The music editor at Rolling Stone thought I was kidding when I pitched a cover story on him. The guy at the Sunday New York Times sneered and said they wouldn’t spill their august ink on such an inconsequential pop figure, not when there was another Mesopotamian flute quartet to chronicle.
My writer friends think it’s willful perversion, like my lack of love for Gram Parsons and Jon Spencer. My bandmates indulge me, but my co-workers won’t stop teasing me. You’d think I picked Karen Carpenter over a Keith Moon as rock’s greatest drummer. Tough shit. I don’t care what they think, and neither does Bryan Adams. “I can have a fabulous career and not get any press attention at all,” he says with true indifference. “I don’t think it’s necessary. For me it’s not about having some sort of image. Music does the talking.”
My band Utensil performed a sloppy ‘Summer of ’69’ at my birthday party a few years back. I once made out during a Bryan Adams concert, and we expressly asked ex-Psychedelic Fur Joe McGinty to tinkle a lovely lounge version of ‘Heaven’ at my wedding. (We did, however, demur on the judge’s suggestion that ‘Everything I Do (I Do it for You)’ would be a beautiful nuptial accompaniment. I’m a fan, not a patsy.)
Bryan Adams was nine in the summer of ’69, so he probably didn’t get his first real six-string at the five-and-dime in the age of Aquarius. (Silly me – it turns out the reference was metaphoric, using a sex act to connote Bryan’s personal summer of love. That makes the “fingers bled” image a little more colorful, doesn’t it?) But a little chronological subterfuge is fair trade for such a sturdy rock ‘n’ roll gem, a chunky road cruiser no self-respecting bar band should leave home without.
For all his contrived duets (who else could connect Barbra Streisand, Pavarotti, Sting, Anne Murray and Motley Crüe?) and melodramatic ballads – hit-bound schmaltz which is still solidly crafted and emotionally pure – Bryan Adams has all the essential qualities of centerfield rock ‘n’ roll tradition. He’s a small, unpretty Canadian with problem hair, bad skin, English teeth and few pretensions – an underdog who was lucky to find something he was good at. His dad was a diplomat, so he could have been Vancouver’s own Joe Strummer. He’s even recorded ‘I Fought The Law’. But instead of the romance of revolution, he opted for the revolution of romance, the sedition of mainstream pop. Blame it on a childhood diet of Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Jackson Browne and Elton John rather than the Stones and Stooges. He proudly recalls seeing Bowie on the Diamond Dogs tour in Ottawa in 1974, but I would be hard-pressed to find the velvet goldmine in ‘There Will Never Be Another Tonight’.
It takes a little sifting through the Adams canon, but his best tunes have compact, concise guitar licks, choruses that feel good to sing, down-the-pipe beats and adequate old-school lyrics about chicks and life. And chicks. And stuff. Some of his ballads are, to borrow his word, sweet. And hummable melodies, which is Adams’s religion, still count, no matter how un-Belle And Sebastian-stylish they might be.
If songs like ’18 Til I Die’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Live Forever’ lack the dramatic desperation of a terminal case like Johnny Thunders, at least Adams means it, maaaan,. “I like the idea that we’re here now and this is it, and let’s make the best of it,’ he says with an edge of conviction. “There’s a lot of people that always dream that things are going to get better, but life is about right now.” That’s agnostic enough for me!
He has the throwaway personal pose down pat, nicely juggled with a commercial consciousness that’s by no means subtle. “I’m not really interested in being a star. I quite like the idea of my music getting out there, and the fact that every once in a while I can have a hit record. That suits me. A lot of people know my name, but they wouldn’t know me if I fell on them. That suits me as well. I’ve always been a bit of an anti-star.”
So let me jam on the auto-repeat and sing along with ‘Cuts Like A Knife’, ‘This Time’, ‘Can’t Stop This Thing We Started’ and the cheating classic ‘Run To You’ until the cat is howling and my throat sounds as raspy as his. I’d never put him up against the great innovators of our time, the Dylans, Elvises, Townshends, Jesus And Mary Chains, My Bloody Valentines, Cheap Tricks, TV Personalities and Replacements, but there’s a whole lot of wiggle room between godlike and just average. And Bryan Adams makes average brilliant.
© Ira Robbins, CMJ New Music Monthly, January 1999