My brother called me last evening with dreadful news he figured I needed to hear, and better from him than from Facebook or Twitter. He must have picked up the phone reluctantly, dispirited himself, and knowing how I was going to take it, but there was nothing for it; I had to know. Adam Schlesinger was dead. Covid-19 took him down. That’s terrible in the same way that all the premature deaths that’ve been piling up lately are terrible, but this one is a particular loss to me, and feels personal, like the death of a good friend. He was somebody I’d long admired – a gifted songwriter, I’d argue one of the very best of the past three or four decades, whose work has always been, for me and a legion of discerning listeners, a reliable source of deep aesthetic satisfaction. Perhaps you’ve heard of him, though his was never a household name, as it would have been if fame was always commensurate to merit.
It can’t be right that the possession of special talent made his life any more valuable than others, or his demise any more tragic than the rest of the thousands upon thousands to which we’ve already grown far too inured, not in any absolute moral sense, but maybe I can be forgiven if that’s how it feels to me. Schlesinger was dear to my heart because he was one of those rare people whose work had the capacity to improve my quality of life. His music did the trick, time and again.
His songs, always clever, disciplined, full of wordplay, and instantly memorable, would perhaps have been better received in the 1960s, when Top 40 radio put a premium on such things. One can easily imagine him toiling away in the Brill Building, cranking out hits for the girl groups. In interviews he often cited The Kinks and Ray Davies as an important influence, but to me, perhaps predictably on account of my own preferences, he always sounded more like the young Paul McCartney. Like McCartney, he played bass, and like McCartney, he had an intuitive appreciation of the classic elements of songcraft, what writer Adam Gopnik once referred to as Paul’s “grasp of the materials of music”, empowering him to repeatedly produce little gems that often exhibited a certain formal perfection. Again like McCartney, he was a natural collaborator, but perfectly competent when working on his own, writing for the movies and TV. He had three Emmys to his credit, two for songs he wrote for telecasts of the Tony Awards, and one for a number he composed for the CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, called Antidepressants Are So Not A Big Deal – none of which I’ve heard, or even knew about before today – and he should have won an Oscar for That Thing You Do, the snappy, eminently listenable, marvellously Beatle-esque title song to the charming 1996 movie written and directed by Tom Hanks.
It’s worth dwelling for a few moments upon this special little masterwork, which exemplified so many of Schlesinger’s particular gifts. Few could have risen to the daunting challenge this period film posed for the songwriter: he was tasked to compose a tune so pleasing that the viewer would be happy to hear it again and again, as the story followed its budding pop star protagonists (the “Wonders”) from garage band obscurity to fleeting fame as the latest ephemeral top-of-the-pops hitmakers. Moreover, it had to sound like an authentic artifact of the early 1960s. Adam pulled it off with an ebullient gem that didn’t so much copy the early Fab Four as channel them, right down to the trademark closing notes lifted from I Saw Her Standing There. It really does sound as if it could have been a hit in the British Invasion era, and would have slotted in perfectly in an AM radio playlist, right between I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Fun, Fun, Fun. Throughout the film, the boys play it repeatedly, at home, in bars, in clubs. They’re still performing it at the movie’s climax, as the main attraction in a big Hollywood variety show (which looks a lot like Ed Sullivan circa February, 1964), and it’s still exhilarating, even though by now you’ve listened to it six or seven times. If you’ve never heard it, really, you have to. Here:
Isn’t it magical, the way he captured the essence of that moment in pop music history?
His best work, though, was not as a solo artist but as part of a woefully under-appreciated power pop combo named, idiosyncratically, after a New Jersey lawn and garden accessories emporium: Fountains of Wayne, whose songs have popped up a number of times in this blog’s Songs of the Day series. Composing in a team with bandmate (and lead singer) Chris Collingwood, with whom he always shared equal songwriting credit, he and his partner repeatedly caught lighting in a bottle, with Radiation Vibe, No Better Place, All Kinds of Time, Hat and Feet, Kid Gloves, I’ll Do the Driving, Hey Julie, and numerous others, including my particular favourite, Troubled Times, a wistful, sadly hopeful tale of a guy who split up with his girlfriend and now desperately wants her back, even though he knows he doesn’t deserve a second chance, not after how he treated her. If you like, you can read what I had to say about a few of these tracks here:
Fountains of Wayne were critical darlings, but never as popular as they should have been (this seems to be a theme with the artists featured in Songs of the Day). In the way of such things, they had their biggest hit with one of their least inspired songs, Stacy’s Mom, which was for them almost a throwaway, written to sound a lot like the Cars à la Just What I Needed, I suspect in order to have a a big seller that would get the record label off their backs.
Much better (and thus not a big hit) was another of my favourites, Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart, a deceptively subtle and complex rocker that drives pretty hard without sacrificing any of the melodicism characteristic of their most satisfying songs:
This one was bound to have shown up as a Song of the Day at some point. I’ve always loved the chorus (which has a tricky time signature difficult to get right when you’re trying to sing it in the shower), the change of pace that occurs in the unexpectedly sombre middle eight, and the thoughtful lyrics so typical of their authors, as was often overlooked:
And the traffic goes round and round
swallowing the road and spitting out clouds
and the spirit she hides
on a damp path of moss and stone
from a fear we are born with and never outgrow
As I said in a prior post, not exactly moon/June/spoon.
Like everybody else in popular music, Schlesinger wrote a lot about romance and its entanglements, but there was always something unusually poignant about his “relationship” songs. You won’t find many about the unmitigated joy of first love, or the rush of infatuation. They were far more likely to be about going separate ways, doubts, regrets, unrequited feelings, anything but standard boy-meets-girl and happily ever after. The focus was always upon regular people, and always with sympathy and uncommon humanity, with a keen attention to the mundane little details that fill ordinary people’s lives – the boredom of watching the cruddy stores and diners that line the interstate roll by, the misery of toiling away in a dead-end office job under unkind supervision, the agony of waiting in line at the DMV to get your licence renewed, the dismal feeling of being alone and lonely at a party, or longing for that girl who doesn’t know you exist. They were often terribly sad yet wry and even genuinely funny at the same time.
They also veered off in unexpected directions. In the beautiful All Kinds of Time we get inside the head of a high school quarterback destined for greatness, everything moving in slow motion around his swift, observant mind as he assesses the evolving play, and finds the open man right where he’s supposed to be, as if illuminated in a shaft of light. With this going on he has time to daydream about the warm comforts of the home and family he’ll no doubt soon be leaving, college football scholarship in pocket; he can see them there in his imagination, clustered around the big screen TV in the rec. room, and he’s utterly calm and at peace. This is an eerily precise depiction of what athletes and fighter pilots call “situational awareness”, the cool, dispassionate ability to rise above the moment and plot the trajectories of dozens of moving objects in the mind’s eye, seeing not just where they all are, but where they’re all going to be. Wayne Gretzky has talked about it, as have Joe Montana and Chuck Yeager. I remember wondering, when I first heard it, how a guy in some alt-rock guitar outfit could possibly understand something like that so thoroughly, and how it occurred to him to turn it into a song.
So often, it was like watching Orr skate, or Koufax pitch: how does he do that?
I was heartbroken when Fountains of Wayne broke up. Their split shattered a rare and precious Lennon/McCartney sort of alchemy, though at least, like John and Paul, Schlesinger and Collingwood parted ways when they were still at the top of their game. I suppose I was wishing, in the back of mind, that one day they’d get back together.
Now there are songs we’ll never hear, lovely, melodic, well-crafted little pop masterpieces that Adam surely would have gifted us, but for this damnable virus – truly sublime popular music that should have been, but now won’t exist when I need it to shine its light into the gloom of all of those grey, rainy days to come. This is a very great pity. It’s miserable when an artist dies too soon, and Adam wasn’t finished.
A good career retrospective can be found at this link, to a Rolling Stone site at which the writers favour a whole heap of songs not mentioned above: