Adam Schlesinger: In Memoriam

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Adam Schlesinger, the absurdly talented and prolific songwriter, died yesterday from coronavirus complications. Go to hell, COVID-19.

Schlesinger, best known for co-founding Fountains of Wayne and co-writing over 150 songs for the musical-comedy TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, was 52. He had been churning out songs and musical projects for more than 25 years for several media, across several genres, and in many capacities (writer, bassist, producer, etc.). He was an EGOT-nominee.

Also, if you’ve had any conversation about music with me in the past five years, you’ve probably heard me rhapsodize Schlesinger. I loved his knack for writing hooks in any environment, for popping up as a songwriting credit in unexpected places, and producing a tremendous, surprising catalog of songs. He’s one of my favorite songwriters ever. (I dedicated a whole week to him in my 2018 Song of the Day series, and it was tough to stop at seven tracks.)

Any retrospective of Schlesinger’s work should begin with Fountains of Wayne, one of the great and underappreciated bands of the past quarter century. Schlesinger paired with Chris Collingwood in a Lennon-McCartney-type partnership on songwriting duties. (And much like The Beatles’ glory days — some tracks are true co-writes while some are the product of one in particular, and it’s ambiguous enough that fans really like to debate and speculate who wrote what.)

Despite one crossover hit (the iconic “Stacy’s Mom”), Fountains of Wayne remained on the fringes of mainstream for their 5-album, 18-year run. In 1996, their self-titled debut pigeon-holed the band as a Weezer knock-off thanks to its power-poppy sound, huge hooks, slightly goofy lyrics, and heavy dollop of nostalgia. They followed it with the coming-of-age masterpiece Utopia Parkway.

Fountains of Wayne got their big breakthrough in 2003 with Welcome, Interstate Managers, which is their best and most popular album. Despite the inclusion of “Stacy’s Mom,” the album’s main theme is the grindstone of young adulthood — from dour (the alcoholic in “Bright Future in Sales”) to sweet (“Hey Julie”). The album is absolutely loaded with power pop and soft rock gems, none better than the lovely “Hackensack,” perhaps Schlesinger’s greatest song ever.

The band’s last two albums, Traffic and Weather in 2007 and Sky Full of Holes in 2011, showed continuing maturity in lyrical content: “Yolanda Hayes” is a love story from the DMV and “Action Hero” is a moving tribute to middle age manhood.

While it’s tempting for me to overstate Fountains of Wayne’s greatness, the truth is that part of the band’s charm is how undramatic and low-key it is. Schlesinger and Collingwood craft biting satire and lovely character portraits through low-stakes, no-angst suburban drama. Schlesinger’s and Collingwood’s keen eye for details and human dignity elevated Fountains’ lyrics.

It also helped that Schlesinger can flat out write. He could curve from earnestness to satire and back in half a beat. On high school graduation: “We’ll go our separate ways / We’ll vanish in the haze … Soon we’ll say goodbye / Then we’ll work until we die.” He could write stories in just a few tuneful syllables. Lamenting a long drive to visit a lover: “It’s a nine-hour drive / From me to you / South on I-95 / And I’ll do it ‘til the day that I die / If I need to.”

Like Billy Joel, one of his obvious inspirations, Schlesinger’s knack for blending his technical chops with his pop instincts are outstanding. Despite the huge hooks and lovely tunes, these aren’t three-chord ditties. They’re relistenable and sneaky-deep.

Fountains of Wayne would typically take a few years between albums, and each album brought questions of whether it’d be Schlesinger and Collingwood’s last. The pair had a falling out sometime in the last five years, and Sky Full of Holes was likely to be their last ever, or at least for a long, long time.

Schlesinger’s second flagship band was Ivy. It actually predated Fountains of Wayne by two years, arriving near the grunge peak and providing a lightweight alternative. French chanteuse Dominique Durand lends the band a classy, vintage feel, while Schlesinger’s robust composition and production brings the Ivy above the typical indie pop outfit. Ivy survived more than 15 years, releasing 6 albums, and had been on hiatus since 2011.

Leading two bands — an all-time favorite and an indie darling — would have been enough of a career for most, but part of Schlesinger’s towering achievement was the past 10-15 years when he ascended as one of the premier songwriting talents-for-hire on the entire music scene.

Among his many talents, chief was his ability to adopt different styles like a musical chameleon, particularly for soundtracks. One of his first notable credits was writing the title track for the film That Thing You Do! (a favorite of mine). He made it sound like a legitimate hit from the mid ‘60s. A decade later, he wrote the Wham! knock-off “Meaningless Kiss” for Music and Lyrics — and it’s a better George Michael song than most George Michael songs.

But never was Schlesinger more challenged to inhabit different styles than on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where he served as one of three chief songwriters and music directors from 2015-19. From parodies of chipper Broadway numbers (“West Covina”), to Bollywood (“I’m So Good At Yoga”), to torch songs (“You Stupid Bitch”), to electronica (“Having a Few People Over”), to ‘90s R&B (“Put Yourself First”) and so-so-so much more, the musical output and variety of the show’s soundtrack is bewildering. And that’s before you consider the difficulty curve of having to hammer out two or three songs every week for years on end.

In my mind, Schlesinger’s biggest accomplishment on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was writing the only good “Piano Man” pastiche ever, “What’ll It Be?” Funny but also legitimately evocative, it’s nearly as good as Joel’s classic. The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend soundtrack includes Schlesinger’s demo of the track — the only song on any album that I’m aware of where he has solo artist credits.

The above broad strokes of Schlesinger’s career leave out whole swaths of accomplishments. His writing/performance credits include:

  • The lone album by power pop supergroup Tinted Windows
  • “Text Me Merry Christmas,” perhaps the best Christmas original of the 2010s
  • “Just the Girl” by The Click Five, maybe my #1 all time guilty pleasure song
  • cult-hit soundtrack to Josie and the Pussycats
  • An album and EP by hip New York synth-pop duo Fever High
  • The soundtrack to the Tony-nominated musical Cry-Baby
  • A killer early Jonas Bros tune (“I Am What I Am”) and a Bowling For Soup banger (“High School Never Ends”)
  • The Grammy-winning songs for Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special

And even that list is missing plenty of stuff. He was frequently recruited to write or produce numbers for awards shows. He produced dozens of albums. His talents were spread far and wide.

When he abruptly died yesterday, the public outpouring was huge. It blew me away, actually. Not only did the expected voices pay tribute — people who worked closely with him on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, old white music critics, etc. — but so did hundreds of celebrities who have worked with him.

The New York Times critic who wrote a retrospective claimed he was asked to choose twelve tracks, but couldn’t limit himself to any less than 30. Almost everyone who has commented has spoken of his talent and generosity. Even Tom Hanks, whose Twitter account is mostly pictures of orphan socks the distinguished actor found on LA sidewalks, tweeted his condolences and praise.

So my request to anyone who made it this far is for you to spin a Schlesinger song — maybe “Prom Theme” or “Hackensack” or “That Thing You Do” — and admire its craft and think about how well-written music can really make you feel feelings. And be sad that our universe has one less shining Playtone star than it had yesterday. Rest in peace, Adam.

(As a bonus, here’s a picture of Adam with the four actors who played The Wonders in That Thing You Do! Credit to Jonathon Schaech’s Twitter account. Adam is in the middle.)

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