Everything Ryan Adams Writes Turns to 'Gold'

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"How's it going?" the new bar's bartender asks.

Adams smiles. "I'd be better if I had some pot."

The bartender does a stealth reach into his pocket and slides a compact wooden box across the bar to Adams, who quickly pockets it and makes his way to the men's room. He passes a cop in the hall. Inside the bathroom, he packs and lights a cigarette-shaped one-hitter.

"I started writing as soon as I could type," Adams says. "My grandmother, Geemaw Dedmond, had this old typewriter. I started writing short stories when I was eight. I was really into Edgar Allan Poe. Then later, when I was a teenager, I got really hard into cult fiction: Hubert Selby Jr. Henry Miller. Jack Kerouac, big-time. Celine. In Jacksonville" – the small town in coastal North Carolina where Adams grew up – "there wasn't much to do. There was skateboarding. Vandalism. Then you go inner. At least I did."

The door of the bathroom swings open. Adams jumps. It's only Pemberton. Adams locks the door, hands him the pipe and takes a leak.

Adams' parents split up when he was nine, so he spent a lot of time at Geemaw Dedmond's. They would stay up late, watch reruns of Burns and Allen, play hearts, talk philosophy. He got into music through skateboarding, buying his first records based on whatever band T-shirts his favorite skaters were sporting. He remembers sending away for his first Black Flag album, My War, and listening to it with Geemaw Dedmond, who had the habit of clucking along to the beat of her favorite country songs. "By the third Black Flag song, she said, 'They sure like to hit those cymbals, don't they?' " Adams says. "I was like, 'Fuck! She's trying to cluck to Black Flag and she can't keep up! I am from North Carolina.'"

In high school, a teacher once kicked him out of class for wearing a T-shirt with a melting ice cube and the slogan CHRISTIANITY IS STUPID . . . . GIVE UP. He dropped out the first week of the tenth grade. Soon after, he moved into a little "punk-rock commune" – a friend's grandmother's old plantation house, just outside of town. He was reading, listening to records, skateboarding. "I got into art about as heavily as my friends were getting into chicks," Adams says. Eventually he formed his first band, Patty Duke Syndrome. They played some shows in the barn and did some recording in the old slave quarters, which they'd gutted and wall-carpeted. Then, in his late teens, he moved to Raleigh – the working-class neighbor to the vaunted Chapel Hill music scene, which had spawned indie-rock faves including Superchunk. The Patty Duke Syndrome broke up. He'd also just broken up with a girlfriend. ("Melanie," he says, sighing. "She had red hair for days.") He began writing new songs. "Somehow," he says, "I started listening to the kind of music I'd heard growing up: the Stanley Brothers, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson. And then I started playing my version of that kind of music."

He was eventually approached by Skillet Gilmore, a local drummer who was thinking of starting "an arty country band." "We all sort of sucked," says Adams of early Whiskeytown, "but we were trying." Adams' strength as a songwriter pushed him –reluctantly, he insists – to the front of the stage. They'd only been together six months when they were featured in the first issue of No Depression, the zine that became bible of everything alt-country. Soon after the article appeared, they were signed to the indie Outpost label, which was later bought by Geffen.

Whiskeytown toured non-stop, fighting onstage, drinking and self-medicating. "Every career move we made was bad," Adams admits now. He once told a commercial-radio DJ who had put a Whiskeytown song into rotation: "I can do what you do, put a CD in the player, press a button. Oooh, my finger's tired!" The station dropped the song, as did most other stations on the West Coast. Adams started having panic attacks. After one show, he woke up in the back of an ambulance, wearing an oxygen mask. On a tour opening for John Fogerty, the band started playing full-on punk sets. Adams wore a towel over his head and sang songs backward. He said from the stage, "Yeah, John Fogerty was born on the bayou . . . of Southern California." The Fogerty sound guy eventually started turning their sound off.

In 1999, Whiskeytown was dropped by Geffen in the wake of the record-label mergers. (The band's last studio album, the feverish, blissed-out Pneumonia, was finally released earlier this year on Lost Highway.) Adams moved to New York to be closer to his girlfriend, a record-label publicist. "I moved there to follow my heart," he says ruefully. He hung out at MoMA and at the Met, he took their cats to the vet and, tentatively, played his first solo shows. Then they broke up. Adams obsessed, listened to only one record (he won't say which one), lost twenty pounds. He fled to Jacksonville, then to Nashville, where he rented an empty house.

One friend lent him a pillow, another lent him a blanket. He had his own ashtray and AM radio, as well as a single lamp that he'd leave plugged in near the door so he could see when he came home. Eventually, with the help of some higher-profile friends – Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Steve Earle – he recorded Heartbreaker. It is one of the great breakup records of recent memory. On the rollicking opening track, "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," he sounds like Don't Look Back-era Dylan playing in a road-house. "Come Pick Me Up" shows off his gift for wordplay, its chorus segueing from the title line into "Take me out, fuck me up, steal my records, screw all my friends . . . . "

His mom won't listen to the record because she says he sounds seconds away from falling apart. But musicians including Elton John contacted Adams to praise it. After touring solo, he returned to Nashville last December to begin work on the Pinkhearts record. He ended up postponing it to move to Los Angeles. There was another girl. Another breakup. More songs were inspired. They eventually became Gold. He says the original demos of the songs were "thirty times sadder than Heartbreaker."

"I tend to be an easy heart," Adams says, "and I snapped just like that. I mean, I love my friends that hard, so obviously I'm going to love someone I'm involved with that hard." His voice hitches slightly. "I just don't always pick the right people." He admits some of the songs are "a revenge . . . a really passive revenge." (Though later, in the studio, while playing "Nobody Girl," he grins and tells a friend, "I hopped her up pretty good on that one, huh?")

"I guess I try to respect and honor what happened in the first place enough to go like, 'OK, it's worthy of writing about,'" Adams continues. "I know when something becomes too self-indulgent. Although sometimes, a song is so self-indulgent it belongs out there." He pauses, then continues, "You know, I always thought if Barry Manilow was kind of a drunk, and got a little roughed-up, and came out all scraggly, and had to play a little slower, some of those songs, like" – Adams begins to sing in a narcotized, Tom Waits rasp – "'I write the songs that make the whole world sing.' . . . If it was self-effacing? Could be the best song in the world." Adams smiles. "Right now it sucks."

The next afternoon, in the studio, Adams is taking another shot at "Game Over," the previous day's failed track. Only now it's been entirely rewritten as a power-pop song with lyrics that recall Bowie at his spaciest. New title: "Interstellar Collider." "I had a space dream last night," Adams says, cracking up he's so excited. "It's so not macho. It's floating in space, above everything. I call a chick an interstellar collider! That's fucking heavy, man. That's Skynyrd heavy. It's cool. It's the dumbest shit ever, but it's cool."

Adams is sporting a Heartbreakers L.A.M.F. T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a hat that reads, MY WIFE SAYS I NEVER LISTEN TO HER . . . . AT LEAST THAT'S WHAT I THINK SHE SAID. He clamps on his headset and takes a shot at the chorus.

"The pitch sounds a little funny," notes producer Dave Dominick from the control room.

"Oh, fuck pitch!" Adams squawks through the intercom. "I'm not playing baseball in here!"

"You're in a fucking bad mood today," Dominick says, grinning, but not sounding entirely pleased.

"And what are you smirkin' about, Brad? Fucking can it! I'm dangerous!" Adams redoes the vocal, then enters the control room.

"Was that sterile enough for you, Mr. Corporate Rock?" he asks Dominick. It's all teasing, but delivered with an edge. Adams sighs. "I don't know why I'm doing it. Just get that guy Rob Thomas in here. We look enough alike. It's a stupid fucking song anyway. It doesn't matter."

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