COVER

The Superstar

NICHOLAS JENNINGS July 6 1987
COVER

The Superstar

NICHOLAS JENNINGS July 6 1987

The Superstar

COVER

He was a scrawny kid, with a face scarred by acne and a shock of hair the color of mouldy hay. He had a high school education and no experience in the music business. But one summer night in 1976, after hearing a local rock band perform in Surrey, B.C., Bryan Guy Adams, 16, strode boldly up to the group’s producer and announced that he could sing better than its vocalist. He got an audition—and the job. Adams had a dream: a future in rock ’n’ roll. His next move was to take the money his parents had saved for his university education and buy a baby grand piano. Then he convinced a musician seven years his senior, Jim Vallance, to join him in a songwriting team. Within a year the two had won a publishing contract. A year after that, he talked West Coast music promoter Bruce Allen into becoming his manager. Adams told Allen: “I’ll be the biggest act you ever have.” Recalled Allen: “He believed it.”

Confidence: Now, a mere 10 years after that expression of unbridled confidence, Adams is not only Allen’s biggest act, he is arguably Canada’s brightest male star—as well known in-

ternationally as Wayne Gretzky or Pierre Trudeau. Adams’s raucous music, fist-pumping teen anthems mixed with heartbroken ballads and out-ofcontrol rock songs have catapulted him into the record industry’s major leagues. Reckless, his last album, sold 10 million copies worldwide—more than any Canadian in history. And it remained on the charts for more than 18 months with five hit singles.

Status: A crowd-pleasing performer, Adams is one of the hottest tickets in the world. Fans, both male and female, have crowned him prince of arena rock—for his ability to make the highest rafters ring with his roaring sound. Two years ago the only Canadian invited to appear at the rock event of the decade, Live Aid, Adams joined a superstar aristocracy that raised funds for famine relief in a concert telecast to a global audience of 1.5 billion. And after Adams played at Prince Charles’s Prince’s Trust benefit this spring—his second royal command performance—he received an unusual compliment from the heir to the British throne. Recalled Adams: “He told me my music ‘vibrated his sternum.’ ” Now, with a new album

(Into the Fire) and a nine-month world tour that takes him this week to Toronto and to Ottawa for a special Canada Day concert, Adams has reached the zenith of pop stardom.

Surprisingly, Canada’s brash young rock star is dissatisfied. Unhappy with his status as a rock idol for young teens, Adams says that he is determined to be taken seriously as a mature rock artist. In the past, critics often dismissed Adams as a bargain-basement version of Bruce Springsteen and as a no-frills rock singer whose songs simply pandered to adolescent yearnings. Last year he deliberately set out to challenge that image—taking part, alongside such serious rock stars as U2, Sting and Peter Gabriel, in the Conspiracy of Hope benefit for Amnesty International, the human rights organization that campaigns for the release of political prisoners. Into the Fire, Adams’s fifth album, confirms his new direction, tackling such topics as war, native rights and unemployment.

Elusive: Still, his dream of transcending teenybopper classification is elusive. Reviewing the album, Rolling Stone magazine charged that “Adams

shows that he has a will to speak but nothing in particular to say,” while The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau counted “an astonishing 56 full-fledged clichés” in the album’s lyrics. As Adams himself puts it in the album’s title track, he is now “at life’s crossroads.” Concerns: Although never a darling of the press, Adams is a bona fide pop hero to his legions of fans. His concerts are raw displays of rock performed on an epic scale. Last month the Centrum in Worcester, Mass., was a forest of 13,000 raised fists and swaying arms, dotted occasionally by cigarette lighters flickering throughout the darkened arena. And as he does at every concert, Adams played to the back rows, eliciting squeals of delight with every coy smile and roars of approval as he raced through a series of full-blown rock numbers. “Do you guys wanna join the band?” he screamed as the concert ground toward its finale. “Ya sure ya wanna join?” he continued, toying with the fantasy. “That makes us the world’s largest rock ’n’ roll band!”

By the time he walked offstage, his shirt plastered on his ribs like a rainsoaked poster, Adams and his four

backup musicians had worked the crowd into a deafening surge of adulation reminiscent of the frenzy that The Beatles regularly drew in the 1960s. Adams would appreciate the comparison. For him, Beatle songs mark the milestones of his own development, from boy-meets-girl subjects to more adult concerns on Into the Fire. In a recent interview with the music magazine Rock Express, he remarked: “Certainly Love Me Do was not as good as Revolution, but it is fine for what it is. The time comes [when] you have to write songs deeper than Love Me Do."

Adams reached that point two years ago, when he and Vallance (page 38) sat down and wrote the lyrics for Tears Are Not Enough, the anthem for Ethiopia’s starving masses recorded by an all-star Canadian cast. Although Tears lacks the gospel-like quality of its American counterpart,

We Are the World, it captured the emotional impact of the issue. In an interview with Maclean's, Adams explained his approach to writing the socially relevant material on his new album, songs like Native Son and Remembrance Day. “I don’t like politics being rammed down people’s throats,” he said. “But there’s a sensitive way of bringing up issues and making people think.”

Activism: His critics claim that Adams is merely jumping on pop’s political bandwagon.

But Adams bristles at the suggestion that his social conscience is a matter of imagemaking. All the songs for Into the Fire, he insists, were written before he was asked to join the tour for Amnesty. More convincingly, he turned down a lucrative offer to contribute Only the Strong Survive, a song on his album, to the soundtrack for the popular movie Top Gun, because he objected to the film’s glamorization of war.

And last summer he took the conventional approach to dissent, sending a letter to the Vancouver Province to protest the presence of a fleet of U.S. nuclear warships in the city’s harbor. In part, the letter read: “Being that Vancouver is a ‘nuclear-free zone,’ allowing these ships to remain here violated our anti-nuclear status and was an insult to the citizens of this city.” A

flurry of letters to the paper from fans, some critical of his newfound activism, swiftly followed.

Rebelliousness: Adams’s opinions have also landed him squarely in the middle of a family disagreement. His grandfather, James, who served in both world wars, now finds war morally repugnant. His father, Conrad, who joined the diplomatic corps after serving as a major in Commonwealth military forces, is more hawkish in his views. But conflicts are commonplace to Adams. He often says that he chose to pursue rock ’n’ roll—instead of following the family’s footsteps into the

army—out of sheer rebelliousness.

The new album demonstrates that Adams is still taking a rebel stance. One song, Remembrance Day, was inspired by a Vallance relative killed in the First World War. Said Adams: “Remembrance Day is about how important it was to fight and die for king and country.” He added: “I disagree.” Native Son, the album’s other issueoriented song, deals with the way native people were driven from their land onto reservations. Written from the point of view of an Indian chief, the lyrics recall the time “before the wagons, before the soldiers’ guns/When this land was ours as far as the eagle flies.” Adams says the song is “like opening a history book.” He and Vallance based it in part on speeches by

the 19th-century chief of the Northwest America Nez Percés tribe—one of the last holdouts against the white man. In concert, with the soaring, extended solo of Adams’s lead guitarist, Keith Scott, the song is stark and haunting.

The tradition of a politicized rock performer has a lineage at least as venerable as John Lennon’s famous anti-Vietnam war poster, which read, “War is over ... if you want it.” Rock in the 1980s echoes the 1960s in trumpeting a steady stream of political messages. Superstar Bruce Springsteen sings songs of working-class pride and often donates money to unions, community groups and veterans’ organizations. Nor is Adams alone in singing about native rights. Among the most recent songs: Native American, by New Jersey rocker Little Steven in a duet with Springsteen, and Stolen Land, by Canada’s Bruce Cockburn, who is publicizing the problems of the Haida Indians over land preservation in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands.

Credibility: Yet for Adams, credibility is still a problem. Rolling Stone criticized his Indian song as “vague,” while Vancouver Province rock critic Tom Harrison, who has followed Adams from his earliest days in music, * asked whether advance “ word of Into the Fire's Ï political thrust created too much expectation. “The songs are not particularly profound,” said Harrison. “It’s going to take a lot more to attract older listeners.”

That challenge is a strategic problem for Adams, now 27. His concert audiences still appear to consist mainly of young girls. Many pop idols have made their fortune from prepubescent teens, but both Adams and manager Allen know that such appeal is as fleeting as puppy love. Allen commissioned a demographic survey which shows that Adams’s fan constituency is 53-per-cent male and 47-per-cent female, in the 1825 age bracket. Now he is concentrating on pushing his client’s appeal to the upper end of that group.

Allen’s first step was to team Adams up with Tina Turner—first in a sizzling record duet, It's Only Love on

the album Reckless, then as opening act of Turner’s 1985 European tour. Offstage, Turner, then 46, teasingly referred to her short, tow-headed consort as “Dennis the Menace.” Adams tried to avoid blushing. But so compatible was their working relationship that rumors quickly spread linking them romantically. Adams took pains to squelch them. But there was no denying that it was a partnership seemingly made in rock ’n’ roll heaven, one that gave an additional jolt to two already-soaring careers.

Allen is also keen to note that Adams’s rough good looks and bratty

charm appeal to both sexes. “The female usually brings a boyfriend,” said Allen. “A female won’t bring her boyfriend to see Duran Duran. A male still likes Adams.” Best of all, from a marketing point of view, Adams’s appeal is international. Said rock critic Harrison: “He’s from Vancouver, but he’s never been satisfied with being a Canadian.”

In fact, before Adams was 15 his family lived in four different countries—Britain, Israel, Portugal and Austria. And although he claims to feel “very Canadian,” Adams says that he has never thought of his music as having a national sound. “I never believed there was a border,” he said, offering some advice for other Canadian artists trying to break into the American market (page 36). “I knew that if I had a record that could be No. 1 in Vancouver, there was no reason that it couldn’t be No. 1 in Seattle.”

Still, few people expected the un-

precedented success of Reckless. And Heaven, a single from the album, hit the No. 1 position on Billboard magazine’s chart, a feat which no Canadian had accomplished since Anne Murray’s 1978 ballad You Needed Me. After Reckless, executives at Adams’s label, A&M Records, began according Adams the status and treatment of a hot international property. With the simultaneous release of Into the Fire in 45 countries, Adams is no longer presented as a North American recording artist, but as an international star. For his current album, A&M flew 50 influential rock writers and radio people

from across Canada to a posh Toronto hotel for dinner and a special listening preview of the album on compact disc. The tone of the promotion was lowkey, reflecting Adams’s more mature image. Said James Monaco, an A&M vice-president: “We’re sensitive to the fact that this is a different record than Reckless. It’s a sign of growth.”

Serious: Whatever critics say about its artistry, Into the Fire is clearly the work of an adult. During the year that he took working on its material with Vallance, Adams for the first time found himself spending long stretches of time at his home in West Vancouver. Slowing down from the helter-skelter pace of rock ’n’ roll, he read stories by the late West Coast author-painter Emily Carr on life in native Indian villages and tended his backyard rose garden.

Currently, he claims, he lives modestly. And except for a collection of

guitars and the recording studio that he had built in his basement, he spends little of his earnings, estimated at well over $15 million. He is also pursuing a serious relationship with movie costumer Vicki Russell. The blond pert daughter of British film director Ken Russell, she met Adams when he was in London in 1984 shooting his Run to You video. Before long the two were flying back and forth between his Vancouver house and her London flat.

Adams is reticent about discussing his personal life—what little there is of it outside of the routines of touring that every album release brings. But because he is now on a tour that has him performing over 150 concerts to more than 1.5 million people before Dec. 5, Vicki joins him periodically on the road—a fact that Adams makes little attempt to conceal from loyal female fans at his concerts.

Maturity: But Adams’s new maturity has still not won him a sympathetic press. Manager Allen, whose own relationship with the press is sometimes excessively abrasive, once complained to a music industry conference about the disparities between record sales and press cog verage.Adams, said Al| len, sold a “quiet five 9 million” in the United I States, while British rock star Peter Gabriel sold a “loud one million.” To correct that, Allen last month invited journalists, record industry executives and various celebrities, including Beach Boy Brian Wilson, to a private champagne party at New York’s trendy Landmark Tavern, following the first of Adams’s two soldout concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

But his critics say that Adams still has to put more of himself into his songwriting. His armies of young fans may be loath to follow him into middleaged maturity. And despite his many achievements, he remains unsure of who he is or how he is perceived. As longtime Adams-watcher Tom Harrison puts it: “He’s trying to make a transition, which is quite difficult when you’re growing up in public.” But the boy in the sweaty T-shirt has a history of turning skeptics into firm believers.

NICHOLAS JENNINGS