By Emily Scott
The second installment of our series honoring those musicians whose lives were cut tragically short due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Growing up in northern New Jersey, Fountains of Wayne (the store), was not a place that sparked my imagination. Located on the side of Route 46 until it closed in 2009, I barely even registered its lawn ornament display during the maybe 100 times I drove by it in my dad’s minivan. To me, passing it on the highway merely marked its proximity to Willowbrook Mall. But then Fountains of Wayne (the band), co-founded by the late Adam Schlesinger, blew up in 2003 with their hit, “Stacy’s Mom.” The song was inescapable for years; it was a requisite play on TRL, and at every school dance and bar mitzvah. And so, a very-New Jersey vendor of ostentatious statuary was forever linked with pop-rock greatness.
Adam Schlesinger’s ability to see the beauty in a phrase like “Fountains of Wayne” points to the creative spark that drove him in his career. He grew up in Montclair, the cool place situated 20 minutes from my own, less-cool hometown. He probably spent the same percentage of his youth on Route 46 as me; as his mom told the New York Times, “Every time we drove past it, Adam would say, ‘Fountains of Wayne. That would be a great band name.’ ”
Schlesinger not only put Wayne, N.J. on the map (ok, maybe), but he was behind some of the most enjoyable, interesting and just plain good music projects of the last 25 years. Those who only know him from Fountains of Wayne — and only know Fountains of Wayne from “Stacy’s Mom” — will be surprised to learn how much influence he had across the pop culture spectrum. Remember That Thing You Do!, the 1996 Tom Hanks’ film? The catchy, bopping title track performed by the imaginary band The Wonders was actually written by … yes … Mr. Schlesinger. His uncanny talent allowed him to craft an Oscar-nominated pop song that sounds like a real hit from the 1960s — one so genuinely good, it made its way to #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in a year that saw the Macarena hit #1.
Schlesinger’s songwriting and production work for another movie about a fictional band (2001’s Josie and the Pussycats) did not win him any Oscar nods, but it led to what I consider to be the most underrated album of the early 2000s: if you haven’t listened to the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack since the movie came out, I beg you to revisit it! The pop-punk melodies are some of the best out there, plus you have Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo on vocals.
And in 2020, Schlesinger won an Emmy for his work on the CW television network’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, specifically for the song, “Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal,” a musical-theater number that dismantles the stigma associated with mental health medications. Schlesinger worked with co-creator/star Rachel Bloom and a small team to create an impressive 157 songs for the series’ four-season run. They tackled subject matter ranging from a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis to all the weird shit that happens when the Santa Ana winds show up.
But let’s get back to Fountains of Wayne (the band). Chris Collingwood and Schlesinger formed the group in 1996, with the duo sharing songwriting duties, and were later joined by Jody Porter and Brian Young, the drummer for the Posies. They stayed mostly under the radar until “Stacy’s Mom,” the breezy earworm that became the soundtrack to the age of the MILF. But that Grammy-nominated hit belies the depth of the band’s catalog. “Leave the Biker,” for example, is equal parts a snappy, beautiful and strange time capsule of masculine ideals. And “Sink to the Bottom” is as filled with that very-90’s, dislocated sense of self as anything by the Gin Blossoms or Third Eye Blind.
Adam Schlesinger’s death on April 1, 2020 from complications related to COVID-19 was devastating, and marked a horrific early milestone in this ongoing pandemic. It made us all realize that someone like Schlesinger, who was woven into pop culture in such a crucial way and had so much more to give, could be struck down while ostensibly healthy and only 52 years old.
The past year has brought untold grief to so many, and while I won’t pretend that this piece, which only scratches the surface, can do much to help with that, I’d like to offer it in tribute to Schlesinger and his incredible musical talent and career. From New Jersey, with love: rest in peace, Adam Schlesinger.
Emily Scott is co-host (with Jamie Lerner) of RFB’s Middle School Happy Hour, Thursdays at 10:00 pm.
Photo credits: Cover: Kimberly Butler / Getty Images; above, Alexis C. Glenn / UPI.