This one comes to us from John Alexander.

Ryan Adams has a layered reputation.

First of all, he’s prolific. Since his 2000 debut Heartbreaker he has released 15 full-length albums in addition to a pile of EPs and a mountain of orphaned singles.

Secondly, his work is notably diverse. Adams’ first few releases pinned him as an alt-country artist, but he soon crossed into straightforward rock with 2003’s Rock N Roll, then spent a double album channeling The Grateful Dead with 2005’s Cold Roses before turning to pure country (no alt-) with Jacksonville City Nights. He has criss-crossed that circuit ever since, with a brief foray into something called “sci-fi metal”.

Along the way he solidified a third layer of his reputation: he is known to be one of the most antagonistic live performers of his generation.

Just before his new album Prisoner dropped, Adams wrote a piece for The New York Times in which he addressed this layer of his reputation and whether it is justified. In it, he gives his version of an infamous episode involving a heckler at a 2002 concert in Nashville. As the story goes, some guy kept screaming requests for “Summer of 69” and other songs by 80s icon Bryan Adams. Adams wasn’t amused. Stepping into the audience, he identified the heckler, took $40 from his own wallet to reimburse the ticket price, and told him to leave. The Associated Press quickly circulated the story and Adams’ reputation took off from there.

In his Times piece Adams corroborates the general outline of the story but explains just how disruptive the drunken concertgoer became and how few options were available. He admits that his was still the wrong response, and goes on to explain how he has since learned to laugh at himself a little more. It’s a moving piece, and anyone who has ever performed or even spoken publicly can relate to the nakedness he describes in the moments preceding the confrontation. In fact, a charitable reader might even get the impression that Ryan Adams’ bad reputation is based on a one-sided retelling of this one impossible situation.

That charitable reader would be wrong. The truth is, Adams didn’t just have an immature response to a few hecklers over the years. He actually harassed entire audiences. I should know. He did it to me.

Well, me and about 2,000 other fans. The date in question was in May 2005, when Adams was at the height of his creative production and on his first tour with The Cardinals, the backing band with whom he would record several albums over the next five years. The show was at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory, which features a balcony bar that runs up against stage right. Apparently the guy at the barstool nearest the stage was trying to get a date with the girl next to him, and was loud enough to get Adams’ attention instead. 

“Hey man. You! You in the bowling shirt,” Adams shouted toward the bar after a song. “This is a concert. Please shut up.” Mr. Bowling Shirt did not take the hint. After the next song: “Hey! You’re not gonna get her number! Shut it!” And on and on it went.

The whole the audience was drawn into the fray later in the evening, after a third false start to the ballad “Strawberry Wine.” Adams kept getting about a minute in before stopping to ask the sound engineer about a hum in the PA system that no one else could hear. Inevitably came the cries, “Play the song!” Adams protested that he was only trying to improve the sound quality for us and that we were ungrateful, at which point the growing cries turned to a small chant: “Play. The. Song…Play. The. Song.” To this, Adams simply turned his head, lifted his left hand and offered us the old familiar suggestion. We were then only a dozen songs into the evening but it was clear that things were not going to end well. Adams played a few more rushed selections, and after striking the final note of “Magnolia Mountain” he picked up his half-empty wine bottle and poured it out onto the stage. As with the bottle, Ryan Adams was done with us.

I have no doubt that the heckler was the most impossible person in the room during that 2002 Nashville concert. But there is well-documented testimony that at many other Ryan Adams concerts the most impossible person in the room has been Ryan Adams. On this point his description of the Nashville incident and its impact on his reputation feels misleading.

Ironically, the Times piece is also the only reason that I returned to a Ryan Adams concert after a long personal protest.

Adams closes the piece by recounting his recent return to perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville — the same room where he solidified his bad reputation all those years ago. For the penultimate song Adams finally granted the heckler’s request, crooning in his trademark falsetto:

I got my first real six-string

Bought it at the five-and-dime… 

The original melody fell off in a few places, which is Adams’ usual way with cover songs, but he gave them “Summer of 69” in full. It was more than a poignant cover. It was the fruit of wisdom that comes from years of either picking fights or finishing them and finding that the scars aren’t worth it. That is, unless they come from battles fought in other arenas. For example: by the time Adams returned to the Ryman he was a few years past a well-publicized battle with alcohol abuse, and was currently in the midst of a drawn out divorce. Many have since noticed the marks of these battles on his music and live persona.

Of the original heckling incident Adams writes, “that was the beginning of who I am today,” and I believe him. It took him over ten years, but Adams finally managed to use both the location and the very means of his humiliation to offer a blessing. In a way, Adams became a mockingbird. He mimicked what was given and offered it back in new and contextual richness—a richness that would not have been there without the original offense. This isn’t exactly repentance, but it demonstrates the shade of humility that makes repentance possible.

In his classic work Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom describes humility with a different metaphor, but one that resonates with Adams’ mimicry:

The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word ‘humus’ which means fertile ground… Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed…learn to be like this before God; abandoned, surrendered, ready to receive anything from people and anything from God.[1]

When I think of humility in the life of Christ, I remember how he took the towel and washed the dust and animal feces from the feet of men who would soon desert or betray him. And of course I think of the humility of the cross itself, on which the beloved royal Son chose a slave’s death in order to turn a multitude of slaves into sons. But Bloom speaks of another type of humility that is directed Godward. Humility, Bloom writes, is taking whatever falls on you. This is the humility of John 18:11, where Christ refused to resist his arrest by violence, choosing instead to accept what was given: “Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’” 

At the moment of his greatest suffering and humiliation, Christ submitted to God instead of raging against Him or others, and this is the humility that secures our only hope in life and death. Now, Ryan Adams does not appear to be a man of confessional faith,[2] but he has tapped into this one precious entailment of the Christian gospel: there is freedom, and often hidden blessing, in accepting what is permitted to fall to you.

When I joined the crowd in Upper Darby, PA to see Ryan Adams two weeks ago, it was his reputation that drew me. But it wasn’t his reputation for prolific, genre-crossing, you’ll-never- guess-what-I’ll-do-next originality. It was the reputation of a beaten down man who took what once fell upon him — the insufferable nakedness of a formative moment early in his career — accepted it, and let it produce something beautiful.

[1] Bloom, Anthony. Beginning to Pray. p. 35.

[2] However, spiritual themes regularly find their way into his work. Most notably for this post, his song “Mockingbird” is a cry for union with the divine through natural revelation. Adams mainly has the revelation of human love in mind, but he weaves the biblical creation account and the spiritual searching of his childhood into the journey.