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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Ryan Adams Strikes Gold

The belated return-to-form that
is Ryan Adams' Ashes and Fire is a
reminder of when the guy was on the cusp of fame - and of Hollywood meltdown. On
the eve of Gold's release, the Rev.
Al Friston met Americana's very own hyperactive brat in London--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's
Backpages

It's a dull
grey Saturday in Kensington, and I have just broken Ryan Adams' dream.

"I was
tryin' to tell a joke to this group of people I didn't know," he says.
"I was standing there with Snoop Doggy Dogg, and I was tryin' to tell the
joke, and I f---in' left out the middle part."

Uh huh.

"Snoop's
going, 'Man, you're f---in' not doing
it right!' And I'm like, 'Shut up!'
And I was tryin' to finish the joke and I ruined it and everybody looked at me
and went, 'Huhh?!' And Snoop was like,
'See, I f---in' told you!'

"And
that's when I woke up..."

*

Some might see this
dream as a classic allegory of the performer's anxiety; others will wonder why
the former frontman of shambling alt.country band Whiskeytown was dreaming
about Snoop Dogg in the first place. The fact that
Adams saw Snoop up close at the Grammys earlier this year only begs a further
question: what was the former frontman of Whiskeytown doing at that ceremony
anyhow? And why the hell is the New Gram ParsonsTM - aka the Kurt Cobain of
CountryTM - now domiciled in the bosom of Hollywood Babylon?

It gets worse.
On the sleeve of Elton John's new Songs
From The West Coast
- the album that sees Dame Elt getting back to his Tumbleweed Americophile roots - there's
a little inscription that reads "Thanks to Ryan Adams for making me want
to do better."

Elton John??

"You believe that?" Adams says
unapologetically as he threads his fingers through the black thatch of hair
atop his round head. "What a sweetheart! I almost cried. But Elt is my
buddy, he's so cool.'"

And Elt isn't
the only superstar to namecheck - and befriend - Ryan Adams. Since the boy
upped sticks from a two-year stint in Nashville and decamped to Los Angeles
last January, he has been fêted by everyone from Alanis Morissette to Counting
Crows
. Not to mention a young thesp named Winona Ryder.

"I made an
ignorant choice of girlfriend," Adams groans when put on the spot about
his romance with La Ryder. "I met this famous person and thought, 'I'll
date her!' I'd been in a relationship since I was 17, so I'd never had a chance
to be a guy, and I don't know how to be a bachelor and go out have fun. But all
we did was torture each other, it was really silly. I don't know what I was
doing with her in the first place."

After three
days with virtually no sleep - one of them involving a 14-hour video shoot in
New York, another involving a missed plane to London - Adams is looking burned
out.

"Ryan has
been literally been going non-stop for a week," his road manager Ian
informs me. "There was the video shoot, then straight in to London, and
then we just had him doing foreign stuff since the moment he arrived. Holland
sent three, Norway sent two, France sent two..."

Do the words
'slow' and 'down' have any meaning for the boy?

"Well, I
made my bed and I gotta sleep in it. I mean, I could probably use to slow down
and do a little bit better editing, and my records might be better for it. But
I like quantity, I like to make a lot of different songs. For me it isn't a
campaign to change the way music is. What it is is I have a natural
predisposition to put a bunch of stuff out there when I can."

At least Adams
has eased off on the hellraising for which he was semi-infamous back in the
days of Whiskeytown. "I haven't been dabbling recently," he says.
"I've finally learned that I can't do my job and party every night on the
road."

Peering at me
through a brand-new pair of Cartier glasses he's just purchased, Adams smokes
and stretches and fidgets on the small leather sofa in his hotel room. In
one-on-one conversation he's almost as much of a performer as he is onstage,
where he punctuates his songs with standup-style jokes and asides. ("It's my party and I'll wank if I want
to,"
he announced at one of his shows at London's Lyric Theatre last
spring. To which one rather piqued spectator retorted, "What's it like up your own arse?")

It's true that
there is something hyperactively brattish and attention-seeking about Ryan
Adams. He wears his heart on his sleeve and holds little back. Much of this
uneasy self-absorption may have to do with his need to be regarded as an artist
- as a confessional troubadour-poet in the Neil Young/Nick Drake vein. For
every lusty Rolling Stones-ish rocker in his repertoire there are at least three
tinglingly introspective ballads. And this in turn may reach all the way back
to the influence of his English-teacher mother, who - despite his school at the
early age of 15 - instilled in her son a deep love of great literature. (One of
the songs on his new album is called 'Sylvia Plath'; a copy of the latter's
unabridged journals lies open on his hotel bed.)

One of the
things Adams treasures about coming to Europe is the far greater appreciation
for the poetic nuances of his songs. Yet Los Angeles is where he remains,
living out of a suitcase or three in a hotel in West Hollywood, though often
found chez Alanis Morissette (with
whom he has been writing) and his other new pals. After two years in Nashville,
and five years before that in New York, Adams' decision to settle in L.A. has
been construed by old-school Whiskeytown fans as a bid for mainstream rock
stardom. What, they wonder, does Morissette have to do with the world of
Emmylou Harris, who sang on Heartbreaker's
heavenly 'Oh My Sweet Carolina'?

Adams is almost
stammeringly defensive when one presses him on this point. "I'm just a
satellite to Alanis' world... I'm not like... we don't... I'm not spending huge
amounts of time with her, like this big entourage of famous people... she's
just somebody I know... it was just like meeting this girl that was a friend of
my friend... inherently that's kinda what L.A. is like anyway."

Pressed still
further, Adams contends that he has every right not to stagnate in some
holier-than-thou music ghetto - and that he quit Nashville for Los Angeles to
broaden his horizons and make an album, Gold,
that reflected the full spectrum of his musical influences.

Asked by Heartbreaker producer Ethan Johns what
he wanted the follow-up to sound like, Adams told him: "Like classic rock
radio, where you're listening to Van Morrison and then the Rolling Stones and
then Otis Redding..." Which is sort of what Gold does sound like, albeit filtered through the Steve
Earle
-meets-Paul-Westerberg sensibility that is Adams' particular musical
signature.

Certainly there
are no fiddles or banjos or pedal steels this time around. 'Touch, Feel and
Lose
' is honky southern soul, and 'Answering Bell' is The Band's 'The Weight'
rewritten as a track on Moondance.
The closing 'Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard' tips its hat to Don't Shoot Me-period Elton. And 'Street
Walkin' Blues
' is nothing less than a lost outtake from Exile on Main St.

"That song
couldn't be any more about me congratulating the Stones on being the coolest
band of all time," Adams admits happily. "It's almost like saying,
Look, I'm gonna graduate this year and this is what I've learned in school, and
here's what I've surmised from it. I don't wanna be a Brian Eno, I don't scrape
a bunch of metal parts across the floor and call it 'Concerto of Angry Bees,
Part 6'. That shit can kiss my f---ing ass."

'La Cienega Just
Smiled
' is more tender, more akin to ballads like 'My Winding Wheel' (from Heartbreaker) or 'Listen to the Rain'
(from Whiskeytown's "posthumous" album Pneumonia). "Part of Gold
is me taking my own defence. I knew I was sitting there involved with someone I
shouldn't be involved with and enjoying every last miserable-ass moment of it.
Because everybody does it, not just artists. Everybody loves a little bit of
pain, 'cause it makes them feel real for a minute."

For Adams,
several of the songs on Gold use
love-song clichés against themselves.

"OK, so I
can't say 'There ain't no way I'm ever gonna stop from loving you now'? Well,
I'm gonna f---in' say it and mean it and it's gonna be cool. Like f---in' Jeff Tweedy would take that
line and turn it into, like, 'Oh, my cool
indie-rock jacket got beaten by the inky wind of Chicago and I'm becoming a
very boring old man... oh well!'
F--- that! I'm not gonna f---in' say that!
How about I'm gonna say exactly what I mean?"

The boy is in
full stride now...

"See, my
job is to talk about my f---in' feelings or about what's on my mind as an
artist. People don't f---ing need clever anymore. If I hear one more clever
record, I'm gonna throw up. What I wanna hear is The Band singing 'It Makes No
Difference
' and hearing Rick Danko nearly f---ing break your f---ing heart in
absolute half when he hits the bridge."

Adams suddenly
breaks off and shoots me a mortified look.

"This
journalist friend of mine said, 'Ryan, quit talking about your personal life in
interviews.' And I went, 'That's the only reason anyone f---in' likes my
music!' I mean, I don't give myself totally away and dig all kindsa shit. I
don't know, am I being too outward, do you think, as an individual? Should I
quit talking about my emotions?"

*
For now, Adams has had enough pain. His next mission is to have a bunch of fun
with his ultra-Stonesy side project the Pink Hearts, the other members of which
will be backing him on his upcoming UK tour.

"I figure
I'll be 27 this year, and it's high
time I actually made a youthful rock and roll record," he says. "I've
never had a chance to get behind the electric guitar and make it work for me
for a whole record. I've gotta make one record that's funny and about being in
your twenties, because I've spent my twenties writing songs like I'm 47."

Naturally,
Adams' new hard-rocking direction is one more bone of contention for old-school
Whiskeytowners. "After we finished one Pink Hearts set in Nashville, the
message boards said we were losing big fans. Like, 'I was ready to go see
someone that was really heavy and heartbroken and soulful, and all I saw was
this buffoon in a Johnny Thunders T-shirt... I'm disappointed in his new
direction... and what was that blues jam in the middle?' Hey, it was only f---in'
'Midnight Rambler'! Anybody out there remember rock and roll?! I guess I should just stay in terrible
relationships. Everyone'll be really happy and I'll be miserable."

As we sit at
his hotel window, staring out at the old Biba top floor where the late Mr.
Thunders once played with the New York Dolls, Adams plays me half a dozen
unmixed tracks from the Pink Hearts' debut album. It's probably no coincidence
that the song he's proudest of, 'Puppies', also happens to be the silliest.

"My
manager goes, 'Ryan, you're gonna have to get used to this, 'cause you are
moving so fast that people can't keep up,'" he says. "It hurts my
feelings, but I kinda don't care. I wanna be like a phoenix, y'know? I wanna be
a bird that just keeps catching on fire and coming out a new one."

With that, he
sparks up another cigarette and strikes the Keith Richards air-guitar pose to
end 'em all.

"What I
forgot to say about the Snoop Doggy Dogg dream was they didn't hate me 'cos I
couldn't tell the joke. I think that I was being so cheeky about it that they
still thought I was funny - funny because I blew the joke. Like, I was a dud
but that was acceptable.

"So maybe
that's how I see myself or something. As an acceptable dud."

 

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