When I started working in the music industry, I thought I would stake my claim as ~musically cultured~ and ~impressively beyond my years~ by doing what I do in any new situation: introduce myself as Bruce Springsteen’s biggest fan. It was my fun fact during my company-wide introduction, just as it had been in every first day of school icebreaker session from 6th grade through undergrad. I could gush about him excitedly, hearts in my eyes, for hours and to anyone, all while forgetting my stage fright and social anxiety. It had always worked great– until now. The more I interacted with my new coworkers, the more I realized how my hyperfocus on Springsteen and 70s rock had effectively cut me off from more recent stuff.
I started to jot names and titles in my Moleskin under the heading “To Do, To See, To Hear.” The list was populated by the artists, industry blogs, and upcoming shows that I saw on my neighbor’s laptop screen, played over the company speakers, or was straight up told to check out- immediately. One of these bullet points was Ryan Adams.
Apparently, it was a very big deal that I had never heard of him.
It turned out that I had. I distinctly remember where I was (my junior year dorm) when his version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album was released. I also remember not thinking much of it, my response somewhere along the lines of “Who is this grungy nerd who dares to take on the master craftsmanship of a Taylor Swift album??” I’m proud to say I have come a long way in the past 2 years.
I sat down at my laptop and opened Spotify to Adams’s newest album, Prisoner, and chose “Tightrope.” Each time the song lifted into the chorus, I heard Bruce. I scanned through the other song titles in his Spotify catalogue and saw too many Springsteenian references– “My Wrecking Ball,” (Wrecking Ball) “Outbound Train,” (Downbound Train) “Shakedown on 9th Street” (Incident on 57th Street), and even his Gold album art was a clear nod to the iconic Born in the U.S.A. cover that I recreated as this year’s Halloween costume.
I was sold.
I bought tickets to his next show at the Beacon Theatre for May 2nd, weeks early in a snow-encrusted Brooklyn when May was still a distant concept. I was raring to go. I was enthused. It was like getting a whole ‘nother Springsteen to discover– which is going too far, but still. I voraciously researched and consumed all things Ryan Adams, reading about the album origins and creep-clicking through Google images of him with ex-wife Mandy Moore. Prisoner has all the trappings of a good breakup album, but everything I read insisted that both parties had moved on and were happily dating other people. Their divorce was over and both had moved on. But I couldn’t.
But when May 2nd came around, I hesitated. In fact, I tried to sell my ticket to my boss– a ticket whose section and price I didn’t recall until I checked the night before and saw OMG WAS I HIGH? $86?! I wanted my money back, because that was just downright reckless spending for a recent grad, and because I realized the Beacon Theatre was on the upper west side.
I had been avoiding the west side of Manhattan for weeks because when my one real relationship ended, my ex landed there. Hadn’t I felt bad for turning my back on my beloved Standard Hotel beer garden and its hotbed of preppy hotties? Of course! But a run-in wouldn’t be worth it. And when you spend much of your time working to forget a person, you don’t go to where the little ‘W’ on the street signs will make that task an impossible feat.
My boss was busy that night and Stubhub offered me no miracles. For $86 I was going, west side or not. This would’ve been a convenient time for a best buddy inspirational montage scene, but I had bravely (stupidly) bought a solo ticket. There would be no one to lean on when I got anxious, or when my toes throbbed from those goddamn stupid heels I wore to a standing show. I mean, yes, there were seats in the grand, opulent Beacon, but I respect myself enough not to sit at a rock show. Also, I thought a seated crowd would break Adams’s heart.
In fact, as soon as the lights went low and I was freed from worrying about how many people were pitying the girl sitting alone, all I could think about was Mandy Moore. I repeatedly wondered if Adams was doing the same.
Did he choose that broken-hearted setlist to send subliminal messages to that someone he hoped was in the crowd? Each time he peered out from his overgrown, unruly bangs, was he hoping to discern her shape– the shape he once thought was safely, permanently his to grow old beside? I’ve watched my parents divorce each other, and then subsequently each divorce the monsters they remarried, but it wasn’t until then that I understood the betrayal of such a separation.
From my vantage point, I could see a woman too polished and done-up to be part of the roadies crew. When I grew tired of swaying to the beat of songs I didn’t know, I fixated on her and imagined she was Adams’s new girlfriend. In my musings, he insisted she come on tour with him. No secrets! He loved her, he said! But each night, she heard the lyrics and the pain and passion they floated out on. I say floated because Adams has an edgeless, buttery voice when he decides to– one which is at odds with his rough denim and leather appearance. And she knew, unquestionably, where his mind was.
The encore was a fan favorite, “Come Pick Me Up.” It hadn’t come up when I was anxiously shuffling through as much of his discography as possible on the subway ride to the theatre, so I didn’t perk up like everyone else when he took to his harmonica with gusto. I didn’t have the advance warning so that I could quell the punch of emotion that threatened my cool-girl-goes-to-shows-alone demeanor that I hoped I was emitting.
“I wish you would/I wish you would/ Come pick me up/Take me out/Fuck me up/ Steal my records/ Screw all my friends/ They’re all full of shit/ With a smile on your face/ And then do it again/ I wish you would”
It took one chorus and the small glittering lights made to look like a night sky behind him swam. I drew in a deep breath to steady myself, and felt myself shrinking. By the next verse, I was humbled completely. A giant (giant phony) felled by the simple beauty of “When you’re walking downtown/ Do you wish I was there/ Do you wish it was me/ With the windows clear/ And the mannequins eyes / Do they all look like mine?” It was exactly what I felt, but hadn’t expressed or allowed myself to express.
I’m not great at emotion, which I’ll be the first to admit… followed by anyone who has met me and especially anyone who has needed me to be. I can’t cry even when I should, even when I’m alone with no one to judge my distorted, blotchy face. As insecure as I was earlier about being alone at a concert I hadn’t earned the right to be sitting in the orchestra for, I was completely uninhibited about the tears brought on so strongly by this song.
Maybe Ryan Adams is happy with his new life. Maybe he doesn’t think about Mandy Moore at all these days. Maybe he had his assistant send her an email to congratulate her on the success of This is Us because he couldn’t pull himself out of his new lover’s bed long enough to write it himself, or better yet, call.
I’m a sane enough person to realize I may just be projecting my own inability to move on onto some guy I’ve never met and assumedly never will. He very well might’ve been on stage to earn next year’s mortgage payments with a setlist he knows will please his fans. But the romantic in me wonders if concerts are not just a place for the audience to sing out their hidden desires and allow themselves to really feel, but one for the artist, too.