Adam Schlesinger, co-founder of Fountains of Wayne, dies from COVID-19 complications at 52
Adam Schlesinger, whose slyly intellectual rock band Fountains of Wayne made him a cult favorite of pop connoisseurs and whose musical expertise led to behind-the-scenes songwriting work in film and television, died on Wednesday from complications related to COVID-19. He was 52.
News of his death was first published by Variety, which had reported earlier that Schlesinger spent more than a week in a hospital in upstate New York and had been placed on a ventilator.
Named after a lawn-ornament store in Schlesinger’s native northern New Jersey, Fountains of Wayne crashed the Top 40 in 2003 with “Stacy’s Mom,” a note-perfect New Wave pastiche narrated by a hormone-sozzled high-school boy infatuated with his classmate’s mother.
“Stacy, do you remember when I mowed your lawn? / Your mom came out with just a towel on,” Schlesinger’s bandmate Chris Collingwood sings over a chugging guitar groove clearly inspired by the Cars, “I could tell she liked me from the way she stared / And the way she said, ‘You missed a spot over there.’”
Accompanied by a music video featuring a bikini-clad Rachel Hunter in the title role, “Stacy’s Mom,” from the group’s third album, “Welcome Interstate Managers,” peaked at No. 21 on the Hot 100 — the group’s only appearance on Billboard’s flagship singles chart — and led to Grammy nominations for pop duo/group performance and best new artist.
But by then Fountains of Wayne, in which Schlesinger played bass, was already well established among critics and tastemakers drawn to the precisely rendered and maddeningly catchy character studies that filled the band’s self-titled 1996 debut and its 1999 follow-up, “Utopia Parkway.” The latter, which borrowed its title from the name of a major thoroughfare in New York City’s Queens borough, ranked at No. 19 in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, ahead of much higher-profile releases by Eminem, Robbie Williams and Dr. Dre.
Schlesinger, who wrote the group’s songs with Collingwood, brought a literary flair to funny but deeply empathetic portraits of ho-hum suburban lives like those captured in “Hey Julie” (“Working all day for a mean little man with a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan”) and “Leave the Biker,” about a wimpy guy daydreaming of wooing a woman away from her muscled boyfriend with “crumbs in his beard from the seafood special.”
Musically, the duo was no less detailed in its approach to the hooks and arrangements in Fountains of Wayne’s tunes, which could echo everything from ’60s folk-pop to ’70s country to ’80s hair metal. Though the band emerged during the alternative-rock boom triggered by Nirvana’s success in the early ’90s, it also belonged to an older lineage of stylistically omnivorous storytellers such as Randy Newman and the Kinks, whose novelistic “Muswell Hillbillies” and “The Village Green Preservation Society” albums were an avowed influence.
“When we were teenagers, we liked listening to Kinks records because we’d never been to England, and we got a sense of what it was like to live there,” Schlesinger told the New York Times in 1999 — something that could easily be said of the freeways and strip malls of “Utopia Parkway.”
At the same time that he was playing in Fountains of Wayne — whose final studio album, “Sky Full of Holes,” came out in 2011 — Schlesinger was also a member of Ivy, a more urbane New York City trio that specialized in sleek, lightly electronic pop built around the breathy vocals of Dominique Durand. In 2009 he formed a short-lived arena-rock supergroup called Tinted Windows with Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha, Hanson’s Taylor Hanson and Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick.
Schlesinger’s ease with various genres made him a natural fit for writing music for movies and TV; indeed, much of his work in Hollywood came in films and shows about musicians. In 1997 he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for the peppy title song from “That Thing You Do!,” director Tom Hanks’ loving tribute to the one-hit wonders of post-Beatles rock ’n’ roll.
He wrote tunes for 2001’s live-action reboot of “Josie and the Pussycats” and for “Music and Lyrics,” a 2007 romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore as two songwriters who fall in love while collaborating. “Way Back Into Love,” the winsome power ballad they compose together in the film, is as convincing as any from the past several decades.
Schlesinger’s other credits include music for “Crank Yankers,” “Sesame Street,” “Kathy” and Stephen Colbert’s 2008 Christmas special, for which he was nominated for an Emmy and won a Grammy. In 2008 he also hit Broadway with his songs for “Cry-Baby,” a musical adaptation of the John Waters movie from 1990.
More recently he wrote songs for the critically acclaimed “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which last year finished a four-season run on the CW. Among them was “We Tapped That Ass,” a delightfully profane number that earned an Emmy nod in 2017. He shared in an Emmy win for the show in 2019. In January, Schlesinger and the show’s creator, Rachel Bloom, announced they were reteaming for a musical based on Fran Drescher’s ’90s sitcom “The Nanny.”
Adam Lyons Schlesinger was born on Oct. 31, 1967, and grew up in Montclair, N.J., the grandson of a theater impresario, the late Murray Bernthal, who brought opera stars and touring Broadway shows to audiences in Syracuse, N.Y. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he and Collingwood met and began playing music. After graduation, they moved to New York and, as Schlesinger told New York magazine in 2011, honed their songwriting chops by challenging each other to create songs from titles they’d write down on bar napkins.
The two recruited a guitarist, Jody Porter, and a drummer, Brian Young, to join them for live shows after they’d signed to Atlantic Records and recorded “Fountains of Wayne”; that lineup remained intact for the remainder of the band’s career.
Schlesinger said he and Collingwood spent only about $5,000 to record the band’s debut. But the crisp, vivid sound he got as the album’s producer made him a popular choice for other acts looking for someone to oversee their work in the studio; Schlesinger went on to produce records by Dashboard Confessional, Motion City Soundtrack, America and the Monkees, among others.
Divorced, he is survived by two daughters, Sadie and Claire.
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