Adam Schlesinger: Those Things He Did

by | Apr 2, 2020

This isn’t about football, but it’s something that I need to get off my chest. One of the songwriters who has shaped me as an adult died last night, taken way too soon. Thank you for everything, Adam, and sleep tight.

Pop music loves a grand, sweeping gesture. There’s no object too big to compare your love to, no turn of phrase too grandiose to be worked around a chord progression. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. The world can be observed as sharply through a microscope as it can through a telescope. Fountains of Wayne were never really going to be a stadium band. For all their big hooks, they were ever so slightly too awkward, too idiosyncratic, perhaps too much like us to ever ascend to the higher planes of pop.

It wasn’t for a want of trying on the part of their record company and promoters, though, at least briefly. When Stacey’s Mom broke through, more than a decade and a half ago, the song was treated to a Big Video, complete with Rachel Hunter pole-dancing. When the follow-up single, Mexican Wine, was released, it came with an introduction from Drew Carey, models in bikinis pillow fighting on a yacht, and the band sitting in the middle of it all in matching suits, looking a little uncomfortable about it all.

The passing of Adam Schlesinger, taken from us at 52 years of age, has thrown the art behind their craft into as sharp a focus as I’ve felt in the last twenty years. FoW were from the north-east of the USA, and their world was suburbia. They revelled in story-telling, ordinary stories of ordinary people feeling extraordinary feelings. Those moments could be compressed down to a few seconds in slow-motion, as seen on All Kinds of Time, when an entire song is crafted around a quarterback catching the ball, picking his man, and making the pass. It was later chosen as the incidental music for NFL television coverage in the USA.

These were stories that rang so many bells that it could feel at times as though the writers had parachuted into my heart and seized my feelings. Hey Julie, the story of an office drone with a terrible boss whose life is made tolerable by the love he receives when he gets home – “they can tell me what to think but they can’t tell me how to feel.” Red Dragon Tattoo, about a guy who gets a tattoo to impress a girl who may not even know he exists – “I’m fit to be dyed, am I fit to have you?” Bright Future In Sales, about a travelling salesman who doesn’t even seem to have noticed that he has slipped into alcoholism – “Heading for the airport on a misty morning, gonna catch a flight to Baltimore, try to kill an hour with a whiskey sour, if there’s time I might have just one more.”

This list is only limited by the extent of their output, just five studio albums and a double-album of B-sides, rareties and out-takes spread over a decade and a half. Every song feels like a finely crafted short story, a window into someone’s world that never seems to out-stay its welcome, every word finely-tuned to bring about a small smile without ever seeming to patronise its subjects. And all backed up by simple – but never simplistic – hooks and harmonies, an idealised interpretation of guitar pop. Furthermore, the band aged with its audience. Their last album, 2011’s Sky Full of Holes, opens up the world of the 40-something, just as their eponymous debut opened up the world of the 20-something. Opening track The Summer Place, for example, is the rich and layered story of a middle-aged woman returning to a childhood holiday home which has as many bad memories for her as it does good.

If Adam’s life and work had been that and that alone (and it would be remiss of me not to mention the contribution of his co-writer, Chris Collingswood, at this point), it would be enough to warrant the tributes that we’ve seen this morning. But there’s more. Whilst still in his twenties, he was charged with the job of writing a song that sounded like one of the biggest hit records of 1964 for the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do and pulled it off to such an extent that it hit the charts in the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK when released as a single in 1996. He wrote or co-wrote the music for the Netflix musical comedy-drama Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, had side-gigs with Ivy and Tinted Windows, and much, much more.

A little piece of the jigsaw that makes up my musical life has gone missing, and it can never return. Like everybody else, I’ve been through this before, but coming under these circumstances has accentuated that feeling of loss all the more. There’s little else to say but goodbye and thank you for the pleasure that you gave me. Considering who we’re talking about, a tiny tribute on a tiny website of little to no consequence feels like an appropriate way to make that tribute. It doesn’t have to all be grand gestures and over-emoting. Sometimes, wry observation and a keen eye for minutiae is enough.

A Fountains of Wayne playlist was the first one that I created upon opening an account with Spotify. It’s right here: