Outside it’s a Tom Waits world. Leaving our faded, yellow hotel — a former livery stable with hanging gardens, a goldfish pond, and circling bugs the size of small birds — we head down Marigny Street into “the Quarter,” New Orleans’ combination tourist trap/alcohol-fortified tar pit full of “one-legged fucking pirates and shamans and con artists,” as our guide, Ryan Adams, describes it. This can be a dangerous place, but especially so for a rock star at a personal and creative crossroads. Too many distractions.
At the moment, the distractions are benign: eggs and salmon. Breakfast. Adams pulls up the collar of his peacoat to ward off the early-April chill. His unruly black hair is hidden under a porkpie hat. We stride through the streets toward a cafe he spied the night before. “Look at the sky — it’s calico,” he muses. It’s easy to see why poet Ryan (one of his several personalities) is here, bunking in a cheap room on the outskirts of town. He’s always been this way. Put him in any major city and he’ll scout the perfect black-and-white postcard location inside an hour.
“When I’m in New York, I just want to walk down the street and feel this thing, like I’m in a movie,” he explains. In Los Angeles, he stays at the old, Montgomery Clift-haunted Roosevelt Hotel, instead of the more star-friendly Chateau Marmont or Sunset Marquis. Self-conscious as it may be, this fidelity to mythic Americana is part of Adams’ charm. It’s evident in his best songs, with their street-corner detail and bad-luck, sad-eyed ladies. It’s also part of his cliche.
Serious-musician Ryan (personality two, equally versed in Hank Williams, the Smiths, and Black Flag) has reason to be here as well. He’s trying to record a great album, the follow-up to 2001’s breakthrough, Gold, which sold 400,000 copies and made Adams a semi-celebrity. With the single “New York, New York” (and bittersweet video, shot across the river from the World Trade Center just days before September 11), the album elevated him from alt-country cult hero to bold-faced tabloid name (linked with Winona Ryder, among others). Then, before the former punk stoner kid from Jacksonville, North Carolina, could adjust to his fame, the backlash hit. Fans of his volatile country-rock band, Whiskeytown, and his earnest solo debut, Heartbreaker, cried “Judas” over Gold’s lustrous pop production. (Starbucks soundtrack queens the Corrs later covered “When the Stars Go Blue.”) The album’s classic-rock reverence warmed the Rolling Stones, who asked Adams to open shows on their Forty Licks tour. Famous Ryan (personality number three, a childlike sketch of how an overnight rock star should act) was born. This Ryan was a smart kid who parodied celebrity superficiality a little too skillfully. Fun at parties. Can’t look you in the eye. Not the kind of guy who would make another Heartbreaker.
“On Heartbreaker,” he says, “I had to sing those songs. I drank the way I did those songs. I ate the way I did those songs. I communicated the way I did those songs. With Gold, I was trying to prove something to myself. I wanted to invent a modern classic.” On the strength of Gold, his 2002 compilation of demos (titled Demolition) went Top 30, a success that gave famous Ryan further license to ill. Soon, he was known less for his music than for his antics (covering the Strokes’ Is This It in its entirety, trying to bounce people from his shows for requesting Bryan Adams, feuding with Jack White, whom he called a “little girl,” and babbling on his website about smoking Moroccan hash). “I used to be so excited when I saw my name in print,” he confesses. “I wanted to be a rock personality so fucking bad. But then I was looking at people like Patti Smith — people who had a purpose. I said to myself, ‘I should have a purpose, too.’ And what I figured out was that I don’t have one. I’m a goofball. I’m always changing my mind. I’m breaking my promises all over the place.”
By spring 2003, everyone was pretty sick of the goofball — the goofball included. Which is what brings us to New Orleans. Scores of artists have turned to this city for musical inspiration, from Duke Ellington to Nine Inch Nails. The ashes of country-rock saint Gram Parsons (one of Adams’ many idols) reside here as well. There’s music in the air. Train whistles, horse-hoof clip-clops, police sirens. “I wanted to go to an actual, real, American city,” says Adams. “Full of nameless bars. I didn’t want to work in New York or L.A. I just wanted to get away from that.”
And yet, as night stretches on into morning, it’s difficult to identify what 28-year-old regular-guy Ryan (personality four, a gifted, humble fellow who can do anything but commits to almost nothing) is getting out of this perfectly beat environment. It’s clear that talent, ambition, and art direction aren’t enough to produce a classic album. Ryan Adams — all of them — needs some inspiration.
It’s 3 a.m. We’ve eaten two large, time-consuming meals since breakfast. Browsed through junk shops, bought old albums and Look magazines. Attempted to track down a notorious caster of spells. Adams, a gifted mimic, has done his adenoidal Metallica-fan impression more than once. Anything, it seems, to avoid the problem at hand. The sign on the door of Piety Street Recording Studio, you see, reads: Do Not Disturb: Career-Ending Recording Session in Progress.
John Porter, a graying Brit with kind eyes, calmly listens to the playback. Some studio musicians wait around. A few of them, like former Small Faces keyboardist Ian MacLagan and drummer Rikki Fataar (beloved by Monty Python fans as the Rutles’ “Stig O’Hara”), are somewhat legendary. Porter made his name producing records by Roxy Music and the Smiths. Adams initially wanted Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to produce some songs he’d written in New York, a collection of pain-streaked bar-stool ballads dubbed Love Is Hell. Tired of emulating mid-period Stones, and on Marr’s recommendation, he enlisted Porter to wrap his white-boy blues in some authentic Mancunian raincoat rock. This should be an interesting hybrid, but some element is missing. The songs he plays for me over the studio speakers — like “Hotel Chelsea Nights,” with its melancholy keyboards, and an almost unrecognizable version of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” — are excellent. But Adams feels the tracks are adrift. He plays a guitar part to a new song, “This House Is Not for Sale,” over and over. “It doesn’t sound art faggy enough!” he frets. “It’s too Goo Goo Dolls! Too fucking Melissa Etheridge! I should be wearing a muscle T-shirt.”
A studio hand is dispatched to a local bar. He returns with a vintage, royal-blue Pepsi crate of Guinness pints, but even after getting loaded, the band is just too good. “There was no way to explain [that I wanted them] to validate these almost high school poems with some wrong notes,” Adams remembers later in New York. “[There was] no way to grease it up a little and make it interesting. I’d take this piano player and put him on drums and, like, goddamn, he’s really good at drums, too.”
When Adams and Porter finally packed up for L.A. to mix the sessions, they were no closer to the end. “Love Is Hell started splitting in two,” Adams says. “It was like I was recording the gravy and I already had the turkey. So we just started stripping it back. By the end of it all, I was so tired of recording. I was fried. I’d overdone it.”
“It was a big departure,” says Luke Lewis, president of Adams’ label, Lost Highway. The album wasn’t rejected, but the label didn’t rush to schedule it, either. “I told him I thought he could do better,” admits Lewis, “but I tell him that all the time. On a business level, I could’ve done fine with Love Is Hell. But we both knew… he was suffering from overhype. I said, ‘Are you sure this is gonna be the statement you wanna make?’… His young ass was hanging out there. If [the record] wasn’t good, he was gonna get whacked by a lot of people.” Lost Highway is releasing selections from Love Is Hell as a pair of EPs.
Back in New York, Adams went underground. Literally. Nobody saw him, but he would post Mariah Carey-like ramblings on his official website. He was quitting the music business. He was going to play guitar in someone else’s band. He was reuniting Whiskeytown. “I just shut everybody down,” he says now. “My biggest word in the last eight months was no. And I used the shit out of that word.” Adams broke up with his longtime girlfriend, singer/songwriter Leona Naess (who then sold My X is a Wanker baby Ts on her website). In New Orleans, he’d rhapsodized about their relationship: “My lifestyle changed when this wonderful person came into my life. I couldn’t sleep for years. All of a sudden, I don’t know why or how, but I slept.”
Now, it’s fair to say, he wasn’t sleeping much. Or writing much. He was hanging out all night at East Village bars Niagara and Black and White. One of rock’s most prolific songwriters seemed officially burned out. Then two things happened. First, friend and current drummer Johnny T (who co-owns the aforementioned bars) invited Adams to Motherfucker, a rock’n’roll dance party. “I remember going by myself,” says Adams. “[It] was one crazy music fest. They would play Sonic Youth and New Order, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I know how to play that stuff. Why am I not playing that stuff?’ Someone put on [the Smiths’] ‘How Soon Is Now?’ and I remember saying to myself, ‘Don’t get so caught up.’ I had boxed myself into a little place.”
Then, he staggered into a basement and rediscovered punk rock. Johnny T had rented a rehearsal space under Hi-Fi, a bar on Avenue A, and he and Adams started playing there after hours. “Anytime, we could say, ‘Let’s go jam!'” remembers Johnny T. “It wasn’t work. It was like [Ryan] hadn’t played music for fun in a long time.” An initial recording, dubbed The War on Drugs, wasn’t promising. “God forbid this tape ever leaks out,” Adams laughs. “It’s some absurd shit.” (Adams is also rumored to be part of the piss-take punk band the Finger, with singer/songwriter/bar owner Jesse Malin; their 2002 indie release, We Are Fuck You, crams ten Germs rip-offs into 15 minutes. “I love that band,” says Adams, with a wink. “Those crazy kids from uptown.”)
Regardless, the liberation process had begun. Says Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, who stopped by to jam: “I imagined Ryan was your ‘perfect mess’ singer/songwriter guy, but he was dropping names of Green Day songs I’d not heard since I was 16. We were fucked up the entire time. [Rock photographer] Bob Gruen was down there in a Santa Claus costume.” Adams laughs as he elaborates. “Nobody knew what the hell I was up to,” he says. “The [record company] was like, ‘He’s in a basement?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Should we worry?’ ‘Do you always?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, then worry.'”
Adams moved more sound equipment into the eight-by-twelve-foot room and began writing songs. By mid-summer, he and Johnny T were jamming sober, during the day. Adams informed Lost Highway that he wanted to find a producer for his loud, fast, fun, new songs. Enter James Barber, veteran A&R man-turned-producer, who is best known as Courtney Love’s boyfriend (he also produced five tracks on her yet-to-be-released solo debut, America’s Sweetheart). Barber was a fan of Adams’ capricious talent, if not what he’d done with it. “I’d known about Ryan,” says Barber. “[When Whiskeytown were signed to Geffen], I’d hear about him in marketing meetings. ‘Ryan did this. Ryan did that.’ He was the most flamboyant kid on the roster, but the records weren’t as exciting to me. Whiskeytown were an excellent band, but they were never as exciting as the energy the band created around them. Heartbreaker is a masterpiece, and Gold is beautiful, but they never seemed to be rock records. And in every interview you read with Ryan, he talks about growing up on hardcore and Black Flag and punk rock. It’s like, ‘Where’s that in your music?'”
The first thing Barber did was address the issue of the multiple Ryans. “I said to him before we started, ‘Who are you? If you had to make a record that defined you as an artist, what would it sound like?'” In Stratosphere Sound — where Adams and Johnny T, with help from Armstrong and former Hole and Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur, recorded the songs — Barber put up a Sam Phillips quote: If you aren’t doing something different, you aren’t doing anything. Adams didn’t resist. “In New Orleans,” he says, “I would come into sessions at 6 p.m., and I’d leave with enough time to go out and get mighty damaged. This was different. I was eager to be in there and eager to stay as late as possible. We were able to make 11 songs in three days. They weren’t all classics, but they fucking all sounded great.”
The album, titled Rock N Roll, is punk like the Replacements or Oasis — in its attitude and energy. Tracks like “1974,” “Boys,” and “This Is It” (he insists it’s not a response to the Strokes) are hard-rocking stomps. Guitars mixed way up. Vocals screamed. But hooks are everywhere. There are only two downbeat tracks — the title song (with its homage to the Replacements’ “Answering Machine”) and the ballad “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home.” In this context, they simply provide some emotional texture. “There’s two ways to hear that song,” Barber says of the latter track. “One is the ‘I’m really lonely and devastated, and I don’t know how to communicate with women,’ and the other is that this is the best damn pickup line in the world. It works both ways. I love that about Ryan.”
Ultimately, insincerity is part of Adams’ sincerity, and embracing that with the help of some evil guitar riffs may restore his charm. Ryan Adams is a romantic poet. A gifted musician. A celebrity asshole. And a really nice guy. At the moment, all of his personalities are coexisting happily on record and inside his East Village apartment, where he drinks tea, smokes cigarettes, and prepares to reenter the pop-music world.
When he plays me the new song “So Alive,” with its gorgeous, soaring, falsetto chorus, famous Ryan laughs at serious-musician Ryan’s abilities, because regular-guy Ryan is a little bashful. For the time being, his mental house is in order; the parts are functioning together. He has a steady girlfriend, actress Parker Posey, whom he won’t talk about much, which is also a change. “Let’s just say I’m inspired,” he says. “She’s very special. I respect her greatly. She’s a good singer, too.” Posey appears on two of the album’s tracks.
If it is indeed only rock’n’roll that has provided Adams with all this career-saving discipline and lifesaving inspiration, then he’s in good company. Everybody from the Beatles to U2 has gotten back to where they once belonged the same way. He also knows that the ones who didn’t are in the ground, which may explain the title of one of Rock N Roll‘s most powerful songs: “Note to Self (Don’t Die).”