Saturday, 13 September 2014

Gimme Something Good, Or, What Ryan Adams Means To Me.

For all of my childhood and most of my adolescence, music was a non-entity. My mum owned a Cliff Richard And the Shadows cassette she would play irregularly, and we had a Hits of Christmas Album that would be unpacked with decorations for the tree come December. But for all intents and purposes, my home was one without music. On long car trips, we listened to audio books my parents snagged at the local W. H. Smith's, and the radio only came on for episodes of The Archers.

Not that I minded. I had books instead. I had no knowledge of music, but also no interest: I knew who people like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan were, but I couldn't name any of their songs.

I vividly remember the time when the ipod was just starting to make waves. One of the advertisements boasted the device's ability to "hold over a 1,000" songs. I used to quietly wonder at the idea that there could actually be that much music in the world.

Then, during one of my high school's compulsory music lessons the skinny figure of our teacher told us we were going to have to bring in a CD of our own choosing, play the class a song, and talk about it. I balked at the idea. I'd never owned a single album.

Desperate, I visited the school's library, and picked up the first album I came across. The CD was titled Gold, and the name of the artist was Ryan Adams. I studied the front cover on the way home, bewildered by the upside down flag and the spiky haircut of the figure who I could only assume was Adams himself.

I borrowed my mum's dusty CD player to listen to the thing, and I clearly remember sitting it down on my desk like it was a piece of foreign machinery. I loaded up the disc, hit play, and sat back, genuinely not knowing what to expect.

As cool as it would be to write something like, "and in that moment my life changed," I can't, because it didn't. I had no yardstick by which to measure what I was hearing; no musical ear to speak of. I listened to the album from beginning to end, and although it was far from an unpleasant experience, it was a beffudling one.

But I was a painfully conscientious student at that age, desperate to please my teachers. So, as soon as Gold was done, I hit play and listened to it all over again. I needed to know what it was about, what the point of it all was. After all, I had a presentation to give; a teacher to impress.

Although I remember "Answering Bell" was the song I chose to play the class, I have no idea what I said about it.

I started to listen to the album on a daily basis - at first, still driven by the idea that it was a code to unlock, but soon, because I actually wanted to. I thought it was impressive the way the album slowed down for breathing room, like on the song "SYLVIA PLATH", and the more I listened, the more I began to appreciate that there was a human being behind all this noise, crafting it the way my favourite authors crafted their novels. I became interested in the man called Ryan Adams. I thought it was sweet, the way he wanted a woman to take him to France. I began to wonder what other things he thought about, and what else he had to say.

To that end, I wandered for the first time into a music store. I might have taken a plane trip to a different country. I had no idea where to start. I was too shy to ask for directions, so I moped around the place for almost an hour before I found the section marked "Alternative", and the little space left for Ryan Adams in that. A little while later, I walked out of the store with Rock N Roll in a plastic bag and a lighter wallet.

Listening to the album gave me my first ever "hairbrush in the mirror" moment. As soon as the song "Luminol" began to play, I began to dance an ungainly jig. My sister walked in to the room, watched me for a second, and then quietly shut the door, embarrassed for the both of us.

But "Rock N' Roll" was the song on the album that really opened things up for me. It seemed crazy that this guy who had been strumming his guitar with frenetic abandon only a song before would suddenly sing about how uncool he felt. I remember looking at the album cover, and wondering how a man who I was increasingly feeling such respect and awe for could feel so sad.

From that point on, music became a consuming obsession. I listened to everything else Adams had to offer, and then started branching beyond him - first to Morrissey, who I heard him arguing about on the first track of Heartbreaker. From Morrissey came The Smiths, from The Smiths came Pulp, and then the road became increasingly jagged - soon I was listening to Bob Dylan, P. J. Harvey, and everything in between.

But Adams still held a special place in my heart. His album 29 became the soundtrack to the summer of my 18th year. I was feeling increasingly out of place in school. I lost a lot of friends, mostly through my own sullenness and silence. I used to take my Walkman to school, wander out into the park nearby at lunchtime, and sit on a bench and listen to "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part."

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was beginning to exhibit the symptoms of bipolar disorder, something that would not be diagnosed for some time. All I knew was that I wasn't interested in the things I used to be interested in. I was tired, listless. I started to have terrible nose bleeds, and I was sleeping only an hour or two a night.

But amidst it all, 29 and Adams were there. That album was a place of safety, and security. As much as I was changing, it didn't. It stayed motionless - an island of quiet amidst all the noise. On the weekends, I would take my bike and ride in circles around the neighbourhood, uncomfortable in the heat, "Strawberry Wine" lazily making its way to my ears through my headphones.

In my search to find likeminded people, I became deeper entrenched in Sydney's alternative music scene. By the time I had graduated from high school, my friends were all smokers; Sonic Youth fans; writers and musicians living on their parents' money.

I soon discovered it was pretty uncool to talk about Ryan Adams with my new indie mates. As the Goo posters started crawling up my walls, I found that my new music nerd friends were astonishingly critical of records like Gold and Easy Tiger.

 I still have a notebook I kept at that age. One of the pages boasts the list, "My Favourite Albums Ever." The number one spot belongs to Goo, but I can still see where I wrote 29 and then feverishly scribbled it out. I was ashamed that such a sincere and 'mainstream' album would be my favourite.

And so, I drifted away from Ryan Adams. His face, which had long adorned a poster on my wall, was replaced by the scowling mug of Nick Cave. I stopped listening to the albums he put out, and I became the most insufferable kind of  alternative music nut - the kind of listener who is deeply afraid of anything that might be deemed commercial. My ethos at the time was, "the more obscure, the better."

I don't mean to criticise Sonic Youth, or the other noise rock bands I became obsessed with at the time. I still love those guys, and the records they made. I more mean to criticise the person I became as I listened to them. I hunted down obscure French novels that make me cringe now, and wrote poetry so dense and pretentious I can barely read a line of it today.

Music, like literature and film, became a cage. It made me feel better than those around me. It made me aloof, removed. Rather than providing me with an outlet to the real world, it cut the real world off. I took the element of music which is meant to make you love the life you live, and used it as a way to lock myself away from people.

Somewhere around this time, the floor fell out on my life. I suffered a breakdown - I had taken to alcohol with a beginner's abandon, and spent a lot of time drunk. I was dividing my time neatly between Sydney and Melbourne, where I read at a few underground poetry nights. I grew a scraggly, ugly beard, and took long walks by the sea, staring at the long falls under the cliffs. Shortly afterwards, I made two separate attempts on my life. My parents took me to my local doctor, who immediately sent me to a psychiatric ward, were I was kept under observation for a week.

My mum brought me supplies while I was locked away in the hospital - tim tams, instant coffee, and my ipod. The days were very long there, and the nights longer. There was nothing to do but smoke and stare at the battered concrete walls. I tried to read, but didn't have the patience. So I did the only thing that seemed effortless - I listened to music.

Sonic Youth seemed too harsh, and brought back too many bad memories of friends that weren't friends, and nights that held no sleep. I put the ipod on shuffle. The first song that played was "Oh My Sweet Carolina". I was too sad to cry, so I just listened, and when the song was done, I started it from the beginning, and listened to it all over again.

I heard Adams sing the lines, "So I went on to Cleveland/and I ended up insane", but they weren't the words that resonated with me. It was the chorus that moved me. "Oh my sweet disposition," I listened to Adams quietly sing, "may you one day come carry me home."

It wasn't just the feeling behind the line that sparked something inside me. It was the clarity of the sentiment. It was the fact that there was someone out there who had taken the pain, and passion of his life, and translated it simply into music. It was the fact that someone had managed to take someone bad, and make something of it. It was Ryan Adams, and his open, authentic beauty.

I listened to that song many times. I emerged from the hospital soon after. I wasn't fixed, but things were better. Two years later, I was correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I found a job that gave me immense pleasure, and through that work I met a young boy who changed my life. He had autism, and through the unashamed love he had for those around him, I found a certain peace. He taught me more than anyone I had ever met, and the most important lesson he gave me I still follow to this day - that the importance of life is love, and friendship: nothing more, nothing less. We still work together.

Music was, and still is an important part of my life, but through the work with my young friend, I came to realise it wasn't everything. For too long, my love for music had been obsessive, insular. Working with my autistic friend taught me that there was life outside of my bedroom; my cd player; the walls of records I had surrounded myself with.

So what Ryan Adams meant to me changed again. I still listened to his music, but not in the quiet of my bedroom, in solitude. I listened to his albums on the bus, on my way to work; to parties. I began to talk to people again. I made friends.

After all, the real talent Adams possesses is singing about human beings.

The new Ryan Adams album has found me now a very different person than I was when Gold first played on my dusty cd player. I have meaning; I have good friends; I have love; I have a life.

Ryan Adams, the self-titled album, contains everything I have ever loved about the man. There is real love to it; the love of music itself, and the love of the people listening to it. It is a generous album. It is a man giving himself with no filter, thankful in his way. And listening to it, I once again feel that strange joy I felt way back when in the psychiatric hospital - I feel the joy of hearing a musician accurately and beautifully taking an emotion and pinning it to a moment. 

As I'm writing this, I'm sitting outside in the sunshine. "Gimme Something Good" is playing. It's a killer song. But, I don't really want to write anything about it. When it's over, I think I'm going to go for a walk. There's a world out there, after all.

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