That Thing He Did: RIP Adam Schlesinger

Farewell to the co-leader of Fountains Of Wayne and Ivy.

Conventional wisdom claimed Adam Schlesinger—the co-leader of Fountains Of Wayne and Ivy who died on April 1, 2020, from complications stemming from contracting COVID-19—was a throwback to a different era. What precise era was a matter of debate. Thanks to his proclivity to work behind the scenes, donating songs to other artists and crafting songs for film and television, there was a tendency to think of Schlesinger as a pro who would've been at home in the Brill Building, churning out tunes on the clock. He may have had the inclination to subsume his personality in the voices of other artists, but his taste was forged not by pop but by rock & roll. Like many power-pop singer/songwriters, his heart belonged to the 1960s, the decade where the Beatles, the Who, and the Kinks created the blueprint for guitar-pop, the decade where the Monkees became stars on the strength of tunes penned by professional writers. 

Schlesinger was born too late to experience these glories first hand. His birthday arrived on Halloween 1967, when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a few months old, which meant that he came of age during the glory days of skinny ties. Often, his music with Fountains Of Wayne—the band he co-led with his old college friend Chris Collingwood—could evoke the sound and feel of prime new wave, whether it was the explicit Cars shout-out on their lone hit "Stacy's Mom" or the undertones of Squeeze and Elvis Costello that flowed throughout their catalog. By placing a priority on melody and flashes of wit, Fountains Of Wayne didn't quite seem to be part of the alt-rock gold rush of the 1990s: they were too clever, too crafty and, frankly, too old to hang with the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, Spacehog or Seven Mary Three. 

Nevertheless, Fountains Of Wayne were a quintessentially Gen-X act, sifting through the detritus of the '70s and '80s to discover the sounds and sensibilities that resonated in a different context. Perhaps Schlesinger and Collingwood indulged in irony or wore a smirk, but there also was an evident love of the craft and the culture that produced it, an affection apparent in the specificity of their art. Sometimes that amounted to sonic allusions ("Elevator Up" is a roaring Oasis satire) but as Fountains Of Wayne's career progressed—as they got bolder and better, starting with their second album Utopia Parkway—Schlesinger's storytelling sharpened to the point that he became the bard of suburban New Jersey. His tales were grounded in Garden State ennui but the precise details were what made them play so well to people who never set foot on the East Coast: they conveyed the entirety a world. 

Schlesinger had a knack for conjuring worlds he didn't experience, too. That much was apparent from "That Thing You Do," the song he wrote for Tom Hanks' 1996 film of the same name. Hanks needed a song that sounded as if it could've competed for the top of the charts alongside the Beatles and the Beau Brummels and Schlesinger delivered with an ebullient evocation the hooks and harmonies that defined the pre-psychedelic 1960s. Schlesinger capitalized on this gift in the 21st Century, writing prefab pop tunes for the charming 2007 Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore rom-com Music And Lyrics, collaborating with comedian David Javerbaum on Broadway tunes and then spending the last half the 2010s cranking out expert miniature pop parodies for the sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Separating Schlesinger's extracurricular work from Fountains Of Wayne isn't merely difficult, it's pointless since the stars aligned so he had solo and band breakthroughs within the same week of each other in October 1996. Fountains Of Wayne released their Atlantic debut just days before That Thing You Do! hit the theaters, opening up twin career paths for Schlesinger to follow. Due to their post-grunge times and an institutional bias to favor rock bands over behind-the-scenes craftsmanship, Fountains Of Wayne tended to overshadow the songs Schlesinger wrote outside of the group during the great majority of his career but reducing his body of work to his rock band excises his genius and perhaps even his driving creative instincts.

In a 2012 WTF interview with Marc Maron, Schlesinger admitted that he derived great satisfaction in helping other musicians execute their vision and that desire ties together all the disparate sounds he made during his career. As part of the sophisticated indie-pop trio Ivy, he helped Andy Chase and Dominique Durand refine their continental elegance, reaching a pinnacle with 1997's gorgeous Apartment Life. He wrote "That Thing You Do" and "Pretend To Be Nice," his dazzling piece of bubblegum for 2001's Josie And The Pussycats, according to spec, he translated John Waters to stage with his songs for Cry-Baby and fulfilled Rachel Bloom's wild dreams week after week on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Even Fountains Of Wayne functioned this way: the band was born when Schlesinger helped Chris Collingwood turn "Radiation Vibe" from a good-natured jape into a real song. 

Given all this collaboration and the fact that he never sang lead vocals, it would seem that discerning Schlesinger's own musical personality would be difficult but that's not the case. In every aspect of his work, he exhibited a preternatural gift for not just melody but sound, honing in on the reason why great singles work both as songs and recordings, not only knowing the distinction between the two but knowing what to emphasize depending on the occasion. His mastery of pop was buoyed by a sense of playfulness, a spirit that was evident within his storytelling, too, but he wasn't a satirist. Whenever he told a joke, either with his music or lyrics, it seemed to come from a place of affection, a fondness that was apparent in his turns of phrase and melodic allusions. All this detail made his music seem vividly alive, which is also why it's a bit hard to come to terms with his sudden passing at the age of 52. He wasn't at the end of his life, he was in the midst of a robust middle age, finding ways to challenge himself as an artist and successfully carving out a place in a pop culture where rock bands and power-pop are no longer part of the firmament. Schlesinger leaves behind a rich legacy that's only tainted by the knowledge that he wasn't finished with his contributions, not by a long shot. 

Postscript:

I have written my fair share of appreciations and tributes over the years, usually coming from a place of affection mitigated by a bit of sadness. Adam Schlesinger's death provoked an emotion that I have never had while writing an obituary: anger. There is absolutely no reason why he had to die at this young age outside of the fact that the governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been completely bungled. He's hardly the first person to suffer this tragic fate and he sadly won't be the last.