Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Bird That Sang Too Much


There is a part in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus and his friend Lynch are in Bella Cohen’s brothel (followed by Mr. Bloom) and Lynch reveals that Stephen is a terrific singer.  The prostitutes, namely Zoe, who is trying to get the last remaining bits of money from Stephen’s pocket, beg Stephen to play the pianola in the parlor and sing.  Stephen, however, refuses, which prompts Zoe to utter one of my favorite lines in all of Ulysses and perhaps in all of literature and  of life:

“The bird that can sing but won’t sing.”

This phrase can be used in so many instances in art and in life in general.  How often are we attracted to that character or that person with the ability to inspire us or to perform a task, whether artistic or athletic or otherwise, with such ease, but who simply declines to.  When exceptional ability meets the reluctance to exhibit that ability, we are always intrigued.  We want to know why that bird won’t sing.  We want to know why he or she won’t live up to their talents and deliver what they can deliver.  We want to know to know why they won’t meet our image.  We want to know why they will not give us what we want.

Now, Ryan Adams does not deliver on many of these conflicts in the way they have been set up.  Ryan Adams has never refused to sing.  He has been singing since he was 17 or 16 years old when he moved from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Raleigh, North Carolina and formed Whiskeytown.  He was one of those child prodigy singers like Steve Winwood in the Spencer Davis Group or Alex Chilton in the Box Tops.  A guy – a kid – who was able to emote and deliver songs as if he were well beyond his years and had actually felt the pain in the songs he was singing, who truly knew the weathered ins and outs of the vinyl and carboard edges of the music he was attempting to continue the tradition of.  Ryan Adams has obviously proven that he has a deep knowledge of not only country music but also straight forward rock music in general, which is what he initially became very famous for at the turn of this new century.

If anything, Ryan Adams has perhaps been too inclined to sing, to speak his mind. He has released fifteen albums in fourteen years, this includes solo albums, Whiskeytown albums and albums backed by The Cardinals.  He has even released unofficial albums through his notorious website, including Jacksonville City Nights outtakes that are some of the funniest and most authentic country songs that I have ever heard, including the legendary “Jailbreak” song that features the following lyrics in its barely one minute entirety:

“Hey fellas where’s the party/I just got out of jail/Burn down the motherfucking forest/Just got out/….Monday Night Football!”

This song is replete with rooser noises and laser beam sounds along with fiddle and country picking guitar.  Adams manipulates his malleable ovice to sound like a man who has literally just gotten out of prison.  Adams has sang too much in his career and he has spoken too much in his career.  This touches on what Don Draper spoke about in the beginning of Season 3 of Mad Men when he said, “limit your exposure” in reference to thhe London Fog campaign, but really to telling Salvatore to keep his homosexuality hidden.  That element doesn’t have anything to do with Ryan Adams, but the idea of limiting your exposure does.  Ryan Adams has always had an issue with limiting his exposure.  He has always  been outspoken and has embraced the changing means of communication over the past ten years via the internet to make his immediate thoughts and feelings known.  He has often done this much his own detriment.  We can only wonder what can of image we would have of Ryan Adams had he seemed more aloof and less of a cocky, brazen, overly-sensitive ass who could really sing and when he felt like it write damn good/amazing songs that he released on albums that were shared with and among the public.  And we wouldn’t care about any of this at all unless he had that terrific talent.  That ability to “sing” in both the literal and the metaphorical.

If there weren’t alt-country or straight up country classics like “16 Days,” “Faithless Street,” or “The Ballad of Carol Lynn,” not to mention a sleu of other songs with Whiskeytown or “A Kiss Before I Go,” “Hard Way To Fall,” “The Hardest Part,” or “My Heart is Broken”; if there weren’t rockers like “To Be Young,” “New York, New York,” “Firecracker,” “Magnolia Mountain,” and “Halloweenhead” we wouldn’t ascribe any drama or emotion to Ryan Aadams.  Where as the character of Stephen Dedalus or Done Draper “refuse” to sing in so many ways, where they remain silent and aloof, Adams has sung his heart out and exposed himself.  We have seen the talent and moving ability of his highest highs as well as the pathetic obviousness and childishness of his lowest lows.  The fact that we know how good he can be and has been will always bring us back. “Why doesn’t he make an album like that again?” “Why doesn’t he write like that?” “These sort of relationships with the people in our lives and the artists that we love or at the very least appreciate on a certain level are what make some of the best drama or charged situations in our lives.  We want to see a consummation of talent and production – but that never comes. Now, it may be painfully obvious with Ryan Adams and he may be, as my college writing professor once described my admiration for Thomas Wolfe, “second-rate,” but he has made some terrific songs and albums and there is one album, “Cold Roses,” that has a strange “middle” ground in the universe of Ryan Adams.

“Cold Roses” was the first of a trilogy of albums that Adams released in 2005 when he was making a self-proclaimed “comeback” and getting serious about his music again.  The album after “Cold Roses,” “Jacksonville City Nights,” was one of the best country albums of all time in my opinion, it was certainly a genre piece, but Adams knew the genre so well that he was able to put his own stamp on it. The final album of the trilogy “29” is one of the worst albums of all time – I’ll just leave it at that.  “Cold Roses” achieves some kind of middle ground for Ryan Adams and has always baffled me.  I love the album.  It is an homage to the Grateful Dead in so many ways, and perhaps no jam band that is indebted to the Grateful Dead in all the obvious respects never came as close to the aesthetic that the Dead crafted as Adams did on this double album.  So, we are going to dive head first and just wade through some of the songs and the sounds.

To put this all in perspective, I was heavily into this album and “Jacksonville City Nights” in the spring of 2006.  I had come back from Ireland, was feeling disillusioned, had a radio show and was driving my car around a lot.  I’d play these songs of heartbreak and wondering while driving alone on long stretches of Interstate 87, sometimes in the dark, sometimes in the light with the stain of salt along the highway and the grass on the sides of the road still brownish green and straw colored, waiting for the upstate spring rains to bring it all back to life.  Or, I’d drive at night watching the taillights, thinking about something or things sad that happened to me a long time ago, passing Poughkeepsie and New Paltz, then on past Kingston up to Saugerties then the dusky purple smog and blinking red lights of Albany and further until the light pollution faded slightly enough to feel refreshing near Half Moon and Ballston Spa until finally there I was in Saratoga and raging against whatever I felt to be light.

The radio show was at 10:00 on Sunday nights.

Anyway, “Cold Roses” starts off with the epic rocker “Magnolia Mountain,” which is one of my top songs of all-time. In fact, its one of the best songs that Neil Young never wrote.  It features rambling, sloppy but tactful guitar work and snarling lines like “I wanna to Magnolia Mountain and lay my weary head down/Down on the rocks on the mountain my saviour made/Steady my soul and ease my worry/Hold me when I rattle like a hummingbird humming/tie me to the rocks on the mountain my saviour made” before it enters a chorus of “Lie to me/sing me a song/sing me a song til the morning comes/and if the morning comes/will you lie to me?/will you take me to your bed? Will you  lay me down?/until I’m heaving in the rocks by the riverbed/that my saviour made?”  This goes into a similar verse before Adams and the Cardinals unleash waves of guitar noise that will make you feel cramped in whatever car you are driving and force you to open the windows in even the cold wind of March in order to sing as loud as you can and let the air pass through from the driver’s seat to the passenger’s seat.  The rest of the first album features gentle, fluid and idyllic melodies that are completely reminiscent of the Grateful Dead in their 1970-1974 period on the albums “American Beauty,” “From the Mars Hotel,” and “Wake of the Flood.”  Throughout, Adams is inspired and the Cardinals as a backing band provide him with intricate and melodic playing that veers away from the dangerous parts of melancholic and melodramatic.  Meanwhile, Adams shows his range as he croons and wails almost like Roy Orbison on the lovelorn song “Cherry Lane.”

The second album of the set reveals the muscle.  “Easy Plateau,” is a rambling song that the Dead easily could have played at Cornell in 1977.  Its all slinky guitar, slide guitar and propulsive drumming and a strumming chorus that would work around any campfire – all of which were elements of the Dead at their very best and accessible, which I actually consider their heart.  To me, there are four songs that tower above the others on the second side; those songs are “Let It Ride,” “Cold Roses,” “If I Am A Stranger,” and “Life Is Beautiful.”  We’ll tackle “Let It Ride,” first.  This is a song with a guitar part in the chorus that Ennio Morricone easily could have written, but it also features classic Adams lyrics like “twenty-seven years of nothing but heartaches and failures and promises I couldn’t keep.”  Yet, there is a refrain throughout the song of “I’m not ready to go/I’m never ready to go.”  This song is a perfect example of what Adams can inspire within us.  For all of his messiness for all of his overreaching he makes us feel invincible in some way, like we can never die; like everything is immediate and important.  Its not a desperation that most country songs or most great literature is born out of, it is a romantic vision, something almost adolescent that makes us want to burn up and die at the age of 25 like John Keats.

The title track, “Cold Roses,” starts with a  lead guitar line that is vintage Jerry Garcia, while Adams comes in with vocals that are by-the numbers for him.  He moans the ends of his words and syllables he over-enunciates in a way that Mick Jagger mastered, which Adams mastered and made useful in his own way.  The guitar is fluid but ragged and unorthodox like Jerry’s playing before we get into a chorus, which again is classic Adams, “daylight comes and uncovers/Saturday’s bruises in cold roses.”  Throughout the song Adams moves his voice around playfully, hitting hight notes, lower notes, side notes and everything in between, creating all kinds of howling melodic vocal hooks.  We even get a furious guitar solo that is extremely welcome, hummable and fitting for the song as a whole, before it turns into rumbling noise and then allows Adams to finish off with a delicate return to the chorus of “cold roses,” which he howls and harmonizes.

That song fades out and leads into perhaps my favorite song on the album, “If I Am A Stranger.” We again get an impossibly catchy and melodic guitar line that borders on Ennio Morricone territory and also a chorus of “If I am a stranger now to you/I will always be/I will always be/Stronger now than me/Stronger now than you/Love will always be/And if we let it go/I will try to be there for you/If I can/but what if I can’t?” It doesn’t get more melodramatic than that.  However, in some ways that’s what we want.  We want the melodrama, we want to feel the emotion behind a line like “If all this love is real/How will we know/And if we’re only scared of losing it/How will it last?”  Isn’t there something completely honest about a guy with a gifted voice earnestly singing (voice sometimes breaking) “If I am a stranger now to you/I will always be.”  If you take the line at just that value, well then the rest of the short story or the scene should just spring up from there.  A couple sitting in the gloaming of an August evening.  The girl says that the evenings are cooler now so that sleeping is more bearable.  The crickets begin to make their noise. “If I am a stranger now to you/I will always be.”  Those are gut punch type of moments and perhaps Ryan Adams smears them with his brush, but he delivers them in a way that sticks with you.

Finally, there is “Life is Beautiful,” which is like some McCartney mid-tempo ballad/rocker that builds to one of  those undeniable choruses – in fact there is some symbol in this song that is completely reminiscent of “Hey Jude” – mixed with the standard Ryan Adams vibe.  He rasps some lines of the verses, then wails the chorus like Roy Orbison and hits a whining tone like Bono in other areas or as he sings, “Because if I don’t believe in love/Then I don’t believe in you/And I do.”  These are not compelling lyrics but they are honest in some way that I have never been able to comprehend.  Maybe it all lies with something a friend of mine in college once said to me.  We were outside smoking cigarettes – we smoked a lot of cigarettes then and called them “heats” – it could have been cold and snowy and the light from the dorms could have spread out in big rectangles on the snow, making it shine, while I draped myself in my pea coat and he wore a t-shirt, shorts, and worn wolverine boots with no socks.  Or, it could have been warm and we could’ve been barefoot with beers tucked in the pockets of our shorts looking out at the lawn in front of the dorm and there would have been dew and guys and girls walking along the permiter road of the campus, laughing and enjoying themselves, but for some reason we furiously smoked cigarettes and drank lots of  beer.  My friend said to me in one of these times, “Being fourteen was great.  You think stuff like ‘I love this girl.  If I don’t have her then I’ll die.’ It’s so melodramatic.  But at least you care about something.”  I don’t know if that’s what Ryan Adams intended – he probably didn’t. But something about me likes these songs and lyrics like those, if only in this instance.  And something about it reminds me of my friend and how I liked smoking cigarettes with him and thinking about that important thing that he one time said to me.


Maybe Ryan Adams is the great Romantic Rocker of our time. Maybe he is just a guy who made some good records and some really terrible records. I’m sure Pitchfork tore apart “Cold Roses” but gave “Jacksonville City Nights” a 7.8 and hailed it as “not a return to form, but Adams recognizing his strengths once again, albeit within the contstraints of the country genre.”  I know that I love the album “Cold Roses” and I know that this is not objective journalism or blogging.  However, there is some lesson to be learned from Ryan Adams.  Should we as a youth and as a culture be learning to limit our exposure?  Certainly from this blog you would not say so – this blog is about exposing yourself whether through the guise of a podcast or a sports post or a post about a musician, book or author.  However, some part of me believes that if we left a bit of the mystery around ourselves, we would be able to regain some element of life that has been lost or that is slipping away.  Should we not sing?  Should we not put ourselves out there?  Somone once said that John Cazale was one of the best actors and people of all time because when you were with him, you could feel him putting himself out into the world, exposing his core through his art.  And maybe that is the lesson that we are supposed to learn from Ryan Adams’ up and down career.  Perhaps if he had exposed himself through his art more directly, had used his prodigious abilities and prolific output to put forth some of the elements of his soul rather than work in genres and release three albums in one year, then he would have truly “sung.”  We do not have to limit our exposure like Don Draper (although perhaps that is an art in itself, no?), we simply have to understand how to hone it to its utmost effectiveness through the art that we unleash or release into the world.

In any event, he wrote some damn good songs.

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