A Never-Published Proof...
Mark McAdam, the perpetually almost-known songwriter meets me outside the Pink Pony Café on the Lower East Side. He’s smoking his “only cigarette of the day” he tells me. “That’s my problem,” he says, “I don’t have an artist’s temperament. I’m more like a cobbler—I like to tinker at stuff, all calm, collected. Which is kind of a shame.” He grinds the smoke out on his leather boot and asks if we might go inside. The butt is placed politely in the Bloomberg Bucket next to the door.
McAdam’s second solo album “Cavalcade” was a staple on the café’s jukebox when it came out in 2007. Many of its characters worked or ate here at the time. It’s a gorgeous album, if you care to indulge in it. The few critics who paid it attention fawned dutifully. It is, indeed a yeoman’s effort, a work of studious contemplation. “Aw, you know, breakups and indecision. Heartache and navel-gazing,” he says. In his defense, the record shows hints of brilliance with consistently engaging indie goodness.
Wearing the requisite skinny jeans and a herringbone blazer, McAdam looks exactly the part of an aging hipster. His hair is a perfect mess of angles, his eyes are wise and weary, and he wears the impish expression of someone who is endlessly amused. Americanos are ordered. “At some point, you realize that making up songs to sing is a really weird way to make a living,” he says, ignoring the obvious flirtations of the twenty-something waitress. “And academically, I understand that the world may not, in fact, need any more music by aging white guys. But what the hell else am I going to do? I’m waist deep in it.”
McAdam seems convinced that being an accomplished musician almost guarantees that one will be completely ill-suited to the profession. “Brilliant folks have been dying penniless for centuries. “Mozart, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe. I heard Sly Stone is living in his car! Who am I to complain?” Still, he mentions that there ought to be a class in eighth grade to warn kids about the dangers of being an artist. “Nobody ever tells you you need to be a complete asshole. Or that you’re supposed to have a cutthroat publicist, for that matter. You know who our system rewards? Snakes and pigs.” For someone who counts a galaxy of stars (rock, movie, and otherwise) among his friends, he is remarkably circumspect. So much so, in fact, that one could get the impression he’s cultivating it to the point where writers might feel obliged to mention just how circumspect he is.
As a teenager, in coastal New Hampshire, McAdam whittled his chops listening to (and emulating) the songwriters of the time: The Replacements and Husker Dü, Prince and The Police. You can hear it in his dedication to song structure and thematic coherence. He prefers not to talk about his time in Los Angeles, where he fronted the “seminal Junk Rock band,” Sumack. They were heirs to the modest fortune alluded to by Beck and Cibo Matto without ever achieving the cult status of those bands. “We were trying awfully hard to be something,” he admits “and forgot what we were good at. Occasionally we reminded ourselves and made honest attempts to write, y’know, actual songs. But as often as not we got distracted by drum loops or a sample from an old Haunted House record. Now, I wait until a song refuses to leave my head for weeks before I even attempt to wrestle it into something listenable.”
He further laments his stints as a sideman and a studio jock, even laughing at the opportunities to score art films and hit television series. “This is what we do,” he jokes. “We get old and the songs come slower and the rent gets more insistent. So we pick up a ukulele and score an iPhone commercial or two here and there. Or worse. But money buys you a little time to wander around and stare at shit, and kind sort through the your mess in your head, and let your synapses fire and appreciate, say, the dirt under your fingernails. The stuff that makes you want to write it down and leave it behind.”
It has started to rain by the time we head back out onto Ludlow Street. As we exit, I notice what is left on the table: the uneaten half of McAdam's tarte tatin and a self-consciously generous tip.
(We received this proof from a certain New York-centric magazine in 2012, but as far as we know, they never ran it.)
A Quick Update, 2020...
The human depicted above seems like a stranger to me now.
It’s an interesting piece but it feels like a snapshot of a day I can hardly remember anymore. A time-capsule. Since then, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve moved into a totally different rhythm. My daily astonishment and inspiration comes from my wife and kids. And I’ve developed a dozen other interests that compete with the demands being of a touring songwriter. Or even an effective one, most days.
Certainly, I’ve been busy. In my strange travels through film and television and everything else, I’ve had my songs sung by Willie Nelson, Sharon Van Etten, Nina Persson, Rain Phoenix, Karen Elson, Sarah McAdam and more. I’ve had the pleasure of producing some terrific records including two I’m particularly proud of by my friend Milton.
For a recent birthday—a milestone, let’s say—my wife and best friends surprised me with a concert. I thought it was supposed to be big cocktail party. But when I showed up, there was full stage set up with every imaginable combination of instruments. And it turned out they’d all been secretly practicing for weeks: a wide assortment of my very own songs, a retrospective spanning at least thirty years. Watching my friends and family… ex-bandmates, college buddies, people I adore from near and far, ages 12 through 73, singing my songs back to me… was overwhelming in a way I cannot possibly overstate. An out-of-body experience.
In press clippings over the years, reviewers have often used words like unsung and overlooked to describe my work. They meant it as a compliment. But looking back, I don’t feel that way at all. I feel pretty damn lucky.
A Spotty Discography...
Shimmers - 2016, Superhead Records
Paper Man Songs - 2010, Superhead Records
Are You Interested? (The Stevensons) - 2009, Superhead Records
Cavalcade - 2006, Superhead Records
Boy Wonder - 2002, Superhead Records
Mossback George EP (with Cranky George) - 2000, unreleased
Now Hear This (Sumack) - 1999, V2 Records
LP1: This is Junk Rock (Sumack) - 1998, Tainted Records
Buttery Hottcakes (Sumack) - 1996, Sunset & Main
Wave Motion EP (McAdam & Scratch) - 1995, Gilliland Records
Last Ditch Ditties - 1993, unreleased
Big Words - 1990, unreleased
Seven Songs (Third Party) - 1987, unreleased
Pack it Up EP (Tempest) - 1985, unreleased