Rock and roll’s most prolific class clown.
BY FOSTER KAMER
In our now-perpetual era of Self-Serious Rock Stars, Ryan Adams stands alone. Because he's funny. And he knows it. That isn't to say other bands and solo acts don't occasionally enjoy some charming banter. But Adams has never been able to help himself from being a bit of a class clown.
In 2015, Adams released what may be the funniest live album by a musician—or best live music album by a burgeoning comic—ever recorded: the double-disc Live at Carnegie Hall. It's made up of two back-to-back November 2014 shows Adams played solo and acoustic at Carnegie Hall. The album kicks off with Adams taking the stage to thunderous applause, tuning his guitar, and before he even starts playing:
“It's nice to see you. Nobody panic, there's no pressure, everything's fine.”
“Uh, tonight's concert is dedicated to the Death Star level of Angry Birds: Star Wars Edition.”
“I just want to say, without trying, I finally finished it on the subway coming here today. I was just like, whatever, what happens if I just sort of blow up this stack of debris at the bottom of this thing? And it did the job. So: thank you.”
He then proceeds to take his slangy, Tom Petty-esque sweeping first track from his self-titled Ryan Adams, and turn it into a dark, yearning, rainy-day epic. It's a weird, stunning turnaround of tone, on a dime. And much of the double-disc is like this: Adams vacillating between weirdo-with-a-captive-crowd and playing the absolute best-of-the-best songs from his absurdly wide-ranging catalog. The nearly 3,000 people in the building notwithstanding, the record is deeply intimate. Sometimes, it sounds like he's playing to an audience of exactly two people, both dead: Mitch Hedberg and Leonard Cohen. And you.
The phenomenon of Ryan Adams is difficult to explain. He's a high school dropout whose first solo album is called Heartbreaker, as inspired by a photo of Mariah Carey wearing a shirt that read, yes, “Heartbreaker.” It’s generally viewed as the most important alt-country record ever made and handily one of the best rock releases of the last few decades. It also featured Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch on backup vocals, and was credited by Elton John for his artistic rejuvenation. (John later sang backup on Adams' sophomore record.) And it's an album that famously opens with an argument about Morrissey and a dumb joke about a mouthful of cookies.
Other funny things about Adams? He's prolific to a comic extent—in one year, Adams put out three full LPs, one of which was a double-disc. He once released an album recorded in two weeks, full of dumb, big, arena anthems called Rock and Roll (a not-at-all-subtle version of the cover featured Adams with a knife in his side). His side-projects are equally absurd. In 2015, he covered the entirety of Taylor Swift's 1989, and released it on his label. He once recorded as a punk band called The Finger (album title: We Are Fuck You), featuring a lineup of Warren Peace (Adams) and Irving Plaza (D Generation's Jesse Malin). Sample track: “Punk's Dead, Let's Fuck.” All of that ephemera by itself is just absurd, not funny.
What's funny is that Adams takes all of this so deeply seriously that, for example, one of the Swift covers (“Bad Blood”) ended up becoming a small modern rock radio hit single, and Swift later admitted to being influenced by his take on her. At early concerts, when fans would request songs like, say, “Sylvia Plath,” he would sing them in the key of Cookie Monster. And that's to say nothing of his cover of Oasis' “Wonderwall,” which, before he recorded and put it on a record, was mostly just another quirky thing about Ryan Adams (and a reason for him to roll out his Noel Gallagher impression). And yet Gallagher started playing “Wonderwall” in the style of Ryan Adams. It was that good.
Between all of that, he's gotten into feuds in the press with Julian Casablancas (“strung out on lasagna”), Father John Misty (“sounds like shit Elton John but if he was just sitting in a corner staring at his hands on LSD”), Jack White (“fucking ponce”), and Sean Hannity (a “little chicken man” with a soul “controlled by fear and hate”). He's since apologized for everyone but Hannity. He put Elvira (yep, that one) in one of his music videos, wrote a song and video game reviews for New York-based literati blog The Awl, and once put on a dress and opened for himself playing as “Natalie Sass” when Natalie Prass (his actual opener) had her flight to the show canceled. There's so much more where that came from.
There's also something to the way other funny people love Ryan Adams. David Letterman, a huge fan, had him play an entire concertat the Ed Sullivan Theater. Adams was also his second-to-last musical guest, and the very first musical guest of the rebooted The Daily Show. John Mayer, who’s actually tried his own hand at standup on occasion (and has a huge fan in Dave Chappelle), will randomly invite Adams to upstage him at concerts.
As for the rest of Live at Carnegie Hall, other topics covered by Adams include:
Wondering what Billy Ocean and the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald would text each other, in a song played in the style of Billy Ocean, but sung in the stylings of Michael McDonald, that started with Adams singing about how he could “drive the shit out of a car.”
Banter between Adams and the Carnegie Hall ushers about what they're doing with their “lightsabers.”
Telling his audience that he knows most of them are on Paxil, given that they’re at a Ryan Adams concert.
And so on.
Someone reviewing the album once wrote that the subject for all of these jokes is always Ryan Adams. That may be true to an extent, but the core of his comedy is the ever-present punchline, which is Adams' ability to write and perform his songs: this ostensibly sad, grueling, desperate music plucked out by an utter stoner goofball who's definitely seen some shit.
Rather than use the venerated stage of Carnegie Hall to make a grand statement on his career, as so many have done before him, he instead opts to dedicate the end of one Carnegie performance to “cussin’.” And maybe that, in fact, is Adams' grand statement: That the other side of deep, dark, profound sadness is dumb, surface-level, profound hilarity.
Though I’d listened to it before, it wasn’t until I spent two weeks driving around the mountains of North Carolina last year as a relative was sick—and then, after they passed away—that I fell in love with this album. And it's hard to say what helped more: Adams's sad-sack songs, or the inane banter between them. I'd wager some of both.
At the end of the first night, Adams closes the show with “Come Pick Me Up,” which might be his most comically-depressing song, and then, by screaming at his audience: “THAT'S IT, YOU'RE SAAAAAAD! EVERYBODY'S SAD NOWWWWW!!!! YEAHHHH!!!!!”
Which, among other reasons, is funny because it’s true.
Foster Kamer probably owes you an email, and apologizes in advance. He lives in New York.