Brown Sugar & the Emperor of Wyoming
Ryan Adams + Leona Naess
21 Mar 2002: Roseland New York
Songbirds of the rock era have never had it easy in the pop arena. Some, like Joni Mitchell, attain a diva-like status that Maria Callas might not have envied but which is still respectable. Others, like Laura Nyro, have their talent exploited by more easily marketed male stars while their “eccentric, feminine” aesthetic is deemed problematic and inaccessible (c.f. Three Dog Night hitting with “Eli’s Coming” whereas Nyro remained a lifelong cult artiste and known for her notorious bomb at Monterey). Celebrated or unsung, these musicians have oftener than not been rejected by a rock business that views “girl singers” as too emotional, prone to having babies and quitting the road. Somehow the idea lingers that a female musician’s experience is not sufficiently universal to attract the prized young male music consumer unless it’s trussed-up in sexual and violent provocation.
Now that some rock commentators, including Revolver magazine, have declared a revival of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s country rock scene to be in full swing, certain parallel acts from that era are also returning. Among them, in the network, are women with guitars who purvey intimate lyrics that differ from recent waves of “Women in Rock” darlings and anti-Nashville mavericks like Lucinda Williams due to their youth and sensibility. Leona Naess hasn’t the pure, keening pipes of Mitchell, the dark soul of Nyro, the folkie feyness of a Vashti Bunyan, nor the righteous polemical content of Joan Baez. The image of Naess, backed by a two-piece during the Roseland appearance, leans more toward the once extremely popular Linda Ronstadt minus the Hollywood hillbilly trappings (like Ronstadt in her day, Naess is comely and photogenic enough to appeal to major label marketers and their target demographic—- she’s already appeared in a Calvin Klein campaign). Naess’ sophomore effort, I Tried to Rock You But You Only Roll (MCA), most reflects early ‘80s pop with its synth washes and jaunty, unaffected delivery. Nevertheless, buried ‘neath the Top 40 radio sunniness are dark visions of human frailty, her own failed relationships in particular, and she is a singer-songwriter for lack of a better designation. Furthermore, in her current role as consort to Alt-Country Baby Jesus Ryan Adams, she will no doubt assimilate country and other deep Americana flourishes over time.
Considering that Naess’ work has not gotten the attention it deserves, her challenge is to pull a Joni Mitchell by finding her own aesthetic path amid the bad boys with loud guitars and rock swagger, to not allow her position as The Girlfriend to render her silent and prone. Naess’ music is certainly refreshing enough to rout the dread specter of the ‘70s mellow, confessional genre.
Alas, her Roseland performance was a thorn in that projected mission. Throughout her set, Naess was derailed by bad sound problems and loss of momentum due to constant guitar switching and conferences with her guitarist. Although she seemed in high spirits, sounding almost giddy when she spoke, the fact that the songs could be heard only with difficulty seemed to spur the MTV demo audience to chat and drink incessantly. Polite applause greeted the end of her short run but the best songs on the album—- “Panic-Stricken”, “Mexico”, “Mayor of Your Town”, “Sunny Sunday”—- went largely unremarked, despite being delivered well. Hopefully, her obvious confidence in her music, her tossed-off demeanor and any boons that arise from her professional and personal relations with Adams provided by this tour will all result in a stronger connection with the audience and sharper presentation in future performances. Her confessions are potent enough that she should be able to subvert the mantle of the opaque and inscrutable muse.
As the Cosmic Cowboy heyday was littered with egocentric bad asses in Nudie suits determined to refashion western swing, hillbilly boogie and high lonesome balladry for the acid mass, the current scene, stretching from southern California to Nashville and Brooklyn, mostly spotlights precocious boy geniuses sprung full-blown from the head of Gram Parsons. Former Whiskeytown wunderkind Ryan Adams, born on that NoDep high holy day of 5 November, is an ambitious country boy well versed in the traditions of American music, like Parsons. Echoing the (rightfully) Sainted Gram, Adams is head-over-heels in love with the Jagger-Richards songbook (his encore featured “Brown Sugar”) and sugarplum visions of rock stardom—- plus he’s written “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, played at Roseland, a virtual retread of the Waycross Wizard’s “Hickory Wind” (leaving authorship disputes aside).
Ryan Adams sings for somebody. But not for me. Myriad revolutions of Gold and even the notoriously personal Heartbreaker have largely left me cold. Live, Adams is a fine and engaging performer. His songs have immediacy and subtle power onstage that overshadows how derivative much of his writing approach is; the mummery of sonic heroes such as Dylan is kept somewhat in abeyance by his excitement (unlike the record, the live “Somehow, Someday” didn’t chillingly channel Neil Young’s delivery). Frankly, this disconnect between the studio and stage is flummoxing. This is an ear sympathetic to and well acquainted with the twang titans of yore, from Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash to Stills and Gene Clark to Doug Sahm and the Band and beyond. Songs in the vein of “When The Stars Go Blue” and takes on pop standard “Lovesick Blues” or the Dead’s “Wharf Rat” ought to win me over not alienate me. Adams can summon such great and talented collaborators as the wonderful, sadly overlooked Chris Stills and the fine Ethan Johns. It’s reasonable to expect more.
The Roseland show was disappointing, after over a year’s relentless hype touting Adams’ brilliance and ringing endorsements about the quality of his songwriting from my colleagues in the British music press. To be fair, the crowd was vapid, their behavior abysmal (when will cell phones be confiscated as prerequisite to entering the hall?). Poor sound continued to plague Adams’ portion of the show as well. Like Naess’, his music would most benefit from an intimate setting. Still, his stage banter was uninspired and inchoate, the puns and joking with a flat of Chewbacca baffling. What has become of consummate professionalism?
Numerous tales abound of the younger Adams’ inability to co-exist peacefully with the cult adulation garnered from Whiskeytown. His manager claims to have taken him on once he cleaned up his act and demonstrated a firm rededication to his career. However, previous accounts of this run, especially the Boston show, suggest a self-absorbed artist who is still volatile, swinging wildly through extreme moods, excess and hubris. Adams’ prolific songwriting, protean posturing and acting up could suggest stereotypical Genius. Or perhaps a fundamental artistic poverty and personal emptiness.
Adams is obviously a Neil Young fan and potential heir. Gold‘s “Firecracker” has the former singing: “Everybody wants to go forever / I just want to burn up hard and bright”—- could this lyric be “It’s better to burn out than to fade away / . . . it’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps” by any other name? Jack London disciples both, apparently:
I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze
Than it should be stifled by dry rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The Canadian and his Carolinian acolyte seem to believe it’s their fundamental right to not merely exist and rock stardom is their vehicle to evade the Mass, the mundane and The Rust that dulled the nerve of their colleagues/progenitors [Young vs. CSN].
Still, Adams, no matter his coronation, mayn’t be the times’ sonic superman par excellence [indeed, being the unwitting student of London and canny idolater of Jagger-Richards serves the assumption of a poisonous form of white male agency that undermines all misguided (if fascinating) Americana masterworks—- that of the tough, individual loner against society and nature. Could the glimmer of this indicate what’s repellent about the young twang Turk’s body of work? Since Adams has been anointed by Sir Elton John, he ought to take a tip from one of the albums that made the latter’s reputation: the Laurel Canyon country-rock aristocracy that Adams emulates mostly retreated into their “honky chateaux” when the upheavals of the ‘60s transformed the country too drastically and their own amorality caused them to punk out on all the change they set out to undertake (sorry, ain’t Gil Scott-Heron up in this mug). Definitely expected more color from someone who has benefited from three hundred plus years of American musical tradition. If only Gold were as brilliant as one of the top ten Americana albums ever: the Isley Brothers’ Givin’ It Back (T-Neck/Epic, 1971). Ron Isley’s performance of Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” and the masterpieces of Stills “Love the One You’re With” and “Ohio/Machine Gun” demonstrate how to effectively place one’s own stamp on the material of one’s peers].
Somewhere during Adams’ performance, the Young instrumental, “The Emperor of Wyoming” from the eponymous debut, came to mind. “The Emperor”, string-drenched country MOR, is a deceptively mild introduction to Young’s solo career. It always seemed to suggest a succinct, tongue-in-cheek, Kane-esque portrait of some amoral and spiritually void rancher baron. Ryan Adams reveals himself to these ears as the present rock milieu avatar of Young’s Emperor. An elusive hollowness at the bottom of his work may mean that—- fever pitch hype notwithstanding—- Adams also wears no clothes. Spinning “whimsical” ditties about Celine Dion ruining your buzz as you simultaneously watch television and smoke pot doesn’t raise your Olympian profile much.
At Roseland, he alternately shambled and strutted behind a shock of artfully unruly hair, armed with ace five-piece band the Sweetheart Revolution (featuring ex-Dylan sideman Bucky Baxter & Adams doppelganger Billy Mercer on bass) who are aiding his move out of the Alt-Country ghetto into the rock ‘n roll primetime. Gary Louris and (RA nemesis) Jeff Tweedy have appeared to attempt this move before him but Adams, gaining mainstream notice at a time when the Black Crowes—- who’ve pretty much had a lock on the purist rock throne for the last decade—- are conveniently on hiatus, seems poised for success. The self-indulgence—- constantly playing with his back to the audience, drastically dimmed lighting, self-referential inter-song patter, impersonating the Lizard King, proving he’s mastered the Ron Wood technique of keeping one’s cigarette in the neck of one’s guitar mid-play, taking the stage to the theme from Star Wars —- and erratic character of his long show suggested a Brat Prince who sees no rivals in the field.
He has one, unacknowledged, in the form of Marah’s Dave Bielanko. Bielanko is of an age with Adams, also regionally identified, an Alt-Country refugee, and palpably haunted by rock icons—- Springsteen, primarily, in Bielanko’s case. Certainly, Marah’s front man seethes with self-regard and rawk energy but he’s figured out how to distill the essence of his heroes’ work and produce songs that are indelibly from a very real place. The feat of Dave Bielanko tunes such as “Faraway You” or “My Heart Is the Bums in the Street” is that they paint a grounded portrait of the artist as a young man while boasting a radio-ready accessibility. “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues”, the hard rawkinest song performed at Roseland (as opposed to “Nobody Girl” rendered as a long droning, dirge), positioned Adams as an acolyte whose entire quest is to wrest a place in the track sequence of Exile On Main Street. On “Answering Bell”, “New York, New York”, “To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)” and others, Adams comes off too clever by half and cunning enough to obfuscate any entrée to the work that might reveal some vulnerable part of the flawed yet beautiful human being behind the mask of the boy wonder. The kid sports more masks than turn of the last century Negroes, as poetically rendered by Paul Laurence Dunbar. I don’t know whom Ryan Adams is thus I cannot respond well to his art. This is not the clueless, non-songwriting critic being needlessly harsh: in his own song, “Vampire”, he sings, “I’m a fake and I’m a liar”. Sarcasm or self-revelation?
His girlfriend may be the one who counts Diana Ross as kin but Adams’ songs bring to mind P.Diddy, who never met a sample he didn’t like (perhaps most famously, The (other) Boss’ “I’m Comin’ Out” employed as hook in “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems”). Diddy’s use of Ross to lucrative effect in that hit mirrors Adams’ almost slavish reenactment of his roots rock forbears’ aesthetic highlights. But “please, please don’t judge [him] too strong”, to quote Funkadelic Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, this will to appropriate the music of yore wholesale with little mediation. When Diddy and his ilk can get away with biting songs in their entirety without public hue and cry, why should anyone actually bother to write songs? Probably no one knows how to write rock songs anymore. The jukebox quilting must be emblematic of the millennial project. Chances are, Adams could also be afraid of the Mount Rushmore of Cosmic Americana, as well as the genre’s cousins and antecedents; he certainly mauled his cover of Parsons’ “A Song for You” on Emmylou Harris’ tribute project. That’s quite a burden for any anointed youth to bear.
Maybe in the 2000s, when every artistic idea under the sun has already been essayed, rock is in its 50s and one of the leading singer-songwriters of the era is a pretend-thug like Dr. Dre (imagine “Dre Day” going toe-to-toe with Mitchell’s “People’s Parties”), the lot left to the more talented and prescient musicians is to mimic a mix master in the vein of Grandmaster Flash. Meanwhile, Ryan Adams’ desire to win the love of the People whilst simultaneously holding himself aloof from them with condescension (at least in the venues . . . although accounts of how he meets the press are not promising) bodes ill—- for his aspirations and for the audience’s hope for the Ascension of a Savior of Rock.