In my hometown of Jasper, Alberta there was a record store called On the Edge Entertainment. It was of course, being in Jasper, overpriced, tiny and limited in terms of selection but the owner, Keith, a musician and music connoisseur himself, tended to stock rarities in addition to having an array of second-hand material which provided me with many of the obscure 90s dance compilations in my collection (I went through a mostly-retro dance music phase in my glamour-deprived youth) and most notably, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, which I was crazy about at the time.
I was browsing through On the Edge one day and came across a disc, depicting a head-down rogue-ish figure in a baseball tee standing in front of an upside-down American flag labelled “Ryan Adams — Gold”. As many do who have never before heard of Ryan Adams, I was Bryan Adams-confused; was it a typo? If so, the guy on the front didn’t look like Bryan Adams. In fact, I didn’t even think Bryan Adams had a record coming out. I ignored the disc but I was oddly puzzled for it. It crossed my mind actually, because it stood out to me for my own various 14-year old reasons.
When I was just completing the ninth grade, I got a CD from Columbia House (remember Columbia House?) called “MTV 2: Handpicked.” The disc featured ‘alternative’ tracks from then-virtually unknown artists such as David Gray, Remy Zero and Lo Fidelity All Stars. Among the tunes on the eclectic compilation was a track called “New York, New York” by Ryan Adams; you know… that guy, whose name sounded remarkably similar to Bryan Adams’, whose downturned head I had seen on a record cover at On the Edge Entertainment. I didn’t put two and two together, but it was by miles and miles, my favourite track on the CD. I listened to it all the time. For those who don’t know me, I have a fascination with false nostalgia; particularly that allows me to feel the way I “should” feel about a particular place based on famous imagery, landmarks, music and something intangible… an overall indescribable feeling. I had always wanted to go to New York City and “New York, New York” by Ryan Adams allowed me to feel like I was there; to experience the jazz, fast-paced rambling, manic streets and romantic winter times and waltzing avenues that such a huge, old, infamous metropolis would offer. In other words, the song represented everything I longed to be familiar with but wasn’t; in turn, I became familiarized with it in such a way that when I finally did go to New York City, I saw and felt only shades of that song.
I thought little of Ryan Adams for a long time; to me, he was the singer of a song called “New York, New York” that I dearly loved, and not much more than that.
My next encounter with Ryan Adams was on Fox’s The O.C. which prominently featured his cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” in a typically dramatic, melancholy scene with lots of close-ups and longing stares. I didn’t know who the cover was by, only that I loved it and it was upon downloading it that I realized it was by the same person who sang my beloved New York anthem. I was then prompted to explore the singer further and downloaded a few random songs including: Cry On Demand, Memories Of You, Call Me On Your Way Back Home, and Please Do Not Let Me Go.
“Love is Hell” is the first Ryan Adams album I bought. It was right before Christmas in my first year of University and I had taken the bus to Southgate Mall on a very cold night with the close friends I lived with in residence. I was in HMV and it was the only Ryan Adams record they had at the time. I bought it for about $22. On the bus, I placed it in my discman and gave my friend Erin one earphone while I took the other. Our winter boots were resting on the bus’ heater until our toes burned with that metallurgic electric feeling and the windows were coated in thick frost and fog that we could write words on. I heard Political Scientistfor the first time. I was in love with the surrealistic weirdness. From that moment and to this day, “Love is Hell” still remains my favourite record of all time.
My last week in Edmonton at the end of my first year of University was memorably sunny and hot; I was finished exams considerably earlier than my friends and spent my days enjoying the unseasonable warmth and sunshine, and drinking ‘frozen hot chocolates’ from Second Cup in the green, lilac-scented mornings while listening to Ryan Adams’ “Gold”, which I had recently purchased. The day I moved home was a dark day, fittingly laden with very wet snow and cold winds. My vacation week was over, and the music was what remained. As such, “Gold” became the soundtrack of my summer. From the select moments of sheer sunshine-y joy, to that night I went into the city on the Greyhound and rolled in at dusk when the moon glow shone on the fields and I could count a few stars outside the city limits while listening to Nobody Girl’s drawling, heavy guitar solo, “Gold” was there to sing me to sleep and remind me of how shimmering, happy, nostalgic and wonderful simple joys in life can be. When I was on my way back to the city for the start of my second year, I listened to these songs in the car. It’s still hard to forget how happy it made me.
My friend Erin and I had a tradition where we would go to HMV, select random CDs by artists we’d never heard of and listen to them at the listening lounge and then purchase the ones we liked. We did this when I came to visit her that summer. I was browsing the store when I heard on the loud speaker, Ryan Adams’ voice. It was days before the release date of Adams’ newest record, “Cold Roses”, and I was in HMV hearing it in advance. I stood directly beneath the speaker, staring blankly at the rack of t-shirts in front of me just so I could drink in the record – my first time hearing it before it even entered my collection –and fell in love. This was the moment I was confident in telling people, “this is my very favourite musical artist, Ryan Adams.”
That was also the summer that Ryan Adams and his original Cardinals lineup performed at the Edmonton Folk Festival, a show that was rumoured to be a stoned, drunken fiasco of rambling and shaky inconsistencies interspliced with moments of brilliance. I didn’t go. I was instead, stuck at the Jasper Information Centre selling postcards to foreign tourists, all the while listening ad-nausea to “Cold Roses”, “Gold”, and “Rock N Roll.” It was a very rainy, miserable summer in Jasper , made all the more depressing because I was trapped in my small town, my friends were dispersed and I had to work twelve-hour days in the same tiny little store just to make ends-meet for the coming school year. Hearing lines like “it’s all a bunch of shit/and there’s nothing to do around here” and “the streets that only turn to boulevards/and houses with backyards/and it’s raining like hell on the cars” (Wish You Were Here) were comforting and rang very true for me.
The happy memories of my first year, of me thinking of Lister Hall as my real, true home and being beyond excited to return to the life I had led carefree and joyous for eight months didn’t last; with second year brought the pain of unrequited love, isolation, loneliness, and the realization that my friends were in the process of moving on in a sense; they weren’t interested in ridiculous antics and randomness anymore and I spent time pacing around in a mostly-vacant room feeling like I was too old to do anything, while the rest of the skinny pretty girls and typical Lister Hall type guys – the ‘beautiful people’ on my floor – go out to country bars and wear belly-baring tops and drink to oblivion and play loud pop music in the hallway. There’s an unreleased song by Ryan Adams called Walls which unintentionally sums up my second year Lister experience in a way I can’t in my own words (“These are the walls/walls our emptiness made”).
One day in my second year, I was walking to the grocery store while the snow collected in stiff banks listening to “Love is Hell” and the record meant more to me than it ever did before. It was the only tragic-ness I could relate to and I lived vicariously through it over and over and over. Upon reflection, I was probably trying to unlock the secret and figure out exactly how someone could possibly write something like that record. It bleeds right from cut wrists like no record I’ve ever heard before or have since. It was the catalyst for me of so many of the overwrought tears I cried and overwrought words I wrote that year. Once a happy, go-lucky non-reflective person (which I felt I needed to be and was, in my first year of university), I suddenly found myself asking questions like, “what’s wrong with me?” and “why do I feel like this?” The answers were clear because the record helped them be clear.
On my first day of my creative writing class, I wore a Ryan Adams t-shirt and doing so seemed insignificant until I found out that one of my two best friends, also by chance a huge Ryan Adams fan, debated dropping the course until she saw me wearing that shirt. If not for the shirt, my present would be a very different place. Unimaginable. Unfathomable.
The first time I saw Ryan Adams live was also my first summer in Edmonton. It was hot. It was sunny every day, or so it exists this way in my memory. I worked at the Alberta Motor Association as a technical writer and in my grey cubicle, I listened to Ryan Adams on my discman every day. Every. Day. It was early morning an idle weekday when I heard my hero was doing a show in Vancouver. Of course, I bought a ticket.
I was never accustomed to doing anything alone; to this point, I had always been someone who tended and preferred to lean on the company I kept. Company was a confidence booster for me. But no company could come with me to this show in Vancouver unfortunately. So instead, I made the decision to go at it alone, because I had tunnel vision.
The show was originally scheduled for July 28 and then all of the City of Vancouver workers went on strike, prompting the show to move one day forward at a new venue. My sixth row seat was replaced with a general admission ticket, and my travel package that I had booked was messed up, particularly because I needed to be in Edmonton for the remainder of the weekend and could not stay in Vancouver both the Saturday and Sunday night. Instead, I forfeited my original package and re-booked, costing me an extra close to $1000.00. Seriously.
Arriving in Vancouver was terrifying at the time; I just couldn’t get myself together. I was nervous, tired, excited and lost. I took a cab downtown from my Richmond hotel as I was too scared to try and find my way by bus. I spent some of my afternoon wandering around Richmond’s shopping malls and quiet suburban streets and smelling salty brine and hearing seagulls flock through the air; I spent some of my evening eating at McDonalds and pacing back and forth down Granville Street. I stood in line at around 4 or 5 p.m. I was at the front of the line, and there was no place I would have rather been that night.
I met a few interesting people including a woman and her partner who had also come from Edmonton by car for the show, and a couple of teens from Seattle who somehow managed to have the money and time to follow Ryan Adams to all of his western US and Canadian shows; they had been to Portland a few days prior and were gearing up for the Red Rocks show. I also met Geoff and Krystal from Victoria who I struck up a friendship with while in line.
The concert was of course, amazing. It was the peak of my obsession of this musical artist and there he was, in front of me, playing a FANTASTIC show for a good two and a half hours. Afterwards, I sat out back behind the venue on the curb with these people I had just met in front of the tour bus. It was one of those rare moments in life where you feel you have succeeded in doing something ‘great’, but it’s really only because you happened to be in the right place at the right time. I know for a lot of Ryan Adams fans, who are a bit like deadheads, something like this is a bi-monthly occurrence at least – but for me, it was a totally unique, and a contributing factor to an already unbelievable night and in fact, an unbelieveable weekend as a whole. I was star-struck in my own tiny galaxy.
The second time I saw Ryan Adams was in Edmonton. He and his band, the Cardinals, were opening for Oasis on their last-ever-pre-breakup tour and there happened to be a stop in Edmonton, miraculously enough. I went with my BFF and for that hour they were on-stage I was writhing as though I were in some kind of evangelical church service. While my night in Vancouver was brilliant, there was something a little more exciting and amplified about this time around; it was in my home city so everything felt humble and familiar, and also I was with my friends; the joy I felt was shared. Also, 2008 was a tumultuous and unpleasant year for me. I was suffering from heartbreak and my other best friend had moved across the country, and to this day I cite this concert as the only REALLY good day of that entire year.
While some of my Ryan Adams memories are huge, a lot of them are seemingly quite small. For example, the time I sang Two at RATT karaoke. The day that I took a photo of myself imitating a guitar-baring pose from Ryan Adams’ Gap photo shoot. That time on Facebook where my relationship status was set as “in relationship with Ryan Adams”. The time that I first got Cardinology and had my BFF over to my apartment for a “listening party”. Making it my summer goal to learn every last word to “Cold Roses” and succeeding because I played it on a constant loop in the Friends of Jasper basement during restocking. Lying down on an outdoor bench in mid-March, snow blanketing the valley, listening to She Wants to Play Hearts on repeat during thus far, the saddest and most disheartening moment of my life.
Ryan Adams is performing at Benaroya Hall in Seattle and it is an absolutely necessary show for me to attend. Because his music has been the background music, the audio commentary, the words I use when I can’t think of my own, of all my little memories and huge memories and happy times and difficult times, and the reason I sit down and I write every single day. That is why I’m flying there and bringing my crazed, emotionally invested, good music-loving soul with me across the border.