It’s My Birthday, I Can Write What I Want To

Looking at the title you might be thinking, “Isn’t that what Evan does every month?” You are correct, but I typically write about things most people are interested in. Today, in honor of the 29th anniversary of my birth, I will be writing about my most cherished of obsessions, the music of Ryan Adams. Specifically his album 29, and the song “Carolina Rain.”

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Adams’ 29 is the final installment in a trilogy of records he released in 2005, and it is by far the weirdest record of the three, and maybe even of his entire career. Adams has claimed the album is a loose concept album about his twenties, with each song about a single year. That’s like saying Batman comics are about a guy whose parents were killed; there’s much more going on, and it’s a bit of an undersell.

The album opens with the blues burner “29” and ends with the fragile and biblical “Voices.” In between the record ranges between lush piano numbers (“Nightbirds”), Spaghetti Western flourishes (“The Sadness”), and the murder balladry of “Carolina Rain,” one of my absolute favorites of all of Adams’ songs.

On one of my live recordings of this song, Adams introduces it by saying, “This next song is about a ghost, and several people that… die.” The characters include a waitress, a dead landlord, Caroline, her husband Alderman Haint, Caroline’s sister Percy, Percy’s husband the narrator, and a recently deputized sheriff.

The song relates the story of a drifter who arrives in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, falls in love with Caroline, and then marries Caroline’s sister “if only to be closer to you, Caroline.” Along the way we learn Rose is a prostitute who reveals the truth of Caroline and the narrator’s relationship to Alderman. Alderman is subsequently murdered and thrown into the quarry, where his misplaced rosary alerts the sheriff that something is amiss. Oh, but before that, both of Percy and the narrator’s daughters die. Then the narrator is killed outside the banquet hall as the song ends.

To say that I’ve become obsessed with this song since first hearing it is a bit of an understatement. In college, I attempted to adapt “Carolina Rain” into a short story. My writing workshop responded with, “This doesn’t make any goddamn sense.” To which I said, “I know! Isn’t it great?”

It’s unclear who exactly killed Alderman Haint, and sometimes I’m convinced he’s the landlord offed by Rose at the song’s beginning. Other times I think the narrator killed Alderman, and the nameless landlord was murdered only to set the stage for the bloodshed to come. But that would mean the narrator was killed for a murder he didn’t commit, which seems to defy the song’s fated logic. I’ll never be sure either way, which is what draws me back to “Carolina Rain” again and again.

Somehow, Adams manages to reinvigorate a traditional folk song form with all sorts of postmodern weirdness, and the result is utterly lovely despite its abundance of death. Death is one of 29‘s major preoccupations, which isn’t surprising since it was written by a man on the cusp of his thirties. The album’s cover is a painting by Adams, seemingly showing Death leading a group of people to a house to do God knows what. I like to imagine Death’s three followers as Alderman Haint, the song’s narrator, and maybe the landlord or Rose, all of them following Death hoping to learn who exactly killed whom. Whatever they find in that house, I bet it doesn’t make any goddamn sense.

The Mixed-Up Files of Mr. Evan W. Stoner – October Sux

Out of the numerous shitty months we’ve had thus far in 2017, October is well on its way to being the shittiest of the year. What happened in Las Vegas is horrifying, but this isn’t the place nor am I the person to tackle the issue. (Ta-Nehisi Coates? You there?) I’m far more qualified to talk about October’s other major bummer: the passing of Tom Petty.

For most people my age, Tom Petty was a legacy rock act you didn’t need to seek out because his music was so ubiquitous, sort of like seeing Coors Light stashed in the cooler at your neighbor’s backyard barbecue—it’s always around and you enjoy it on occasion. The Beatles have a similar status, but while the Fab Four tend to foster wild devotion, Petty instead had legions of people who maybe didn’t love all of his records but loved at least one of his songs.

I first recognized the excellence of Tom Petty’s songwriting when I was seventeen or so. My sister was in involved in her college’s equestrian team, and a prospective student had sent Allison a video of her horseback riding chops set to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” For some reason I watched this shameless self-promotion over Allison’s shoulder, probably to see if the rider in question was attractive. The video had been edited so Petty sang the line, “Loves horses, and her boyfriend too,” right as the rider and horse landed a jump in slow motion.

I said something like, “That’s a bit of an obvious song choice.”

To which Allison said, “But she loves horses before her boyfriend. That’s important.”

That moment has stuck with me every time I’ve sat down to write anything. The details matter, especially in what order they arrive, and few songwriters understood that as well as Tom Petty. In that one line he said far more about this “she” than maybe the whole rest of the song put together. It’s those details that give listeners and readers a world to inhabit, characters they’ll never meet but who feel intimately known. Tom Petty could’ve only written “Free Fallin’” and I still think he’d be one of the greatest songwriters America ever produced. The lines “All the vampires walking through the valley / Move west down Ventura Boulevard” offer the kind of immortality no heart attack will ever take away.

Part of Tom Petty’s charm for me was that he was so goddamn good without being particularly attractive. His voice was just whiny enough to remind you of Bob Dylan, but his songcraft was so impeccable he was equally loved by critics and the little kid sitting in the back of the minivan.

My favorite Tom Petty song is probably “Learning To Fly.” Like most of his work, at first blush it sounds so familiar you’re half convinced it’s a cover of something much older. More than any musician I can think of, Tom Petty’s songs sounded classic from the first listen. Plus, the instrumental break at 2:54 always makes me feel like I can fly, or at least levitate, which is more than I could ever ask for from a piece of music.

Hang in there, folks. Maybe the rest of October will be totally dope.

Until next month,
Evan