Until last week, Ryan Adams was easily within my top 10 favorite artists. Seeing him live was on my bucket list. I own almost every one of his solo albums — which says something given how many he’s released — and everything from his previous band Whiskeytown. He announced plans to release three albums in 2019, and I was planning to get them all.
“Was” is the key word.
I knew he was not a good bandmate. I knew he could be moody and angry. In these more enlightened times, when we try to make allowances for mental health and addiction, it was easy to see him as the tortured artist. He was an unabashed nerd, seemingly the bard of lovable losers everywhere.
Then the often-manic Adams started tweeting about lies and media and trust, like a fly caught in a web, and it all made sense when The New York Times published “Ryan Adams dangled success. Women said they paid the price.” — a devastating account of his ongoing manipulation of female musicians, attempting to use his influence and ability to record them to attain various levels of desired admiration.
From graphic text messages to an underage bassist (whom he kept asking about her age, hoping she was older) to withdrawing offers that could help women’s careers when they didn’t reciprocate his advances to lots of things related to showing off his nudity, the story depicts him as a creep whose behavior ranged from manipulative to emotionally abusive. While he has denied the characterization, the exhaustively researched article includes his own texts and interviews with many female musicians that depict a pattern.
More recently, Rolling Stone has noted that Adams’ problems were “hiding in plain sight” through his lyrics, often commanding, manipulative and vaguely menacing. To a degree, this feels like psychoanalysis with the benefit of hindsight, the way many people suddenly scrutinized Kurt Cobain’s lyrics (which were far from atypical of bands of the era) to say they should have seen his suicide coming. That said, Rolling Stone does make an interesting observation on his song titles:
In Adams’ songs — so many of them structured in the command form, as begging pleas — he established control by projecting his needs and vulnerability onto his subjects: “Come Pick Me Up;” “Call Me on Your Way Back Home;” “Stay With Me;” “Come Home;” “Save Me;” “Please Do Not Let Me Go;” “Gonna Make You Love Me;” “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight.”
Fair enough, even with the voluminous output of Adams’ catalogue and allowing for sample size. But that the wide nature of his actions went so undetected for so long speaks to both the emotional manipulation that kept them from telling their stories and the prevalent nature of abuse in the “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” archetype of the music industry.
Additionally sad is that the women who endured this behavior had one more thing in common: They lost interest in music after going through the emotional wringer. On top of his behavior, Adams robbed them of a gift that brought them joy as he made the idea of making music no longer appealing to them. This feels perhaps the unkindest cut of all.
The thought that Adams isn’t putting out any new albums is much less of a loss than the many outstanding records his targets will never release because he destroyed their musical dreams. I count 18 albums of Adams and/or Whiskeytown in my collection that I don’t think I can listen to. From an artistic standpoint, they are as beautiful as ever, but everything about them now seems ugly. To borrow a song title from “Gold,” one of his most acclaimed albums: It’s harder now that it’s over.
Guess I have room for a new musical bucket list item now. May it be seeing an act that respects women as much as it does music, and that unabashedly and honestly brings love and joy.