You know how when you stop looking for something, you actually find it? A couple of years ago I remember looking for a certain cassette tape and not being able to find it. I figured it got lost in the shuffle of moving or something and just begrudgingly accepted it was gone. Thankfully, I had a made an exact dupe of the tape for a friend and she made me a copy and sent it back to me – upon receiving it, I put it somewhere in a place I would remember. And then I forgot where I put it. Again. Well, on Monday I found it. The story:
Back in March of 1996, I was 24 (and there’s so much more?) and trying to crack the music business. No better place to do that than to fly down to Austin, TX for South By Southwest (SxSW) – the granddaddy of music conferences and industry schmoozing. A friend of mine from college joined me for what promised to be four days of beer, beer and music. And beer.
Luckily, a friend of mine was renting a sizable house in Austin at the time and she welcomed my friend and I with open arms – much appreciated for a guy pulling in $5.15 an hour working in the warehouse for a notoriously stingy record label in Cambridge. She was a cool cat as well – we shared similar music tastes and she was dabbling in band management as well – she had just agreed to manage a North Carolina band whose growth curve was getting quite sharp. The band was called Whiskeytown. I had received a copy of their debut album Faithless Street and needless to say, it had been getting abused on my stereo. It remains my favorite Whiskeytown album, not because it was their best set of songs, but because it was the hungriest music I’d heard in some time. The songwriter, this KID Ryan Adams, all of 19, was also supposed to crash on the floor next to us, with the rest of the band.
Without getting into too much detail, it was a weekend of utter debauchery. The kid was a bit of a wild man, but really no different than any other 19 year old looking for beer and fun. He (and the rest of the band) was incredibly nice and affable, Adams himself was slightly obnoxious but not – in any way – annoying. He was obnoxious like a little brother is. We all had a great time, really.
It was that weekend that Whiskeytown’s course changed dramatically. Their showcase was at a rather horrendous venue called The Split Rail and while nobody would have ever guessed it at the time, it probably will go down as one of the more famous SxSW gigs of all time. The band was sloppy, drunk and just having fun, but at the end of the show, the sharks came out. As legend has it, Ryan Adams retreated to the band’s van after the gig and was surrounded by record label execs who were literally pressing their business cards up against the windows of the van. Now, I don’t honestly know if that really happened and it very well might be one of those myths that gets more melodramatic with time, but I do know this – every major label was seeking them out after that show.
That night back at the house, I have one very sharp memory of lying on the floor with someone listening to Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” at nearly top volume, rather unable to move. For some unknown reason, this is one of my clearest memories – and with the state I was in, I shouldn’t have remembered anything that night.
The following morning (early afternoon, actually) we were all milling about in a relative haze when my friend and I went outside and saw Adams, alone, sitting on the porch with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and his acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder, humming to himself. We asked him if he would play a song and he obliged. Some relatively inane banter ensued for about 30 seconds and he launched into a new song he had recently written, which is the only time I’ve ever heard it. It was called, we think, “Drunk & Fucked Up.”
The best part of all this: my friend always carried around a tape recorder and we got it all on tape – the song on the front porch, the show at The Split Rail…..all of it. That was the tape I kept losing and finding. And now I’ve found it again and this time, I’m not going to lose it.
As for Ryan Adams, well, he’s gone onto much, much bigger things. I ran into him a few times after that and we always had a friendly hello for each other and maybe a beer or two, but I haven’t seen him or talked to him since the late ’90s. It’s not like we were great friends, either, so I wouldn’t ever profess to truly knowing him. Unfortunately, it appears he may never get past “the next big thing” status that he had going and his prolific output as a solo artist has been spotty at best. Some of the stuff is undoubtedly great, other stuff really makes me wonder what happened. But it appears as if he’s making the music he wants to make and he’s trying his best to stay true to himself, which has to be commended. He also dated Winona Ryder and Parker Posey, two definite celebrity crushes of mine, so for that I am rather envious.
Over the past few years, he’s become more well-known for his bratty tirades, however, and that makes me a little sad in light of the fact that he never appeared that way at all in person with me. I guess the machine can do that to you.