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“Mexican Wine” was Fountains of Wayne at their optimistic best

The introduction to 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers was a perfect power pop song that’s worth revisiting today.

April 02, 2020
“Mexican Wine” was Fountains of Wayne at their optimistic best Giulio Marcocchi / Getty Images

There’s no greater sign of a life well lived than a eulogy that takes a thousand forms. Adam Schlesinger, a founding member of New Jersey pop band Fountains of Wayne and one half of the band’s songwriting force, died yesterday at the age of 52 of complications from COVID-19, and no two people on the internet (where else can you mourn right now?) have remembered him in the same way. Some people highlighted his work for film, TV, and theatre, which included Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for the title track on 1996’s That Thing You Do! and a lasting legacy for his contributions to Josie and the Pussycats. Someone messaged me about his unlikely collaboration with Taylor Hanson, James Iha, and Bun E. Carlos in Tinted Windows. Anyone who watched MTV in the early aughts posted about FOW’s “Stacy’s Mom.” I didn’t see much of it last night, but I hope some people eventually go back and listen to Realistic, a dreamy 1995 record from his side project, Ivy.

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For now I’m going with “Mexican Wine,” the first song on Fountains of Wayne’s 2003 LP Welcome Interstate Managers. The album itself is a wry, witty, gloriously melodic look at suburbia’s desires and banalities that should have turned them into superstars. And “Mexican Wine,” which treats death with a world-weary shrug, introduces that all with the requisite anti-drama. The first protagonist of “Mexican Wine” is killed by his cell phone, the only real upshot of which is that someone takes his job; in the second verse a woman who “lives across the street from the health department” leaves her pills in the car and, inevitably, “that was the afternoon her heart went.” The only consequence of the third verse — driven home by a dramatic key change and blaring horns — is a pilot “reading High Times,” letting his license lapse, and eventually retiring. “And I think that’s fine,” Chris Collingwood sings, deadpan.

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“Mexican Wine” might be a perfect power pop song, all Broadway background harmonies and shameless four-chord repetitions, a naive melody that most bands would spend a lifetime trying to write. It’s also the perfect Fountains of Wayne song. The two deaths and one retirement here aren’t just ironic placeholders — they’re setups for a chorus that innocently puts across their worldview: “The sun still shines in the summertime / I’ll be yours if you’ll be mine.”

“My deepest impulses are optimistic,” Ellen Willis said in 1977, according to a recent Tweet from her daughter, the writer Nona Willis Aronowitz, “an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.” The optimism at the heart of “Mexican Wine” and so many of Adam Schlesinger's best songs might not feel intellectually sound in the midst of all this bleak tragedy. But drifting off and thinking of the summertime while you’re stuck indoors might be the only real way to cope.

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“Mexican Wine” was Fountains of Wayne at their optimistic best