Adam Schlesinger had a lot of collaborators — but none brought out his best like Chris Collingwood
Adam Schlesinger is dead.
Of all the absurd, awful turns the world has taken since the unpredictably ruthless pandemic that cut his life short hit us, this is one of the most painfully hard to believe. It’s really kind of numbing how difficult it is to wrap my head around – not just because he was only 52, with no underlying health conditions, and not just because I grew up in the same state as their namesake store (which sold, yes, cement fountains), bopping to so many of his songs as stereo-blasted by a Gen-X dad who moonlighted in a band, had a basement studio setup, and owned every LP by the Shoes, dB’s and XTC (plus a singing voice a lot like Chris Collingwood’s).
It’s because, between the transcendent normality of his formula-illuminating pop and the sheer ubiquity of his credits, not to mention his unmistakable regular guy humility, something about Adam felt like he’d just be around forever.
And, as has been the case with so many great pop bands from the Beatles on, his departure leaves a partner to pick up the pieces, even if the Fountains of Wayne hotline was already on hold. As obit after obit cites his name and key place in Schlesinger’s history, I can’t imagine what co-writer and lead singer Collingwood is going through right now – the complicated feels of a man who just a few years back was very publicly trying to make a break with the band that made him famous. For all those who’ve yet to discover near-bottomless joy of FoW’s five albums, you can still shout “Stacy’s Mom” to a passerby of any type and age and instantly expect a smile and “has got it going on!”
The vocalist on nearly every cut (though fans can easily single out Adam’s omnipresent, distinctly breathy backing vocals), Collingwood was the literal voice of Fountains of Wayne. But their biggest hit scared him with the risk it ran of that “novelty” tag. When Look Park, his debut album as the sole writer, came out four years ago, he said on record that it would take an exorbitant sum of money to get him to do a FoW reunion, a bitter remark for fans at the time. And now, all of a sudden, I imagine the longtime cohort with whom he could get into nitpicky e-mail fights is the person he most wishes he could say goodbye to, do a retrospective interview beside, or just get on stage with once more.
I figure he’s feeling uniquely bereft, reassessing all his pal’s automatic brilliance and tireless efforts gave him over the years. It’s not like Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the latter dead of a heart attack at 48 and the former soldiering on, where the partner better suited to uphold the legacy is the one left behind. Nor is it like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, where the work was so completely collaborative all that’s left is to keep the name alive. And among the more minor complexities of the aftermath Chris faces is clicking on countless insightful, deserving tributes hailing his partner for a song he wrote (all of which, of course, enjoyed the benefit of Schlesinger’s flawless production).
As they freely indicated in interviews, Adam and Chris were like Lennon and McCartney, Bell and Chilton, and yes, McLennan and Forster, where joint credits hid a total separation in their writing processes. (There’s at least one documented exception: “Sick Day”.) Yet, while competitive, their ambition was not congruent. Of the two men, Schlesinger was the workhorse, disciplined and unconflicted; a mere glance at his nigh-endless list of always sunny, ever-peppy contributions to TV and film proves that. But back when he was still just an undiscovered talent woodshedding concepts – Ivy as a vessel for a fixation with lilting ’80s indie, the “That Thing You Do” demo as an exercise in the definitively Beatlesque – Chris’ “Radiation Vibe”, and his ultra-recognizable voice, the sound of a heartsick Gen-X beta-dude programmed to deflect all pain with perfect irony, gifted Adam an ideal one. Here was the ultimate ’90s power pop band, classic tricks with a palpably postmodern glaze.
“I was jealous of that song”, Adam told the AV Club once, going on to say that “Radiation” was the seed from which their whole debut sprang. But as we know, it wasn’t long before he became the band’s main engine. Utopia Parkway’s opening track is the perfect synthesis of the unapologetic formalism Schlesinger was peerless at rendering fresh and vital, and the vibe Collingwood’s timbre, delivery and built-in pathos were put on earth to groove on. “Utopia Parkway” – what is suburbia but a place where big dreams languish, stuck to the pavement? – was Schlesinger’s first spot-on tribute to the blissfully un-self-aware “shnook” (in Robert Christgau’s parlance), most of whom were filled with an uncanny but indefatigable sense of hope. Where the band had a contract with Virgin, the song’s narrator only had flyers and a staple gun – but listen to the ebullient way the backing vocal echoes “staple gunnn…” over a melody McCartney would murder for. Utopia Parkway was also the first of their albums where Collingwood didn’t write a majority of the songs. He never would again.
AUDIO: Fountains of Wayne “Utopia Parkway”
Of course, they were musical peas in a catchy-ass pod, and of course, at their most connected, they surely fueled each other, compelled each other higher. The song after “Utopia” is the deathless “Red Dragon Tattoo”, a Collingwood cut which could almost function as a Schlesinger parody (according to Adam, Chris was even worried it was too jokey). “Now I look a little more like that guy from Korn” would be at home in any of Adam’s Traffic and Weather rhymes, but “I don’t go for maritime/and I’ve never done hard time” is just a bit more out there. Where Adam was the master of inspired pastiche, and one of the most facile lyrical constructionists of all time – each line like a joke you’re surprised you didn’t think of first – Chris wrote (writes) in a less definable realm, often more drawn to the indirect, the consciously “poetic”. That’s a reliable rule of thumb when trying to tell their songs apart.
One imagines that it wasn’t so much the song or recording of “Stacy’s Mom” that got under Chris’s skin, which led him to bitch about it in multiple interviews. But if the Look Park tracks or the stirring “Cemetery Guns” are indeed his métier, you can conceive of how the “novelty” tag, how the one-hit-wonder identity crisis when the one hit, however brilliant, is at its core in jest (mock-Ocasek music, silly MILF narrative), got to a guy like that.
VIDEO: Fountains of Wayne “Stacy’s Mom”
He started drinking, as he was often candid about, in part because of the stress of the conflict of being the face of a group he didn’t fully feel his place in. All those “depressed tour” songs (“Bought for a Song”, “Hotel Majestic”) are Collingwood’s, and you bet the latter’s “let’s go” is Adam. Schlesinger was always moving, and he even once told Chris, who wrote much slower, that “not every song has to be the greatest of all time”. (Cf. “Revolving Dora”).
Of course, even just delineating that dynamic risks underselling just what was so incredible about Schlesinger. Another apropos Christgau quote: “If late-’70s power pop proved anything, it’s that the best melodies and snappiest beats don’t in themselves guarantee spontaneity, innocence, discovery, conviction, youthful lyricism, youthful anger, or democratic aura.”
With due respect to the Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Eugenius, Jellyfish, and any other such outfit you like, I don’t think any of them had that knack for imbuing writing-by-numbers with as much inspired magic as Schlesinger. Where I’d once roll my eyes at the lush faux-AOR of something like “Hailey’s Waitress”, now I want to cry at every little reference he uses to take “Strapped for Cash” over the edge (a track where you can hear him perfectly disguising, or shall we say complementing, Collingwood’s detachment). My favorite testament so far is the long, loving one by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Aline Brosh McKenna about how quickly, diversely, aptly Schlesinger could come up with just the right song in just the right style, like a flick of the wrist. He was THE go-to: “songs in the key of ‘done'”, and he came up with 150.
Adam’s résumé really was something else. I dare say his old partner is going to spend a few years reevaluating the full spectrum of all his bud could do – which can’t help but be the case when you start out as two besties just trying to make it. Especially because, for all his non-lofty wit and nuts-and-bolts technique putting a song together just because someone needed one, there was a serious empathy, existential insight and lust for life throughout his songs. Sure, he could deftly slay a meet-cute he spends a song setting up (“Someone to Love”), but he could bloom just as effectively with affection and empathy: “Hey Julie”, the best song about how capitalism puts a wall between true lovers; “Hackensack”, an incredible lyric about the deadening curse of not being anything special; “I-95”, a romantic conceit worthy of all Great American Songbookers; “Hate to See You Like This”, a song we’ve all had to sing or have sung to us; and “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim”, a shimmering ode to undying mutual devotion amid an endless sea of everyday inconveniences.
And then there’s “New Routine” – just go pull up the lyrics right now on Genius if you don’t know it – which pretty much everybody ready to throw in the towel should hop in their car and blast right away. Dig its perfect double-joke ending: “thanks but no thanks/bring me back and egg roll”, immediately followed by Chris crowing one of Adam’s right-on rock-encyclopedia winks: “BRING IT BACK!…”
VIDEO: The Wonders “That Thing You Do!”
So yeah. Schlesinger’s loss so traumatic because the man was a wonder, not just spelled O-N-E. But as you critics draft fond elegies for a heavy contributor to our lives’ soundtracks, I humbly ask that you spare him praise for all but a perfect provision of context for the following masterpieces:
“Valley Winter Song”
“A Dip in the Ocean”
“Red Dragon Tattoo”
“I Know You Well”
“Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart”
“Hung Up On You”
Each one by a great songwriter we’re still damn lucky to have around.
VIDEO: Fountains of Wayne live at Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ, July 2003