Among the many, many terrible aspects of living in a pandemic is realizing for the first time how much certain artists mean to you when the news comes that they’re gone. I understand we’re in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak and that there’s plenty of personal and cultural heartbreak to come, but the death of Adam Schlesinger on Wednesday has briefly knocked the wind out of my sails.
You probably don’t know his name; you most likely know his music. As co-leader and co-songwriter of the beloved indie rock group Fountains of Wayne, Schlesinger was responsible for the group’s biggest hit — OK, only hit — “Stacy’s Mom,” from the 2003 album “Welcome Interstate Managers.” But he also worked extensively in movies and TV. The 1996 Tom Hanks-directed film “That Thing You Do!,” about a one-hit-wonder rock group in the 1960s, featured an insanely catchy title tune written by Schlesinger that became a hit in its own right, reaching Number 24 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
“It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore,” the hilarious opening number sung by Neil Patrick Harris at the 2011 Tony Awards? Schlesinger. The 120 songs created for the 2015-2019 TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” including the deathless “Anti-Depressants Are Not So Big A Deal”? Schlesinger primarily, and he oversaw the show’s musical numbers, too. He co-wrote the songs for the 2008 Broadway musical version of the John Waters film “Cry-Baby.” He wrote “A Way Back Into Love,” the song Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore collaborate on and fight over in “Music and Lyrics” (2007).
You definitely heard this guy’s music.
But it’s the songs Schlesinger wrote and played on with Fountains of Wayne that will endure — rock-solid nuggets of rock and power-pop that nod benevolently at the retro Top 40 cheese that filled car radios in the 1970s and ’80s while telling tales of suburbia that are alternately funny and moving. Because he and the band’s co-leader, Chris Collingwood, wrote songs separately but credited them to Fountains of Wayne, it can be tough discerning who’s responsible for what. Collingwood once said, “a rule of thumb is if one of our songs has a New Jersey reference, or is about high school, that’s one of Adam’s.”
Which means “Stacy’s Mom” is definitely Schlesinger’s doing, with its comic yet somehow sad tale of a delusional kid crushing on his best friend’s mother (“Stacy, do you remember when I mowed your lawn/And your mom came out with just a towel on/I could tell she liked me from the way she stared/And the way she said, ‘You missed a spot over there’”).
And doubtless it’s Schlesinger who came up with “Hackensack,” perhaps the prettiest and most emotionally overwhelming song in the entire Fountains catalog. Told from the point of view of a young man who’s never going anywhere watching his unspoken high school crush become a celebrity, it features chef’s-kiss lyrics (“I saw you talkin’ to Christopher Walken/On my TV screen”) and a refrain — “If you ever get back to Hackensack, I’ll be here for you” — to make a stone weep. It’s a Raymond Carver short story in three minutes and one second.
Named after a garden statuary store in Wayne, N.J., Fountains of Wayne’s songs lived in the interstices of nostalgia, suburbia, and mortification. There’s a lot of humor there (“All the kids from school/Will be naked in the pool/While our parents are on Fire Island,” from “Fire Island”) and a lot of dead-end lives (“Little Red Lights,” “Bright Future in Sales.” There are women like “Denise,” with their “hearts made of gravel.” There are men like the one in “I’ll Do the Driving,” hopelessly in love with a woman who’s hopelessly dumb. (“We’re out, the jukebox plays ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’/She says ‘I love Johnny Cash/The Man in Red,’ I turn my head/And pretend not to hear what she said.”)
And I don’t care if it was Schlesinger or Collingwood who’s responsible for “I Know You Well,” a 1999 B-side, but it stands as one of a handful of perfectly crafted pop songs from the last 25 years.
That’s a love song, and Schlesinger had a sweet tooth throughout his career for lovers and losers and the places they overlap. His perfectionism never got in the way of his fondness for the human comedy or his knack for plundering the musical past. Back in 2003, my kids were over the moon for “Stacy’s Mom,” so I played them the opening lick of the Cars’s “Just What I Needed,” from which the Fountains, tongues firmly in cheek, nicked their intro. The girls were initially shocked: Was that allowed? Was it theft? I explained that the band did it as an homage, as a musical joke that everyone in my generation got. Looking back on Adam Schlesinger’s life and music, I now realize he did it out of love.