Saturday, July 7, 2018

Nurse the Hate: Waiting To Derail

I read the book “Waiting To Derail:  Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown, Alt Country’s Brilliant Wreck” by Thomas O’Keefe with Joe Oestreich last Sunday.  It was of special interest especially because we were there either during or directly after some of the noted incidents in the book as The Cowslingers wandered around the indie rock underbelly in the late 1990s.  I hadn't thought about any of that in years.  It's hard to believe it was so long ago, and that anyone thought it was important enough to write a book about.  The book was like finding a long lost book of photographs.  I totally got lost in it.  I remember the first time we played with Whiskeytown in Chapel Hill at the Local 506.  I had the “Faithless Street” CD on pretty steady airplay for the weeks prior to that show.  I really love that record.  I was looking forward to seeing them live.

Just as described in the book, this early version of Whiskeytown wasn’t too together.  They had that obvious cockiness in knowing that at their best, they were fucking dynamite.  The downside was that they didn’t yet understand that an audience wasn’t terribly interested in watching them tune up as they figured out what song to play, and maybe not being rehearsed didn’t make you punk rock, it made you crappy on stage.  I remember Bobby losing interest in about 11 minutes.  I leaned in and said to him “That Ryan kid is going to be a fucking rock star.”  Bobby laughed at me and said “Who?  Him?”  As was stated in the book by an Outpost Record executive “If I would have seen them play live before hearing the record, I never would have signed them.”  No doubt.   Yet, even in that ragged set, there was one song where it all clicked and made you realize the heights they could reach.  The key was the scruffy young guitar player/singer Ryan Adams.  When he sang something, it just sounded important.  In the book they talked about how it sounded like "he meant it".  That's a great explanation.

Many of the venues noted in the book were places we also played.  We played Mac’s in East Lansing shortly after Whiskeytown's disastrous gig that ended with them fighting with the small crowd until eventually falling back to their RV like the Alamo.  The people of Lansing were throwing full beers and tomatoes at them.  An audience has to be quite pissed for that to happen.  We got lumped in a couple weeks later as a potential problem by genre association, which is laughable to think of Alt Country as being “dangerous”.  It was mostly college educated guys in John Deere hats standing around.  Just as laughable is to think that in 1998 there was a moment where major record labels thought alt-country was the new answer to what “The Kids” wanted.  They thought they would sign everything and sort it out later.

We played the same SXSW where Whiskeytown and the Old 97s were the hottest girls at the dance.  I remember Ryan and Phil walking around at night in aviator sunglasses like they were Kick and Keith in San Tropez in 1971.  I get it.  There were so many people with expense accounts kissing their ass.  I would have been doing the same thing if I was 22 and had been in that situation.  Nobody was kissing our ass.  I kept my sunglasses off.  After that SXSW almost every band from our genre ghetto got signed to a record deal but us.  We even had that killer write up in the Austin Chronicle about our showcase, maybe the single best review we ever got.  Looking back, it is fairly obvious that corporate rock radio would never play “West Virginia Dog Track Boogie” or “Cha Cha Heels”.  We didn't know that then.  

There was a gig mentioned in Cleveland where the only people in the crowd were Caitlin Cary’s family.  That is not totally accurate as Bobby’s brother Joe and I were there too.  I seem to recall Phil telling us a story before the gig about him meeting Keith Richards in the studio weeks earlier and it going about as wrong as it could possibly go.  Then we wandered down by the river and talked about fishing as I recall.  The gig was at Wilbert’s on a weekday.  I had talked up the band to Joe beforehand and then Whiskeytown played a half hearted set to the tiny crowd.  It was a big fall from hanging out with Keith in an LA studio to 21 people at Wilbert’s I suppose. 

The thing that really hit me was how the book made all these events larger than life, just like books I have read on the glory days of CBGBs and early days of the British Invasion.  I would devour those types of books, a modern day version of Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast".  Everyone was talented, soon-to-be-famous, and a palpable energy in the air.  Debbie Harry is having drinks with F. Scott Fitzgerald waiting for Jeff Beck to drop Ringo off with Nico and Lou Reed until Hemingway shows up with some beer.  Yet when I look back at that time I remember plenty of bands that I really liked and admired, but we were all slogging it out for the 50-100 people in any given town that understood what we were going for.  The big crowds still went out to see hippie bands and funk.  It's hard for girls to dance to Alt-country I guess.

Now I am confused if I might have underestimated just how good that scene was, or is it all just selective memory?  Maybe even the Haight in The Summer of Love, Paris in the early 1920s and grunge in Seattle were just a romantic dreams that never really existed as they get presented now.  Maybe the Moveable Feast was just a bunch of fuckups in Paris pretending to be artists until a couple of them got lucky with novels.   We need our legends.  The collective agreed history always twists events to make them better.  I can't recall anyone ever saying "You know, there has never been a better time than right now."  It was always better "before", whenever that was.  There is an admitted satisfaction to being involved even in a tertiary basis in a cultural movement that made a blip big enough for a book.  I don't know how important any of it was, but I will tell you this.  That Whiskeytown record that got them signed really was fucking great. 


At May 26, 2022 at 8:40:00 PM EDT , Blogger Unknown said...

Hey, I just discovered this old blog post. I came upon it while trying to find a link discussing the time my friend Bez and I threw the tomatoes at Whiskeytown outside of Mac's bar.

It was 6/28/97 -- I know the date because it was the same night that Mike Tyson bit ofd that dude's ear. We'd watched the fight at a seedy strip club, and afterward everyone was kind of grossed out, tired, and wanting to go home. But I insisted we all had to see Whiskeytown! I was a fan, and we didn't have a lot of good touring bands coming through E. Lansing. Also, our campus station, WDBM, had a pioneering alt-country show, "Progressive Torch and Twang." The hosts of that show were lovely, and they'd built a great community. They had the Old 97's and Richard Buckner coming to town before hardly anyone knew who they were.

But Ryan and Whiskeytown were so awful. I don't think they "played" more than 15 minutes. They would play 30 seconds of a song and then quit, then they started making up songs on the spot. For a while they started playing like they were a death metal band. Ryan was strumming the guitar with his foot. But none of this was done in a cocky or amusing way, like some Replacements shows of lore. Ryan just wanted to be a surly asshole that night.

So, yeah, we threw the tomatoes. (Bez lived down the street from the bar. They weren't rotten tomatoes, like Ryan claimed, they were fresh Roma tomatoes.)

And most of the rest of Ryan's account in Waiting to Derail is ludicrously embellished. They never hit Bez's car with a beer can, the police were never called. I didn't challenged Ryan to a fight, but I did heckle and throw ice. I also slung a Whiskeytown CD at them like a frisbee.

One thing everyone leaves out is that after I started heckling, people thought it was kind of funny and joined in. You could tell that Ryan really could not stand to be laughed at (even though he deserved it). So then they just stormed off.

After all this time, I can't really apologize for anything we did that night. Whiskeytown was disrespectful of our town, our music community, and our bar.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home