Robbie Fulks is a musician—country, but also strongly attracted to jazz, bluegrass, gospel, experimental musics—living near Chicago. His latest solo record, Upland Stories, was a multiple Grammy nominee, and his most recent release, Wild! Wild! Wild!, is a collaboration with Linda Gail Lewis. His website is here.
I’ll start self-indulgently (I’m liable to continue in that mode, too), by giving vent, in a spirit entirely contrary to that of the decedent, Adam Schlesinger, and his legacy of cool-headed formalism. What the fucking fuck? In the particular bubble I inhabit, which encloses working entertainers, people aspiring to be working entertainers, and people who used to be barely-working entertainers but wised/gave up, all the fraternal texting and DM-ing has for the last three weeks revolved around some variant of What the fucking fuck?
In the same way we fragile bohos know the word “epidemiology” but no one who practices it, we are familiar with plagues only as historical and faraway events. Stories, that is. For story analysis our training has equipped us decently well. And we know how to do some other things: string a banjo, make people laugh in a bar, recognize antiquated words provided they aren’t science-based, feign easy familiarity with the works of David Lean, Nora Zeale Hurston, et al. A pandemic, however, is beyond us. We react to it as though it violates, rather than re-affirms, known natural laws. We’re ordered to stay inside and wear a mask — What — and people are falling ill and dying — the — including people we know—fucking fuck?!
Six days ago, I learned that a guitarist friend from my college days had died of coronavirus. Later that same day I learned that Joe Diffie, for whose company I worked in the 1990s, succumbed to the disease. Last Monday, a reporter working on a John Prine obituary called me to get a couple quotes. A few days later and I’m memorializing Adam Schlesinger, and this evening John Prine dies. Four people in my circle, out of 9,444 Americans dead as of this writing, seems unlikely to me, but perhaps musicians are an unhealthier group on average than other workers. Most of the ones I know are, like myself, more than averagely vulnerable, being men, middle-aged or older, city-dwellers, and current or former cigarette smokers.
Well, theorizing has its pleasures. Grinding out thoughtful quotes on suddenly dead middle-aged musicians, on the other hand, is a task I never asked for and would rather bow out of, after finishing this piece. Like you, I’m anxious and stressed about what’s happening. Maybe like some of you, I’m also a little ashamed of myself for letting my anxieties get the better of me. I know that much of what I love about daily life in modern America will almost certainly resume at some point, and I know that my wife and children and I are in a better position than many to weather the virus and the economic damage. Yet all this comforting knowledge is as flimsy as a paper mask against an unexpected death notice like Adam’s. Accompanied by sorrow, the anxiety returns, redoubled.
It’s not lost on me that an over-privileged man anxiously navigating a landscape of illusion is just the kind of character in which Adam specialized. And the mix of ironic pointedness and empathy I tried for above is the very perspective he managed so beautifully and often. In my song, “Fountains of Wayne Hotline,” I hoped that my appreciation and use of his toolkit would be evident to listeners amid a welter of snarky details and jokes.
Over forty-some years of writing songs I must say it rarely if ever occurred to me that this sort of commingling of superficially unlike values — fun-poking and admiration, anger and heartbreak, energetic rhythm and a sad story — was in any way odd. As with gin and vermouth, you want both, though more of one than the other; and too much of either will disgust or actually kill you. Adam’s songs brought together harshness, humor, cool observation, hot frustration, and soft sorrow. Maybe these multivalences aren’t all that ordinary in popular music. Jody Rosen’s fine appreciation of Adam in The New Yorker troubles to note that “Schlesinger’s cleverness is on display in all this music, but the songs [are] always full of feeling.” “But”? Everyone, as Pee-wee Herman said, has a big but. Ben Sisario’s, in the New York Times, lands between “jagged guitars and sneering vocals” and “witty and sharp-eyed lyrics.” What’s the alleged opposition here? It’s like a kind of reverse Chauncey Gardner effect: The person with the hyper-articulate observations and trenchant tones is presumed incapable of subtle feeling.
After my “Fountains of Wayne Hotline” song went up on iTunes back in 2005, I got an invitation to come to a Fountains of Wayne performance at Schubas Tavern in Chicago, and to stay afterward to meet the guys. It was fun that it happened — I felt their approval certified the song — but, in the event, unmemorable. We mumbled some stuff at one another then disbanded. I got the impression that Adam was laconic, wry, and smart. Surprise, surprise. Anyway, I have no inside intel to offer. Everything below is generated in private by Fountains of Wayne music hitting my head. To disclose my limits, I like Tinted Windows pretty well, enjoyed Adam’s soundtracks for Whit Stillman and Tom Hanks, and have never seen Crazy Ex-Girlfriend… so I don’t have much business writing this. Only that I love and adore FOW.
One more admission of ignorance: I don’t know which songs or lines were Adam’s and which were Chris Collingwood’s. Neither does almost anyone. All their recorded songs list both as authors. But it’s a 50/50 chance that any specific praise will land properly on Adam, right? And considering what we do know about his work outside FOW — the stately melodies of Ivy; the Tony Awards tune, “It’s Not Just For Gays Anymore,” in which every couplet is as hilarious and perfect as “Attention, every breeder/You’re invited to the theater!” — we have enough idea of his particular strengths not to feel ourselves shooting in the dark. So maybe a 70/30 chance.
Here are some very probable attributes of Adam’s that caught my ear as I relistened to Fountains of Wayne this weekend.
1996 was something of a Nirvana world for us whites, and into it FOW smuggled bright swatches of sophistication. Besides the terrific chords and melodies on Fountains of Wayne, the group’s first record, and the snarling exuberance that suggested they were a little younger than they actually were, there are several moments of musical needling that make me unaccountably happy. The feedback that drifts irksomely sharp at the end of the non-solo/solo section in “Radiation Vibe” (around 2:45). The ear-grabbing flat third in the solo in “She’s Got A Problem” (around 2:27). The 12 seconds of looped feedback that close “Joe Rey.” As Monk put it: ugly beauty. It functions well in so many FOW songs. I like thinking that someone at Atlantic may have been annoyed by the gratuitous ugly sounds, and called a meeting, because if so, the band won. There’s no rational argument you can really come back with — the sounds just sound good.
HE LET THE SLACKERS HAVE IT
Joe Rey, of “Joe Rey,” smokes, watches TV, gets stoned, and emits a mystique that solidifies his status with urban hipsters. The downward-spiraling protagonist of “Bright Future In Sales” is an alcoholic. The friend of the lady at the center of “She’s Got A Problem” frets that “she’s gonna do something dumb” (that’s the hook, and it nicely lets the air out); like a 1950s pipe-puffing dad, he’s “worried about her health.” Alongside the chipper young things lining up for middle-class lives of Glengarry Glen Ross desperation in FOW’s stories are a host of blithely unreflective loafers. I’m glad these people fall under the 100-watt Schlesingerian scrutiny — the hippie “trying to deep-fry all [his] boredom,” the out-of-it cipher in “Lost In Space,” and the possibly likeable lunkhead at the center of “Peace And Love” whose grand dream is to “move up to Vermont/open up a bookstore or a vegan restaurant.” (I can’t be sure of the author’s take on the character in this one.) The band earned a reputation for skewering suburbanites, but its punches down the social scale are bolder; and for reasons I won’t get into, I dig it when stoners and drum-circle types are roughed up a bit.
HE WAS A CHAMPION RHYMER
I’m trying to think of a better rhymer than Adam in all of modern pop music, and am coming up empty. A few, I believe, are as good. None of them, by the way, is named Paul McCartney. “Joan was quizzical/Studied pataphysical…” I think not! Let’s go with a definition of “pop music” as a field whose rhyme (and meaning-conveyed-via-rhyme) standards are more formally stringent than country or blues, less stringent than musical theater, and altogether in an apples-oranges relation to hip-hop, where verbal dazzlement is both an entry-level requirement and, at this evolutionary stage, wildly off-the-charts.
Adam’s rhyming is ceaseless and clever. But it’s also loose and judicious, careful not to slow the story speed with loud arresting signposts of rhyme. He avoids getting intrusive, and is open to near-rhymes and other relaxations. His rhymes tamp down meanings that are implicit in his stories, rather than add gratuitous or weird words that club you over the head or trail off into “quizzical” meaninglessness.
Elegant and innovative internal rhymes: “I saw you talkin’ to Christopher Walken.” “Try to kill an hour with a whiskey sour.” “Some quick reading for the big meeting.” “I’ve got a flair/for [alternately] getting in your hair/making you care / holding your stare.”
Rhymes that aren’t in themselves novel, but the phrases in which they’re contained impart a happy flavor of novelty. Imagine you’re writing a song about a small-town loser, and you’ve got the line, “I’m gonna get a little shopping done.” You look at the list of rhyming words, and some immediately stand out as candidates for plugging into the next line without too much contrivance: sun, run, none, one, fun. There’s so much choice there, you don’t even need to think about “gun.” How would “gun” even work, without making a clunky noise in the line? This is how: “I’ll get some paper and a staple gun.” My hat is humbly off.
New rhymes. It seems impossible to believe after over a century of popular songwriting — after Irving Berlin’s 1,500-song catalog alone — that there are unused rhyming pairs still on the table, and maybe there aren’t. But when you’re writing a song, sometimes you get an ecstatic feeling that you could, just possibly, be putting a virgin pair into the marketplace. Exact-rhyme examples of this from FOW: fag/mag, stars/Lars. Near-rhyme examples: authority/party, Darien/planetarium. If you’re interested in how a good writer made these unlikely combinations fly (or got away with “fag”), search out the songs.
The following flies hard in the face of the prohibition on identities (using identical syllables to make a rhyme), but its rule-breaking pugnacity and the accompanying storytelling redeem it: “She lived alone in a small apartment/across the street from the health department/She left her pills in the glove compartment/That was the afternoon her heart went.” In “Fine Day For A Parade,” the neat identity couplet “Clears up her head with bourbon/‘cause beer is so suburban” is worth bending the rules for, too.
“The Girl I Can’t Forget” is a jaw-dropping exemplar of concise story-in-song. Look at the first verse in full:
Well, she picked me up in a German car
And she took me out to an Irish bar
Where I drank some beer in a plastic cup
‘Til I had some trouble standing up
And then she drove downtown to a strobe-lit space
Where all the guys wore chains and the thumping bass
Was so intense I could barely feel my face
Then I think I asked her back to my place
These are all exact. The one pair that’s creative on its face is space/bass, partly because of the spelling variation. The first two lines (car/bar) end in parallel not only because of the terminal rhyming words but also because of German/Irish. “Up” makes a challenging line-ender. “Cup” often feels only slightly less contrived than the two other choices, sup and pup (but see the great Leon Payne composition “Psycho” for a nice solution to the “up” rhyming challenge). In this case it’s the added “plastic” that cements the detail and justifies the pairing. My place/my face would not work well except that in the sung phrasing the second line spills over the bar and displaces the stress.
With all that said, reread the stanza. It leans forward at even keel all the way through, from the picking up in line one to the hooking up in line eight. Notice how all the detail is subsumed into a gently humming storyline, and how it describes phenomena you are familiar with but have never seen in a song lyric — thumping bass, strobe-lit space, beer in a plastic cup. And being so drunk you can barely feel your face. This is as close to Sondheim as pop songsmithery gets, or is allowed to get, or probably should get.
HE WAS CLEAR
In country, a genre I know much better than rock, you can identify Chet Atkins, Roy Nichols, or Don Rich by their personal playing styles on a record made 50 years ago. These days that level of individuation is not widely valued anymore, and so identifying players on hit country records isn’t easy, or even possible much of the time. The Beatles, who of course were a sort of big bang for the cosmic neighborhood where FOW live, also exemplify the old guard’s personality-rich music. Think of the lead-in to “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” with its noisy rhythm guitar and accidentally added time in the bar preceding the vocal entry; think of Paul McCartney playing bass like a superstar in “Come Together,” full of feeling and recklessness; think simply of Ringo Starr. Those players sound like no one else on earth (one of the reasons, paradoxically, that they’re not hard to mimic).
A lot of older musicians in my crowd are prone to complain about the waning of that individuality in the years since. “Cookie cutter crap!” Buck Owens once groused to me about the country hits of the mid-1990s. The loss of some of the human touch is indeed concerning. But there’s a less judgmental and geriatric way to describe what’s happened between then and now, because we haven’t exactly sacrificed individuality to get nothing in return. Instead, there has been a steady trade-off of personality for clarity — and clarity is an extremely high value in music.
Think of Adam’s bass playing, Jody’s guitar style, or Brian’s drumming. They’re not very easy to consider as separable elements — unlike the Beatles, it would be challenging to impersonate those men as individual players. On other records, in other groups, they might play differently and be hard to recognize. On FOW records, they’re actually working in tandem so as not to make a big impression as stylists. They’re curtailing themselves, limiting their spontaneous reflexes, and making a calculatedly unified group sound, which in turn clears more room for you to focus on what does express strong personality in their music: Chris’s singing, and the songs.
These records fascinate me in part because they move me while declining to offer one of the main things that generally move me in music. The instrumental performances are actually sort of colorless, and the way the songs and parts and sounds are put together makes me think of a science project that was planned with tender care and paid extravagant dividends. I’m also fascinated by the change in drummers between the first record, which has Adam drumming, and those following, which have Brian Young. The difference between a songwriter/guitarist who also plays drums and a skilled drummer should be quite large. Surprisingly, it’s not. Evidently the concise parts-playing approach, and the feel indicated by the blueprints of the songs and the first record’s example, efface biological diversity to some degree.
In our time clarity has risen to become a primary value in music because technological advancement has put it more within reach. The 1960s began with multitrack recording as an esoteric oddity and ended with four-track tape as a standard (and computers and home studios were of course decades away). At the time the Beatles emerged, in 1963, the idea of a self-contained rock group, writing and playing all its own stuff, was new and radical. Why a corporation should trust four teenage friends to operate jointly as an economic engine and guarantor of omni-creative quality is a good question; but then the word “corporation” is more apt now than then. The ensuing, 50-year-long tussle between the paradigm of highly motivated young people creating unique sounds and the spread of machines enabling smooth homogeneity has evidently resulted in a win for the machines, but there’s been a lot of push-pull, and the story continues. In my view, FOW’s records represent a nice creative compromise, paying respect to machine and marketplace, but insisting on anti-mechanical values like unkemptness and historical flavor as well.
A final note on the rise of clarity: Between the Beatles and FOW stands Cheap Trick. The quartet from Rockford stood apart by standing for two principles. One: feel free to ally pretty, hummable melodies with tough musical settings. Two: make it concise, no frills, clear out all possible ground, this isn’t jazz. FOW picked up these two torches.
HE GAVE AMMO TO NERDS
If adolescence is anything like it was in my day [laughter], there is a good-sized subpopulation of well-hated wretches to whom pop records are a consolation, and almost the only one. Surely there are ex-kids out there that gained as much sustenance from FOW as this shy non-athlete did in the 1970s from music by guys (it’s always guys) like Randy Newman and Elvis Costello.
I don’t think I’m imagining a certain revenge-of-the-nerds mentality in FOW or that it needs much pressing, but who exactly among us is most relishing the tales of the Neanderthal boyfriend with “crumbs in his beard from the seafood special” (“Leave The Biker”) or zombies driving around New Jersey in search of half-off sales (“The Valley of Malls”)? Anti-social men without girlfriends is who. The types of people targeted in these songs are perfectly deserving of criticism, but flip the camera for a moment and let’s see who’s doing the targeting. Oh! It’s a guy, alone and unloved, self-conscious and self-pitying, comfortable thinking himself better and smarter than others, a word-lover. A dire condition, but the good news is that, trust me, age cures it, all but the word-love; and meanwhile someone is making music for you so that you can feel the pleasure of a secret community.
The band’s first and third records, Fountains of Wayne and Welcome Interstate Managers, which are incidentally my favorites, contain the most cutting lyrics. Wikipedia research reveals that the songs for the first were written in a week, in a barroom, and that the third album followed the band’s being dropped by Atlantic. Possibly a little genuine rage fired the kiln?
Whether or not your intent is satirical or your motive to cut, attaching class behaviors and brand-name preferences to third-person characters tends to reduce them even as it illuminates them; it effectively drains them of some free will. So the pathetic fellow in “Red Dragon Tattoo” is high on a bottle of Basil Hayden — isn’t that just like him not to spring for Four Roses, or stoop to Maker’s? The stupid biker would have stooped. He’d also have some iceberg lettuce and jello mold in small plastic bowls alongside his plate of seafood, but that would be redundant information, like specifying that the guy reading Playboy on the couch in “Radiation Vibe” is “just a dumb ape.” A little more interesting to learn that the pilot who lost his license in “Mexican Wine” is a High Times reader.
Likewise, when a band name pops up in another band’s songs, there’s a good chance it’s not a compliment. Both Korn and .38 Special appear in “Red Dragon Tattoo,” and you don’t think more highly of the narrator as a result. Again I’m happily reminded of my sad-sack teenage days, listening to Nick Lowe eviscerate the Bay City Rollers, Randy Newman attack ELO, and Warren Zevon do something or other to Lynyrd Skynrd. I actually like those three bands. But I also like attacks — they’re good clean fun.
HE WAS A CRAFTSMAN AND AN ARTIST IN EQUAL MEASURE
Van Gogh remarked in a letter to his brother, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange,” and it’s such a strong thought. Trying for some particular mood in a piece of writing, smart writers consider letting in a tangential or even opposite mood. A touch of humor in a melancholy song, or heartfelt sincerity in a silly song, not only adds interest and brings the creation more into line with life as we know it, it can amplify the primary emotion. A melancholy song with a few funny details can become yet more melancholy.
I’m thinking about “Hackensack,” another master-lesson song from FOW. Such an affecting portrait. A character sits in New Jersey hoping that an old crush, who left years earlier and became a famous actress, will return to town and fall into his arms. It’s not a situation we can identify with, on its face, and the character’s deluded mindset might invite a supercilious response. Yet it compels fellow-feeling.
How does the song achieve its effect? The narrator speaks from the heart, for one thing. Some of what he says is dumb and deluded, but that’s how we’d all sound if we spoke from our hearts. The specificity of his account — Hackensack, Christopher Walken, period one Fridays at 8:15 — is counterbalanced by the humble simplicity of the words he uses to describe his thoughts: “I will wait for you,” “I used to know you,” “I work for my dad… the hours are pretty bad.” Monosyllables are more trustworthy, and more affecting, than grandiloquence. The song also succeeds because the writer allowed in enough tonal ambiguity — yellows and oranges — so that listeners can surrender to a true-seeming story.
Adam, I think, was a shrewd and uncommonly skilled wizard. He pulled off the Truth Effect time and again, stirring together metaphysics and minutiae, creamy sentiment and starchy specifics. You can call his social portraiture “craftsmanship” — polished work by a tradesman whose very virtuosity and consistency causes that skeptical “but” to float into a biographical assessment — but please keep in mind The Wizard of Oz. When the wizard, after being exposed as a humbug, hands out the diploma, testimonial, and medal to the scarecrow, tin woodsman, and lion, the ceremony causes the three recipients to swell deeply with the virtues they felt they had lacked — even as the wizard acknowledges that the tokens are powerless. Professor Marvel, the wizard’s Kansas surrogate, appears initially as a fraud in a wagon with a cheap crystal ball. Then he does something kind and perceptive for Dorothy, sending her home and inadvertently saving her life, and we can see that he is both a no-name wagon-dwelling fraud and a man with a small wizardly power. His power is spotting the trouble in someone else’s heart, and benignly tricking her into an action which will make her corner of the world happier for a little while.
Takeaways: technical facility, good deeds, and even charlatanry may combine in a single person — multivalence is part of our reality. “Carnival showman” isn’t opposed to “moralist,” nor craftsman to artist. And the fact that magic isn’t actually magic but a learned set of skills is a non-surprise that shouldn’t concern us very much. A good magician, a skilled artist, is a person to honor. Not only do their performances bring color and beauty into our flickering black-and-white lives, they motivate us to believe — via evidence offered to our eyes! — that we’re capable of changing the scene around us with our mere thoughts, plans, and intentions. Anyone who amuses and motivates us in this way is altering us as characters — no longer grubby animals crawling toward certain death, but lucky fools dreaming interlinked dreams in a land of enchantment — and deserves the non-trivial tokens of our respect and gratitude.
One of FOW’s best songs is “Prom Theme.” It ruminates on our entrapment in the present tense, and reiterates Mrs. Soames’s insight in Our Town: Isn’t life awful, and wonderful? These are the lyrics in full:
Here we are at last
The moment soon will pass
We’ll go our separate ways
We’ll vanish in the haze
We’ll never be the same
We’ll forget each other’s names
We’ll grow old and lose our hair
It’s all downhill from there
But tonight we’ll reach for the stars
We’ll rent expensive cars
And dream our dreams
Of a perfect night, and we’ll sing our prom theme
Here we are at last
We’re running out of gas
The air is getting thick
The girls are feeling sick
We’ll pass out on the beach
Our keys just out of reach
And soon we’ll say goodbye
Then we’ll work until we die
But tonight we feel like stars
We’ll play our air guitars
Cause we’re eighteen
It’s a perfect night to sing our prom theme.