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Can Music Save Ryan Adams’ Life?

Ryan Adams’ music career was derailed by reports of his predatory behavior toward women — but after four years and an earnest attempt at sobriety, does cancel culture allow us to acknowledge he still possesses extraordinary talent?

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Last week, Ryan Adams released five new albums — four albums of all new material and one of the best-produced live albums you’re likely to hear. The records cover a wide stylistic territory from Americana to ’80s-inspired punk rock, they’re all very good, and this should be a crowning achievement for generational songwriting talent.

At age 49, the excess prolificacy of his early career no longer seems to be a problem. I don’t know if releasing five stellar albums on a single day is the best marketing strategy, but he may already have performed the musical feat of the year in the first week of January, assuming anyone takes the time to listen. Music critics once heaped adoration upon Adams, but you likely won’t hear much of anything about his new music — Adams was brutally and publicly canceled in 2019 for his predatory and abusive behavior toward women.

Adams’ first taste of fame came when he was still a teenager in North Carolina, fronting the much-beloved alt-country band Whiskeytown. But it was his first solo record in 2000 that shot his career out of a cannon. Featuring a duet with the legendary Emmylou Harris and a couple of collaborations with David Rawlings, one of Nashville’s true geniuses, “Heartbreaker” is easily one of the best records of the last quarter of a century.

His second solo record was a bona fide commercial success. Released on Sept. 25, 2001, the double album “Gold” was anchored by a coincidental and infectious lead single, “New York, New York,” which became a post-9/11 anthem — the video was shot on Sept. 7, with a clear view of the World Trade Center behind Adams, strumming away. A number of other singles from “Gold” were inescapable for the next few years, and Adams’ career was firmly established.

He released 13 full-length records between 2000 and 2011, not counting side projects and his work producing others’ albums, and not every record he released was a solid effort. But despite the heavy output, flashes of songwriting genius were still a regular occurrence on every record. He was so respected that everyone from Bono to Tim McGraw covered his songs, and still more artists including Elton John, Willie Nelson, and Taylor Swift publicly gushed about his talent.

But that was then. If you’re not already familiar with the sordid Adams’ saga, there’s really no way to sugarcoat it. In a devastating New York Times report, seven women — including Adams’ ex-wife, the actress and singer Mandy Moore, as well as indie rock darling Phoebe Bridgers — accused Adams of preying on aspiring female musicians. After they spurned his advances, he allegedly harassed the women and made attempts to damage their careers. Making matters worse, the report came out at the apex of the #MeToo movement, and one of the women Adams reportedly pursued was underage. “If people knew they would say I was like R Kelley lol [sic],” he allegedly texted the girl. 

Adams initially denied the reports and said the details were distorted and exaggerated. Over a year later, he issued a long and frank statement apologizing for his sexual misconduct. By then it was obvious his career was well and truly wrecked. No one wanted to work with him, and Spotify play counts for his records following 2017’s “Prisoner” — his last major record before the Times story — have fallen off a cliff.

This is in no way a defense of Adams’ behavior, but one of the more confounding aspects of cancellation as a punishment is how seemingly capricious it is. Adams is being unpersoned for behavior toward women that was standard operating procedure for a couple of previous generations of rock stars. In fact, the acceptance of women gettting used and discarded as “muses” by rock stars is a well-worn cultural cliché. If “Almost Famous” were released 20 years later, former Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe’s beloved cinematic ode to the manic pixie groupies of ’70s rock and roll would have probably been reviled as an attempt to romanticize the sexual exploitation of young women. Instead, it won an Oscar for best screenplay.

In real life, however, the tales of rock stars and women can be pretty horrifying. At one point in the ’70s, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler convinced a woman to give him legal custody of her 16-year-old daughter so he wouldn’t get arrested when he took her with him out of state. Though Tyler has openly and regretfully talked about the episode for years now, just in the last year two lawsuits have been filed related to him sexually assaulting teenagers decades ago. However, unlike the Adams situation, the public seems largely ignorant, and nobody in the music industry much cares. Aerosmith’s lucrative farewell tour is expected to resume this year.

Perhaps the different treatment Tyler is receiving following the recent accusations against him can be explained by how comparatively far in the past his crimes occurred, but it’s worth noting there’s one obvious similarity between Tyler and Adams. Both have a history of terrible addiction problems, and while this does not excuse their behavior, it does help explain it. Tyler’s heroin issues were so bad that in the notes of their greatest hits record, the band actually thanked the guy who gave him an unusual electrical impulse treatment that helped him kick his habit.

Similarly, longtime fans of Adams were likely also aware of the drug abuse rumors that accompanied his often erratic behavior. In some cases, his drug issues were pretty openly written about. In the 2017 book Meet Me in the Bathroom, about the early-2000s New York rock scene, The Strokes called out Adams for being a bad influence on their guitar player Albert Hammond Jr. by giving him heroin when they were trying to keep him away from the drug. Adams denied doing this but also responded with a bunch of typo-ridden tweets insulting the band that seemed to validate the concerns about Adams’ behavior.

By the time Adams got around to acknowledging the truth of his abusive and predatory behavior toward women some years later, his raw apology note made it clear sobriety was an issue. “No amount of growth will ever take away the suffering I had caused. I will never be off the hook and I am fully accountable for my harmful behavior, and will be for my actions moving forward,” he wrote. “In my effort to be a better man, I have fought to get sober, but this time I’m doing it with professional help. … But I will not bore anyone with stories of my demons or use them to excuse what I’ve done. I really want to express that I’ve internalized the importance of self-care and self-work. I’m really trying.”  

Is Adams trying? Well, I won’t bore anyone with stories of what led to my own sister’s death or how one of my good friends is a well-known musician who had to conquer booze and pills after he lost his record deal, got divorced, and found himself raising a developmentally disabled son. But you should know I have a rooting interest in seeing addicts conquer their demons. And from afar, I want to believe Adams’ recovery looks promising.

He’s taken up running, which is something I know a lot of former addicts have done. He also has positive influences in his life — the legendary producer Don Was has been playing bass with him on tour, and suffice to say, a man of Was’ stature could be somewhere else if he weren’t also rooting for Adams. Another obvious signal he’s doing well is, of course, that the music he’s producing is suddenly quite good.

Without the music industry publicity machine behind him, Instagram seems to be Adams’ primary method of communicating with the public. There he occasionally talks about his sobriety, and what he says is encouraging. Here’s just part of a long note Adams posted this September celebrating two years of sobriety:

The guitar has started talking to me again. I dream songs like I used to when I was 25. It’s been a lot of leaps over scary crevasses. This past year has also just been fun. I feel joy. I see God in everything. I feel alive. Even when I am dizzy. Especially when I am unwell. That is a huge leap for me. To not panic when people abandon me. That God opens a door when one closes. That a path meant for you is sometimes one step away.

These are things most people know but I had to go the long way.

I’m incredibly proud to be able to cross this milestone and I do it transparently in hopes it could save a life. My music was always meant to be a map for myself, to make sense of the broken places and things in a life, to find beauty in that and maybe draw a map to a way through. If nothing else the songs are like a friend I needed in a hard moment and later I hoped sharing it could be that for someone else. Music saved my life. It still does. Every day.

If you care about music deeply, it’s hard not to recognize the well of emotional support Adams is drawing from. My hope for Adams is that he now has some idea of the reciprocal power of his gift and why there are so many people hoping he doesn’t squander it.

The first time I heard Adams in 1998, I was graduating from college, completely clueless about what to do with my life, and in a terrible emotional place. I lay down on the grass at a music festival in Seattle and listened to Whiskeytown, a band I had previously only read blurbs about in music magazines. All was right with the world for the next hour or so. Two years later, I would buy the woman who would become my wife a copy of “Heartbreaker,” and I can still remember afternoons driving around listening to it, clinging to the possibilities of what was ahead of us. Did Ryan Adams’ music save my life? I don’t know. It’s fair to say his music helped me make sense of it, and maybe there are times when that is the same thing as saving it.

But salvation for someone in Adams’ dire straits is a scary thing to confront, because death necessarily precedes resurrection. I hate to give the public cancellation of a celebrity any credit, especially when mob-driven, bad-faith accusations and political correctness ensnared so many people who didn’t deserve it, but the mercy killing of Adams’ previously high-flying career seems to be what finally got through to him about the serious nature of his problems. And Adams can and should take heart in the fact that even the people behind his cancellation still harbor affection for him.

In 2018, Adams’ ex-wife Mandy Moore got remarried to Taylor Goldsmith, of the band Dawes. Goldsmith is a formidable songwriter in his own right, and I’ll let you take a guess as to what lyrics to Dawes’ song “Crack the Case” are about:

I got a friend who’s been thinking ’bout
Finally kicking her husband out
His second life as a talent scout
Finally got him caught
While she was throwing out all his clothes
She heard a voice from beyond the throes
‘Punish him for the life he chose’
‘But forgive the past that he did not’

It’s really hard to hate anyone
When you know what they’ve lived through
And once they’ve given you a taste
She said ‘this is for you to overcome but I will always love you’
In her perfect state of grace
Maybe that will crack the case

To be clear, I genuinely don’t know if Adams deserves to be forgiven for the things he did. Contemplating him making jokes about R. Kelly while grooming teenagers goes a long way toward countering even my strong natural desire to see him succeed. But with deference to Goldsmith’s otherwise exquisite songwriting, none of us exist in a perfect state of grace. There’s no hope for any of us unless we acknowledge there is always a beacon to lead even the worst of us out of the darkness; I prefer the Gospel of John, but let’s just say that The Smiths (one of Adams’ favorite bands) were also on to something when they sang “there is a light and it never goes out.”

And until we get some clarity on what is happening in Ryan Adams’ heart, and for most of us that will never happen, it’s worth noting that asking if he should be forgiven is a different question than whether appreciating him as an artist can be distanced from his personal behavior. If some people still can’t hear his music without being reminded of his misdeeds, well, that’s understandable. Adams has to live with that.

Personally, I can’t deny Adams’ gifts, to the point where I just preordered one of his new records on vinyl. I generally abhor what’s known as “cancel culture,” and I wish I had answers for how we make collectively enforcing necessary consequences the first step down the road to redemption, rather than a permanent obstacle. It’s a difficult problem, but after listening to Ryan Adams on repeat for a week straight, I think it’s time we cracked the case.


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