MOST OF THE stories about Bryan Adams tend to emphasise how ordinary the guy is. Like the one about an occasion in New York two years ago, during the Reckless tour, when he went shopping on the day he was fixed to play Madison Square Garden.
Finding it was closer to showtime than he had realised, Adams hopped on board a subway and turned up for the gig in a train carriage full of his own fans, none of whom thought to ask the short, skinny bloke sitting in their midst whether he was the multi-platinum star whose performance they were on their way to see.
It’s a bit like that at the rear entrance to the Capital Centre in Washington DC, where Adams will play later to an audience of 10,000 paying customers, most of whom will be fired with the kind of rabid delirium that immediately distinguishes an American audience from its British counterpart. Just now though, a few people mill around while burly chaps with keychains on their belts come and go, and a jobsworth makes scrambled phone calls to the back of the house to see if “Milt from Showco” or “Stephanie, who’s a friend of Keith’s” can be allowed to proceed further. A slight, fair-haired figure, plainly dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans and black suede desert boots walks unaccompanied up to the door, skirts the gaggle of liggers, and wanders in to the huge backstage area. “Say, was that him?” someone mutters. It sure as hell wasn’t Prince.
Not since the days when Van Morrison could pass unrecognised at his own press conference, has a solo star of this magnitude militated to such a degree against the kind of overweening, over-protective entourage that generally attends the public progress of world-class rock personalities at their places of work, where often it is the number and toughness of the strong-arm men and business managers on hand that define the precise degree of the star’s status. It is a situation necessarily of Adams’s own making, since it depends on his stolid refusal to cultivate any kind of star mystique. He doesn’t wear weird or lurid clothes, he doesn’t have a distant, untouchable aura or a Beverly Hills lifestyle, and, uniquely in the world of the bona fide rock star, he doesn’t wear shades, not even when he’s out on the street the next afternoon, in a 100 degrees-worth of Washington sunshine.
Despite the heat, Adams has cheerfully ventured from his refrigerated hotel to have some photographs taken, and a couple of passers-by have been roped in to add a little local colour. Salty, scarred characters both, they look like piratical veterans of many a ’60s campaign of one sort or another, but they are soon chatting easily with Adams.
“Say, what do you do?” asks one of them, as they’re about to depart.
“I’m a singer,” says Adams.
Clamping the rock star’s hand in a meaty grip, the old stager delivers his parting shot.
“Listen man, if you ever get famous, stay the way you are.”
Adams, who has sold in excess of 11 million albums in the last three years, has been guided in his career by one simple article of faith that more or less defines the man’s prosaic nature: “I believe that if you can maintain a really high standard of songwriting then you will rise above. That’s really all that counts.
“You don’t have to be a rock’n’roll myth, you don’t have to be a drug-taking alcoholic, you don’t have to be a fashionable pop idol. All you have to be is a good songwriter. That’s all I’ve ever believed. A lot of people think I’ve tried to develop a kind of working class, regular guy thing, but all I do is I go up on stage and I do my show, and all I’m saying is that these are just songs, and this is just me and my band. I never believed the myth that pop music is any bigger than just pop music, I don’t care who it is.” He pauses and spreads his hands in a gesture of resignation. “But everybody wants a hero.”
The media’s search for an angle on Adams usually ends with a personality assessment of him as “the politest man in rock” or something similar, and a musical comparison, invariably unfavourable, with the legend to end them all: Bruce Springsteen.
“Polite”, it seems, is not a problem.
“I’ve got no reason to argue with that. That’s fair. I don’t mind being thought of as polite.”
But what about rock’n’roll? What about The Beastie Boys?
“I suppose they’ve brought a little bit of rebellion back into music, which is good. What worries me is that when I was growing up, my form of rebellion would be a song like ‘Revolution’ or ‘My Generation’, or growing my hair, y’know, Yeah, sorry Dad, but that’s the way it is. These guys have got to prove it by drinking and telling their parents to take a hike, but it’s not in the same intelligent way that it was said back in the ’60s. They’ve only got the one song, although it’s obviously done with a sense of humour. I’ve never met The Beastie Boys, but I’m sure we would get along fine. I get along with everybody.”
However, the Springsteen comparisons rankle deeply.
“First of all, I’m not an American, secondly, I don’t think I’ve got that small town mentality, and thirdly, I don’t have the muscles,” is the flip, terse response to mention of His name. “I think if you’re gonna compare me to someone, then Rod Stewart and The Faces is a much fairer comparison, apart from the fact that I’m not as glamorous as Rod. But we sing songs about girls and good times so that’s a fair comparison. I don’t mind people saying we’re a little bit influenced by the Stones or The Who perhaps. But…” and at this point he prefers not to be specific, “I think all those other comparisons, it’s just lazy journalism. I think this band has got very much its own sound.”
The problem is, of course, that very few articles about Bruce Springsteen wind up mentioning Bryan Adams.
Adams, it should also be noted, is more than ten years Springsteen’s junior, but his is an old head on young shoulders. He was born Bryan Guy Adams in Kingston, Ontario on Guy Fawkes Day 1959. His father, Conrad Adams, formerly in the British army, had emigrated to Canada in the ’50s with his wife, Jane, a schoolteacher who later became a librarian. After a spell in the Canadian army, Conrad joined the diplomatic corps, and when Bryan was aged six the family moved to Vienna. Although it was his father who bought him his first guitar, when he was 10, Adams credits his mother with giving him the encouragement and freedom to pursue a career as a musician, especially following his parents’ divorce when he was 12 years old.
Returning to settle in Vancouver in his teens, Adams fell in with a local crowd of musicians, forming his first band when he was 16. But the most fateful connection of his career came in January 1978 when he met songwriter Jim Vallance. Seven years older than Adams, Vallance had recently left a group called Prism, and was on the look-out for a singer to perform his songs. He swiftly realised that the 18-year-old Adams had much more to offer than just his raw, powerful voice, and they became the songwriting team that has provided the overwhelming majority of Adams’s recorded material. Five albums and nearly 10 years later, the partnership remains intact.
Vallance is a withdrawn, low-key man who spent two years studying classical composition and five years studying cello at university, and who, although right-handed, learned to play the bass left-handed as a youngster, because that was the way his hero Paul McCartney played it.
He regards the prospects of the rock’n’roll roadshow with undisguised horror: “There’s not much I find enjoyable about a different city, a different airline flight and a different hotel every day for 10 months. I think that lifestyle has been romanticised by the press, but the only thing that’s fun about it is the two hours that you perform each night. The other 22 hours are a nightmare of misplaced hotel reservations, delayed flights and so on. It’s dreadful, and you really have to take your hat off to the people that can go out there for those lengths of time.”
Speaking by telephone from the safety of his Vancouver hometown, where he tends to stay put while Adams is on the road, Vallance recalls the early days of their collaboration.
“I had a small 8-track system set up in a little studio that he and I used in the beginning. This was in the basement of an old house that I was renting and occasionally if there was a heavy rainfall there’d be a flood and you’d go down in the morning and find the studio ankle-deep in water. It was a dark, cold basement and we spent two years there, writing all our first songs.”
The duo quickly secured a publishing deal with A&M, and after that company’s initial resistance to the idea of signing Adams as a performer, he eventually got a contract to record his first album, the sensibly titled Bryan Adams, which was released in 1980, in Canada only.
The second album, You Want It, You Got It was given a worldwide release in 1981, and reflected Adams’s increasing maturity as a singer, but it was his 1983 release, Cuts Like A Knife, that achieved the major breakthrough, yielding three American hits – ‘Straight From The Heart’, the title track and ‘This Time’ – and becoming a certified million-seller by July of that year.
The Cuts Like A Knife tour was the first that brought him to Britain, and his stage debut here was in 1983 at the Dominion in London, though he concedes that more people probably remember seeing him for the first time as support on the Tina Turner tour in March 1985, shortly after he’d enjoyed his first British hit with ‘Run To You’.
“That was a tough gig supporting Tina at Wembley. I had to pinch myself every so often on stage and say, Am I really up here?
“One night in Belgium, I blackened one of my teeth out, and I went out to do ‘It’s Only Love’ with her. I sang the first verse with my mouth sort of closed so she couldn’t see my teeth, and then as soon as she started singing her line I smiled at her. She cracked up. I got a pie in the face later on from her band, though.”
This is the kind of story that confirms a good-natured sense of laddishness about Adams that rarely seems to slip. Unusually for a solo star of his magnitude he has retained the services of a loyal suporting cast. Most of his band go back to the early days, such as guitarist Keith Scott whom Adams met in Ontario in 1976, and bassist Dave Taylor whose group Adams auditioned for (unsuccessfully) when he was only 15. His manager is still Bruce Allen, with whom he signed in 1979, and even the PA is hired from the same people he has always used, Jason Sound; they have been able to build a small club PA hire company into a stadium-sized touring conglomerate thanks mainly to Adams’s business over the years.
As for his partnership with Vallance, he regards the possibility of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin style bust-up as unimaginable.
“In the very beginning I said to Jim, No matter what happens, let’s never let money get in between us, and no matter what disagreements we’ve ever had with each other, we’ve always worked it out. There isn’t enough money that’s worth breaking up a relationship. History tells a story. If it isn’t Bernie and Elton, it’s Bacharach and David splitting up ’cause of money, or McCartney and Lennon. A lot of that stems from business.”
An official biography is being prepared by a Canadian journalist, Larry Leblanc, and Adams will be going through it with his red pen, but not, so he claims, to censor details he does not wish to be known. “All I want is for it to be interesting. A chronological, factual run through of my life is going to be pretty boring. I’m certainly not going to cut out anything about me that’s true. You see, there aren’t any real demons in my past to worry about.”
And you can almost believe him.
Mr Nice Guy or not, Adams has got the killer instinct when it comes to his music. After Cuts Like A Knife had gone platinum, he realised it was time to go for the knockout punch, and by his own admission, the recording of Reckless was an obsessive experience, and a tough time for those around him.
“I was struggling with the idea of doing a record that would outdo Cuts Like A Knife. I was very demanding with those working around me, the band, the engineer, Bob Clearmountain. I nearly knocked myself out doing it. You just get so into it that nothing else exists. I knew that I’d taxed everybody’s personalities far more than I should have, and I lost a lot of innocence on that record. People saw a different side of me, more brutal. I just went at it with fangs open.”
As well as yielding six American hit singles, including the Number 1, ‘Heaven’, Reckless has sold eight million copies at the latest count, and for all his lack of airs, Adams is now near the very top of the rock’n’roll tree. Into The Fire, released last March, looks set to repeat the success of Reckless, with worldwide sales already past the 2 million mark, and during the American leg of the current world tour he has rarely been out of the Pollstar weekly Top Ten of concert grosses.
His method of touring in the States is a long way removed from the old “hysterical” days of the tour bus, and he and the band now prefer to bivouac in one town for a week or so, flying to gigs in a 7-seater plane, and returning to base after each show. Thus, since moving into the luxurious Four Seasons hotel in Washington, the band has played Pittsburgh, Columbus and the Washington Centre, with days off in between. This is the way U2 have been touring Europe – jetting back home to Ireland each night – and would seem to be the ultimate in a red carpet touring method, although Adams sees it as a purely functional arrangement.
“It’s less wear and tear for us, because we’re not travelling on a bus for nine hours each day. The more sleep I can get, the longer I can stay in bed, the better shape I will be in.”
His rugged-sounding voice is a source of constant concern. He never smokes, limits the amount he drinks, and at the hot and sticky Washington Centre gig, as at all the others, Adams does not permit the building’s air-conditioning to be switched on.
“I have to really take care of my voice. It’s just a muscle that I’ve trained. I get it checked all the time, the last time was about a month ago. Sometimes I think that I work it a bit too hard. I won’t have any smoke or dry ice on stage and I have the air conditioning turned off in buildings. Those places, they just blow enormous fans of cold air on to the stage. It’s a hockey arena, they’re meant to refrigerate ice, it’s too cold. If you get really hot and sweaty and then they blow cold air down your back, you can get a chill, and next thing you know you can be on your back.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Adams recently played an unannounced gig at the Marquee in London, which was one of the most uncomfortably hot and under-ventilated events I have ever witnessed. Adams took the stage in a grey sweatshirt that proceeded to turn a uniform shade of sweat-drenched black after about three numbers.
“I had no idea that a place could be so hot. I thought I was gonna faint. But it was a lot of fun, the atmosphere was brilliant at that club. The best thing about playing at the Marquee was that you could smell ’em. The sweat was just pouring off me and there was this girl at the front who reached out and wiped my arm and then licked the sweat off her hands. It was wild.” If a little unhygienic.
At gigs as disparate as the Marquee and the Washington Centre it is noticeable how consistent a performer Adams is and how his show depends on traditional rock band values, almost to the point of minimalism. As already noted there is no dry ice or smoke let alone any thunderous explosions; apart from a few sparse, abstract colour schemes blipped against a black backdrop, the lighting is functionally bright; there is always an exactly correct sound balance; and the group are dressed conservatively in a vaguely ’60s, cuban-heel chic. Yet this is the act that topped the Kerrang! critics’ poll in 1985, and, yes folks, the excitement is simply to be found in the forceful yet invariably perfect delivery of a bunch of great rock ‘n’ roll songs.
In this sense Adams and his unnamed group are standard bearers of the New Rock Professionalism. It is an approach which, ironically, echoes the days when rock stars were anything but professional in a wider sense, but when it was exciting enough for groups just to stand on a stage looking reasonably cool, and play fab songs. The Beatles, to name but one, did little more than that during their short existence as a touring unit.
A quarter of a century later, playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band has become a legitimate, long-term career, involving little more mayhem or madness than you might expect to encounter in any showbusiness job that entails a lot of travelling. New Rock Professionals have brisk, well-organised personnel running sleek 10-month touring operations with a calm efficiency that would be the envy of any medium-sized business. Hotels are unlikely to be subjected to scenes of drunken devastation, but may be ruled out for use on the return visit if the air-conditioning is too noisy. The old, careless hedonism has been discarded in favour of a tone of moral rectitude and NRPs throw their weight behind charitable causes rather than campaigns to promote “free love” or to legalize cannabis.
Adams (with Vallance) wrote the Canadian Band Aid record, ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, accompanied Sting, Gabriel and U2 on last year’s Amnesty International concerts, and was one of the star attractions at the Prince’s Trust gala performances in June. His name was linked with Princess Diana and the word “heart-throb” in one of those dubious tabloid campaigns to whip up a story out of a non-event – “She had lots of chats with lots of other musicians, I don’t know why I’m the exception” – and he dismisses the story that he was instructed not to play his song ‘Diana’ at a royal performance in Vancouver, attended by Charles and Di, as “definitely not true”.
Drugs are a complete no-no. “I’m a very easy drunk. If someone were to say Bryan, I bet I could drink you under the table, I’d say, Yeah I bet you probably could. As for mixing drugs and alcohol, I couldn’t physically do it. It’s fine for the individual, but I don’t want to become a rock casualty. Doing drugs for the sake of trying to become inspired would be really foolish.”
He is unmarried but has a steady relationship with costume designer Vicki Russell, (Ken Russell’s daughter) whom he met on a video shoot. She lives in London, and he stays at her flat whenever he is in Britain. “Right now, we’re just boyfriend and girlfriend; we’re just going out with each other. There’s no big plan.”
Unlike just about any other Canadian rock star – and Adams is the biggest there’s ever been – he still lives in his home country, in northwest Vancouver on a rock bluff, which he’s named Cliffhanger. His house is fitted out with its own home recording studio, which is where he recorded Into The Fire.
He knows his work makes him special, but he is definitely not in the living legend stakes. He seems genuinely to hate the thought of it.
“Hard work is what makes me and Bryan successful,” says Vallance, never a man to introduce an unnecessarily romantic slant to a simple explanation. “Prior to recording the Into The Fire album, he and I wrote almost every day between November 1985 and August 1986, between eight and 12 hours each day, and on average five or six days a week for the entire period of time. That doesn’t mean we wrote a song every day, but we were definitely working at it every day.
“But we’re not exceptional in this. I don’t think there’s any successful person in any profession – whether it’s songwriting, or football, or politics, or journalism even – where that successful person hasn’t invested a great deal of time in his craft.”
I’ll drink (a Perrier) to that.
© David Sinclair, Q, November 1987