The master of rock ’n’ roll romance
Bryan Adams bounded onstage in Chicago looking like the boy next door: short hair, faded jeans, a clean white shirt with the tail hanging out. But when his four-man band cranked up and Adams strapped on his cordless electric guitar, he became more like the boy who broke in next door—a delinquent with a fan club. “Whaddya think this is, an opera?” he screamed in his toughguy voice before a sell-out audience of 21,500. In Chicago, in the middle of his yearlong,
World Wide in ’85 tour of 13 countries that will end in December, Adams attacked, seduced and cajoled the crowd with his anguished rock anthems of lost love and heartbreak. With fists clenched and veins bulging on his neck, Adams sold rock ’n’ roll romance to a youthful audience the only way they have ever wanted it—raw. Said Adams after the show as he swilled champagne out of a blue plastic beer glass:
“Singing is very sexual. It doesn’t come from the heart. It comes from the groin.”
Adams is the type of man a father would hate to see his daughter date—even if she were Madonna. Rock queen Tina Turner, with whom Adams toured for three months in Europe this year, called him Dennis the Menace. Said Turner: “Bryan’s always on the verge of naughtiness.” Adams is also on the verge of becoming the biggest rock star Canada has ever produced. Just five years after the release of a widely ignored debut album, the 25-year-old singer born in Kingston, Ont., has become a certifiable superstar. Last week his latest album, Reckless, which he co-wrote with Vancouver songwriter Jim Vallance, was number 2 on the Billboard chart and has sold four million copies. In June his Adams: hit single from that album,
Heaven, rose to number 1 in the United States—the first time a Canadian artist has had a chart topper since Anne Murray’s You Needed Me in 1978. The latest Reckless single, Summer of '69, is currently at 15 and quickly rising.
And his headlining American tour has been playing to packed houses from
Florida to New Jersey. The tour has gone so well that Adams has become cautious about saying how many dates he will actually play in Canada in the next few months. Only his home town of Vancouver and Toronto are confirmed for concerts. Two weeks ago 13,000 tickets for Adams’s Sept. 2 show at the
Pacific Coliseum sold out in only 90 minutes. Calls for tickets jammed two telephone exchanges downtown.
As the tour bus pulled away after the Chicago show in June, Adams savored the rewards of stardom. Four years ago he played bars and small concert halls across Canada, travelling in a van
crowded with his band, equipment and two sound crews—and put up with drunks who yelled things such as, “Play some f------Stones, man!” But now, roll-
ing out of Chicago, the luxury tour bus has six beds, champagne on ice and Elvis on the stereo. To keep the show on the road for a week requires a technical crew of 40 and costs $100,000. And Adams’s soaring ego is the reason for it all—his singleminded pursuit from the age of 16 of rock stardom. Drained after the concert, Adams was still emphatically energetic. Whether wailing to old Elvis tunes or doing his Marlon Brando imitation, he is almost always the quick-witted centre of attention.
His beginnings in rock can be traced in the lyrics to Summer of '69. In that nostalgic ballad Adams sings about the first guitar he bought—an imitation Fender Stratocaster he played until his “fingers bled.” Buying the guitar, he said, was “my first major career move.” He was 10 years old at the time. His second major decision came at 16, when his parents had separated and he was living with his mother in Vancouver. He quit school after completing Grade 12 at Argyle Secondary School, took the $2,000 his parents had saved for his university education and bought a used Estey grand piano, which still sits in his two-storey West Vancouver home. Adams tried to find a place for himself in the city’s music scene, auditioning for bands and making money by washing dishes in the Tomahawk Barbeque restaurant in North Vancouver. Dave Taylor, who now plays bass guitar for Adams, was looking for a guitarist for his own band at the time and remembers Adams clearly. “He eame in with a face full of pimples and a whole room full of amplifiers—it was
ridiculous,” said Taylor. “He
set them all up, played the three chords he knew and I told him to get lost. He was terrible.”
In 1977 the 17-year-old Adams had a chance encounter that changed his life. While browsing through the guitar section of the Long & McQuade music store on Vancouver’s Fourth Avenue, he met
Vallance, a local songwriter and drummer who had written seven of the nine songs on the first album of the Canadian rock band Prism. Vallance was looking for a singer, Adams was looking for a route to musical respectability, and the two hit it off immediately. Together in the basement studio of Vallance’s home, over the next few months they wrote songs including Let Me Take You Dancing which, with vocals by Adams, became a number 1 disco hit in 1979, selling more than
250.000 copies worldwide. Since then the team has written songs for Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Joe Cocker,
Juice Newton, Kiss and Loverboy. While in England last April, Adams got a call from Roger Daltrey, the former lead singer of The Who. Said Adams: “He phoned me up and told me he was doing films and needed tunes. I was flabbergasted.”
The success of Let Me Take You Dancing finally led to a recording contract with A&M Records of Canada, which had initially only signed Adams to a song publishing deal. It also helped him enlist the star-making, managerial services of Vancouver’s brash Bruce Allen, who also co-manages Loverboy. Said Allen: “At first I didn’t want anything to do with Bryan. He j ust kept coming into my office and hanging around and asking me to listen to stuff.” In December, 1979, Allen finally relented and agreed to manage the cocky Adams. The only contract they have is a handshake. “Bruce once sent me a contract,” said Adams, “but I didn’t sign it. If it isn’t working for us, what’s the point of binding ourselves to a piece of paper?”
But not even Allen’s marketing ability could save Adams’s first album, simply titled Bryan Adams. On it his voice is high-pitched and the songs predictable. Still, the next year Adams came back swinging, cutting an album he wanted to call Bryan Adams Hasn't Heard of You Either. Instead, the title was You Want It, You Got It, and it sold
500.000 copies internationally. Allen lined him up as the opening act for such bands as The Kinks, Foreigner and Loverboy in the United States and Canada. Said Allen: “No matter what groups he opened for, I knew that there was no one who could blow him away.”
More than anything, Adams’s ability
to put up with the rigors of touring has led to his phenomenal success. In five years he has been on the road an average of more than 250 days a year. Performing his 90-minute show is often the easiest part. Touring also means mingling with radio station owners and record company representatives, doing countless interviews and cozying up to disc jockeys so they will play a single.
Despite his naughty-boy image, Adams has been diligent at playing the music industry game. So diligent that his work almost precludes a private life: he has a girlfriend he rarely sees and will not talk about, except to say he calls her “the bag”; a BMW he rarely drives; and a home in Vancouver he hardly ever visits.
Of equal importance to record sales in the 1980s are rock videos. With the release of his third album, Cuts Like a Knife —and a controversial video of the title track —Adams gained enormous publicity and airplay. The video showed Adams and his band performing in a drained swimming pool. Meanwhile, behind a screen a young woman stripped
off her clothes, then appeared in a bathing suit and dove headfirst into the dry pool. But when she reappeared, she was dripping wet—and Adams was holding a flashing knife. Critics said that the video was sexist and exploitative. Replied Adams: “Anyone who thinks that is violent or pornographic is a prude.” With the release of Reckless and his own summer tour, Adams has consolidated six years of hard work and finally carved out a strong identity for himself. His music is “Heavy MOR’’ (“Metal of the Road”)—a highly commercial combination of rockers and ballads with recurring themes of seeking and losing love. Onstage, Adams’s emotive, highly charged performance allows him to star in the mini-melodrama of each of his own songs. Said Fiona Flanagan, a rock singer from New Jersey who recently opened for shows on the Adams tour: “I don’t know if he knows how romantic he is. I listen to him every night and say to myself, ‘I’m going to quit music and just have his baby.’ ” Critics have been less moved. The highest praise Adams wins from
the judges is along the lines of the review of Reckless that appeared in the Jan. 17, 1985, issue of Rolling Stone: “Vancouver-bred Bryan Adams has typically produced the closest thing yet to generic rock V roll, long on formal excellence but short on originality.” Although often compared with Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart, Adams denies any similarity except that “ we’re all guys that do rock ’n’ roll and we all have gruff voices.” Rather, Adams says that his singing and songwriting are in the tradition of rhythm and blues. “I’m third-generation R&B,” he said. And unlike Springsteen’s lyrics, Adams’s songs have no political content. With the exception of Tears Are Not Enough, they do not deal with social issues. Said Pat (The Axe) Steward, Adams’s drummer: “His music is about guys and girls. They’re melodies that stick in your head.” Added Adams: “Why do things have to be polluted with social issues all the time? I write about loneliness, which affects people more than nuclear war, more than starvation.”
Loneliness is a constant theme running through Adams’s own life. He was the first-born son of a British couple, Conrad and Jane Adams, who emigrated to Canada in the 1950s. His father joined the Canadian diplomatic corps and took the family to postings around the world. But when Adams was born, in Kingston, on Nov. 5, 1959, his father was in Malaya. Adams, along with a younger brother, Bruce, spent their young years
in Portugal, England and Israel, in each country attending strict British military schools in the Adams family tradition (both his father and his grandfather attended the British military academy, Sandhurst).
Adams challenged the world as a child—and often lost. He recalls being suspended from school numerous times for “being belligerent.” On one occasion he was expelled for swearing at his headmaster shortly after kicking a soccer ball through his window. In many ways, Adams is still the same roughneck prankster. Backstage before a show in Cincinnati last June, Adams and the band amused themselves by firing Roman candles above the crowd and tossing firecrackers at one another. When Adams noticed that a flotilla of pleasure boats had anchored nearby on the Ohio River in order to hear the music, he yelled jokingly to his friends: “Let’s throw rocks at them.” Three years ago, during an interview with Margaret Trudeau when she was cohosting a CTV morning show in Ottawa, Trudeau asked him, “So what’s it like travelling around with rock stars?” Without missing a beat, Adams shot back, “Gee, Margaret, you should know.” During the duet of It ’s Only Love, with Tina Turner, on their European tour, Adams came onstage wearing a false nose or with a tooth blackened out. Said Turner: “You never knew what he was going to do.”
In early June, however, Adams’s boyish bravado almost got him killed. Dur-
ing a day off in Memphis, he and a few members of the crew decided to go skydiving. Adams jumped with a trained skydiver, but when the main chute opened it wrapped around their feet and faces. The skydiver panicked, leaving Adams desperately trying to get the chute out of the way so that a second safety chute would open. It did—within seconds of disaster. The parachutist was noticeably shaken when they landed, but Adams just untangled himself, stood up and said, “Let’s have a beer.” Bryan Adams has scrapped and scraped his way to the top of the music world through talent, sheer perverseness and a shrewd understanding of how to sell the potent combination of music and image. Aided and abetted by the songwriting talent of Vallance and the marketing wizardry of Allen, Adams has become a literal industry, his Vancouver-based mail-order business selling everything from baseball shirts to buttons. What exactly are people buying? It is rock’s answer to Miss Lonelyhearts, a tough guy with a sensitive soul who has been burned by love but still keeps returning to the flame. To the males in his audience, Adams is just one of the boys, scrawny, spiky haired, with a complexion still bearing the stigmata of teen acne. To the girls, he is something quite different, yearning, accessible but—as he said himself—“not touchable.” The image is for sale, but the real Bryan Adams is not.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
JANE O'HARA in Vancouver, with BRIAN D. JOHNSON in St. John’s.
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