In 2005, Fountains of Wayne, the band led by the late Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, got the ultimate salute: a hugely affectionate tribute song from soneone as musically gifted and sharp-witted as they were — “Fountains of Wayne Hotline,” by Grammy-nominated veteran singer-songwrier Robbie Fulks.
Schlesinger died of coronavirus complications Wednesday. Variety asked Fulks to share what he thought made his fellow songwriter’s work great:
I enjoyed Adam’s music outside Fountains of Wayne, but it was the songwriting he did with Chris Collingwood within that band that really hit my sweet spot. Of the many highly competent writers who, a generation or so later, paid forward the Beatles and their contemporaries, FOW were unmatched. They had the package: storylines, chords, performance, audio mix and humor.
By “humor,” I don’t mean that they cast a satirical eye on their characters, or put laugh lines in their songs — though sometimes they did both — but rather that they used a light touch to coax humanly relatable absurdities, yearnings and ironies from fine-detailed and even drab scenarios. They situated their stories with journalistic care. The narrators were young single men, seemingly educated and clearly self-reflective (“The whole thing seems a bit absurd,” says the teller of his own story in “The Girl I Can’t Forget”), living in the mid-Atlantic U.S. and sleepwalking through purposeless pink-collar jobs. What a terrific theme! In placing most of their holdings on this one slot, they hit a Peter DeVries-ian artistic payout, reaping consistent benefits from a narrow but deadly aim.
I met Adam only once and briefly. My guess is that what was cerebral and cool about FOW — what you might call the deliberative qualities in the production, storylines and music — may have come predominantly from him. None of the music Adam had a hand in creating, it seems to me, had the Byronic, sprang-unbidden-from-the-bowels rawness that some popular music listeners prize above all else. Personally, I find that necessary but not sufficient, and I love the braininess, calculation and control that shone through Adam’s work.
“Fountains of Wayne Hotline” originated as a travel game in our van. “Welcome Interstate Managers” had just come out, and I guess it was the band’s super-competency and amazing consistency that made me imagine them as operators of a crisis hotline for songwriters. In our game, one of us would place an emergency call for counseling, and a member of a large bureaucratic labyrinth, usually harried and gruff, would offer a solution based on time-honored Fountains of Wayne techniques. Grant, our guitarist, excelled at the mean-spirited drones, and occasionally a different kind of Hotline character would pop up, like one of the perky-beyond-all-reason types that were drummer Gerald’s specialty.
The song went up on iTunes, and not long after, though I can’t remember how long, someone in the band asked me to come to Schubas Tavern in Chicago and meet with them afterward. Nothing very amazing or memorable happened there, except that the short WXRT show they did was impressive in making use of that small room and humble PA to create an amazingly exact replica of a Fountains of Wayne record — no small feat. That afternoon ended up a crucial piece in my principle that if you’d like to meet someone, simply write and record a song about him/her/them. It’s worked for me several times now! One last thing, in case it’s not clear: the “Hotline” song isn’t nastily satirical toward the band. The satire, such as it is, is shallow; I revere their work.
(In a 2007 interview with Puremusic, Schlesinger shared his reaction to Fulks’ homage: “I love it. It’s my favorite thing ever… He is totally funny. We met him after that. We beat the crap out of him — but we’re all friends now.”)