On Breaking Up With Ryan Adams
Updated: Jul 18
This story was originally published on Medium, July 15th, 2017.
I’ve written quite a bit about Ryan Adams in the last fifteen years, especially when it comes to the significance of his music to my own life. And, considering the tone and subject matter of the vast majority of that music, it feels appropriate to — in a tongue-in-cheek way — frame what will likely be the last time I write about him as a “breakup.” It’s silly, sure, but it’s also a little bit true. And, in my defense, he broke up with me first.
I was first introduced to Adams’ music by a college friend of mine named Derek. Derek was a legitimate, High Fidelity-esque music aficionado, and he performed the great service of showing me that there were other genres outside of Dylan-era folk. He turned me on to a lot of great music over a year or two, but none of it ended up sticking as hard as Ryan Adams’.
This must have been in late 2002, or maybe early 2003, because Demolition had just come out and Rock N Roll was on the way. On this particular night, as we settled in to listen to a few tracks, Derek described Ryan Adams to me as a sort of musical chameleon, who had released an album of 60s-style folk music (Heartbreaker), an album of 70s pop-rock (Gold), was soon to release an 80s rock album (Rock N Roll) and, it was assumed, would delve into the 90s on his next release (yeah, that theory didn’t really pan out). Without even hearing any of the music yet, I was already hooked by the audacity of the guy, his willingness to so readily and fearlessly genre-hop.
Then I bought my own copy of Gold and it didn’t leave my CD player for a full package’s worth of battery changes.
It’s hard to write about Adams’ music using generalities because it’s so varied stylistically, and also because there’s just so goddamn much of it. But I feel safe saying that the lion’s share of it can be categorized as “sad bastard music” in terms of tone. Heartbreaker, his first solo release, is still held up by many (if not most) longtime fans as the pinnacle of his work in this regard, even in light of the seven billion other albums he’s recorded and (mostly) released since then. Heartbreaker is all softly played guitars, lush-but-understated production, and haunting, frequently near-whispered vocals about love, loss, and lost love. Take “Call Me On Your Way Back Home” as a representative example:
Gold followed in Heartbreaker’s footsteps tonally, even if the subject matter was enclosed in a jauntier, rock-and-roll wrapper this time around. See fan favorite “La Cienega Just Smiled” for a good example:
Demolition, a compilation of songs from four unreleased albums recorded post-Heartbreaker, sounds like a synthesis of Adams’ first two official releases stylistically, while delivering some of his most crushing lyrics yet. Listen to “Dear Chicago” to get the gist:
I’d always appreciated densely lyrical music, but in stepping off into the Ryan Adams rabbit-hole, I’d traded the political heft of artists like Dylan and (early) Mason Jennings for emotional heft. As an adrift, socially-anxious twenty-one year-old who had just fallen out of my first real romantic relationship — it had lasted five years, which at that point in my life, felt like forever — Adams’ music really resonated with me. I was prone to depression. I worried about making friends. I suspected the friends that I already had would soon out me as the loser I was and leave me behind. I worried about finding love again. I suspected I didn’t deserve love, and didn’t know what I’d do with it even if it fell into my lap.
Well, Ryan Adams sang about all of these things, either directly or indirectly. He sang about them in a way that suggested that there wasn’t much hope — at least not aside from the kind of temporary escape that drinking and/or drugs could provide — but in singing about them at all, he still made me feel less alone, less like a freak. Or at the very least like a freak in the good company of other such freaks. To this day, one of my favorite Ryan Adams and the Cardinals songs is “Future Sparrow” because of the lyrics “You might say that we waste our time / but time goes on, and on, and on. / Give us some comfort and let us shine / the light is breaking through. / I see it shining on the mountain / see it shining on the streets / see it shining on the ones you left behind / see it shining on the freaks.”
Sure, it was sad bastard music, but at that point in my life, knowing that there were other sad bastards out there was enough. It gave me a sense of identity, and — admittedly, more superficially — Ryan Adams made that identity look cool. I’d never been cool before. And I would never be cool…but hey, at the time I didn’t know that.
I devoured Adams’ catalog for the next few years, including all the bootleg albums and unreleased songs I could dig up on…Napster, or something? I honestly don’t remember how people came by such things back then. I loved it all. I was especially proud of proclaiming that the oft-bootlegged session 48 Hours was my favorite Ryan Adams “album” and “Karina” my favorite Ryan Adams song, both markers of my status as a “true” fan.
Yeah, for awhile I was That Ryan Adams Fan.
I started wearing my hair shaggier and dressing in old, torn-up jeans and flannel shirts. The songs I wrote stopped being about politics and started being about how sad I was. My glasses got bigger. I didn’t start drinking at the bar every weekend because of Ryan Adams, but his music definitely made my hangovers feel like badges of honor instead of my body’s payback for my mind’s bad decisions. I did, in fact, find love — or something like it — again, a few times, but those relationships ultimately played out with all the discontent and drama you’d expect to hear in a Ryan Adams song.
Even back then, I was aware, to a degree at least, that this was all pretty silly. But, for all of my life I’d been surrounded by boys and then men who wanted to be Michael Jordan, or Joe Montana, or Hulk Hogan, or Wolverine. And I’d known from a young age that I didn’t have the constitution to be that kind of man. I was weak, and pale, and skinny, and on the rare occasion that I tried to exercise, I just got skinnier. I felt things too deeply and I was introspective to a fault. Simply put, Ryan Adams was my Mark McGwire: a hero that actually made sense to me, proof that someone like me could matter.
In 2005, Ryan Adams released three new albums, two of them with a new band called “The Cardinals.” The three albums (Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, and 29) were stylistically varied, but had one thing in common: the quality of the lyrics was unprecedented, even for Adams. To this day it’s the only “trilogy” of albums I’ll compare unironically to Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde run of 1965–1966.
Also in 2005, I accepted a graduate assistantship at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. I, someone who’d only travelled further west than Dayton, Ohio once in my life and who’d never lived more than forty-five minutes from my childhood home, would be packing what I could fit of my things into a car and moving away from everything I’d ever known to a place I knew nothing about.
Two months before the move, Cold Roses was released and a week later, Derek and I took a spur-of-the-moment road trip to Buffalo, New York to see Ryan Adams and the Cardinals play. It was my first Ryan Adams concert, and it was a disappointing affair for both of us. The band jammed cacophonously on tons of new material, played a fourteen-minute Grateful Dead cover (“Wharf Rat”), and rendered a few of our favorite old-school Adams tunes unrecognizable (“New York, New York,” for one). We left early and drove home bewildered. Now it's one of my favorite live recordings of all time.
Two weeks before the move, I totalled my car and had to use the insurance money to buy an enormous, rickety pickup truck sight unseen so that I could at least get to Washington with some of my possessions before the school year started. The rest were left out in the front yard of my former rental house for the garbage man. New college students got most of it before he did, but after two days, it was all gone.
After four days of driving cross-country with my then-fiancee in mostly stony silence, fifty miles east of what was to be my new home in Pullman, “Friends” from Cold Roses came up on the CD changer, at random. I cried so hard I had to pull over to keep from driving off the road. I felt like I was driving into a life that wasn’t mine. It felt like the end.
A month later, Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals came out. On it was a song called “The End.” I listened to it obsessively, hanging on to the lyrics like a lifeline as fall turned into winter, and life became no less strange.
When 29 came out in December, it sounded haunted, and captured how I felt. It was becoming clear that my fiancee and I had no business living together, and I was having trouble finding friends at my new school, where I’d show up to teach each morning in the best dress clothes Goodwill could furnish before coming home at night to sit alone on the floor of a furniture-less apartment and stare at my CRT monitor — propped up above the floor on a bunch of textbooks — until the middle of the night to avoid going to bed.
Since I can remember, music has always worked like a set of highway signs that have helped me make a little more sense of the turns my life has taken. Around the time in 2002 that Derek started feeding me Ryan Adams albums, another friend of mine loaned me copies of Phish’s Rift and Round Room. And it was an interesting thing, in the midst of my early twenties, trying to forge an individual identity for myself for the first time, the process heavily informed by music from two bands that couldn’t have been more different. Phish was improvisatory, expansive, by turns goofy and confidently practiced, and they put more effort into asking questions with their music than most bands put into Making Statements. Ryan Adams was structured, insular, laser-focused, and self-serious. The differences between the two make a great metaphor, I think now, between who I wanted to be and who I was.
Phish broke up — for awhile — in 2004 under acrimonious circumstances, and it left me feeling for a long time like the joy I’d felt in their music was a sham, like the carnival had been revealed as the cynical money-grab it had always been behind the curtain. I stopped listening to them almost entirely for years after that. A year after their breakup, though, as I was living in Pullman, I began to really miss listening to improvised live music. Trey Anastasio’s (Phish’s former lead guitarist) new band wasn’t really doing it for me. But then The Cardinals were touring again, with a new lead guitarist in Neal Casal, and they suddenly sounded less country and more like an punk-rock version of the Grateful Dead. Wilco, another favorite of mine, added guitarist Nels Cline and put out the throwback-jammy Sky Blue Sky. The Ryan Adams Archive (RAA) popped up on the internet and started collecting soundboard recordings of Cardinals performances. I created an account, downloaded that 2005 Buffalo show, gave it another listen, and was blown away by what I somehow hadn’t heard in person a year before.
Things might have been dark in my personal life, but musically it felt like the stars were aligning.
I spent the rest of my Master’s program — and failed engagement — on the RAA, talking Cardinals with internet strangers in the forum and downloading and listening to every single show that got recorded. It was what I’d imagined being a Phish fan had been like in the early days, before the drugs had overwhelmed everything else and people forged friendships by talking shop and trading B+Ps. I loved it.
Adams himself was even more transparent than usual from within this new project: in addition sharing tons of free, officially-unreleased material through his website, he started a blog-journal of sorts (or “vlog”?), called “Foggy,” wherein he’d share with the world whatever thoughts or songs occurred to him in the moment. “Sad Days” is a good example of a more abstract Foggy video…
…while “Writing the Hits With Stupid” is an example of a goofier one:
Sometimes the rest of the band would join in, and the levity on display off the stage balanced perfectly for me with the serious tone of the band’s “real” music. These guys made amazing, emotionally harrowing music, but they were also just, y’know, guys. Even more than before, this new, jammier Ryan Adams — and the community of dedicated fans the Cardinals quickly built up — had created a place where I felt like I belonged, maybe even a thing that I felt I somehow belonged to. It was something I could enjoy and find meaning in in an uncomplicated way in a time when it felt like the rest of my life was completely up in the air.
I actually only saw the Cardinals live twice, but it was a hugely significant experience for me, and not just because of the music. In early 2008, over back-to-back nights in Salem, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, I not only saw my favorite band on earth lay down two incredible shows, I also survived driving solo through a blizzard, finding my way through two unfamiliar cities in the days before Google Maps, and staying in a hotel alone for the first time. That might not sound like much, but in those days I got physically nauseous with nerves when I had to talk to the cashier at the local grocery store, so it was huge for me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I returned home to Pullman three days later a changed man. It wasn’t all about the music, but the music was what had gotten me out the door in the first place.
I could probably write a book about the effect those three years of Cardinals shows had on my life, but I think that Salem/Seattle trip captures it in microcosm well enough for the purposes of this story: even if Adams’ and the Cardinals’ music often seemed to be about sadness for the sake of pathos, at times even seeming to revel in the darkness instead of trying to escape it, the great community and the palpable energy that grew up around the band inspired me to be a better version of myself. That it did so in an unintentional or backhanded way never mattered to me.
A year later, give or take, the Cardinals broke up. I was disappointed by the news, but not surprised. Adams has always had a reputation as a mercurial performer, and his bands tend to not be long-lived as a result. Foggy videos had gotten increasingly darker in tone over time, and then eventually stopped altogether. The music, both live and on record, was suffering (compare 2009’s tour to previous Cardinals tours, or Cardinology to previous Cardinals albums). In videos and in interviews, Adams seemed to be legitimately suffering (instead of just suffering in an artistic, Romantic way). It was over, and I was crushed, especially when Adams claimed he was going to be “quitting music.” But at the same time, wishing for more felt unfair, like being angry at a corpse for being dead. Adams’ own song, “Everything Dies,” comes to mind.
Phish played a three-night affirmation of a reunion run in 2009, two weeks before the Cardinals played their final show. You could ascribe some sort of cosmic significance to that if you wanted to. Or not. Either way, I was in a much better place personally by then, and the ecstatic, buoyant release of a song like “You Enjoy Myself” fit the soundtrack of my life better than “Dear John.” Those final two Cardinals shows are the only ones I’ve never listened to.
But I kept all the shows, torrented from the RAA and burnt to CD, stored in huge binders I’d had to save for months to afford back in 2006 and 2007. I still know exactly where they are in the hall closet as I write this. There was no forgetting the impact Ryan Adams’ music — and especially the Cardinals’ music — had had on my life. I kept listening to those shows even after Adams “quit” music. Even after Neal Casal’s beautiful photo book A View Of Other Windows was released, with a preface by Adams that inexplicably skewered the band members and discounted his time with them and the music they’d made together. Even after Adams started touring solo in 2011 and immediately started talking — in interviews, and unprompted, during performances — of his previous band like a diseased limb that had been blessedly amputated from his life. Even after the RAA shriveled up and disappeared when Adams’ sudden aversion to tapers at his solo shows and predictable, repetitive setlists made it so few wanted to bother taping and trading those new shows. Even after Adams released three albums in a row of twentysomething-style navel-gazing songs that just sounded awkward coming from a fortysomething artist that suddenly seemed to be more interested in pinball machines and Instagram than in coming up with new musical ideas (Ashes and Fire, Ryan Adams, and Prisoner). I kept listening to those shows because I knew they’d always mean something to me. Or so I thought.
When Adams finally did get back together with a new band (“The Shining”), curiosity drove me to buy a ticket to go see them play in Bend, two hours from where I’m living now. I’d never heard Jenny Lewis before, and loved her performance as the opener. When The Shining took the stage, Adams himself was in rare rock-star (parody?) form, but the rest of the band sounded like hired hands going through the motions. Hearing beloved Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights songs played as if by zombified versions of the Cardinals was especially painful. I left early again, and this time I didn’t end up regretting it. When setlist.fm listed the show’s versions of “Peaceful Valley” and “Magnolia Mountain” as “Ryan Adams and the Cardinals” covers, I laughed out loud at the appropriateness of it.
Of course, I recognize that what I’ve written in these last few paragraphs is all subjective. Nowadays, Adams is doing as well commercially as he ever has, and as per the sort-of-resurrected-on-Facebook RAA group, he has a rabid fanbase that’s still willing to follow him to the ends of the earth to see just one more show or unearth just one more rarity or b-side. Prisoner was a major critical success, and he’s got this whole “Divorce Trilogy” narrative going now, framing his other recent, arguably subpar (Ryan Adams) and controversial (1984) releases as necessary, inevitable, in The Grand Scheme Of Things.
Adams’ chameleon-like nature is what drew me to his music in the first place, and I’d be a hypocrite for complaining just because he stopped mimicking The Grateful Dead and started mimicking The War On Drugs or Bachman-Turner Overdrive instead. I realize that. I don’t want the point of this whole thing to come across as “I liked this artist a lot back when he was good, but now he sucks and I feel betrayed!” That’s the lamest story in music criticism, amateur or otherwise, and among other things requires some level of believing that your subjective enjoyment (or lack thereof) of someone else’s art is actually an objective valuation of it, and that’s just dumb. I may not like 2010s Ryan Adams as much as 2000s Ryan Adams, but that’s fine. The guy doesn’t exist to please me — he makes the art that he wants to make, and clearly enjoys doing it, seemingly more now than ever.
What has come to bother me, though, is Adams’ staunch refusal to let fans continue to enjoy what I believe was his best work.
Adams has always been a self-mythologizer; this is something he shares with Bob Dylan. Throughout their careers, both artists have mythologized their own histories in ways that romanticize certain things while glossing over or totally erasing others. I’ve never been a rock star, personally, but I get it inasmuch as I can: celebrity is about image control — or “impression management” if you want to be fancy — and you’re going to want to change that image of you that other people see as you change as an individual. And sometimes, those changes are going to introduce contradictions. I could write a book about how frequently Dylan has contradicted his own story of himself throughout his career, but I suspect someone else already has.
The story of himself that Adams has presented to the public is no more consistent than Dylan’s. But there is one consistent theme, it seems: burn all bridges. And nowhere is this tendency more apparent than current-era Adams’ (dis)regard for the Cardinals, from his remarks about original bassist Catherine Popper being the heart of the Cardinals (perhaps true, but harsh in the immediate aftermath of second Cardinals bassist Chris Feinstein’s death), to offhand badmouthing of guitarist Neal Casal (who I’ve met twice and who strikes me as an almost hilariously inoffensive and laid-back guy), to after-the-fact complaints about Jon Graboff’s pedal steel playing (arguably as central to Cardinals’ sound as Trey’s guitar tone is to Phish, or Jeff Tweedy’s world-weary voice is to Wilco, or Adam MacDougall’s keyboard tone is to The Chris Robinson Brotherhood), to many other needlessly insulting comments that I’m sure the RAA group could recite more readily from memory more readily than I can.
Perhaps the sensible response here would be one I see trotted out frequently when it comes to discussions of Adams’ bridge-burning on the RAA: “He doesn’t have to be a nice person for you to enjoy his music!” It’s a reasonable enough suggestion, yet I find that it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t have to necessarily like someone to like their art — Christian Bale comes across as an enormous tool, but I still enjoy his movies — but I do have to respect them. And Adams’ continued shrill insistence that just because he’s moved on from something — whether it be Whiskeytown, the Cardinals, his ex-wife, etc. — the rest of the world is also obligated to pretend that it never existed is disrespectful, at the very least to his former band members and to fans like me that found meaning in Adams’ art even when he didn’t (or at least no longer does).
I’m a person, and so I understand that people change, that your perspective changes as you get older, and things that might have seemed great at the time can, in retrospect, seem less than great, or even just flat-out regrettable or embarrassing. But as time goes on, Adams’ continued dismissal of his own musical past makes it increasingly difficult to separate his snarky complaints from my own memories and my continued enjoyment of the music that meant so much to me for so long. It’s hard to listen to a show like the fan-favorite Das Haus show now with the enthusiasm I once did, knowing that the artist at the heart of that performance — an artist I idolized for a decade — was apparently just mucking his way through a miserable time in his life with a “shit sandwich” of a band.
Nobody likes feeling like they’ve been lied to, and I suppose that in a way Adams’ dismissals of the Cardinals make me feel silly for thinking that their music really meant much of anything at all. I mean…did it? Maybe not. And if it didn’t, then what does that say about me as the gullible loser who thought it did? Who had real, meaningful, emotional experiences in response to what was apparently just a flaming dumpster fire?
Does Adams have to pretend his own personal struggles didn’t happen so his fans can continue to hold on to their candyfloss, sugar-coated memories? Of course not. Could he keep those gripes to himself like an adult human being instead of repeatedly bringing them up, unprompted, in front of thousands of people in concert and tens of thousands online? Well…yeah, that’d be nice, actually, and doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
Maybe it is, though. Maybe this is just what happens when you make the mistake of idolizing someone: they eventually prove themselves unworthy of your expectations by being human, but are ultimately blameless because you’re the idiot who put them up on the pedestal you’re now complaining that they fell off of.
A few weeks ago there was a Ryan Adams (and some new band) show at the Edgefield, close to where I live now in southern Oregon. I considered going, but ultimately decided to save money so I could travel later in the year to see my new favorite band — and, not coincidentally, Neal Casal’s new band — The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. It turned out to be a good decision, as Adams apparently took time out from the show multiple times to bash the Cardinals. Had I been in attendance, this would have seriously soured the experience for me, and even just seeing it later on YouTube bummed me out for the rest of the evening.
Well, as a fan for fifteen years now, and as someone who has been drug along — sometimes willingly, sometimes not — in the undertow of Ryan Adams-related drama for just as long, I reacted in the most 2017 Ryan Adams way possible: I tweeted a twit-thing on the Twitters about my feelings:
And that was that. Blocked.
I mean, I was sort of asking for it, and honestly, it seems like a fitting end to this story in a weird way. The whole thing has made me much less likely to buy new Ryan Adams albums, go to future shows, or even just pay attention to what Adams is up to in general from here on out. He’s an artist who I find that I just can’t respect anymore, and that’s probably for the best: I can go on enjoying my Cardinals recordings and living in the past, and he can go on insisting that he doesn’t have a past. Everybody goes home happy.
I didn’t take the time to write this out to complain, or wring my hands over upsetting a musician over the internet; instead, I wrote it up because there’s a lot more to my disappointment with Adams’ treatment of the Cardinals era than I’d ever be able to tweet at him. Even if it’s (probably) an exaggeration to say that that music saved my life, it’s not an exaggeration to say it played a huge part in making me the better, healthier person that I am today. Of course, it’s ultimately Adams’ music, and he’s welcome to do what he wants with it, to talk about it the way he wants, and to shit on that part of his life as often as he wants. And he gets to tell that story to thousands of people on stage every night, if he wants to. To me, though, there were things happening back then creatively, there was an energy to that music that I’ve only heard very rarely in my life. I think a lot of his other fans feel that way, too. And I want to continue to feel that way without my enjoyment of the music being tainted by Adams’ insistence that there’s no value there and there never has been. So that’s why I’m breaking up with Ryan Adams.
Don’t feel bad, man. It’s not me, it’s you.