• Courtney E. Smith

Down a Dark Path With Ryan Adams and the American Dream

Ryan Adams darts up, walking quickly along a path next to some of the oldest graves in New York City. He looks away from them, to his right, at Trinity Church.

“Is that thing open?” he gestures. “I’d like to go inside and check it out.” He zips into a side door of the Gothic Revival landmark, pausing for a moment among a group of tourists to look at the altar and pulpit where a duo are practicing hymns, before disappearing into the chapel’s back rooms.

Adams is back in the city he inhabited for much of the ’00s on the week of an event that would become a landmark for the city and his career: the anniversary week of 9/11. Thirteen years ago, he made his television debut on The Late Show with David Letterman to perform “New York, New York” from the critically lauded album Gold.

The song was an ode to a past relationship, released just around the time of the attack. It took on a life of its own, transcended Adams’ intentions as a songwriter, and became a bright spot in a time of darkness for the city. Trinity Church and its accompanying cemetery, where we meet, are only a few blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood. This week Adams is back in New York to support his latest album, a self-titled LP that is some of the best, most traditional work in his catalog.

When he emerges from the church, Adams hurries to scope out a spot for us all to gather in the churchyard, sitting on a sculpture donated by the descendants of John Jacob Astor. Astor is one of the great rapscallions of New York City’s history, one of this nation’s first multi-millionaires and the dynastic family for whom Astor Place and Astoria, Queens are named. His four traveling band members, who include the album’s co-producer and guitarist Mike Viola (formerly of the Candy Butchers) and their engineer/bassist Charlie Stavish, form a circle around him.

Adams does everything quickly and with quiet authority. He is one of those self-possessed people who says what they think and easily takes control of any situation; it’s a trait that plays out in his music as well as his conversation. He is not invasive or abrasive, rather it feels like the natural order of things.

I tell Adams that Alexander Hamilton is buried here, the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury and a real-life version of the American Dream (Hamilton was born a bastard to a single mother, the product of an affair; went on to join the Army fighting against the British for American independence where he became then General George Washington’s close advisor; post-war he became a lawyer; and posthumously is considered one of the nation’s founding fathers and the architect of our financial system).

Upon being asked what his take on the American dream, Adams boldly responds, “I don’t believe in the American dream. I believe in Ryan’s dream.” Somewhere, John Lennon smirks.

His dream has taken him far from being a kid in North Carolina with a penchant for music. He says his first memory of a song is his grandmother singing “Clementine” to him. Ryan Adams finds a conduit to that down-home simplicity.

It’s an album that he says is in the same vein of rock as that of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Heartbreaker Benmont Tench joined him again on keys for the recording), John Cougar Mellencamp and even Don Henley. Which makes perfect sense for an album overseen by Don Was, the man behind Bonnie Raitt’s late ’80s comeback album Nick of Time, and who worked with Joe Cocker and Bob Seger. It’s a kind of Normal Rockwell-influenced Americana (not the genre of music that popped up in the ’90s, which Adams decries as “disrespectful” term) in the sense that it harkens back to a time when things felt simpler as seen through the lens of rock music — a feeling that is certainly amplified by others of Adams’ generation, who grew up listening to those songs from their family’s record collections.

“Of course I feel nostalgic. Probably too much,” Adams laughs. But, he explains, the nostalgia informs his creative process more than it is a thing he’ll feel looking back on this work. Ryan Adams was compiled in a series of workaholic sessions that included Viola’s side project and random recordings Adams can’t even recall. It was less of a cohesive, themed work than the culling of material from an ongoing creative process that has become his world since he opened his Pax AM studios in Hollywood. He and his band of merry men, or whoever might be around, can and do a pick-up session and play whatever, whenever the spirit moves them.

Love is hell, life is pain and it feels like fire — these storied lyrical sentiments of Ryan Adams continue down a dark path on the album, even though the music takes a turn for something more inspired by nostalgia for the ‘80s. Adams, as the sole writer on the record, curates a feeling of loneliness throughout Ryan Adams. His macabre sense is the thread that holds the narrative together, even when songs feel like a collection of singles about unrelated subject matter.

In asking Adams how his relationship to lyric writing has changed from decade to decade in his career, I point out that near the church is the gravestone of William Bradford, the man who printed New York’s first newspaper and currency. Bradford is a man of words, who came from a family of publishers and lived to the surprisingly old age of 89, dying in 1752. His headstone is well over 5 feet tall and full of words, including the dire axiom, “life is pain.”

“Life is pain, life is pain, life is pain, life is pain,” Adams says, as he looks at the grave. “Wouldn’t it be great if it just said that repeatedly and was signed with Black Flag’s logo at the bottom?”

This story was originally published in September of 2014.

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