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David Menconi recounts Ryan Adams' Raleigh years

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Toward the end of the preface for Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, David Menconi takes pause to explain the book's subtitle, or at least its curious article: "I've subtitled it Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown rather than the Story, which I would not presume to tell," he offers. "Maybe Ryan himself will write that someday."

Both Menconi's title and tone stem from familiarity. During the last half of the embryonic decade Adams spent in Raleigh leading a dozen or so bands before becoming a solo artist on bigger stages in bigger cities, Menconi served as the critic of record for Adams and his alt-country high-water mark, Whiskeytown. Through his position as music critic at The News & Observer and his frequent contributions to No Depression, the quarterly that passionately cataloged such sounds for more than a decade, Menconi became a semaphore of sorts for Adams' escalating national attention.

When the two first met at a tragicomic gig fondly recounted in the preface, Menconi was interviewing Adams for a short feature in the debut issue of No Depression; the last time they spoke, in April 2001, Adams ended the friend-to-confidant phone call by telling Menconi about his new record, Gold. Adams had left Raleigh and Whiskeytown, starting a white-hot solo career with a devastating beauty called Heartbreaker. Its follow-up, the one he mentioned to Menconi, would soon put the small-town North Carolina boy on stage with Elton John and his music video in national rotation. He has played in Raleigh once in the last 11 years.

Losering is Menconi's second book to feature Adams, or someone much like him, as its subject. His 2000 novel, Off the Record, keyed on a bandleader of wild talent and wilder personality, a protagonist built from a synthesis of Adams and Dexter Romweber. Losering attempts to depict the rise and fall of Adams' Whiskeytown as Menconi saw it—live, in person, and totally self-destructing.

When Losering focuses on that premise, Menconi delivers an insightful and empathetic portrait of a brilliant, prolific young artist trying to not only craft the troves of songs that drove his many bands but also perfect his own self-made rock star image. Through interviews with some of his earliest collaborators and critics (sometimes, one and the same), Losering reveals Adams as an eager listener, self-obsessed personality and epically restless soul with the public goal of creating and delivering himself to the world as a new rock god. Dana Kletter—as the leader of the already-signed Dish, she was Adams' elder in the Raleigh scene—recalls Adams climbing the stairs of the still-standing Glenwood Avenue outpost The Rockford, all dolled up like Keith Richards and boasting about how it was at last his time to sign a major record deal for Whiskeytown.

She was dismissive; he was defensive. "You're not a bad musician," Kletter, now an accomplished writer, remembers telling him. "I'm just uncomfortable with the person you are, and I'm not like you."

Often funny, sad and poignant at the same time, Losering distills all the tales you might've heard about the booze- and drug-addled nervous wonder of Whiskeytown into 100 or so brisk pages. Menconi digs into the drugs and self-awareness, the tantrums and the false promises. Eyewitnesses speak candidly about tales of terror (local songwriter Jeff Hart recalls collecting Adams' smashed guitar bits) and bouts of inspiration (early collaborator and roommate Tom Cushman talks about the musical mimesis of his first, influences-apparent bands with Adams). If you want to know about Ryan Adams in Raleigh, Losering enthusiastically captures the scene.

It's only in the last third, when Menconi steers away from Whiskeytown and toward the past decade that Adams has spent as a solo act, that the book feels less like an insightful biography than an overeager fan's analysis. During these years, of course, Adams was already long gone, so Menconi's archival tapes of the generally hilarious Adams just stop. As Losering lurches past the 150-page mark, it laboriously explores each post-Whiskeytown Adams album in song-by-song detail, plundering the trove of requisite music-critic adjectives to pad pages: "'Jesus' throbs with an ambient pulse that feels like falling into that bright-light void. Ryan sounds utterly bereft and shell-shocked," reads one representative passage.

Such over-analysis isn't absent from the first part—Menconi walks readers through songs on Strangers Almanac and Rural Free Delivery like the sounds themselves aren't a computer click away, or as if his audience has never heard these Adams grails. But in that context, the song capsules are bolstered by first-hand accounts of what they mean and why they happened, how they fit (or didn't fit) into a bigger picture within the local music scene, Whiskeytown or even national trends. It's well-researched historical criticism.

At times, Menconi overshares in the meat of the book. He playfully links The Notorious B.I.G.'s arrest in Raleigh to Adams' own down-and-out ways, a distracting and irrelevant coincidence. He describes how Adams autographed the author's Whiskeytown records, which feels at points uncomfortably improper. Still, that's part of a rich fabric of experiences and anecdotes that develops the personality of the barely legal Adams in Raleigh. That's what Menconi does best here.

But after Whiskeytown breaks up, Losering is loaded with the kind of explanations you can find most anywhere on the rabid Ryan Adams corner of the Internet. Menconi casts the rest of the band in resin: Caitlin Cary worked in a restaurant and had a solo career, he notes, but her fantastic work with Tres Chicas and more recent act Small Ponds avoids notice. Phil Wandscher moved to Seattle, but that's about all we get. A Story of Whiskeytown quickly washes into the very generic story of its frontman.

Toward the end of Losering, in the last chapter and after most every Adams album has been dissected in detail, Menconi returns to his story of Whiskeytown. For him, their core of studio albums—particularly 1995's Faithless Street and 1997's Strangers Almanac—remains the best chunk of Adams' massive output. But he confesses his bias, as he shared that time and place with Adams and the band; unlike Gold or 29 or any of the discs that came later, these records were part of the author's own narrative, too.

That's a vulnerable and appreciable moment from any critic, let alone one who has just spent the closing third of his second book about one subject dutifully cataloging said subject's lesser works. If anything, Losering is a compelling look at how we interpret and internalize the songs we hear, how we use them as guides for our own times and troubles. When Menconi explores Strangers Almanac track by track, for instance, he does so through the guise of a fever dream, reinterpreting the album as though it were a piece of cinéma vérité, capturing the narrator's drunken and self-destructive last night in Raleigh. As part of a biography, it's simply terrible; but as something like fan-fiction, there's an honest sense of wanderlust here, a recognition that Adams has lived his life with an intimidating amount of independence. It's something to respect, even as you disapprove.

To boost his confession, Menconi notes that Adams wouldn't recognize Raleigh if he returned today. The Brewery, where he played so many memorable shows in between drinks at The Comet Lounge, was bulldozed last year. The Rathskeller, the Hillsborough Street pub where Adams once worked, is long gone, and the parcel that contains Sadlack's seems perennially on the chopping block. The passage possesses a fatalistic tone, as if Menconi is conflating fond remembrance with used-to-be-better nostalgia.

But other pubs and clubs have replaced those old haunts, and they're filled with bands that, at least indirectly, owe a substantial debt to Raleigh's favorite prodigy, or punch line.

Adams' Raleigh legacy barely gets a mention, though, which means A Story of Whiskeytown only follows through on a fraction of its promise. A decade after Adams left Raleigh, Menconi is still The News & Observer's music scribe, a position that would allow him to document the expatriate's effects on the later Triangle music scene, which would be far more interesting than any track-by-track analysis. True, many of Adams' old haunts are dead or dying, but his imprint remains engrained here, even if he doesn't show up very often. A punk kid who started making country music in what was still considered a punk town, Adams presaged a generation for whom genre defiance sometimes seems a prerequisite.

In the fall of 1995, before his second interview with Menconi, Adams jotted down a Whiskeytown mission statement on a receipt from The Rathskeller: "[Whiskeytown] really is not ... an attempt at country or country rock as it is an attempt at recreating what something in our lives might have felt like, seemed like or looked like."

Swap the nomenclature, and that sentence feels like it could have come from one of dozens of current bands in the Triangle. Adams is a vanished exemplar of a music scene where the leader of Horseback's outlandish and ambitious metal chisels elegant guitar lines into the country ache of Mount Moriah, or where the bros of Whatever Brains stack samples of hip-hop, bits of country and hooks of indie rock into music that's neither garage rock nor punk rock nor art rock.

And in the fullest transubstantiation imaginable, Ryan Adams—by 2009, the country-rock star—took to his message board to proselytize on behalf of Double Negative, the Raleigh hardcore band featuring former collaborator Brian Walsby and members of several other bands he idolized back in Raleigh. Several months later, Double Negative hinted at a single they'd release through Adams' new label.

That single was never released. Adams has never sat still quite long enough for any band of his to last for more than a few years or, at least until recently, for any girlfriend to be that way until the next album cycle. This time, he's avoided sitting still long enough for one writer to get a complete story of his career.

Disclosure: Peter Blackstock, associate editor for the Independent, is co-editor with David Menconi of the University of Texas Press' American Music series of books, of which Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown, is part. Also, the book includes old interviews with former Whiskeytown member Skillet Gilmore, who now works for the Indy and Hopscotch Music Festival.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Superstar."

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