For lack of anything new to read before bed, I’ve been reading random snippets from Fonarow’s Empire of Dirt. At the beginning of Chapter 5, Performance, Authenticity, and Emotion, Fonarow includes a Harry Weinstein quote from the Los Angeles Times in 1997. In this short anecdote, Weinstein admits to having snuck in his theater after hours to learn all of the tricks that a magician he booked had performed earlier that evening. “I ruined it for myself. So all that proliferation of behind-the-scenes stories… to me it spoils the wonderful illusion of walking into a dark room and waiting for the magic to begin” (Fonarow 187). Fonarow uses this excerpt to help us understand the nature of musical performance and how a behind-the-scenes look can change one’s perception of the event. “When a fan or audience member sees a performer as himself or herself rather than as the character he or she envisioned, it is difficult to go back to believing in the character. When you see how the trick is performed, you can’t believe in the trick anymore” (Fonarow 188). After reading this small section, I started thinking back to the Ryan Adams concert I saw a while back at UI and started wondering about what to make of a performer that appears to bring behind-the-scenes to the stage.
I like Ryan Adams because he seems honest and I believe his music. I hear touches of Gram Parsons, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, and maybe even a little Dylan in his stuff. I guess I see him as a sort of torchbearer and I have to say that I’m a little jealous because I think he’s got it and I wish I had it. So, I was ready to see him live when he came here. I’d heard the horror stories about Adams playing Dead covers for four hours without any audience acknowledgment and stories of him walking offstage because people were talking during his second song, but I knew he had just recently gotten out of rehab and his new album sounded good. And besides, isn’t that kind of rock performance behavior somewhat authentic? If the guy is going to be a little neurotic, fine. Aren’t most? The show lasted almost a full two and a half hours with a five-minute pee break requested by Adams. The music was spot-on – vocals great, guitars great, harmonies amazing, and the band was really tight. So, no complaints there. It was the in-between song banter that threw me. I couldn’t understand how a guy who could write and perform such great tunes could be so annoying and indifferent to the way he was being perceived. From saying “fuck” every other word to picking a grundy out of his ass and calling it a “Calvin Klein date-rape” to calling to the side of the stage for his “hooker boots,” Adams without-music portrayed the exact opposite of what Adams with-music seemed to portray. He separated himself from his audience with his banter, told us how he wished he hadn’t written his stupid songs, rejected requests by verbally saying “no,” and really seemed to resent us even being there to listen. I now realized the horror stories I had heard regarding his performances. His music was the opposite, it pulled me in, rocked me, and really made me want to start playing more. It was like this push and pull from Adams, him wanting to be the brat-jerk and prolific performer, but with distinct separation between the two.
Going back to Fonarow’s comments, the thing that struck me was that as much as I detested and resisted Adams not-playing, I still believed him when he did play that night and have been listening to his latest albums pretty much non-stop ever since. I realize that Adams could have been hamming it up for the audience to play on the bad rap that he had previously been given, but I honestly don’t believe that it was the case that night. I really think that this may be how the guy operates. Judging from the responses of his bandmates that night, it appeared that they were as annoyed as I was, somehow justifying my feelings. In the banter, I felt like I had seen Adams behind-the-scenes as himself without the mask of performer, although it was right back on when the music started. It was weird. I left the show with mixed feelings, trying to judge how I felt about Ryan Adams and his performance. Ultimately, I got over his in-between song nonsense and realized how good the music really was, and was able to let the music transcend the bullshit. Thinking back to Fonarow’s comment above, I think I was able to go back to believing in Adams because of his music, even though I saw him seemingly as himself without it. I seem to have let the trick continue to amaze me even though I was granted a glimpse “behind-the-scenes.” I’d be interested to know if anyone else has seen Adams and felt any certain way about him as himself and/or as a performer. These rock guys, they’re a little funny, ya know?