Every biography is a Strangers Almanac

Have you ever read a biography, gotten to the end and wondered, “Did I just read the biography of a horrible person?” After reading Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown by David Menconi, I have that feeling.

I hate that feeling. I’m a fan — a big fan. I own and love a lot of Adams’ music, especially from the Whiskeytown era. I play a Whiskeytown album at least once every week, I figure. In the shower, my repertoire includes parts of Jacksonville Skyline and Crazy About You. (My shower repertoire includes no song all the way through, except on certain, miraculous days when various cuts from The River or Songs for Swingin’ Lovers come off.)

The book captures the brilliance of Adams’ songwriting, the beauty of his singing and the often difficult but occasional genius of his weirdness. His ability to find beautiful women, pine for them and create from that feeling is an art form itself. But the accounts of Adams doing something nice for somebody in the book are few and far between. He is polite often. He is friendly at times. He spends a good deal of time in a hospital with a dying lover, which is something. But beyond that time, which Adams chronicled uncomfortably in song as “I fucked you over a million times and you died,” it’s difficult to find anyone in the book describing him doing anything nice.

Openness can be a virtue, absolutely. So can the sharing of art and talent; otherwise we wouldn’t have songs about bushels. But to what extent can openness and sharing art be self-serving? The many quotes from Adams in the book run up the score for him doing music for himself. The audiences become incidental to personal journey and expression. Any account you’ve ever consumed of a Whiskeytown or Adams show just adds more backing.

But any rout makes you wonder.

With the amount of space brilliant music takes in any room, or takes from any conversation, how much space is left over for goodness, accounts of goodness or demonstrations thereof? To what extent does a biographer of an artist ask about goodness beyond art? If yes, to what extent does that biographer record the answers? To what extent do the biographer’s sources divert to the topic from the reason they’ve been asked to speak? In what circumstances have these sources known the biographer’s subject? What situations? To what extent have the sources been in position to experience goodness in relation to the subject? To what extent have the sources been in position to experience goodness at all? To what extent do these sources know the subject? To what extent does the subject know the subject? To what extent does the subject know his own self? Know his own goodness?

No biography answers all of these questions. Few bios answer even some of the questions. But every bio, every account of a life, quietly demands we consider them. If we arrive at negative answers without this consideration, we do a disservice to the subject, the biographer and ourselves. Menconi’s book is a good one. Adams is most likely a good person, too. But we don’t have to arrive at positive answers — definitive proof of goodness! the math of a life works out! — or make relativist assumptions that no one can ever know the answers and so we must assume not goodness but a boring just-fine-ness. As assumption is boundless, assuming anything boring is awful.

When I think I’ve read the biography of a horrible person, I have to remind myself how far thinking is from knowing. That distance calls to mind what I think I know of friends and loved ones and — sources for each other’s bios — what they might think they know of me. I picture the places we’ve been and hear the words we’ve said, and then I’m back in a Whiskeytown song.

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