Just over three years ago, on our anniversary, Sue and I went to see a 26 year old singer/songwriter who we only knew of by reputation. I’d heard a couple of tracks by his old band, Whiskeytown. Ryan Adams played a stunning set of old and new songs. The packed club loved him. On the recording of the show that circulates, I can be heard laughing loudly at some of the between song banter. On the way out, he was standing in the corridor opposite the loo, talking to punters, a diminutive, modest guy in a check shirt. I shook his hand and signed up for his mailing list.
I had tickets to see him again after that but was unavoidably detained by a book tour in Slovenia. I’ve followed his career avidly though, picking up all of Whiskeytown’s CDs plus two albums (one ‘Gold’ was a big hit), two EPs and countless field recordings by the solo Adams, who has to be one of the most prolific songwriters around – he can knock off an album in a weekend. I’ve heard most of the 200 songs he’s written in the last three years and, OK, maybe only one in 10 is great and well over half are throwaways, but that still leaves an awful lot of great songs. He also has this terrific, sweet voice, that’s unmistakably him when he sings in ballad or country rock mode.
When Adams’ label rejected his last album, the uneven, depressive Love Is Hell, he put together what sounded like a quicky ‘up yours’ project, a bland, radio friendly, sub-Strokes throwaway called Rock’n’Roll. When I heard he was touring it, I wasn’t tempted. Then I found that he was playing Rock City the night before my birthday. I could hardly not go along. He would probably play some of the old stuff I knew and loved along with the crud.
The evening started promisingly. The support act, Jesse Malin, was OK in a sub-Springsteen way, sounding like Nils Lofgren with ideas above his station. In the interval we bumped into James, promoter of the excellent Cosmic American Music Club, who put on Ryan at the Maze back in 2000. He hadn’t been looking forward to tonight, he said. However, he’d heard from a friend who was at the previous night, in Cambridge, that Ryan only did a few songs from Rock’n’Roll – there was also lots of new and old songs, even some Whiskeytown stuff. Our spirits perked up.
Then he came onstage, leather jacket, hair gelled and huge, Morrisseyesque horn rimmed glasses, and proceeded to play five songs from Rock’n’Roll, each one worse than the last. Things perked up a bit with one of the blander songs from ‘Love Is Hell’ and ‘To Be Young..’ from his one classic album, Heartbreaker. Beneath the leather jacket, he had his trademark check shirt. A version of ‘Sylvia Plath’ which he crooned, Sinatra style, accompanied by solo piano was mesmerising.
But things were going wrong. The long pauses between numbers didn’t help – they mainly seemed to be there to allow him to smoke half a cigarette. He went back into Rock’n’Roll mode and played a new song, which he forgot and had to start again. It wasn’t just the new songs he forgot. Normally garrulous, the only comment he made to the audience after one of the long between song gaps was a mumbled comment about how the rest of the band had taken ecstacy (don’t they know that’s like, so ten years too late) after the show, but he hadn’t. You couldn’t help wondering what he’d taken tonight instead. There were a couple of OK new songs and one brief, embarrassing rant about Nottingham girls (there are four for every guy, evidently, and the best looking ones work in Macdonalds). The best moment of the rest of the set was the acoustic reworking of the Strokes’ ‘Last Night’ that he closed with. But I’d rather have heard ‘Come Pick Me Up’ from ‘Heartbreaker’.
For the encore, he played the piano himself, forgetting the words to the Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’, playing another song, then doing his slowed down to death’s pace ‘Brown Sugar’ again. By now, the crowd were leaving in droves. More slow songs followed. Then the band and the silly glasses came back on and played another song from the latest album. At this point, Ryan switched places with the drummer and tried to force him to sing a punky song that he (and I) didn’t know. When that failed, he dragged on someone from the audience who knew a few of the words. It wasn’t funny.
Sue wanted to go but I knew it was nearly over and was determined to stick it out until the bitter end, which was a ten minute version of a punk thrash called ‘The Drugs Aren’t Working’ that climaxed with Ryan standing on a speaker, screaming the title at the audience.
‘That was the worst gig I’ve ever been to’ Sue said as we walked back to the car with our friends. ‘Don’t ever make me go and see him again.’ I’m not so bitter (the two hours were nothing compared to more than two and a half of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ tour show my parents bribed me to take my younger brother to back in ’74). But it wasn’t pretty. I think I’ll hold out for a solo show before I go and see Ryan again.
After Sue had gone to bed, I was reading an interview with with Bill Murray (costar of the superb new movie, ‘Lost In Translation’) in Uncut magazine before going to bed. Talking about himself, Bill says ‘anybody that becomes famous becomes an ass for a year and a half. You gotta give them a year and a half, two years.’
Ryan, your two years are just about up.