Yes, all those stories about Adams WERE true: erstwhile tour manager for the band delivers a crucial fly-on-the-wall memoir.
BY FRED MILLS
With the late, great alternative country Tar Heel band Whiskeytown, it was always a Gumpian prospect: Like the proverbial box of chocolates, you never knew what you were gonna get. Not due to design, of course; the band itself was a brilliant assemblage of talent, and they busted their asses night after night and created some of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest records. But when you have a frontman as mercurial and erratically-behaving as Ryan Adams, there’s only so much you can do; by some accounts, Whiskeytown must have been eerily like Trump’s White House at times, given the chaos Adams could create.
Okay, that’s unfair. We are talking rock ‘n’ roll, traditionally repository of rebels, weirdos, eccentrics, misfits, and outright psychopaths. So I’ll amend the above statement to simply characterize Adams’ bandmates as “long suffering.” And they clearly got something out of the deal, particularly violinist/co-vocalist Caitlin Cary, who seemingly stuck by Adams pretty much to the bitter end, weathering the frequent roster departures of others and, if appearances are accurate, helping serve as a semi-stabilizing force during those times when Adams went off the rails.
Speaking of those rails, we have Waiting To Derail by, full disclosure, my old friend Tom O’Keefe, who I had known pretty well during the ‘80s and early ‘90s while living in Charlotte and hanging out often with Tom and his bandmates in Queen City punk legends ANTiSEEN. In his new memoir, O’Keefe recounts how he subsequently became Whiskeytown’s tour manager circa 1997 through the band’s 2000 split. I would hesitate to also characterize him as “long suffering” because he signed up for the (paying) gig knowing, at least partly, what he would be getting himself into, something the band members themselves aren’t necessarily privy to when they first get together to make music en route to a full-time excursion into codependency. Plus, O’Keefe can legitimately say that in addition to the teeshirt, he got one hell of a story to tell the grandkids. Here, he’s joined by co-author Joe Oestreich, a journalist and author of several books as well as a professor of creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina.
Waiting To Derail kicks off, prologue-style, in colorful enough fashion, with Adams half-passed out and surrounded by EMTs and police, vitals being carefully checked and rechecked. As the incident finally winds down and the EMTs pack up their gear, one of the policemen turns and speaks to O’Keefe: “Goddam, son, I wouldn’t trade jobs with you for anything.” Whew. When a copy says something like that, it’s saying a lot.
Appropriately enough, the book’s first section is titled “The Sheriff of Whiskeytown,” recounting how O’Keefe got the job by (a) having had some prior experience handling tour manager duties and appearing to be moderately stable (admittedly, a very relative term in rock ‘n’ roll); and (b) because he was living in Raleigh, and as Whiskeytown had just finished cutting their major label debut, Strangers Almanac, for Outpost/Geffen, his Austin-based management desperately needed, as O’Keefe puts it, “somebody on the ground to shepherd Ryan and the band through their next touring cycle.” A lot was riding on Whiskeytown, deemed the blossoming alt-country scene’s number one rising star but, thanks to their frontman, already had a bit of a reputation. Writes O’Keefe, “During Whiskeytown’s most recent string of shows—on the No Depression tour, sharing the stage with the Old 97’s, Hazeldine, and the Picketts—Ryan and the band had been woefully inconsistent. They would play a tight set of stellar songs one night and then be drunk and sloppy the next.”
From there we follow Officer O’Keefe as he does indeed shepherd Adams across the musical landscape, from seeing that his charge is awake and lucid enough for scheduled interviews and getting to band rehearsals on time, to carefully doling out the daily per diems so the musicians won’t blow all their dough the first night and ensuring Adams doesn’t get completely hammered before going onstage. Among the memorable scenes:
–A booking at a sports bar in East Lansing where, with many of the patrons preferring to watch the Detroit Tigers on TV, a drunken Adams grows frustrated and belligerent and deliberately starts playing sloppily. A back-and-forth of “fuck yous” between audience members and Adams ensues, and the singer eventually storms offstage, resulting in a rock- and beercan-throwing altercation in the parking lot. “Ryan would hold a grudge against East Lansing for years,” writes O’Keefe. (Presciently, it seems, as many years later, as a solo artist based in New York City, Adams would take umbrage at perceived slights by former associates in Raleigh and vow never to play his old homebase again.)
–Another show, in Aspen, where, in front of a couple hundred people, among them actor Kevin Costner, Adams, who’d decided that Whiskeytown was not “a ski town band,” yanked his amplifier to “11” and, with wall of noise blasting, dropped to his knees and lay flat on the stage for 25 minutes.
–A promotional appearance at a radio station that had been airing the band’s “16 Days” and had requested that they perform it live in the studio, culminates in Adams repeatedly refusing. (O’Keefe: “It was a standoff, and I felt like a UN negotiator.”) The back and forth continues, and finally Adams blurts into the mic, “I don’t have to kiss some guy’s dick just because he wants to hear the single”—at which point Whiskeytown is summarily ejected from “the most important AAA station in America.”
–A late night scare, after a show back at the hotel, where a very fucked-up Adams, upon inspecting the balcony overlooking the 12-story atrium, declares to O’Keefe and the others, “I can fly,” and proceeds to climb up on the railing, “faking like he was going to do a half gainer,” and has to be swiftly grabbed by the waist and dragged down off the railing.
In between his colorful, sometimes-soberly related/sometimes-hilariously spun anecdotes, O’Keefe offers up a series of helpful expository tutorials—Adams’ and Cary’s pre-Whiskeytown background; how the alt-country movement was born and evolved, as well as how North Carolina’s Triangle area—and Raleigh in particular—embraced the scene; the jealousy backlash that a number of locals unleashed on Whiskeytown after the band began wowing the critics and gradually became the most prominent act to emerge from the city. (In that regard Waiting To Derail is an able companion to a previous book about Adams, 2012’s Losering, written by Raleigh News & Observer music critic David Menconi; fans of either volume will definitely delight in the other.)
But of course, as this book is an insider account, you’ve come primarily for the behind the scenes stuff and not the history lesson, right? And O’Keefe does not disappoint. His memory is remarkably clear, his insights into Adams’ personality and motivations profound. Anyone who’s ever worked as a tour manager for a rock band will tell you that they have to be a cat wrangler, a den mother, and a psychologist in addition to taking care of mundane stuff like making sure everyone gets their per diems and the club owner doesn’t stiff them. Waiting To Derail, then, is the type of book that any fan of rock ‘n’ roll—and of course all fans of Adams— will devour precisely for its fly-on-the-wall qualities and how it provides a sharp-lensed view of what goes on after the lights come on and the gear is packed up.
In 2018, Thomas O’Keefe is a music industry veteran with a hugely impressive resume, having worked with the likes of big names like Train, Third Eye Blind, Sia, and, currently, Weezer. Undoubtedly his years spent with Whiskeytown served him well—if his early stint as bassist for “destructo rockers” ANTiSEEN was his rock ‘n’ roll boot camp, then think of his three years in the trenches with Whiskeytown as his tour of Iraq and Afghanistan. Considering all he had to deal with, he deserves a freakin’ purple heart.