May you one day carry me home

29. Oh My Sweet Carolina – Ryan Adams

There was an incongruity to it, the contrast between the man shuffling on stage, unkempt hair, scruffy, and the surroundings. He almost looked lost, a tiny figure sat with his guitar, a piano to one side, accompanied by a cellist, dwarfed by the Royal Festival Hall with its capacity to house an orchestra; a vast open space purpose designed (not entirely successfully) to accommodate sound and music.

With scarcely a word or barely so much as a glance at us, the audience, he began to play, picking out the opening notes to “Oh My Sweet Carolina”. The expectant chatter that had broken into appreciative applause as he’d made his way on to the stage died instantly. There was a collective holding of breath as he began:

Well I went down to Houston and I stopped in San Antone
I passed up the station for the bus

Was trying to find me something but I wasn’t sure just what
Man I ended up with pockets full of dust

The words exhaled softly, quietly into the microphone, fingers methodically working the neck of his guitar. He seemed lost in it, oblivious to us, absorbed in some personal meditation on homesickness and another of those tales of a lost soul looking for a way back that country music does so well. We were lost in it too, the audience given over in a kind of reverie, astonishingly still and silent and rapt.

So I went on to Cleveland and I ended up insane
Bought a borrowed suit and learned to dance

I was spending money like the way it likes to rain
Man I ended up with pockets full of ‘caine

Just voice and guitar was holding us, the entire room transfixed. I’d seen him do this before, first time I saw him play was at the Lyric in Hammersmith, a pokey old theatre with maybe a hundred of us there. He’d been a little difficult that night, almost affectedly pulling open note books, propping them up on his music stand, puffing on endless cigarettes, ignoring the crowd despite the intimacy of the venue for the first half of the set. It was either someone extremely insecure, stumbling through stage fright, or someone desperate to project their cast iron credentials as an artist. Perhaps it was both. The set was largely made up of the songs from “Heartbreaker” which is such a bruisingly honest and raw record that I guess it might not be easy to lay yourself that bare on stage, particularly on such a small stage with nowhere to hide. Whatever it was something magical happened that night when he played “Come Pick Me Up” and he and us in the audience softly seemed to find some catharsis in its bitter lament to betrayal. It was the first- but not last – time that I thought he was absolutely the real deal.

Oh my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go ?

Oh my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home

I’d seen the other Ryan Adams too, the rock n roll version. In those early stages post Whiskeytown, solo, it was as if he wanted to be Gram Parsons and The Rolling Stones at the same time; a one person embodiment of the Exile sessions both in terms of music and lifestyle. Just before “Gold” broke in the UK I saw him at Shepherd’s Bush Empire backed by a full band – a full band purpose built to replicate that early 70s Stones sound, or even a country leaning E Street Band. It wasn’t quite Dylan going electric but there was definitely a mixed reaction in the crowd – in particular the saxophonist divided opinion, filling in the harmonica parts from both “Heartbreaker” and “Gold” with horn. I loved it but then he was riffing on two reference points – in Springsteen and the Stones – that I adore so it was easy for me to hear it all as a straight extension of his country (or Americana if you insist) roots into R&B and rock and roll. For others it was apparently some kind of betrayal or sell out – the purity lost in chasing some notion of being a star. To me it just looked like he was going where his muse took him and having a ton of fun. By the close he had everyone pretty much back on side, closing with what became his famous cover of Wonderwall, which eventually even the song’s writer, Noel Gallagher, acknowledged was improved in Adams‘ reading of it. Again, I left, convinced of his genuine greatness.

I ain’t never been to Vegas but I gambled all my life
Building news print votes I raced in sewer mains
I was trying to find me something but I wasn’t sure just what
Funny how they say that some things never change

“Gold” and “Heartbreaker” were huge records for me in the early 00s as was, latterly, the two parts of “Love Is Hell” (another painfully beautiful record, so raw it’s practically an open wound). In particular “Gold”‘s lead track “New York New York” will always place me driving home, picking my way into West London from Hertfordshire, skirting Heathrow, on September 11th, 2001, anxiously and acutely aware of the eerily empty skies above me. It was chance, of course, that Adams had recorded an open love letter to the city that had become his adopted home, chance that repeated as the video for the track was recorded four days before 911: the entire film features Adams playing the song with the Manhattan skyline as his backdrop, the Twin Towers dominating every frame. It became a song of defiance and will always be lodged in my memory in association with that day alongside Springsteen’s “My City Of Ruins”.

Oh my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go
Oh my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home

Back in the Festival Hall I am experiencing something akin to a religious awakening. I don’t think I’ve taken a breath since the song began, haven’t moved a muscle, as if changing anything – the slightest disruption – could shatter this fragile, delicate piece of music. It sounds like a direct expression of the deepest, saddest longing I’ve ever heard and he’s creating it right in front of me.

For me Adams never quite touched those early heights (or possibly depths) again but, in a way, I’m glad. His early work speaks of such overwhelming pain and unhappiness that I suspect the alternative path his life might have taken – alternative to continuing as a respected singer songwriter, settling down, cleaning up – would have been for his life to end. If there was a likely candidate to join “that stupid club” along with Kurt and Jeff and Jimi and Janis and Jim then he was it. I’m glad he didn’t and I still greatly enjoy his music. Perhaps it’s not quite as personal to me now as it was but he still has the capacity to floor me – witness the more recent performance of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with Laura Marling filling in admirably for Emmylou Harris that you can find here. It is a fabulous thing indeed.

Up here in the city it feels like things are closing in
The sunset’s just my light bulb burning out
I miss Kentucky and I miss my family
All the sweetest winds they blow across the South

Memory is imperfect. Funnily enough one of the themes in writing this particular series of posts is that I believe that specific songs are strong anchors of a certain time and place, strong signifiers of what I was experiencing and feeling at the time. It’s possible to hear a recording of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” from that night in November 2002 at the Royal Festival Hall – you can stream it here if you’re so inclined or you can read closer-to-the-moment reviews of the gig here and here. It’s interesting how many details were wrong in my memory. In my first draft of this post he didn’t acknowledge the audience at all before playing – he actually directly spoke to us. I’d forgotten the cello completely. The song does play out to silence but it’s not quite as instant as the version in my mind (it’s still pretty impressive for a London audience who, often times as not, seem to love their own conversation as much as what is happening on stage).

The spirit of it is right though. The intensity of a moment in which he conjured something breathtakingly, heart achingly beautiful; a tender yearning for the safety of home. All delivered by the unassuming, slightly dishevelled man playing, stripped back and exposed, in that grand and imposing space.

Oh my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go
Oh my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home
May you one day carry me home








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