Prine and Petty are American legends. Here’s why Ryan Adams may never be…

written by Marc E. Check October 4, 2017
  1. “Which way to something better?
    Which way to forgiveness?
    Which way do I go?

It’s time to move on, time to get going.
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing.”

  •                                                          – Tom Petty (Time To Move On)
 
e were just about to cross the Arkansas border from Missouri when we received the news today about Tom Petty being on life support, and not quite yet over the border when TMZ reported, “We’re told after Petty got to the hospital he had no brain activity and a decision was made to pull life support. “
 
I was doing some research and getting ready to write a piece about the festival we attended the last two days, something loosely titled, “John Prine is a national treasure and Ryan Adams is a douchebag” (since revised).  I was well into my research concerning Ménière’s disease when we received the news about Tom Petty, and my attentions had to turn away from Mr. Adams for a while.
 
The last time we visited Arkansas was in late April 2017, a mere six months ago, for a weekend to visit Andie’s Dad (Dennis) who resides on the outskirts of Little Rock. As he is a classic rock enthusiast with an impressive knowledge base to back it up, it was great to visit and chat with Dennis, and even more of a pleasure to attend the concert in town that weekend, which happened to be a great double bill with Joe Walsh and… Tom Petty
 
It had been years since I had seen Tom Petty in concert, and only twice before.  In the weeks leading up to the concert I would start picking out Tom Petty tunes on guitar and clumsily clomping through them just for kicks and giggles.  I started to notice quickly that there were perhaps twenty, then thirty, then forty or so songs I could pick out quickly with relatively easy familiarity, and then had the epiphany –  Tom Petty kept churning out song after song, hit after hit, for what has  become forty?! years.
Every phase of my life is marked by some Tom Petty anthem that, even if I wasn’t consciously seeking it out, was filling the air around me in ubiquity and seeping into the permanent soundtrack of my life. 
 
The show was a solid rock show, entertaining in not only the music but also in people-watching.  People from all walks of life communed around his anthems with a shared and solid passion.  His body of work is indeed enormous, and the wide impact on the spectrum of American society even more so.  
 
While not so appreciative at the time, today in retrospect I find myself immensely fortunate to have seen him perform so close to the unexpected day where I would no longer have the opportunity.  
 
 
That brings me to John Prine…
 
arely does a set of music move me in such a way that I’m brought to tears. It’s happened a few times with the Grateful Dead, once with Michael Franti, and even once in recent memory at an unlikely Illenium show (shattering my prior belief that EDM is “soulless” music). 

 We scheduled the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival in Columbia, Missouri partially because it perfectly fit in our east-to-west coast transition, but I really liked the lineup as well, which included the opportunity to see artists that I had been eager to see live such as Band of Horses and Ryan Adams.
 
John Prine, on the other hand, wasn’t an artist I had been eager to see…he was an artist I simply had to see live.   After narrowly missing the opportunity to see him perform with Jason Isbell at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last New Year’s Eve, he has been on my short list of must-see performers.  John Prine is a legend, simply put.  He is one of the greats; an original architect of American music and one of the first genre-busting artists that completely challenged and often changed the attitudes of music fans.  John is seventy years young this year, and is not old by any means, but also not growing any younger, and this was the first of hopefully many opportunities for me to see him perform again.
 
I wasn’t alone or embarrassed when my eyes clouded up not once but several times during his performance.  John Prine had influenced some of my favorite artists for good reason – his honest, almost effortless, and sincere delivery of a meaningful story through song.  While performing songs like “Hello in There” the crowd was literally hushed to a complete silence, a feat rarely accomplished at an outdoor festival.  
 
Before performing “Angel From Montgomery” he invited his friend and fellow festival performer Emmylou Harris (coincidentally also turning seventy years young this year) on stage to sing with him, then followed with inviting Margo Price on stage (who had just completed her set on the opposite festival stage) for an adorable and sweet rendition of “In Spite of Ourselves.”
 
Post-show, Andie and I were talking about the set and songs which led into a conversation about how influential John Prine was, and what a deviation his songs were in the early years of his career from the country/folk genre, mostly in terms of the issues and attitudes he revealed in his stories.  “Sam Stone” was a condemnation of sorts of veteran’s post-service support, and “Illegal Smile” a vague song that could have referred to a number of consciousness-changing chemicals, but obviously delivering a nod to the concept of better living through chemistry. 
 
His performance of “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” was a surprisingly well-received and applauded number for such a south/midwest crowd (providing me some assurance that the socially-conservative attitudes we had experienced in Missouri so far are not shared by the entire populous).  While obviously applicable to the current political climate, I explained to Andie that this song was first released in the year nineteen-seventy-one, at a time when attitudes were much more polarized and attitudes like this – questioning the government, religion, and patriotism – were barely present in this genre of music. 
 
We were both moved, touched, and infinitely thankful to have seen John Prine perform in this environment and with other incredible performers.  It solidified the attitude in our brains that we should never – that no-one should ever – pass up a chance to see legends like John Prine perform live.  It was one of those rare moments where a performer changed the way I think about music again, appreciating it even more deeply than I had before, and thinking about the  ripple effects and downstream influences that I can hear in so many of my favorite performers today.  
 
Now for Ryan Adams…

mmediately after John Prine’s set the crowd worked it’s way over to the other large festival stage to see the festival’s closing performer, Ryan Adams.  Andie and I were nothing less than excited to finally see Ryan Adams live, being fans of a few particular songs (“Come Pick Me Up” is an acoustic number I often perform casually and has turned many friends onto Ryan Adams), as well as his newest album and the Taylor Swift cover of the 1989 album, which I found to be clever and inspired.  Ryan and the band took the stage and ripped through three or four songs with energy and fervor, setting the  stage for a great closing set, and then between songs…
 
…it happened.  
 
At first it was a nominal, almost unnoticeable commentary by Ryan from the stage.  A fan in the front standing section had apparently snapped a picture with the flash enabled on his camera (no idea if it was with a camera phone or actual SLR camera), and Ryan was pissed.   Paraphrasing his brief rant, he started in a fairly innocuous and gentle tone, calling out the fan by saying:
 
       “Hey man, who took that picture with the flash on?!  You can’t do that man.  I suffer from a disease.  Using a flash can send me into a seizure. Please don’t use a flash anymore.”
 
My initial thought was, “Wow – this is interesting,” and thought it was a teachable moment, where Adams was making people aware of this disease and his condition. I was honestly intrigued and wondered, “Geez, how does he avoid this with so many people using camera phones?” 
 
Even though I’m a fairly new live music photographer I’m extremely sensitive to musicians being distracted while onstage, and flash photography is a universal no-no even in normal conditions.  You never use a flash indoors or outdoors when shooting a band. Have I accidentally had the wrong setting before and fired one or two flashes off?  Sure I have, but now I take extra precautions to ensure the flash never fires.  Some photographers go as far as to completely disable the on-board flash module altogether by disconnecting it internally, and many tape the unit down to ensure the flash never pops up. It’s reasonable and expected etiquette, and if Ryan has a condition that flashes effect then he has more than the right to say something. 
 
What should have happened at that point is that Ryan should have taken advantage of this teachable moment about  Ménière’s disease or simply left it at that.   The point was made, and whoever had the flash on almost certainly wouldn’t do it again. Unfortunately Ryan decided to devolve into what I can most accurately describe as a brief hissy-fit, and I again paraphrase him with a great confidence that this is close to accurate:
 
“(lip smack)…Ugh!  I said before I came here NO FLASH!  There’s signs all over!  Ugh!  This really fucks me up!”
 
Now I’m raising an eyebrow because this guy is just handling it poorly.  I feel bad for him, sure, but there is NO WAY a casual fan at an outdoor festival should be expected to know about his condition, and likely it was a camera phone user who had no clue whatsoever they had the flash on or what a scene it would cause.  I’m starting to think that if Ryan wants people to be sensitive to him and his condition, perhaps he could exercise a little patience and understanding, and use his celebrity power to educate new fans about what this disease is.  His attitude had turned, however, to one a seemingly bit self-centered, as if everyone in this large crowd should just know what his condition is and be proactively sensitive to it. 
 
Still giving him the benefit of the doubt, I reasoned in the moment that this is a painful event for him, and his reaction was merely out of frustration, like when I stub my toe hard on something and my initial gut reaction is to beat the shit out of anything within reach that I can beat the shit out of.  I get that.  It sucks, but the moment passes.  
 
Then Ryan takes it to the next level – the level that as far as I’m concerned revealed him as a whiny little princess douchebag.  I again paraphrase how he starts yelling at and calling out the audience member (who is likely mortified at being called out like this):
 
“Why did you do that?!  Why would you do that?! Don’t try to pretend you didn’t do it!  You’re RIGHT THERE!! “(pointing to the crowd about twenty rows back, at which point he summons a large security guard onstage so he can point out the offender to him).  
 
“Don’t try to hide that camera, man!  I saw it!  I know you have it! Everyone SAW YOU!!”
 
The tone he’s taking on is one of spoiled brat and primadonna, and it’s already turning me pretty hard.  I wonder for a second if this is contrived because it’s so over-the-top, then he delivers the lines that end my love affair with Ryan Adams…
   
“What the fuck?!  Why do you even have to bring a camera to something like this?!  What is this?… Skynet?! This is the type of place where you put all that shit away, man!!  This is a ROCK CONCERT!!  This ain’t no place for taking pictures!  Ugh”
 
He’s pandering to and gets a dull roar of lemming-like applause from the crowd before he stops his rant and heads into the next tune.
 
I’m just shocked.  Shocked, and frankly done.  
 
 
I turned to Andie and said (because maybe I’m just biased being a photographer or in a weird mood), “What the fuck?! That was kind of a douchebag move, wasn’t it?”  Andie, who will never hesitate to tell me when or if she disagrees with me, nodded slowly with large eyes and said, “Yeeeeah.” 
 
The movement of the crowd seemed to indicate we weren’t the only ones who felt this way. After half of the next tune we both looked at each other and said, “Fuck this. Let’s bounce.”
 
We talked about the turn of events a few times that evening, playing it back and talking about what was it that made it so…
douchebaggy??  I tried to look at it from his side and I can understand frustration with the situation, but the spoiled childlike, whiny tone with which he complained and then turned on a fan who was at the very worst simply ignorant of Ryan’s condition (I certainly was) and his camera flash settings was just too much.  It was a dick move.
 
Alas, I decided to sleep on it before writing anything about it, even on social media.  Waking up the next morning, it certainly wasn’t the first thing on my mind, but then we heard the news about Las Vegas and the prior night’s shootings which killed fifty-nine and injured over five-hundred music fans who were simply there to have a good time and enjoy music, I couldn’t help but think about where we were when this event took place. We had shortly just arrived back at the hotel after bailing on Ryan’s performance, and were likely discussing this turn of events, when the shooter in Vegas opened fire on another music festival. 
 
 few hours later, with the Arkansas border shortly ahead of us, I was again distracted by the news of Tom Petty’s impending death, and though Ryan seemed not only more and more insignificant in light of these events, his attitude from the prior evening became increasingly offensive to me.  Sandwiched by the experience of seeing a true and great talent like John Prine, respected by so many other fellow musicians who were honored to share the stage with him, and the tragic events in Las Vegas that affect the very nature of how we convene and enjoy live music today, I just found Ryan’s attitude and reaction to this fan more and more distasteful and self-centered. 
 
Then I thought about Tom Petty and what he (allegedly) did for fans, taking people with the worst seat in a venue and upgrading them to the front row.  Over a period of four decades of writing hit after hit after hit and dealing with increasingly large and more diverse crowds, he never had a publicized breakdown or lapse into treating fans with anything less than respect and appreciation, at least that I’ve heard.
 
After reflecting on these things, I wrote this post with the understanding that all of these things are related.  Live music lovers are a tribe, a community, and while diverse, all bask in the shared love for music and appreciation for musicians.  The legends – the ones who span generations and societal differences – are the ones who truly love the art form and love the fans.  They sometimes take it on the chin for decades so they can enjoy the unique privilege of having other people hear the song in their head in the same way they do.  They put up with the least of ideal conditions, have to be guarded constantly in a back-stabbing, predatory entertainment industry, and they have to advocate for rights – both their own rights and the rights of their fans.   Tom Petty did this when he fought against rising ticket prices that would essentially price many of his fans out of seeing his shows live. 
 
I want to be clear that I am not questioning Ryan’s condition, the existence and serious nature of Ménière’s Disease, 
or the potentially significant effect flash photography can have on him.  I researched Ménière’s Disease, and understand how debilitating it can be.  To be fair, there is little to no research available that I could find that indicated visual stimuli such as flash photography could be a trigger that significantly sets off a Ménière’s Attack.   But I take Ryan’s word at face value when he says flash photography is a trigger that could land him in  very bad place.   
 
What I am questioning is how Ryan Adams communicates with his fans  concerning this disease and his condition.  There is little to no proactive information online about the use of flash photography that I could find as a casual fan to make me aware of this or educate me.  Nowhere in Ryan’s social media or at the venue was there a reminder, a teachable moment in the form of a post, or anything that would have made me a more prepared and sensitive fan. Unfortunately the only things I could find online by Googling relevant information was a river of  Ryan engaging in pissing matches with his fans, the press, fellow musicians, and even a documented history of him calling out fans during live performances, then assuming the role of the victim.
 
I”m not saying dealing with hecklers isn’t challenging, but by comparison millions of blue and white collar workers go to shit jobs every day all day where they have to deal with assholes, loud mouths, and idiots on a constant basis, and they have to take it on the chin over and over.  They’re just trying to feed their family.  They’re not living their dream of creating art and being revered by many. 
 
You’re a talented, hard-working, and lucky guy, Ryan… you’re not a victim of anything but inconvenience and your own inability to communicate your condition in a respectful and kind manner. 
 
Rather than simply reacting to situations caused by fans with temper tantrums and incredulity, let me throw some ideas at you for a more proactive approach:
 
1.  Prior to gigs, when new fans or casual fans are checking you out online, create some posts on social media reminding people about your sensitivity to flash photography. Do it several times. It’s not annoying… it’s helpful, for you and us. 
 
2.  At gigs, post signs, visible to the crowd, that say, “Please, no flash photography!  Ryan will have a very bad day if you flash him!”  
 
3.  Have you or an emcee take a minute before your set to introduce you and make a plea to the crowd to turn off cameras or disable flash and explain why this is an important issue for you.  Additionally let them know where they can go to find out more info about Ménière’s Disease.
 
4.  Take any opportunity you can using your celebrity status to raise awareness abut Ménière’s Disease, specifically from a vantage point of how it is triggered in, and affects you, because your particular triggers are not global in those who suffer from Ménière’s Disease.
 
These ae just a few, quick, off-the-top-of-my head ideas I can offer and I have only known about your condition for forty-eight hours or so. 
 
don’t expect you to read this, and if you do I don’t expect you to respond, and if you do respond, I don’t expect the response in a constructive manner given what I’ve seen of your responses to criticism online, but I hope you do read this and in light of much more important things facing artists and fans today, I hope you at least consider this advice.  
 
Your set on Sunday night was preceded with a set of music by a  humble and talented American treasure, suffixed by the unfortunate and premature death of another humble and talented American treasure, and a mere few hours after you essentially crucified an embarrassed fan of yours in front of another few thousand of your fans over non-maliciously firing off a camera  flash, FIFTY-NINE MUSIC FANS LOST THEIR LIVES IN LAS VEGAS.
 
Why? 
 
Because they wanted to come see their heroes perform.
 
Because they love music. 
 
Because the art you create binds people together.  
 
Beacause they believe you know them, speak for them the words they cannot speak, and represent them. 
 
Because they trust that when they come to a show they are in a safe environment, and won’t be attacked. 
 
These are your fans, Ryan.  You can make more of them or less of them. It’s up to you.  I just wanted you to know that last Sunday evening, you lost at least one when you hit high gear in your princess-like rant  that did nothing to educate and everything to alienate. 
 
Legends like Tom Petty and John Prine aren’t legends simply because they make great music.  
 
They’re legends because they are great people.
 

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