Adams returns to the poignancy of his debut album
The first time I saw Ryan Adams was in January 2004. He was touring his albums ‘Rock’N’Roll’ and ‘Love Is Hell’. He had died his hair a bright orange, looked suitably dishevelled yet exuded a ramshackle cool. Within minutes of being on stage he had knocked a full beer over. A roadie ran out and mopped it up as Adams staggered and seethed his way through ‘So Alive’. He was inebriated. I remember shouts to people stood side of stage for vodka, even proclaiming at one point, “No fucking Red-Bull this time!” As he sang ‘Sylvia Plath’ he climbed speaker stacks and hung within tangible distance, crooning and smoking hellishly.
Then he begins the majestic ‘The Shadowlands’. About half way through he vanishes from the stage and a thud echoes through the microphone like a gunshot. He has fallen off the stage and into the six-foot-plus opera pit below, severely breaking his wrist in the process. He’s helped up and back on stage and rushed off the back. The band – bemused – finish the song and say goodnight. I, like everyone else, was bewildered as I left the building, but I was also transfixed.
Fast forward seven years and I saw Ryan two months ago, solo, slightly less eventful – sober, drinking tea and quietly strumming an acoustic guitar as he sweetly sang. I was still transfixed. Ryan Adams has been an artist that has managed to succeed at either end of the spectrum.
If all is to be believed, Adams has been a magnet for trouble for most of his life. Supposedly excluded from high school for wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a melting ice cube that read Christianity is Stupid…Give Up. His first proper band, Whiskeytown, collapsed under a sea of booze-fuelled fall-outs. He has had a tumultuous relationship with the press, even leading to a disgruntled Adams leaving an angry voicemail on Chicago Sun-Times journalist Jim DeRogatis’ machine after a scathing review, which still to this day is available to the public. And he’s had many public feuds with Paul Westerberg, Jack White, and Jeff Tweedy, as well as years of drink and drug problems that had him once tell the New York Times “I snorted heroin a lot – with coke. I did speedballs every day for years. And took pills. And then drank. And I don’t mean a little bit. I always outdid everybody… It’s a miracle I did not die.”
However, Adams, once a poster boy who was labelled ‘The Kurt Cobain of Alt-Country’, an artist that everybody once loved to love, soon became an artist everybody loved to hate. A good looking man in his twenties, drenched in critical acclaim, dating movie stars (see Winona Ryder, Parker Posey), gaining celebrity fans and friends, it doesn’t take a lot to work out why some people may be resentful, bitter or plain jealous towards him. But this was coupled with some behaviour and actions people railed against, including a much discussed GAP advert he took part in. Adams has often been seemingly and simultaneously wild, angry and reactionary, yet sweet, gracious and endearing. Which means accounts and re-tellings of his past can often be as misleading and erratic as his supposed behaviour in the first place.
He has always been – shall we say – emotionally earnest in his songs: he doesn’t so much wear his heart on his sleeve as slice a part off and stick it in the album inlay for you. This has lead to equally revealing and open interviews in the past, all told with varying states of mood and detail, meaning that researching an interview for him is a little like trying to extract the real Ryan Adams from a series of impostors, especially as Adams, now clean and sober from drink, drugs and even cigarettes, is not the man he once was, by a long shot. He told Mojo in 2009 that, “I was an asshole. A total fucking prick. I fucking hated myself.” He has since married pop singer/actress Mandy Moore, moved to L.A and, as many people do at the age of 36, settled down. This has resulted in a calmer, humbler and generally quieter Ryan Adams, who has no interest in being the man of old, which means that, as I soon find, trying to get him to affirm anything resembling a remotely definitive statement can be tricky. He is clearly a man who has played the press game long enough and is cautious in his approach, something that is made all the more apparent when we compare how he charmingly jokes on our photo shoot (his greeting: “Excuse the right side of my face. I’ve slept on it for years so now I look like an old fish, washed up on a sea of despair… or an old Rick Moranis”), only to clam up somewhat once the Dictaphone is rolling.