There was a time when Ryan Adams was the bad boy of alt-country. Sure, he was admired for his poignant, prolific songwriting and his heart-rending performances, but he was just as well known for his drunken, surly exploits.
He hasn't joined AA, but these days Adams is more affable and accommodating than ever, and he's now creating music that's joyous and free of pretension. In retrospect, he claims his past antisocial antics were a defense mechanism against the superlatives being thrown his way.
"Getting off on playing guitar is fun," he explained, "but to expect rewards and praise for being a musician is really weird, and I've always shied away from that pretty hard by getting myself in absolute bundles of trouble."
Ironically, Adams' anti-star antics soon became a large part of his image. But it enabled him to be antisocial, and it allowed him to loosen up in concert. "I felt like a shy person, and I was very unsure of myself," he said. "I had terrible stage fright for the longest time"
However, being ensnared in a world of volatility and indulgence soon took its toll on his mind as much as his liver. Adams became cynical and bitter about the industry that enabled him, and he was regularly frustrated because he was unsure of the differences between his role as an artist and a businessman.
"I love to play music, and I think it's extraordinary that it is my job, but I didn't know how to maintain my job," he said. "I always felt, 'If being a musician is my job, why am I spending so much time doing interviews and radio appearances and stuff?' "
"Not to bitch about it, because I understand the fundamentals of my job now, and I can compartmentalize things now, but at that time I didn't understand. I was like, 'F---, I've got 80 songs. Why am I not just in the studio? Why are we going on these tours? Who cares? Why do I have to prove myself, and who am I trying to prove myself to?' "
Then, early this year after creating the depressing Love Is Hell, Adams broke out of his emotional funk and wrote his critically acclaimed new disc, Rock N Roll, a musically diverse collection of songs strongly influences by some of his favorite artists — the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, the Smiths, Oasis, the Rolling Stones and a bucketful of others (see "Ryan Adams Becomes 'Plaque On The Teeth Of Alt-Country' With Rock N Roll").
In addition to touring to promote the album, Adams continues to play guitar with side projects Finger and Werewolph. And for fans of the older, more somber Adams, the first half of Love Is Hell was released as an EP; the second half is due December 9, and a bunch of additional outtakes will be available on various European singles.
Adams insists the media's depiction of him as an out-of-control alcoholic is an ugly, lazy stereotype that's easily marginalized by his vast artistic output. "I don't think that functioning alcoholics make two albums a year, plus B-sides and tour 200 days out of the year," he said. "My liver is not made of iron, as much as I wish it was sometimes. Nobody's is. Once people get an idea of who you are, you become this cartoon character. I think if most rock people did everything people said, then they wouldn't be here. I'm not one of them. I'm a bad germ, but I don't have a death wish."
In other words, when Adams begins his Rock N Roll tour December 3 in Boston, don't expect the irate curmudgeon of old to take the stage. "I plan on having a good time," he said. "I'm sick of being what people expect me to be."
Ryan Adams tour dates, according to Lost Highway Records:
- 12/3 - Boston, MA @ Paradise Theater
- 12/4 - New York, NY @ Webster Hall
- 12/6 - Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
- 12/7 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
- 12/9 - Ithaca, NY @ Cornell University
- 12/11 - Ann Arbor, MI @ Michigan Theater
- 12/13 - Chicago, IL @ Riviera Theater
- 12/14 - Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue