Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, One Year Gone: What We Lost When COVID Took One of Modern Rock’s Great Songwriters

Droll. Adroit. Literary. Observational. Epigrammatic. Empathic. Finely tuned. Waggish. Harmonious. Hilarious. Dryly devastating.

These were the qualities that marked Adam Schlesinger’s songwriting. And, frankly, on a survey of what rank-and-file fans would say they prize most about rock ‘n’ roll, these would probably end up near the very bottom. Maybe, as attributes, they’d be even closer to antonyms for the crude rush most people associate with if not love about the music. But that’s all right: Fountains of Wayne was not for everybody, despite the wide-open accessibility of the band’s earworms. For a select few of us with a special taste for the sweet-and-sour, FoW, with Schlesinger as one of its two co-architects, was something like the greatest rock band of the last quarter-century.

Which makes his death one year ago today as unfathomable now as it was then. Even if you don’t want to co-sign my list of superlatives and just enjoyed Fountains of Wayne’s one or two real hits and small mountain of should-have-been hits, chances are good that Schlesinger succumbing to COVID-19 very early in the pandemic was one of the first really serious slaps in the face you had about what was about to go down and the toll it would take on figures we revered from afar as well as folks in our communities. Schlesinger, who passed away April 1, 2020, would soon be followed in death six days later by John Prine. Honestly, the ranks of living Great American Songwriters are — were — not that vast. What were the odds that two of our maybe half-dozen best writers would be taken right off the bat?

Prine’s going away that following week was maybe more widely or deeply felt, if you’re inclined to measure cultural impact. He was a frontman, unlike the non-singing Schlesinger, and a legend of nearly 50 years, not someone whose time in the spotlight, or just to the stage-right of the spotlight, lasted for more like 15, the rough parameters of Fountains of Wayne’s 1996-2011 recording career. But Prine was also 73, with some life-threatening illnesses already behind him, marking him as already living on borrowed time in some people’s eyes. Schlesinger was a relatively youthful 52, an age many orators told us was outside the coronavirus danger zone.

Coming right in the middle of his post-rock prime as an award-winning creator of music for television and theater, Schlesinger’s death should have scared us all straight. It didn’t.

For me, besides a sense of growing panic, his passing precipitated about a month-long Fountains of Wayne bender, one that really hasn’t completely abated all this time later. But it hurt to laugh, so I couldn’t blame anyone, even a fellow fan, for not putting “Welcome Interstate Managers” on permanent replay. If you resisted at the time because making a trip over to see “Stacy’s Mom” sounded like a super-spreader event, not an opportunity for comedy, maybe now is the time to get reacquainted with FoW’s five mostly great original studio albums. Or to dip back into the catalog of his other band, Ivy, or multiple seasons of TV ‘s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” if his four-year-long writing spree on that show was how you came to appreciate him. It will be heartening to reapproach his work a year later with a less heavy heart… although there was enough serious poignance mixed in among his musical-comedy instincts that it really didn’t feel wrong for the endless bummer of last spring, either.

The blessing and onus that was put on Schlesinger — the latter part seemingly more deeply felt by his FoW partner, Chris Collingwood — was “Stacy’s Mom,” a brilliant piece of craftsmanship that was also overtly funny enough that most MTV viewers and radio listeners could write it off as a one-and-done novelty hit. The world was willing and able to quickly move along to something a little more straight-forward than the band’s short stories about frustrated pencil pushers, wistful prom-goers, failed small business owners, neurotic relatives, aimless teen mall-dwellers and middle-aged dudes with heart conditions.

Wit, as mentioned earlier, tends to be suspect, not a commodity, in rock ‘n’ roll. Except there’s a list of universally recognized great writers that makes it seem as if Fountains of Wayne didn’t exist so far outside of rock’s canonical guidelines after all. Think: Ray Davies. Pete Townsend. Randy Newman. Prine. Elvis Costello. And, on an especially waggish day, Bob Dylan. If Schlesinger’s name still seems slightly surprising in the company of the others, perhaps that’s more due to his Gen-X age than any unworthiness to stand amid writing giants whose genius lies in being able to inhabit fictional characters at least as much as express personal candor. Like his boomer elders in this particular pantheon, we valued Schlesinger for his amazing ability to wear a heart out on his sleeve… somebody else’s, usually, but a heart nonetheless.

Fountains of Wayne, with Adam Schlesinger (left) and Chris Collingwood
Atlantic Records

The funny thing about all the tributes that poured in after Schlesinger’s death is that about half of them used songs penned solely by Collingwood to salute him. There was no terrible shame in that; the two band mainstays always credited themselves in tandem, a la Lennon and McCartney, even though they always wrote individually after the early stuff, also a la Lennon and McCartney. It was a lot more difficult to figure out who penned what in FoW, where Collingwood was the sole lead singer, versus the Beatles, where vocals made it pretty obvious. Still, for anyone who really wanted to pay homage to Schlesinger’s genius, it wasn’t that difficult to look up interviews that gave away who wrote what, at least with their more popular or talked-about material. If the song was dead-sober, it was probably a Collingwood piece. If it went for a wry laugh or two, chances were it was Schlesinger’s. These rules applied except when they didn’t, of course; either partner could pull off the thing the other was supposedly best at. (“The prevailing wisdom used to be that he wrote the literal songs with punch lines and mine were the confusing ones,” Collingwood once said, “but now that line is blurred.”) Chris did write “Red Dragon Tattoo,” which is probably FoW’s funniest song ever — no small achievement when you’ve got Adam Schlesinger sitting next to you. And Adam could certainly set any sense of mirth aside for as simple a ballad as “I-95.”

But Schlesinger’s greatest gift was to write slightly funny songs about slightly sad people. There’s even a kind of pathos to the kid who doesn’t realize he’s out of the league of Stacy’s mother he is and what kind of bruising he’s in for if he ever speaks these words out loud. All right, maybe that’s a stretch. But I always felt a wistful sympathy for the guy whose “Bright Future in Sales” really doesn’t sound that bright at all, or, in “Someone to Love,” the lonely attorney and equally forlorn magazine employee who almost have a meet-cute, until they don’t. Blue-collar workers had their own writers and bands; Schlesinger had an affinity for the white-collar types who are giving themselves half-believed pep talks in place of Prozac.

“For better or worse, my songs aren’t usually that abstract,” Schlesinger once told the New York Times. “Maybe it’s because I never did enough drugs. But I tend to write songs that are about something pretty specific. A lot of them tell some kind of little made-up story. Storytelling is still common in country music and musical theater and hip-hop, but it’s atypical in pop and rock and their many ‘indie’ subgenres these days. I think I initially started inventing characters in my songs because I didn’t want to write directly about myself. Also, as a kid I loved all the character names in Beatles songs, like Eleanor Rigby and Lovely Rita and Mean Mr. Mustard and Maxwell and Rocky Raccoon. Later, I discovered Randy Newman, who often wrote in the voice of a fictional character (which led some confused people to believe he was a racist and also hated short people).”

Maybe it’s telling that John Lennon hated some of the Paul McCartney songs Schlesinger referred to. If you were going to assign archetypal Beatle personalities to the FoW guys, Adam was definitely Paul and Chris was John, at least to the extent that the latter grew frustrated by the whimsicality that he thought people expected out of the band after “Stacy’s Mom.” “Some of the early records, I was still writing kind of goofy songs,” Collingwood said in an interview after the band split up in the early 2010s. “I grew up. And I’m in my mid-40s now, and it’s not something that interests me anymore, to make people chuckle with music.” It was a jab at Schlesinger, with whom he’d become estranged. If you were a fan, it felt bad to see your parents fighting, or know they had tension. And yet these two were at their best with each other, just as the Beatles were.

The band peaked on two masterpieces in which levity and wistfulness found a fairly equal balance — the suburban, teen-themed almost-concept-album “Utopia Parkway,” their second release, and about as perfect a pop-rock record as has ever come out in any decade, followed by the more spirited desert-island disc that was “Welcome Interstate Managers.” Things got more skewed one way or another in their remaining two studio releases. On “Traffic and Weather,” Collingwood was in a bad place and all but checked out as a writer, contributing only three tunes amid an album that did feel like Schlesinger was taking the success of “Stacy” to heart with a greater quotient of comedic writing. On their swan song, “Sky Full of Holes,” they may have course-corrected too much as Chris resumed his full duties — from the title forward, the album felt more depressed than it needed to. But even on these lesser efforts, there were masterful moments from both writers. And at their peak, on those earlier efforts? They weren’t just good-with-a-1990s-2000s-handicap… they were Beatles-level good. (These comparisons weren’t just figurative.)

After FoW parted ways, Schlesinger came into his own, again, as a writer for stage musical-comedy as well as TV, areas where he didn’t have to worry about whether the comic-to-serious balance was close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. The last fruits of his labors on Broadway have yet to be seen, or heard:  His collaboration with Sarah Silverman, “The Bedwetter,” was to have opened for previews off-Broadway in March 2020, of all the terrible months. A musical version of “The Nanny” with Fran Drescher was still being developed. (He previously was nominated for a Tony for “Cry-Baby.”) You couldn’t help but think of Jonathan Larson, unexpectedly taken on the day of the first preview of his big breakthrough. And maybe “The Bedwetter” will not turn out to be not this generation’s “Rent” when it finally opens. but Schlesinger seemed so much to the Broadway manor born that the greatest artistic tragedy here may not be his already waning rock career being cut further short still, but the cancellation of the next 20 or 30 years of Schlesinger as a potential mainstay of musical theater.

One year on, the song I’m going to put on is one from Fountains of Wayne’s last album: “Hate to See You Like This.” It feels like it was written for the pandemic, as the narrator checks in on a friend who’s been doing a little too much social distancing. Yes, it has its amusing moments — any song that rhymes “sweatpants” with “distance” and “reconnected” with “disinfected” isn’t being written without at least a trace of a smile — but in recognizing how easily we can all sink to the bottom, he’s going for something closer to the tear than the laugh. Feel free to react with either as you remember him.

Come on girl
You’re not even trying
Your place is a mess
And all your plants are dying
You’re lying around in those sweatpants
You’re staring off into the distance
Come on give me a kiss
I hate to see you like this

I don’t know
What’s going on in your head now
But I think it’s time
You got on up out of bed now
Let’s get your phone reconnected
Let’s get this room disinfected
Come on give me a kiss
I hate to see you like this

You know whatever’s on your mind
It’s gonna work itself out over time
But it’s never gonna get much better
If you don’t make a little effort
Just a little effort

Come on girl
Let’s pull it together
You can’t just watch infomercials forever
If you need a hand
Why don’t you take mine?
Let’s get you out
Into the sunshine
Come on give me a kiss
I hate to see you like this

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