A STROLL ACROSS WHISKEYTOWN David Menconi’s Ryan Adams Book

Losering,
A Story of Whiskeytown, traces the NC
alt-country band’s tale – and its volatile leader’s – through the eyes of a
journalist who was there at the beginning.

 

BY
FRED MILLS

 

When
a young Ryan Adams first arrived on the Raleigh, NC, scene in the early ‘90s he
was a mouthy punk rocker more hyperactive than talented, although soon enough
his natural gifts as a musician would come rushing to the surface amid
songwriting marathons and live volleys that left even longtime scenesters
shaking their heads in disbelief. One of them was David Menconi, since ‘91 the
pop critic for Raleigh’s
The News & Observer and also a
charter member of the No Depression crew.
Menconi would become the first national journalist to interview Adams and, at
least during the early years, wound up being – in his own words – Adams’ band
Whiskeytown’s “unofficial propagandist” owing to the number of Menconi bylines
to be spotted in the group’s presskit.

 

In
Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of
Whiskeytown
(published by University of Texas Press as part of their
recently-inaugurated “American Music Series”), Menconi revisits his trove of
yellowed clippings, pokes through boxes of old tapes, gig flyers and random
memorabilia, talks to sundry Adams associates and bandmates, and even puts
himself on the couch as he tries to uncover what it is about Adams’s music and
words that got under his skin so deeply in the first place. By extension, he
provides some necessary therapy for the rest of us who also fell under the
Whiskeytown spell but, in the face of Adams’ very public meltdowns – onstage
fights with fellow musicians and stage tirades against hecklers, incendiary
comments left on journalists’ answering machines or at internet message boards,
etc. – frequently found the music being overshadowed by the diva-like
personality. In that sense, Losering is both a love letter to Adams’ long-suffering
fanbase and an incredibly detailed compendium of facts and anecdotes. The latter
component is no small matter in any music biography, and here it’s lent authoritative
heft by virtue of (a) Menconi’s proximity to the (shooting) star; and (b) his willingness
to let the story tell itself on its own terms, despite the fact that the author
at times finds himself, inevitably, as one of the characters in the story by
virtue of said proximity.

 

 

 

It
can’t have been an easy book to write. Adams, while a willing participant in
Menconi’s interviews during most of Whiskeytown’s tenure, hasn’t spoken
directly to the writer in a decade; and certain individuals who normally might have
been key respondents in such a biography apparently deferred to Adams’ wishes and declined to be interviewed. Menconi,
luckily, took good notes and has an extremely clear-headed memory, and was able
to snag enough contemporary interviews to make Losering a well-rounded book that’s also injected with a true
fanboy’s – I mean that in the most positive sense; I describe myself a fanboy
when it comes to certain bands – appreciation for the music.

 

To
wit, this excerpt from Menconi’s
extended track-by-track review of 1997’s Strangers
Almanac
:

 

Strangers stands as Ryan’s farewell to Raleigh.
It feels like a ‘Dear Jane’ breakup letter you’d leave under a windshield wiper
blade because you’re afraid to venture any closer than the curb. Picture that
late-night-to-early-morning moment of clarity, somewhere between drunk and hangover,
after everyone else is gone and it’s quiet and you’re alone with your thought,
fears, dreams – but most of all an overwhelming obsession for the
person-place-thing you’ve been trying not to think about while drinking in a
vain attempt to forget.
Strangers
casts that moment in amber, turns it into
a paperweight you can hold… And maybe the album might be a literal narrative of
a night on the town. Over the years I’ve come to think of
Strangers Almanac as a song cycle about Ryan’s last night in Raleigh…”

 

Losering doesn’t end with Adams’
departure from Raleigh
or the final dissolution of Whiskeytown (the group was history by the tail end
of 2000), although the songwriter’s Tarheel days do consume about ¾ of the
book’s 202 pages. But if Menconi’s coverage of Adams’ subsequent solo career –
albums, antics, et al – seems
perfunctory in places, well… check the full book title, and note that this is
“a” story of Whiskeytown, rather than “the.” The über-prolific Adams seems to
be the type of artist who is destined one day to pen a memoir or roll out a
full autobiography (something that’s all the rage these days, given recent
forays into the field by such high profilers as Dylan, Richards, Allman, Young
and Townshend), and it will no doubt be a fascinating glimpse behind the veil.
For now, though, we’ve got Losering,
and speaking as someone who’s read probably a thousand or more music bios over
the years, it’s a pretty damn good read at that.

 

 

 

BLURT: For those of our readers who aren’t
necessarily familiar with you and your background, it’s worth noting here that
you found yourself at Whiskeytown Ground Zero in the early ‘90s and are clearly
the right guy to do this job. But in retrospect, what was it about the Ryan
Adams story that seemed particularly compelling and book-worthy to you? I mean,
why not a Dylan book? Or Beatles… or Stones… or Led Zep… or Hendrix…  

DAVID
MENCONI: Well, Ryan/Whiskeytown was who I had up-close access to. And not to
conflate them with the Beatles, et al,
but they were really good; and I found the story of young Ryan’s singleminded
determination to pull himself up by his guitar strap to be fascinating. He was
so awkwardly enthusiastic back then, it was hard not to find it charming. When
he was at his most over-the-top, Ryan really did seem like a character you
couldn’t have made up because he would not have been believable. He’s not the
biggest star to come out of the Triangle in terms of sales, but he definitely is in terms of swagger.

 

By way of context, what do you think was in
the creative water – or air, take your pick – in Raleigh in the early ‘90s that made it
possible for a band like Whiskeytown to emerge and thrive? There have always
been roots-tilting groups in the Triangle, going all the way back to the mid
‘80s, but the poppier and quirkier groups tended to dominate and get the most
ink.

     It seemed like an entire musical
generation rediscovered country roots around the same time in the mid-’90s, and
not just in the Triangle. But the Triangle was intriguing because on the one
hand you also had the indie-pop that had been around since R.E.M.’s ’80s
breakthrough period; and a working-class/blue-collar sensibility that has been
emblematic of North Carolina
music basically forever. Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker” wasn’t
just a punk anthem, it was a wage-slave lament of the sort Charlie Poole would
have appreciated during his Depression-era heyday. Put all that together with
the standard college-town music-scene accessories – good college radio and
independent record/book stores, etc. – and you had a thriving band
population a cut above what you’d find elsewhere.

 

At your Loseringbook blog you indicate that after reaching out to Ryan about doing interviews
for the book, you heard nothing back from manager John Silva but that attorney
Josh Grier suggested Ryan would not participate. But as you proceeded and
reached out to friends, bandmates, etc., eventually Ryan would have been aware
that you were rooting around in his past with or without him. To you knowledge,
did he attempt to cockblock you, er,
thwart your research?

     The
answer I got from that conversation with Josh was a pretty definitive
“nyet.” When I hung up the phone, there was no doubt in my mind that
I’d been turned down. I did hold out hope that Ryan might change his mind, but
he never did. As for other folks, there were some people who never responded to
repeated e-mail queries requesting an interview. In other cases, I made contact
with people from his past and we had some back and forth before they
disappeared and quit responding. I figured at least some of them asked Ryan
about it and decided not to participate against his wishes. While that was
unfortunate, I feel like I still got plenty of data from plenty of folks.

 

Now that the book is out, has there been any
feedback from the Adams camp, either directly
or indirectly?

     I’ve still
heard not a word from Ryan Adams Inc., either directly or indirectly. He’s been
uncharacteristically quiet. I must confess, I am curious. I figure I’ll hear
something soon enough.

 

What – if any – big surprises or
revelations did you come across during the interviews and research? Or one of those
“oh shit!” moments journalists sometimes happen upon. (I had one of those years
ago when I was working on a Doors story and one of Jim Morrison’s old friends
confirmed that Morrison was impotent during the last few years of his life,
something that had long been rumored but never put on the official record.)

     Probably
the biggest find was getting to hear some of the very old recordings Ryan made
with the pre-Whiskeytown “Daisy Street Bands” he’d formed with his
old roommate Tom Cushman – who still has a cache of tapes Ryan left behind
after he moved out. To hear the teenaged Ryan asking his bandmates, “Do I
sound like I mean it?,” wow, that was just chillingly cool. While I was
writing, figuring out the one-night narrative behind [the lyrics of the album] Strangers Almanac gave me a thrill;
that’s probably the chapter I’m
proudest of. And some of the stories people told about him were great,
like one of his old bandmates likening Ryan to Peter Pan, floating around the
room and climbing on things because he was just so excited.

 

Imagine you’re a psychiatrist with no
ethics, Ryan has been your patient for years, and you’ve decided to sell your notes
to TMZ. What will we, the public, learn about some of the reasons behind Ryan’s
personality quirks – for example, why did he burn most of his Raleigh bridges and why was he so abusive to
his bandmates?

     I
think part of it is that he just can’t help it – holding back just isn’t his
strong suit and seems to take a great deal of effort. That’s a hard personality
to be in a band with, even harder if that personality is the frontman, so it’s
no surprise that Whiskeytown turned into a revolving door. The only bandmate who
managed to stay in the whole time was Caitlin Cary, who seems to have the right
temperament for coping. As to why he burned most of his Raleigh bridges… that’s a tough one. He
once made the statement that it’s hard for him to come back because there’s too
much drama, and I think it’s just easier for him to stay away and avoid it.
That one show he played here over the last decade, in 2005, was fraught with
emotion. It looked obvious that it was kind of excruciating for him to be back.

 

His personality aside, your appreciation
for Ryan’s music comes through loud and clear, and I think that the book was
also a remarkably balanced portrayal of both the music and the man. Which
albums do you think will stand the test of time, and which should be dumped at
the local used record store?

     I
think those Whiskeytown albums, Faithless Street and especially Strangers Almanac, are
the ones people will still be discovering and talking about after Ryan’s gone.
Of his solo work, Heartbreaker and Cold Roses are the high points. You can
dump records like 29 and Cardinology – and Gold, too, for that matter, at least in my [opinion]. All of which
means he peaked early.

     The story’s not over, of course, and
2011’s Ashes and Fire was a promising
step in the right direction. Maybe he’ll surprise us. But I would be very
surprised if he comes anywhere close to Strangers ever again.

 

Lastly, predictions for what will come next
for Ryan? He did the solo acoustic tour and released a massive limited edition vinyl
box set thing most recently, of course. Will he do a full band thing? Produce wife
Mandy Moore and tour with her as bandleader? Come back to work the counter at
Sadlack’s Heroes in an attempt to
reconnect with his Raleigh
roots?

      At last report, he was actually working on a record with Mandy Moore
– who sang backup on Ashes and Fire quite credibly, so it might be less a stretch than that seems. [Ed. note: at presstime it was also announced
that Adams would be producing and playing
drums on the forthcoming Lemonheads album.
] Given the problems he’s had with Meniere’s Disease, which renders
him very sensitive to loud noises, I think you’ll mostly seem him in acoustic
situations for the foreseeable future; not necessarily solo, but probably quiet. And
man, what I wouldn’t give to be sitting in Sadlack’s if he were to ever walk
through the door again!

 

[In 2008 BLURT interviewed erstwhile
Whiskeytown guitarist Phil Wandscher about his time in the band and, in
particular, his thoughts – after all the years – on
Strangers Almanac. Go to “Strangers In Time” to read the story.]

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