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Ryan's Hope

Ryan Adams may act like an indulgent rock star, but he can back it up

By Gina Arnold

I READ A FUNNY NEWS ITEM about Ryan Adams recently. Apparently, at one of his gigs, some joker in the crowd yelled out a request for Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69," and Ryan went nuts. He insisted the ushers find the shouter and remove him, even going so far as to put $30--the price of the ticket--in the culprit's pocket.

I love this story, because it is so evenly split between rationality and absurdity--just like rock & roll. On the one hand, I hate hecklers, even if this guy's shoutout sounds kind of funny. People who interrupt concerts with silly requests deserve whatever they get. On the other hand, can't Ryan take a joke? Ryan gets more press for being one of those wild-eyed, self-destructive, movie-star-dating, drunken-artist types than he does for his solid songwriting, but that doesn't mean that he can't pen a great number.

Perhaps his best-known song is "When the Stars Go Blue," recently covered by the Corrs and Bono. And although his work is riddled with homages to Dylan, the Band, the Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons, on songs like "New York, New York" (an updated version of "Tangled Up in Blue") and "The Rescue Blues" ("The Weight" revisited), Adams really makes their styles his own.

He is also insanely prolific, and his latest release, Demolition, is a long, dense and complicated set of extra songs remaining from his previous albums, Heartbreaker and Gold, a move intended to tide fans over until his next album. Gold showcases the artist at his best, from the raspy-voiced rock of "Enemy Fire" to the Bruce Springsteen's-gone-to-college romanticism of "Sylvia Plath," in which Adams sings, "I wish I had a Sylvia Plath ... to give me a reason for, well, I dunno."

Adams does Bob Dylan as if he were a 27-year-old who grew up listening to both the Smiths and Frank Sinatra, and that's no mean feat. At his shows, he often covers numbers by Madonna, Oasis and even the Backstreet Boys, as well as ones by more classic rockers. But what really sets Adams apart form all the other midtempo, 4/4 time rockers out there is exactly that smart and lonely, yet glamorously poetic and totally messed-up, persona, which makes itself felt and understood underneath all the songs and styles. That pretty much sets him apart from everyone else who's playing guitar these days--like Jack Johnson, David Grey and John Mayer, for instance--and explains why he, over all the others, is being tagged the new Springsteen/Dylan/Whathaveyou.

Springsteen was never a stylistic groundbreaker either. And when Adams sings a song like "Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard," with its achingly read last line, "Yeah right!," he ranges across about five decades' worth of shattered hopes and dreams and aspirations.

Unfortunately, since splitting with his band, Whiskeytown, Adams has gone swiftly down the path of least resistance, which is to say that in addition to playing shows and putting out records he dates famous ladies (Winona Ryder, Alanis Morissette) and has a reputation not just for name-dropping and stealing licks but also for getting drunk and stoned--and then mouthing off or otherwise messing up in public.

It is, alas, a sure path to, if not success, at least a lot of notoriety, which other artists find irksome. For example, after hearing about the Bryan Adams debacle, roots-rock singer Robbie Fulks went on record as offering anyone who was willing to yell out for a B. Adams song at an R. Adams concert a reward. "There's nothing really personal behind it," Fulks told Billboard.com. "I just don't like his music is all--or his persona. He's something of an ambassador for the roots-music corner of the world to the public at large. I think he's the wrong person for that job. Not that he sees himself as occupying that role, but essentially that's what he's become." And you can understand Fulks' ire. Whiskeytown definitely played up the working-class rock thing more than Adams' solo persona does, but he was smart to jump off the "alt-country" bandwagon before it went off the tracks.

Demolition had a much larger budget than Adams' disheveled persona and previous incarnation would have ever commanded, but it also has more merit. Ryan Adams may be a walking and talking rock & roll cliché, but at least he's an enormously talented one.


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From the November 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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