"The Life of Ryan Adams"
By: Jesse Berrett
At age 15, Ryan Adams dropped out of high school with a modest goal in mind-he wanted to become a "rock personality."
Fleeing the still waters of his hometown, Jacksonville, North Carolina, for the happening state capital, Raleigh, Adams formed a bitchin' punk band called the Patty Duke Syndrome, dug ditches for a plumbing company and lived sofa to stinky sofa. Five years later, thanks to a $5,000 advance from Geffen Records for his fledgling country-rock band, Whiskeytown, Adams could finally afford a regular mailing address, via a hotel.
"I had a bag of clothes by one wall, and Fleetwood Mac and Gram Parsons records against another," he remembers. "And that was my room."
Seven years later, at 26, Adams is a Next Big Thing singer-songwriter who may finally be scribbling "rock personality" on his tax returns. The demi-heartthrob is currently holed up in a suite in Los Angeles's Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, a cavernous rocker hideout on Hollywood Boulevard. Adams has camped here for the last four months while recording Gold, the sequel to last year's knockout solo debut, Heartbreaker, and like any good bar-stool poet, he's drawn to the city's Plasticine glamour. "I enjoy obsessing on the star culture," says Adams. Later this evening, he'll head to a party at Sheryl Crow's home, directions courtesy of comrade-de-rock Adam Duritz, of Counting Crows.
"I've seen Eminem's entourage," he grins, "at a Grammy party. We had to go to the restroom at the same time, and there was a big guy who stood there making sure Eminem didn't get popped." Adams pauses to catch himself. "I don't think I'm gonna die for making sad music. I did, however, get strangled in New Castle, England, by some drunk for not being Randy Newman."
Over the course of four Whiskeytown albums, Adams has earned a reputation a alt-country's brilliant, oft-blotto bard, a staggering genius in the tradition of gram Parsons, Paul Westerberg and Kurt Cobain. He and Parsons-who co-founded seminal '60s country-rockers the Flying Burrito Brothers, went solo and overdosed two months shy of 27-share a birthday; also, Adams adds, "people used to say I looked like him, which I always thought was a lie." One member of a rival band even picked Adams in a death pool, predicting that he’s prematurely crash and burn like Parsons. "I'm no pinnacle of cleanliness or sobriety," he allows, "but I'm still here."
Adams' heroes are artists who "go there": high-maintenance madmen, punk rockers, members of the 24-hour-personality club." "It's not very fashionable nowadays to have a philosophy that demands a lot of life," he acknowledges. "I tend to be drawn to people who are emotional - now they'd be called 'crazy'. Pollock, Jasper Johns, Toulouse-Lautrec. People said, 'They’re off their nut!' Was Faulkner off his nut because he stayed in his house for eight months at a time writing books, and then you'd find him drunk up in a tree, making out with some old black woman? I think that’s fuckin' great!"
Adams is an excitable boy, prone to bursts of bohemian rhapsody. One moment, he's perched on a chair, sticking up for his favorite Beat writers; the next, he's bouncing up to show off the logo of the L.A. punk band X he’s just had tattooed above his left wrist (a fine complement to the Black Flag bars on his shoulder). Putting on an unmastered mix of his new album, Adams cackles gleefully: "I'll probably hate it next week, but now I just love it. Woo-hoo! Turn on the faucet and let the tub overflow."
Such scraped-nerve rawness has spread his name his name well beyond his former band's cult audience. Elton John called Heartbreaker the "most beautiful" record of 2000. Keith Richards advised him to switch from brown liquors to clear. He and Alanis Morissette co-wrote a song about 1974, the birth year they share. He's even been romantically linked to Winona Ryder, but politely begs off further inquiries: "I understand why that would be of interest. I'm not comfortable talking about that kind of stuff. Is that OK?"
Sitting across from Adams, you can guess what Ryder sees. He's sensitive without being drippy, funny but pained-a Morrissey (another one of his idols) who articulates the anguish of straight people. Fans, mostly men in their twenties, sidle up to him on the street and tell him, "I'm going through a divorce, and your record saved my life." Sometimes their hands shake, says Adams, and he sits them down for a beer until they relax.
Now at home on Lost Highway Records, and alt-country offshoot of Island Def Jam, the prolific Adams has not one but three albums in the can, writing and recording the most recent over five days in early June. The 16-song Gold, out in September, could break him big; it sounds both instantly familiar and brashly ambitious, a rewiring of rock radio that roars like blood on the Tracks-era Dylan without sacrificing the lonesome tunes his fans crave.
All of which will surely bring on more of those yuk-yuk comparisons to his almost namesake from Canada. Adams heard a lot of Bryan/Ryan jokes when he was a kid, but "not so much" in Whiskeytown. Now they’re back. When some comedian at one of his shows yell out for "Cuts Like a Knife," though, he’s ready: "I'll go, 'God I’m up here with fucked-up hair, I've obviously had a couple of glasses of wine, I have terrible dental health. Is that all you have for me?'"