Ryan Adams. Red Rocks. 06.04.15
I was unable to make it to Red Rocks to see the always amazing Ryan Adams, but Kat was able to attend in my absence. She was also kind enough to share her experience.
According to the Mayo clinic, “Meniere’s disease is a disorder of the inner ear that causes spontaneous episodes of vertigo — a sensation of a spinning motion — along with fluctuating hearing loss, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), and sometimes a feeling of fullness or pressure in your ear.” How important would it be for a singer and musician to be able to perform with completely unencumbered auditory function and without the nauseating spinning sensations associated with vertigo? I don’t know, maybe we should ask Ryan Adams.
When performers get blasted by critics for their overly-opinionated and maybe sometimes substance or ego-induced backlash, there is little weight granted to what the artist might have experienced. Few of us actually attempt to understand why we should be cognizant of a performer’s standards or requests. There are postings in the venues at Ryan Adams’ performances, which bring to our awareness the fact that Adams suffers from Meniere’s disease, which is exacerbated by flash photography. Most of us just continue to swill the overpriced beverages in our hands, ignore the paper, and leave the flash on. Those of us who are dedicated fans of Ryan Adams know that his music can be painful. It’s nearly impossible to escape the selfish syndrome we all fall into by making the decision that every song was written for us. Adams has a lot of that brand of despair for the offering.
I’m not a blogger or a music critic. In fact, I’m a music simpleton. But in the absence of my dear friend and I Listen So You Don’t Have To blog creator and writer, Kevin Martini, I felt compelled to try and fill some big, dedicated, music-loving shoes with an amateur review of one of my favorite musician/songwriter/poets. It’s Kevin who educated me on the history of Ryan Adams and his friendship with the otherwise-occupied, love of my life, Jason Isbell. My third (and last) soon-to-be ex-husband introduced me to Ryan Adams many years ago by putting Whiskeytown’s “16 Days” on a mix CD for me. The same mix CD was shared with other music I’d never heard before: Jason Isbell’s “The Last Song I Will Write” and Nathaniel Rateliff’s, “You Should’ve Seen The Other Guy” among the most memorable. That damn mix CD cracked my world open and owned my soul for years to come. It kicked off my love affair with Isbell, and I was so focused on that, I didn’t realize the profound effect Ryan Adams was already having one me…lying in wait…on his way to becoming the artist who would eventually be authoring almost every theme song for the lengthy period of self-sabotage I kept stubbornly orchestrating in my life.
Ryan Adams and my life in parallel looks something like this: He was suffering and singing his poetry. I was walking down back alleyways, rolling into dumpsters and collecting all the rotting trash inside; thinking it was treasure; all specially delivered there for me.
Years later, after I’d heard so much more of Adams’ music, I began to figure out what it all meant for me. As I settled into the turbulent symbolism of his words and came to accept our relationship, Adams’ song “Two” was itching its way into a full blown swirling rotation on my weather radar. It told a story of a guy who seemed to just need to be taken care of. I heard the echo of the words “…I’ll try not to bother you, I promise.” But I didn’t want him “back at my place.” He WAS bothering me! And so was every other guy I was taking care of and paying for with huge flanks of my own flesh. Resentment set in. But I wasn’t ready to change.
Ryan Adams came onto the stage at Red Rocks last Thursday night already performing – easily, flawlessly, naturally, playing, “Gimmie Something Good.” In my assessment, it was a middle-of-the-road selection from his expansive repository which pretty well enabled us to ease into the night. His movements flowed into the music and he truly commanded the atmosphere within his element. He was not arrogant or boastful. Just his ordinary extraordinary. He showed appreciation by dutifully acknowledging the massive cluster of dedicated, poncho-clad Red Rockians right off the bat. He seemed to be showing his familiarity with and comfort in the venue. He seemed happy to be there. And if he wasn’t, I was determined to decide that he was.
Still feeling high from the pleasant experience of truly being delighted by the opening band, Houndmouth, I was so grateful that Ryan Adams was making it easy for me to be there. After all, it was a fairly important decision for me to have gone to see Ryan again at this stage in my life. It was like attending the wedding of an old mutual friend when you know your ex will be there. This was the result of my choice between two options: 1) Stay stuck in complete and utter self-manufactured misery. Or, 2) Move forward toward the light of my future (albeit begrudgingly) which, is space that holds shared pages with past chapters of a book that I’ve already published. Sales for that book were abysmal. The movie adaptation bombed at the box office. But, in order to try again to find some more space on future blank pages… In order to write new beautiful words…I’ve got to co-lease my new book deal with other stuff that some jerk wrote down in permanent fucking marker. And, as much as I hate to make the comparison, Ryan Adams is one of the jerks running around like a two year old with a Sharpie and an agenda.
You can’t undo an olfactory memory. Like the smell of the “cologne” your first boyfriend was wearing when you made out with him behind a Donkey Kong machine at Mario’s pizza. And you can’t undo an auditory memory. Like the ones created when a guy like Ryan Adams reaches inside your life with some words and notes from a harmonica or a Fender Stratocaster and peels back every vulnerable layer you’ve spent years protecting. And you can’t undo the multi-sensory shock to your system when the music becomes more than what you hear. When it morphs into irreplaceable feelings which you are seemingly administering to yourself intravenously while you’re watching the architect of it all walk away without bothering to put you back together.
Ryan Adams sang “Dirty Rain” last Thursday. Out of his set list from that night, I was most pleased with this one. I always feel so sheepish about wishing for certain songs when I go hear a live performance. Like I’d be insulting the performer. Because maybe he or she really wants to share something else. So, I try as hard as I can not to build up expectations or decide a show will be downgraded or worthless if my secret wishes aren’t met. I’ve had good success at enjoying many remarkable moments of live music this way.
We feel things with our senses, not our intellect. For me, it’s all in the poetry of lyrics. But I hear the music first. And “Dirty Rain” was a gift I received at a time when I most needed it. As record levels of rainfall are pestering the Denver metro area and the sunshine we are used to is blue balling the entire urban population right as we roll into summer. And, as I want to believe (more than ever) that I can sustain some post-divorce happiness soon and that “it ain’t rainin’ anymore.”
I felt appreciated as a fan last Thursday night. And it allowed me to relax into something that was a formerly self-conscious and awkward experience of learning to love Ryan Adams.
I saw Ryan Adams in 2012 at the Temple Buell during the ninth month of my third pregnancy. I sat – exceptionally uncomfortably – inside a stodgy (in my opinion) theatre and listened to Adams respond to mostly obedient and timid audience member requests with the words, “uhhhhhhh…no.” His strange and, for me, misunderstood-at-the-time homage to metal absolutely perplexed me. But I didn’t have the energy to figure it out. I rather enjoyed the notable and fairly lengthy tangential diatribes about his strangely named cats. But I summed up that experience with the decision that I’d rather be listening to him at home.
I’ve finally come to understand that Ryan Adams reminds me in many ways of the boy who unfairly and harshly judged the teenage version of me. I imagine him as a presence in my life then, regarding me as someone I wasn’t. But someone I probably acted like in order to conceal my painfully profound lack of commitment to being comfortable in my own skin. With album titles like Love is Hell and The Suicide Handbook, the eclecticism of genre aptitude which spans alt country, attempted pseudo-punk and a love for metal all packaged in an easy enough to consume emotional meal. Surprisingly the meal can be digested by all manner of society including, late-blooming hipsters experiencing appropriate amounts of misery on a date night, big blonde dudes in their early twenties who need to shave the furry backs of their necks and are taking one too many risks with the number of unfastened buttons on their lumberjack plaid, know-it-all natural/home-birth Nazis who are more worried about how to post their freshly taken selfie onto Facebook and carrying out the social responsibility vigilantism of telling the rest of us where we can and can’t smoke than they are interested in the music….and people like me.
And there I was with Ryan again on Thursday night. Egotistically assigning a biographical meaning to the lyrics of “Nobody Girl” and getting defensive. Conjuring the very personal and visceral experiences of my childhood and teens through his music.
I guess over the years, I had made Ryan Adams an actor from my past. I discovered that I had regarded him as that outspoken little punk we all remember who gave mainstream popularity and beauty a scathing review on principle. He had morphed symbolically into the 15-year-old, guitar playing, Led Zeppelin-obsessed, best-friend-to-misery who I called my high school boyfriend. Whose breath smelled constantly of stale cigarettes and the orange juice he claimed had a tenfold enhancing effect on his LSD trip. The one I trotted around after like a puppy in high school – telling myself that I just had to endure all his bullshit to get to those moments when he would shut up and play the guitar. And I got to sink into something I had no way to understand. And feel something that resonated and vibrated through conduits that did not require or condone the normal interpersonal techniques of human communication. The 15-year-old boyfriend, in turn, aloofly allowed me to copy his idea of dropping out of high school a third of the way through our sophomore year. I outgrew him shortly after that as I realized there were real musicians in real “all-ages” venues who would make me feel even more at a slightly cheaper price. But I never chiseled away the chip that guy had deposited on my shoulder. And so the anger began to get transferred to all the pompous guys I came across who talked before they listened, who introduced themselves as remarkable before allowing the audience to judge them as such, and guys like Ryan Adams, who infected me with feelings too deep and far-reaching for me to be able to synthesize a single one. All tethered together by some poetry. And then brilliantly enslaved by some music.
Ryan Adams was born about a month before me. As I matured out of my fragmented thinking and self-preservation, I began to appreciate music as art like I’d never done before. I became fascinated by the math and the science of it. As a music simpleton, all of this is foreign to me. I know words. I know that music evokes feelings and states of mind. I know nothing more than that. But I have profound respect for those who do. Who can eloquently thread together and connect the convergence of math, science, art and emotion.
Ryan Adams, as I “know” him, does all of those things. He’s a guy who could stand to be a little less intelligent and whom I had previously (and falsely) assumed was a graduate of some ivy league school. He is actually a high school drop-out like me. Instead of going to a GED prep program, Adams began playing the guitar, joined and built a few bands, and connected himself to the most noble musical royalty to be named before his time.
I owe Ryan Adams an apology and a thank you. He unknowingly put up with being the figurehead for my judgments and frustrations until I molted them. Then he loyally followed through as my catalyst last Thursday. By giving me a gateway to a completely new understanding of his music and poetry. He offered me the transcendent motivation to move forward. He reminded me to heal as the alarmingly beautiful voice of Natalie Prass floated over his, threading through the grounding poetry of “Oh My Sweet Carolina.”
And somewhere between my contemplation of the MIKASA etching at the bottom of my stemless wine glass and my remaining awkward inability to make friends with all the suburbanites walking their dogs along the suffocated patch of manicured sidewalk behind my house, I find a little person inside me who may be willing to embrace the comforts of that still-isolated loner persona who lives deep inside herself.
Who knows, I may have accepted Ryan Adams as he is before he has even accepted himself. But Thursday night reminded me that it’s through music like his, that we can accept, discard and rebuild.
Gimme Something Good
Let It Ride
Stay With Me
This House Is Not For Sale
My Winding Wheel
To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)
Love Is Hell
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Shakedown on 9th Street
La Cienega Just Smiled
She’s Like The Wind
When the Stars Go Blue