Remembering Adam Schlesinger And The Year The Music Died

One of the most dangerous side effects of Covid-19 has been cognitive dissonance. In the early weeks of the pandemic’s spread in the United States, much of the country still looked the same. Even nightmarish reports out of New York of blaring ambulances and overcrowded hospitals sounded unreal if you lived elsewhere. Maybe you read about them in a part of the country where the stores remained open and the restaurants had yet to shut down. Maybe, in those early days, quarantining, social distancing, and mask-wearing still seemed novel, a temporary inconvenience that would soon pass. Chances are you didn’t know anyone who had contracted Covid-19, much less died of it. It could seem more like an idea than an imminent threat.

Most of us later experienced a moment when the gravity of the situation started to feel real. For some, it arrived via the most unlikely of sources: a Twitter account run by fans of the long-inactive band Ivy, which on March 30th announced that one of the band’s members, Adam Schlesinger, had been placed on a ventilator after contracting the disease. Schlesinger, who was 52, died two days later. His death gave life to all the comforting things we told ourselves in the early days of the coronavirus’ spread: that the young and middle-aged had little to worry about, that even those who contracted it would be unlikely to die unless they were already gravely imperiled by other health problems, that we’d never know anyone who died from it, that we’d stay safe, that it wouldn’t really touch us.

You might not have known Schlesinger’s name, but you almost certainly knew his music. Most famously, he was part of Fountains of Wayne, a band in which he shared co-frontman duties with singer and songwriter Chris Collingwood. Fountains of Wayne enjoyed a tremendous hit in 2003 with the inescapable, and unforgettable, “Stacy’s Mom,” a celebration of the charms of an older woman. The song was everywhere — a memorable video starring model Rachel Hunter certainly helped — its winning songcraft, catchy chorus, and cheeky theme mowing through the musical trends of the day to deliver a blissful three minutes of undiluted power pop.

It became, for better and worse, the band’s signature song, the sort of fluke hit that could earn an act a one-hit-wonder status no matter what else they did. The shadow it cast might not have been fair to the rest of the Fountains of Wayne catalog but it does capture much of what made the band work, from the hooks to the deceptively sophisticated lyric. Where other bands exploring the subject might have leered, “Stacy’s Mom” captures the lust-fogged delusions of a kid, one who’s pretty sure his friend’s mother is as into him as he is into her when the reality of the situation is likely quite different. Stacy’s mom might have had it going on, but the narrator will almost certainly have to content himself with admiring her from afar.

As good as the song is, it’s just a small, not entirely representative sample of Fountains of Wayne’s music. For evidence, look no further than the album on which it appeared, Welcome Interstate Managers, one filled with songs aptly described by this site’s own Jason Tabrys as “a meditation on suburban purgatory and angst, creating mostly nameless characters whose struggles, frustrations, and desires felt like relatable slices of life.” The upbeat pop of “Bright Future in Sales” masks the sound of a life unraveling. “Hackensack” spins a portrait of delicate heartache for a small-town girl gone Hollywood and rhymes “I saw you talkin’” with the name “Christopher Walken.”

“Stacy’s Mom” was just a small sample of Schlesinger’s work, too. Ivy’s grown-up, electronic-inflected pop sounded nothing like Fountains of Wayne. Schlesinger’s Oscar-nominated title song for That Thing You Do! sounded like the work of long-forgotten band Fountains of Wayne would cite as a key influence. (One sign of its greatness: it plays over and over in the movie and sounds great every time). There were other bands — Tinted Windows, Fever High — and work for the stage and screen, most notably songs for Josie and the Pussycats and Music and Lyrics. As a producer and Schlesinger worked with heroes like America and The Monkees. No project demanded as much range, however, as the Rachel Bloom- and Aline Brosh McKenna-created series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which demanded Schlesinger help craft pastiches of songs from across the musical spectrum, sometimes several per episode. They always played not like mockery but the work of a creator who loved music, all of it, and lived to write and perform it. (Bloom contributed a memorable cover of “Stacy’s Mom” to the posthumous tribute album Saving for a Custom Van, whose proceeds benefit the MusiCares Covid-19 relief fund.)

Schlesinger’s death came as a shock. By the end of the year, it was just part of a growing list of musicians killed in the pandemic. The jazz great Ellis Marsalis died the same day. John Prine, who’d battled and beat cancer twice, followed a few days later. The names piled up from there and touched on all genres: Matthew Seligman, who played with David Bowie, Thomas Dolby, and the Soft Boys; New Orleans bounce fixture DJ Black N Mild; Alan Merrill who wrote “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll”; saxophonist Lee Konitz; rapper Fred the Godson.

That the pandemic didn’t silence their voices only made the loss feel more profound. The great Jamaican musician Toots Hibbert released his first album in a decade in August, the very good Got to Be Tough. By September he was gone. Producer Hal Willner, known for his association with Saturday Night Live and beautiful, eccentric tribute albums died in April. His final effort, AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex, appeared in September. Charley Pride, who battled industry prejudice to become one of the biggest country stars of the ’60s and ’70s died less than a month after accepting the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Music Association. There will be more losses of giants and sidemen alike. Their songs will be with us, even though they’ve all been taken too soon by this disease no one saw coming, one those in power never did enough to curb. They leave music and memories but we’ll never see their likes again.

When I think of Schlesinger I remember the gracious man I was lucky enough to meet a couple of times as part of a former job. And I remember a sweaty Chicago concert that went deep into the night as the band played a catalog that went much deeper than the hit that made them famous. But mostly I keep coming back to one song in particular, “All Kinds of Time,” another track from Welcome Interstate Managers. It’s a slow, simple song told from the perspective of a quarterback about to make an amazing pass, experiencing a moment of grace in which “no one can touch him now.” He even has time to think of those who love him watching him on TV in his moment of glory, when he’s young and beautiful with this whole life ahead of him. His inner monologue echoes a play-by-play cliché: he’s got all kinds of time; this moment will last forever. Those are just the words, though. The song — with its slow swell, plaintive vocal, and long fade-out — knows better. It tells a different, truer story.

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