Tuesday, May 26, 2009

#3 Song of the Decade- "Come Pick Me Up"


#3- Ryan Adams- "Come Pick Me Up"

I'm a high school English teacher by day, and this is not the time of year to be one. Philadelphia kids are still in school--will be for another few weeks--but there isn't much quality instruction going on. I'm as worn out as they are, and I'm constantly trying to entertain and distract them for one more day until we're both taken out of our misery. It doesn't help that my school has no air conditioning.

It's in this environment that I tried to teach the concept of archetypes last week, and no matter how much time and dedication I put in, my students just couldn't get it. I defined the term as "an ideal example, a model that is copied over and over until it becomes universal." What I meant was that if I tell you I'm writing a story about, say, a cowboy, your mind automatically creates expectations based on the countless cowboys you've encountered in storytelling. A cowboy has certain character traits, objects, and settings associated with him. You might picture a slim, laconic loner in boots and a ten-gallon hat roping broncs on the edge of a forgotten West. If I then subverted this expectation by making the cowboy talkative or something, it would only be more powerful, which is why authors use archetypes instead of creating wholly original characters.

I explained this many times and devised activities illustrating this point, but the compromised idea that came across was "an archetype is anything with character traits." Most kids claimed their favorite archetype as "myself." It went way over their heads. What I realize is that I should have just played them some Ryan Adams.

See, "Come Pick Me Up" isn't a breakup song; it's the breakup song. The elongated roll of drums and the wheeze of Adams' harmonica on the intro flashes us back to every expectation we have, and he blows them all away. The first line might as well be, "I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen."

At times it sounds as if Adams is trying to construct the perfect dusty, country-western, tears-in-your-beer lament. All of those tropes are here: sloppy banjo fingerpicks, cavernous snare hits, a crack-ready snarl, and the aforementioned harmonica. He's dunking from an assist by the warm backup vocals of Emmylou Harris, whose presence hangs over the whole affair like a ghost in a cornflower blue apron. "Construct" is the proper word though, because Adams' ability to imitate is his ultimate blessing and curse. If it had to be a Grateful Dead song or a Husker Du song or a song by The Band, it would have been. He's done those songs before. "Come Pick Me Up" is mostly George Jones, but, as evidenced by the conversation that opens Heartbreaker, it's also equal parts Morrissey. Hell, there's even a little bit of genuine Ryan Adams here. Working within these forms isn't necessarily organic, but it's damned effective. He's a cowboy; on a cool big brother's record collection he rides.

The song, buried as the ninth track of the album, is bold, even at its most cowardly and solitary. Anyone who has heard the chorus can remember it, not because it's foul-mouthed, but because it's hard to recall anything so needy becoming so powerfully shoutable:

"Come pick me up
Take me out
Fuck me up
Steal my records
Screw all my friends
They're all full of shit
With a smile on your face
And then do it again
I wish you would"

The speaker dreams of any interaction at all with his ex, even if it's negative. Make no mistake: this song is sad. But it's almost encouraging in its quest for meaning in the face of personal tragedy that we can't explain. If she comes to destroy him, then at least he won't be alone. His undoing can be another thing to blame her for, even if he initiated it. He casts himself as a parasite, but he's also perversely endearing in his futile need for companionship. The beauty of the song is how it insinuates that this attitude might have been the force that unraveled the relationship in the first place. 

Instead of dying out, the song builds around its harmonica line and jangly keys to match that notion. It rises in intensity, mirroring the way something like this gets worse before it gets better, signaling to us that this isn't just a guy feeling sorry for himself. This isn't just mixtape fodder. It's a lifetime of regret. It's being set in your ways. It's a legend inside of a myth. It's the best song on the best album by an enigmatic, over-prolific troubadour who never quite reached these heights again, and it is in that rolling, transient sense that it will continue to touch every cowboy-type who hears it.