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.

Just one life

I haven’t been able to get this song out of my head or this version out of my browser tabs for the past couple weeks. There’s been a good older Ryan take of Jacksonville Skyline and a different singer’s quiet, persistent cover of Won’t Back Down passing through adjacent tabs, but this Houses on the Hill hanging around feels like a fair reason for the other videos to stop by.

I can’t explain exactly why the song has stuck this time. The war and the pills are my usual reasons. This time, I think it’s the unsent letters. It’s not their writer’s holding back at the time. It’s the finding them later and what personal histories have ensued, all of the moments or moments passed by.

Five more dollars that won’t make you mine

Friend Jamie down in Raleigh tweeted a link to a newly surfaced Ryan Adams concert, an early 1996 show. The tape has better than average sound, and you can hear a rough draft of Whiskeytown’s Bar Lights. On the Pneumonia album, the song was the ramshackle closer (before lots of silence and a sweet-and-slower hidden track). There weren’t many lyrics. The bar lights shined on the bottles. The narrator put moves on an undescribed woman. The narrator admitted likely failure. The end.

But what I never noticed in the song until I heard the bootleg cut was how much was wrapped up in the lines at the end. I’d gotten the five dollars for another drink, but the futility I’d missed. It was some bizarre opposite of a short poem I’d read earlier in the week, where what you imagine as horrible wind destroys a house but lets you see moonlight.

Some days, we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Other weeks — to repeat, weeks not days — it’s the more positive opposite. But aside from all overused jaw phrases, I think of music, sometimes, as a roof.

15 albums

Jeremy gave the following preamble on Facebook, and I liked it: “I dutifully ignore most of these Facebook lists, in which you get tagged in someone else’s and are therefore obligated to make your own, but this one sounded kinda fun. So the challenge is to list 15 albums that changed your life, most impacted you or whatever …  I’m limiting mine to officially released material only because otherwise this would be a list of 15 Bruce Springsteen recordings unavailable in stores.” My list:

1. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
2. Darkness of the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen
3. Kids in Philly, Marah
4. A Legendary Performer Vol. 2, Elvis Presley
5. Gold, CCR
6. Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen
7. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco
8. Summerteeth, Wilco
9. Pneumonia, Whiskeytown
10. Get Lifted, John Legend
11. Greatest Hits, John Denver
12. Joshua Tree, U2
13. My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello
14. Pet Sounds, Beach Boys
15. West Side Story soundtrack

If you want to fight, each one is easily explainable, and I know karate.

Most difficult cuts: Demolition, The River (but you know The River is fine without you), James Brown 20 All-Time Greatest Hits, Chronicle, The ’59 Sound (I’m guessing it’ll stick), Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight.