Love is Rock N Roll

****½

Love is Rock N Roll

I know absolutely nothing about Ryan Adams. Well, apart from the ramblings on his website. Like I know he used to work at Hardee’s and that he’s originally from North Carolina and apparently he ‘s proud of the fact that he’s a bad dresser (cool through disassociation of fashion is still cool, no doubt). And from listening to the lyrics of his songs I can surmise that he likes two things—bars and Friday nights—or maybe he was just reminding me too much of myself at 22.

But my unfamiliarity with his personal biography hasn’t stopped me from coming to an obvious conclusion about him either. Ryan Adams is an absolutely brilliant and rare artist, capable of passionate introspection and really rocking guitar riffs in the same breath. One of his latest releases (and that’s not meant to flatter his apparent prolific nature, just a natural fact) is called Rock N Roll—a fitting title if ever there was one. It rocks inside and out with copious amounts of back-beat guitar noise and cathartic relationship angst.

The single So Alive may stand out as one of the exceptions in the mix—sounding at times more like a twangy falsetto tribute to the late great Jeff Buckley (leanings toward the androgyny of Morrissey not also withstanding). The great mystery, though, is that it doesn’t sound anything like his earlier stuff, which leads me to wonder—how many sounds does this guy have in him anyway?

Only a lesser critic (and I’ve read a few) would try to encapsulate his sound by making predictably passing-off statements or mundanely echoing that he’s the birth child of, say, Everclear at their best (okay that one album) and the Goo Goo Dolls when their ballad serenades still worked. But me, I’m not gonna do that. For one thing, at various times he’s reminiscent of too many different people (T.Rex, The Smithereens, and Wilco are just a few that spring to mind). He’s also just too cool and aloof (yet approachably pop) for such crass comparisons. My feeling is that somewhere in there, despite what those other critics say, lies the heart of real integrity.

Oh no, I’m certainly not being suckered by a charlatan, even if no one else in the world “gets” him.

Actually, the first album of his that I’ve listened to is Demolition, which is his second as a solo artist as far as I can tell. This album alternates almost like clockwork between upbeat rock rhythm and acoustic melodrama. It’s an easy listen on a moody fall day.

So, here I am listening to it in my car for nearly a week. Getting to the point where I just want to hear another sound, I put in some G. Love and the Special Sauce. Now, in some weird, unexplainable way—through the cosmic empathy I had been feeling prior, I guess—I turned against G. I became convinced that he was a complete and utterly emotional, I’ll say it here… pussy. I mean, after going through the roller coaster ride that was Ryan Adams I had to wonder, “Has anything tragic ever happened to G. Love? Has his pretty boy heart ever really been broken? Is he gonna just keep singing about basketball? How shallow can this guy be!” There I was turning (and undeservingly so) against someone on an entirely different plane of existence. And not trying to sound like I’ve turned into too much of a fan of Ryan Adams, I’ll get back to the point.

Love is Hell, Pt 1, his other latest release from this year, appears to be a consolidation of his somber, more folk-ish tunes, or more accurately—Ryan during the lower side of his manic state. “I’m really dying in here” he mutters on Afraid Not Scared. It’s a testament to his jarring emotional range. It’s anybody’s guess what Part 2 will sound like, but I think it’s safe to say that this tune-churner has already started his next metamorphosis.

Despite the somber tone and difference in musical treatments, though, most of the stuff on both albums just plain works. His music is heart-wrenchingly profound when he’s wearing it on his sleeve and positively mature when he rocks it on out. And I’m just a sucker for the guitar and vocal nuisances that he probably knows come dirt cheap but are so satisfying to listen to.

But I guess when all is said and done, I’m just glad to see that there are artists like Ryan Adams still around. It’s uncommon these days that a musician can still remind us that The Smiths and Nirvana actually happened. Simultaneously, for me anyway, he’s proof of music’s ability to transcend heavy highs and lows, which I think leads to the true spirit of rock’n’roll. For many, it leads to an unlikely turning point—opening up the possibility of finding empathy within ourselves.

Okay, well, now after putting it like that, I guess I can finally call myself a fan.

Love is Rock N Roll: Part 2 Addendum

“Hi, Axl! Hi, Axl! Hi, Axl!”

There’s an early 90’s flashback going on in my head.

Those words catapulted out in perfect mocking overtone from the mouth of a babe ready to eat up the tiredly pathetic and overly commercialized music scene known at the time as Heavy Metal.

I’m talking about Nirvana at the MTV Music Awards circa 1992. It was Kurt Cobain, or maybe Dave Grohl, or maybe the other oafish-looking guy who came up to the microphone half-loaded and giddy with his own well-deserved cockiness to harken in the new, albeit short-lived, era of grunge. My memory lapses for the exact details (I think I remember reading that it had something to do with a backstage fight between Kurt and Axl) but the incident has a meaning to me that is nothing short of microscopic in its clarity.

That night the false pretense of bands such as Poison and Warrant was forever being exposed for what it was — crap. Not because journalists, rock critics, or the listening public had come to any kind of epiphany — but because something arose from the underbelly of culture to counter it. And it was infinitely more interesting than the smell of hair spray.

Now that I think about it, that awards show must have seemed like a farewell party for most of the aging metal stars, only they didn’t quite know it walking in. But from my recollection, by the night’s end, Poison called it quits (after publicly fighting during their performance) and G’n’R went into permanent hibernation. By next year the awards show became an entirely different scene and different invitations were being sent out from the headquarters of cool.

The imprint of this dramatic occurrence has lasted with me for ten years, only to find resonance once again in the work of Ryan Adams — only this time, I hope it’s the young who get eaten.

Having a chance to listen to Love is Hell, Part 2, it’s becoming clear to me that this 29 year old harbors a bottomless reservoir of emotional baggage. And like Martha Stewart getting felt up by a federal court judge, I call this a good thing. Why?

Because in addition to some very crafty, well structured songs, the emotional character of Ryan’s music stands in undeniable contrast to all of the Mickey Mouseketeers turned serious adult “artists” turned yet another shaved-pubed idiot sporting bling bling on MTV’s Cribs.  That’s why.

For the moment, Ryan Adams is epitomizing a movement of singer/songwriters who want to return to music in all of its power and glory. It’s a call to immediacy, be it with love, tenderness, or rage — anything that can be internalized, bottled up, or spit back out as real.

Of course, naming a song “Fuck the Universe” can do absolutely nothing else for my mindset but catch a ride on the far-and-away wave of grunge pathos. Kinda reminds me of the first time I ever heard the chunky opening guitar in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” At the time, it had me thinking of the Velvet Undergound, which only made my appreciation for Nirvana escalate (along with the grunge movement as a whole, if you could call it a movement).

So, I think there’s hope at the end of 2003, that artists like Ryan Adams, Beth Orton, and David Gray to name just a few might soon be called to the podium in some honorary venue somewhere. Just once more, I’d love to see it all happen again.

“Hi, Justin! Hi, Justin! Hi, Justin!”

Well, that’s how it plays out in my head.