This Business with Ryan Adams

(sigh) Well, here we go again.

Look, I’ve been a fan of Ryan Adams music for going on close to 25 years now. My affinity for the music goes back to Whiskeytown. I had one interaction with the man in 1996 or 97 at Tramps in NYC when Whiskeytown was first touring nationally. Based on my experience, I thought he was an asshole. And that coupled with what I have heard and read about him over the years, I can say with complete certainty that while I’m a fan of the music, I’ve never been a fan of the man.

From the beginning, Adams was considered an “enfante terrible” and numerous journalists wrote about the magnitude of his ego. For evidence, you just need to listen to the message Adams left for critic Jim DeRogatis. Um, I guess it was not a favorable review.
He’s always had a horrible reputation.

While it’s apparently never been to hard to get the ire of Courtney Love, in 2003 Ryan Adams allegedly turned it into an art form.
He’s always been an asshole.

BUT, being horrible and an asshole doesn’t give you carte blanche and it in no way excuses the behavior that these women have accused Adams of. Sure, he’s a jerk but I had never heard or read about his mistreatment of women. Which is not to say it wasn’t present, perhaps it was. But that behavior was never part of the Ryan Adams rumor mill.

For any law broken, he should be held legally accountable. Period. Asshole or not, no one should be “sexting” with a minor. Certainly not a 40-something year old man.

In the other situations discussed in the NYTimes article, his behavior is inexcusable. Period.
Illegal? Probably not.
Reprehensible? Definitely.

Am I surprised to learn that Ryan Adams is a manipulative jerk who lorded his status over women? No. I’ve read a few rock biographies and in none of them are rock stars portrayed as pillars of society.
Am I disappointed? Yea. It sucks when an artist whose talent you respected turns out to be a bigger dick than imagined.
Do I think he should be prosecuted? Absolutely, if possible.

But with all that said, do I think he’s a talented songwriter? Yes. I would argue he is one of the most talented songwriters of my generation.
Am I going to stop listening to him? Probably not. But I haven’t really liked his recent work, so it would take a lot to get me to listen more closely.
Will I stop listening to his music entirely? No. Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac remains, to me, one of the few flawless albums in rock.

And while his behavior is detestable, I’m left thinking three things. One, how do we (or can we) separate the art from the man? If we were to burn all the art of men behaving, or who behaved poorly, what exactly would be left? Two, for those crimes or offenses that can’t be prosecuted, how do we determine what the appropriate punishment is? Lastly, exactly who parses out that punishment?

What we’ve seen time and time again is the media saying this person did a bad thing . . . and then that’s it. They do what they do, they report it. And where there is no legal recourse to be taken, the media is the defacto judge, jury and executioner. While I doubt that is their intention, it’s what’s happening.

Maybe it’s time to take a breath and think about how we as a culture want to handle these things because they certainly don’t show any sign of stopping. Maybe open a dialog between both genders to try to figure out a path towards some kind of contrition and retribution, when no legal action can take place. There just has to be a better and more constructive path besides demolishing careers and tarring and feathering the perpetrators.

And rest assured, I can think of more than one person (Woody Allen and Brett Ratner immediately come to mind) who should simply go gentle, or not so gentle, into that good night. But I don’t feel there is value in universally applying that sentiment.

Art throughout history is littered with artists who behaved like cretins but end up being held in high regard. Picasso was a notorious womanizer who treated them . . . horribly. He viewed them as “. . . machines for suffering.” At the height of the bands popularity, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, Jimmy Page, dated a 14 year old. As far as Led Zeppelin goes, Jesus, that’s the tip of the iceberg. These guys were horrible to women! Today, both Picasso and Zeppelin are considered masters of their craft. Led Zeppelin even received a Kennedy Center Award.

I don’t mean to imply that men like Adams shouldn’t pay for what they have done. They should. But isn’t there a larger lesson to be learned from this? I’ll probably be crucified for saying this, but I do feel that artists like Ryan Adams and Louie C.K. (and others, but not all) have cultural value.

Make no mistake, where possible, these men should be held accountable, legally or otherwise. I just wish we could move the intellectual needle a little to where instead of vilifying and banishing these accused artists we could turn it into a real teachable moment. For everyone. That’s how you change things.

Ryan Adams doesn’t deserve, or get, a pass here. He needs to retreat and give serious thought about how he wants to navigate his career. For how long should he retreat? As long as it takes.

Equally important is what we do the next time this comes up. Because it will.

Further Listening & Reading