We discover, indeed, that we don’t know our part; we look for a mirror; we
want to rub off the make-up and remove everything that is artificial, and
become real. But somewhere a piece of our disguise still sticks to us,
which we forgot.
All the songs are about the ending, not the beginning.
– Matthew Ryan
Late July, Nashville. Thunderstorms have broken the drought, some 30 days with only flirtations of rain. A crush of angled water as from some misplaced hurricane cleans nothing, floods over gutters and drains, turns into four minutes of hail, then lurches to a steamy, gray stop.
Two days before the rain, Patti Smith danced and wailed like that, in a free parking lot concert a nickel’s throw from Music Row. Unafraid to pick up an oboe and blow like a T-shirted shaman, unafraid to incant wordy confessional poetry, or to sweetly sing the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and then rage into “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger”, Smith bubbled over with the unapologetic intention of a working-class punk and a poet’s conviction that music could be an unconcealed, even mystical experience, the raw emotion cracking open philosophical pretense.
Like Smith, Matthew Ryan plays rock music on the extremities of emotion and idea, or as Smith once described her own music, “three-chord rock merged with the power of the word.” He’s had his share of shorthand analogies: Dylan, Cohen, Westerberg, Waits. An East Coast critic once wrote something about him being a “manufactured” Springsteen clone. Ryan tracked down the writer’s number and left a message: “Come to my show and say that to my face.”
“It’s been an accidental thing,” Ryan says about coming to Nashville and building his life around music. It’s still early in an interview and conversation that will rush, wind, and stall for four hours. “I had this apprehension because my blood-father was a songwriter. I was in college, studying to be a schoolteacher, and I was not happy. So I backed out. I was writing. I’d show it to close friends, I’d play every now and then to nobody, it was ghostly in that way.
“I moved down here, and after six months I still hadn’t done anything musical. I was working at Tower Records, getting every free record I could. Music had become so much a part of my experience. When I was going to sleep I had something I wanted to listen to, when I was driving there was something I wanted to listen to. It was an inspiring time. What’s that Waits song, ‘All broken down by the side of the road/Never felt more alive or alone’? That’s what I’d want to say about my life at the time.”
An interview is a reminder of what has been left out, corrupted, and unsaid. Even when the rolling tape is forgotten, and the conversation is carried by afternoon gin and nicotine, when the mask slips enough, when a Matthew Ryan perhaps becomes a Ryan Webb, even then all the quoted lines are at best provisional, mostly diversions from what might be real. More sensible, really, to erase. That’s the preference of graduate seminars, from physics to literary theory. To say that poets or songwriters or journalists have as their office the telling of truth is to be naive or pretentious, or worse, nostalgic.
It is true, however, that Matthew Ryan was born Ryan Webb, on November 7, 1971, in Chester, Pennsylvania, a working-class river town outside of Philadelphia. “People worked for Scott Paper and BP Oil,” Ryan says. “I don’t know how to describe the town. It’s beautiful in some ways, some ways it’s criminal.” Ryan lights a Merit; the pack will be gone by the time the tape runs out. “Chester is a war zone. Drugs, crime, drinking, everything that comes with that. I have some friends who’ve gotten out and friends who are in prison.”
Ryan lived in Chester until he was 15, when his mother and stepfather, who worked for Scott, saved enough to move to the “considerably safer” suburb of Newark, Delaware. The music of home was Cohen, Dylan, Kristofferson, Baez, Springsteen — “at the time it drove me crazy,” he says — but also Motown, and the sounds of Philly. “The whole family had great music going on. Growing up in a project outside of Philadelphia, it should have been a film. It fits the script. I’ve got an uncle, every time I look at him I think of ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’.”
His biological father, Will Webb, was and is a songwriter, who left his family to make it in Nashville. Ryan was still a child. “I don’t remember a point when my dad wasn’t a songwriter,” Ryan says. “Even when he wasn’t well-known, to me it was different from what other dads were doing.” Ryan won’t say much about his blood father, not yet — only that he has reconnected with him, discovered the Waterboys and the Blasters through him, only that he has great affection for both his fathers.
It is also true that Matthew Ryan was born not 28 years ago, but six or seven, in his music, in the scraped voice, the scarred guitar, and a language that burns and compels and gets close to the truth.
ND: What is your real name?
MR: Ryan Webb.
ND: So what was wrong with Ryan Webb?
MR: Why wouldn’t I want my name to be Webb? Take a lucky guess.