When you go out of the blackness
Into the great big sky
Shooting inside your mind
Adam Schlesinger/Chris Collingwood, “Supercollider
Adam Schlesinger has died from complications stemming from Covid-19. He was fifty-two. As of this writing there have been 51,809 cases in New York City, including 1,562 deaths. This number rises by the hour. He is just one of those and the 5,316 people who have perished in the past three months from this pandemic. But this one hits close to home, because Adam was a friend. Long before that I admired him for his music, his humor, his insights into the human spirit. He was unique talent, a throwback Brill Building songwriter’s songwriter, who could capture the spirit of a moment, an era, and even the workaday, hum-drum of life in and around his home state of New Jersey. He was a Montclair kid by way of Manhattan who made good, whose band, Fountains of Wayne, one of the finest pop/rock outfits of the new century, was named for a now long-gone relic of a bygone age for New Jersey.
Where do you start to encapsulate an artist who was everywhere and nowhere? Outside of the industry the name Adam Schlesinger is not as well-known as his canon would suggest. He won three Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, and an ASCAP Pop Music Award, and was nominated for Academy, Tony, and Golden Globe Awards. He penned dozens of themes and songs for television series, movies and worked on Broadway musicals. He wrote and performed with Fountains of Wayne on a Top 25 hit and co-wrote one of the most famous movie songs ever. Of course, that’s what Wikipedia will tell you. What it won’t tell you is what one of my favorite music essayists Tom Breihan wrote about him for Stereogum this week; “Maybe Schlesinger wasn’t doing the mystical personal work that we expect songwriters to do when he was writing all of those things. But the man was working. He was cranking out material at a high level every single day. Those of us paid to do the same at our own professions — those of us who, let’s say, are paid to blog relentlessly five days a week — should regard Adam Schlesinger as a hero, and as a monumental loss.”
Adam Schlesinger loved song. He loved songwriters. He loved talking about songwriting and songwriters. The last time I saw him we talked about Warren Zevon for an hour. It was just before my book on Zevon was released in June of 2018. Adam understood Warren like few did. I told him that night I should have gotten his take for the book it was so spot-on. I was considering picking his brain for an upcoming project I am starting. He understood how hard Zevon worked at his craft and how unique he was as a composer, both musically and lyrically, and how his take on the “everyman” that he and his partner in the by then defunct Fountains of Wayne, Chris Collingwood was derived from artists like Warren, another celebrated industry figure, who had his hand in the scope of songwriting, from jingles to films to pop hits and personal expressions of longing and introspection.
I have spent over two decades interviewing artists for this historical rock weekly, but I always fondly recall my chat with Adam in the spring of 2007. It was just before the release of Fountains of Wayne’s fourth record, Traffic and Weather, another in a series of incredibly infectious and brilliantly crafted pop/rock albums brimming with melody, adorned with supple harmonies and played with innate precision. The band’s pristine effort was 2002’s Welcome Interstate Managers, quite simply a pop/rock masterwork. Every track is a gem, including the band’s biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom”, a cheeky tale of a suburban teenaged crush on the neighborhood cougar.
Adam couched his method of taking the everyday secretary, salesman, drunken frat boy, abused girlfriend and heartbroken schlep and making them epic tragicomedy figures for song. He told me, “I’ll focus on a phrase that you take for granted or that you don’t really think too much about and see if I can do something literal with it or stretch it out or do something unexpected with it.” Although he accused himself of being sloppy when it came to his immediate memory for such small incidents in the lives of the people around him, he filled in those spaces with mystical charm that lifted something as mundane as being stuck in traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge into an existential treatise.
Tom Hanks saw this in Adam Schlesinger in 1996, when he tapped his and fellow elastic musical storyteller, Mike Viola’s “That Thing You Do” as the song that reflected the title of his film ode to 1960s one-hit wonders. Barely in the business, the first eponymously-titled Fountains of Wayne album had just been released, Adam used his preternatural ability to tap into a moment, a genre, and an era to perfectly capture the crudity of teenagers from Erie, Pennsylvania, who distilled their rock and roll dreams in a two-and-a-half minute ditty. The song, much to Adam’s chagrin, but to Hanks’s delight, is played on a repeated loop in the movie – much like a pop hit might be in the mid-sixties; “The first time I saw the movie I almost wanted to apologize to everyone in the theater,” he recalled to me.
Tom Hanks, who had also contracted the virus a month earlier with his wife, Rita Wilson, tweeted this upon hearing of Adam’s passing: “There would be no Playtone without Adam Schlesinger, without his ‘That Thing You Do’! He was a One-der. Terribly sad today.”
Adam used that playwright mentality as musical director for the groundbreaking television series, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, a tuneful dramedy conceived and starring the multi-talented Rachel Bloom that ran from 2015 until last year. A quasi-post-modern musical that dealt with a staggering array of emotional and cultural issues, Adam, along with his team and Bloom, paid homage to every possible musical style and period. Composing for a myriad of character voices, in several and varied settings, moods and genres at that rate with such pinpoint alacrity is stunning. This genius is reflected in what he told me more than once, so much so, that I had to write it down: “You can take a lyric that seems really silly and tossed-off but put it against a melancholy ballad, then suddenly it becomes so much more dark or poignant. Or you could go the other way and just put it against something that’s fast and bouncy and it changes the meaning of it.”
Rachel Bloom tweeted the day he died: “I have so much to say about Adam Schlesinger that I am at a complete loss for words. He is irreplaceable.”
There was never a time that Adam Schlesinger came across as a big shot, but he was, a seminal American songwriting staple, but he was, or a major contributor to the universal songbook of our lives, but he sure as hell was. He was humble, intelligent, with a sense of humor you could carry with you after just ten minutes of his time. He inspired me. I was fortunate to know him, call him friend, but most of all enjoyed and cherished his art, which was immense and filled with a joy for life.
Rachel is right. His kind doesn’t come around often and to lose it has left me staggered. Like all the people he shoehorned so deftly into song after song after song, he is irreplaceable.