as fans come.
David: Well, as long as I’ve been dishing out opinions, I can take it. Anything people want to throw my way is fine. Most people have been very complimentary. But yeah, some of the hardcores have been less than thrilled with it. You just can’t worry too much about what the response will be, or it brings on so much self-consciousness that you’ll never finish anything. Sure, I want people to like it. But even if they don’t, I still think it was a story worth telling.
What would you say it is about/ despite Ryan's various musical phases that keeps fans discovering, sticking with him, and/ or abandoning his work?
David: Ryan inspires such passion because he seems to feel things so deeply, and he makes you feel them, too. He’s quite an emotional tuning fork, which makes people respond in a very strong, visceral way. And he’ll put himself out there, in antic as well as song, which has its downside. I know plenty of people who quit listening to Ryan because they just couldn’t abide some of his behavior, and that is what seems to chase people off, more than the music. But as long as he’s doing the kind of very emotional work he’s always done, there will be a sizable number of people following him.
What have you been listening to lately?
David: I’m quite enamored of the record Patti Smith did this year, Banga, even though it didn’t seem to make much of a splash. But it was the best she’s sounded to me in years. I’m quite fond of some of the freak-folk-type acts in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle, especially Bowerbirds and Megafaun. And I love the latest from Ty Segall, a San Francisco low-fi psychedelic dude, called Twins. It’s brilliant.
What's next for you?
David: Well, first and foremost, I hope to stay employed, which is precarious, given how the newspaper industry is contracting. My paper, the News & Observer, has gone from a 250-person newsroom down to about 60 over the past few years, which has been scary. I’m grateful to still be there, hoping to hang on and working as hard as I can. Maybe this book will be my lottery ticket (that was a joke).
Otherwise, I’m still working with University of Texas Press on the American Music Series, lining up future titles. Check it out at: http://loseringbook.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/more-on-the-american-music-series-and-ut-press/ . If all goes according to plan, I’ll be working on another book for the series myself before too long.