Before Ryan Adams recorded every half-baked song idea he ever had, before he scored the model-actress girlfriends, before A.A., he was a mean, drunken son of a bitch.
He was also a hell of a lot more interesting.
March 4 will herald the release of a two-disc deluxe version of his former band Whiskeytown's sophomore album, Strangers Almanac. It will include the original album plus live songs, B-sides, covers and demos. Whiskeytown's performance at Trees on January 23, 1998, was a perfect example of just how powerful the band sounded during that era. It also showed what a self-destructive and vicious asshole Adams was.
His band had played Dallas before, and I hadn't been interested—until I read an interview where Adams talked about smoking pot and wanting the band to sound like Sonic Youth with a fiddle and lap-steel guitar. I bought Strangers Almanac, and it rarely left my stereo for months.
But that night at Trees, it was obvious from the band's sloppy, loud take on "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" that Adams was shit-faced. The crowd was an uneasy mix of indie-rock kids, SMU Greeks and middle-aged country fans. My wife and I loved the energetic, Stones-like takes, but the other angry, confused faces in the audience suggested that our enthusiasm wasn't shared.
Between songs, Adams needled frat guys with remarks about renting friends. Then he put on a pair of black-framed glasses, forced a buck-toothed smile and picked up his acoustic guitar. "Look, we're the Old 97's," he said. "What a nerd!"
"Fuck you, David!" screamed a young woman standing next to me on the balcony, referring to Adams' dropped first name. "Fuck you!"
She stormed downstairs and returned a moment later with a cup full of pennies. During the next song, she hurled them by the handful at Adams. Others pelted him with ice. Whiskeytown played on. After a solo acoustic number, Adams smashed his guitar and threw the pieces into the crowd.
Soon the penny-chucker found more change and, after taking a penny to the face, Adams scanned the balcony for the source of the unwanted tips. I was grinning madly, loving the delicious tension. Adams pointed accusingly my way. I shook my head and pointed a thumb toward his antagonist. Unfortunately, he misinterpreted the gesture.
"Yeah, that's right," he shouted. "We'll go outside, motherfucker! I'll kick your ass!" Then he hurled a bottle at me.
The glass shattered against the railing. Two more bottles popped overhead as I covered my wife's head with my arms, laughing.
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The assault soon ended, and the band started up an excruciating, feedback-laden cover of Sonic Youth's "Expressway To Yr Skull." The cover gave way to improvised nonsense as people in the unprepared crowd left in droves.
After the show, I stopped drummer Skillet Gilmore to ask what happened. He apologized, explaining that Adams hadn't been right since he had to replace his usual acoustic guitar. Drinking a fifth of Wild Turkey before the show hadn't helped.
"Well, I thought it was awesome!" I gushed.
And it was awesome. It was everything rock 'n' roll was supposed to be.