ROCK ON A ROLL
BRYAN ADAMS BRINGS HIS TOUR HOME TO CANADA IN TRIUMPH-AND CONTROVERSY
The arena filled with a shrieking din, the kind of sound that can only be made by thousands of adolescents on the edge of hysteria. For Bryan Adams, it was a raucous homecoming. Performing his first coast-to-coast Canadian tour since 1985, the Canadian superstar looked out over a hockey arena packed with 10,000 fans last week and yelled: “It’s been a long time since we played in Halifax. And tonight we’re going to make up for lost time.” Wearing a black leather jacket, then discarding it for a white T-shirt that hung from his scrawny frame like a flag, Adams looked every inch the generic rocker—the basement-band hero. The music was loud, lean, straight ahead. And all the songs sounded like old hits, even the new ones. Then, finally, he played that song. As the lights bathed the stage in leaf green, the band struck up (Everything I Do) I Do It for You, from the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the ballad that has sent Adams to the top of the charts with an arrow. Girls swooned. Lighters flickered in the darkness. And when it was over, the singer blew a kiss to the crowd—like a gentleman bandit who has learned the power of chivalry.
After a three-month rock ’n’ roll crusade through Europe, Bryan Adams has brought his Waking Up the World tour home in triumph—and controversy. At a pre-concert news conference in Sydney, N.S., last week, he delivered a blast against Canadian-content regulations that offended some ears—and provoked debate about what it takes to get ahead in the domestic music industry (page 52). But Adams’s own success, meanwhile, is unprecedented. I Do It for You has hit the No. 1 spot in 19 countries, including Britain—where it set a new all-time sales record for a single. Buoyed by the song’s success, the singer’s sixth album, Waking Up the Neighbours, has sold nearly seven million copies worldwide in four months, making him Canada’s most successful recording artist. And the 32-year-old Vancouver native, who was born in Kingston, Ont., recently achieved another Canadian milestone by receiving six nominations for the U.S. music industry’s Grammy awards, which will be handed out on Jan. 27.
The universal appeal of Adams is not immediately obvious. As a rough-voiced rocker who writes infectious hits, he could be called a lighthearted Bruce Springsteen, a clean-cut Rod Stewart or a Sting without the venom—all contradictions in terms. Recently, Jim Färber, a critic for the New York Daily News, opened a review by writing, “If John Mellencamp had his brain removed, he’d sound like Bryan Adams”—and that was meant as a compliment. The charm of Adams’s music lies in its lack of intellectual pretence. Ranging from sentimental ballads to raw-boned rock, his songs thrive on clichés, and that is what makes them work—especially onstage. Adams has one of the hottest concert tours in the world. At a time when major performers such as Whitney Houston are cancelling engagements due to poor sales, his sold-out shows seem immune to the recession.
But in Canada, after his attack on Canadian-content regulations, some critics suggested that success has gone to his head. Adams had been responding to last year’s bizarre ruling by the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission that the 15 songs on Waking Up the Neighbours are “un-Canadian” because Adams cowrote them with a British producer, Robert (Mutt) Lange. That designation restricts the songs’ FM airplay to no more than 18 times per week. Music classified as Canadian has no limitation. Adams startled music industry observers, however, by urging that all Canadian-content restrictions be scrapped. “I think it’s garbage,” he told Maclean ’s later. “Canadian music will prevail regardless of government regulation. The hypocrisy of what happened to me is indicative of how stupid CanCon really is.”
Many industry observers responded that while Adams may no longer need CanCon protection, the regulations allow smaller Canadian acts to build a solid base of support at home before tackling international markets. Rockers who have benefited include Tom Cochrane, whose latest album, Mad Mad World, almost rivals Waking Up the Neighbours in domestic sales (page 54).
Pushed: But the Canadian music industry has evolved since Adams started out a decade ago. He maintains that the regulations were of no use to him early in his career. “When I look back on how hard I pushed to get those records played in Canada, it didn’t make any difference,” he said. “It wasn’t until my record was enormously successful overseas and in America that back home they said, ‘Mmmm, maybe it’s good.’ ” Indeed, Larry LeBlanc, the Canadian editor of Billboard magazine, told Maclean ’s that radio-station logs from the early 1980s confirm that assertion.
Despite Adams’s dismissal of CanCon, however, the singer displays an obvious affection for Canada. His 13city Canadian tour includes small centres such as Sydney and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.—places that almost never see superstars of Adams’s stature. And the singer says that he wanted to go even farther afield. But he has to wait for summer to play Newfoundland because it is difficult to move truckloads of equipment there in winter. “And we can’t even get an arena in Manitoba,” he said, “because the hockey season’s on—imagine that. It’s disappointing to me, because I wanted to do it properly.” Added Adams: “Anyway, playing places like Sault Ste. Marie will be excellent.”
Sipping juice from a paper cup, Adams sat backstage at the Halifax arena before last week’s show and gave a rare interview. He says that he hates “doing press,” and does so only to placate his manager, Bruce Allen. Meanwhile, Allen, who is notorious for his abrasive handling of the media, protects his client with bulldog tenacity.
In person, Adams is unprepossessing. The eyes are grey and inscrutable. His face, scarred by teenage acne, has character but lacks the charisma of his stage presence. Adams, who acts gregarious and carefree in front of a microphone, seems quiet, serious and cagey offstage. “I don’t like talking about myself,” he said. “I’d rather people didn’t really know me. I’m happy just to make my music and carry on my merry way.”
SENTIMENTAL BALLADS AND HARDROCKANTHEMS COME ALIVE ONSTAGE
But Adams does talk, eventually. And what emerges is a picture of a man who has undergone some major changes. After many bouts with the flu, he became a strict vegetarian and self-avowed “health freak” three years ago. In recording his new album, he terminated a working relationship of more than a decade with the Vancouver writing partner who helped make him famous, Jim Vallance. He also ended a sixyear romance with movie costumer Vicki Russell, daughter of British director Ken Russell— although he says that they remain close friends.
Planning to spend most of the year on tour, Adams maintains that he is not looking for another love affair. “There’s an incredible world out there, and I’m going to see as much of it as I can,” he said. “I’ve become much more outgoing in the last three years than I ever have been. Maybe it’s because, turning 30, you become a bit more wild. For me, it’s certainly been the case. It’s as if somebody’s taken blinders off me.” Added Adams: “If it isn’t an adventure, I don’t want to be involved.”
Beneath the veneer of boyish, fun-loving enthusiasm, Adams displays a workaholic dedication to his career. And he seems wary of any indulgence that might derail it. “I think you have to put yourself in a position of check,” he said, “to try to keep some sort of edge on what you do. My biggest fear about all of this is complacency—the idea that you can get so comfortably numb from doing what you do that there’s no reason to carry on.” Added Adams: “My instinct pulls me away from that complacency all the time, that wanting to be a normal person and have a house and 2.2 kids.”
Statement: Adams indulges in few visible luxuries, aside from a small collection of Emily Carr paintings in his modest West Vancouver home. He also owns a house in London, but again nothing extravagant. Adams certainly does not spend much on his wardrobe, which is so ordinary that it makes a fashion statement by default. “I’m very unglamorous,” he acknowledges. “I’ve always been unglamorous.” He says that he would rather invest his money in the business that generated it. In fact, he is now building a state-of-the-art recording studio in Vancouver.
Adams has also invested time and money in social causes. In 1985, he co-wrote Tears Are Not Enough, Canada’s pop anthem for African famine relief, with Vallance and producer David Foster. He sang with rock’s aristocracy at the Live Aid concert and the Conspiracy of Hope tour for Amnesty International. And Adams remains active in Greenpeace and Vancouver heritage campaigns. But his attempt to bring a political edge to his music resulted in a commercial setback. His previous album, Into the Fire (1987), broached issues of war, native rights and unemployment. And it sold only 1.5 million copies—an alarming drop after Reckless (1984), which reached 10 million.
With Waking Up the Neighbours, Adams seems to have suspended his quest for artistic maturity and reverted to the basic instincts of hard rock. Teaming up with producer Lange, who has worked with such heavy-metal acts as AC/DC, he has pumped up his sound with some metalflexing power pop. His sound is fatter and dirtier than before. And the lyrics are full of adolescent mischief—with a sense of humor.
In Hey Honey—I’m Packin ’ You In! Adams celebrates a breakup with lines like “I’m gettin’ bored of microwave cookin’/And you tellin’ me how awful I’m lookin’/Don’t wanna hear how you gotta be thin/Hey honey—I’m packin’ you in.” But Adams insists that the song is satirical, not sexist—it was, in fact, co-written by Russell, his ex-girlfriend. “People get so serious about the roles in their relationship,” he said. “I just wanted to make fun of the whole thing.” By contrast, the romantic sincerity of the Robin Hood ballad sticks out like green tights in a Levi’s ad. And the song, says Adams, is the result of “a happy accident.” Michael Kamen, who composed the sound track for Robin Hood, sent the music to Adams while he was recording Waking Up the Neighbours in London. With Lange, Adams wrote the lyrics and recorded I Do It for You, which was added to the closing credits of the film and included on the album. Adams seems as surprised as anyone by the single's success. “To me, it was just another song,” he said. “I’ve felt more excited about other songs that have done nothing.”
Most of the songs on Waking Up the Neighbours are high-octane party tunes that seem custom-made to crack the Top 40. A&M Records has already released two more cassette singles from the album, Can’t Stop This Thing We Started and There Will Never Be Another Tonight. And the company’s Canadian president, Joe Summers, says that the album has “at least another four or five singles that are radiofriendly.” He added that while Adams’s ballads have broad appeal, most of his material is “skewed towards a younger audience—male and female between the ages of 13 and 24.”
The singer’s musical tastes, however, are less adolescent than those of his fans. “What I go home and listen to is pretty different from what I play,” he said. “I mean, if you were to open my bag right now and see what tapes I had in there”—Adams rummaged in a zippered bag of clothes and pulled out a tape of vintage James Brown. “The thing that really gets me off is singers,” he said, mentioning Van Morrison and the Everly Brothers. “Every Van Morrison album that comes out, I buy. I love his voice. It speaks to me—it speaks volumes.”
Asked about Canadian music, Adams—who has spent much of the past two years in London— seemed only vaguely aware of current hit albums by Crash Test Dummies or Tom Cochrane. Instead, he expressed admiration for such folk-based singers as Rita MacNeil, Bruce Cockburn and Joni Mitchell. “Joni’s by far my favorite Canadian singer,” he said. “She’s sort of what Van Morrison is to Ireland, in a way.”
Rampage: Adams’s own roots are scattered around the globe. His British-born parents, Jane and Conrad Adams, immigrated to Canada in the 1950s. His father joined the Canadian diplomatic corps after serving as a major in the British and Canadian armies.
By 15, Bryan—the first of two sons—had lived in five countries: Canada, Britain, Israel, Portugal and Australia. Recalling his time in Tel Aviv, he said: “Imagine a 12-year-old boy and his brother on the rampage. It’s a war-torn country, and no matter what street you go down you end up with another adventure.”
Moving back to Canada involved some culture shock, especially when Adams discovered that there was no soccer at his new school in North Vancouver. “I was horrified,” he said. “I left school because of that and decided to take up music more seriously.” He was 16, a scrappy teenager who fought his way up through basement bands to a lead-singing stint with a group called Sweeny Todd. At 18, he met Vallance in a music store and convinced the musician, seven years his senior, to write songs with him. Later, with stubborn pestering, he persuaded West Coast promoter Bruce Allen into being his manager, telling him: “I’ll be the biggest act you’ll ever have.”
Adams made good on his promise. And Allen insists that his client has always been in control of his own career. “Bryan Adams is very aware of what’s going on. I don’t tell him what to do— this is the furthest thing from Colonel Parker that there is.” Added Allen: “In fact, if I’d been managing Elvis, he never would have got fat and he’d still be performing today.”
Although Adams is an international star, he has tended to remain loyal to those who have helped build his career. Allen’s Vancouver office continues to serve as his headquarters. And the singer has kept in touch with friends from his teenage years. Backstage after last week’s Halifax concert, Adams had a visit from David Roger, who played drums in Adams’s first basement band. “We were the best basement band,” said Roger, a commercial pilot who now lives in Halifax. “We were the best,” Adams concurred as he ate a post-show salad. The band did not last long enough to have a name, Roger explained. “Bryan was the only one who could sing White Punks on Dope, that song by The Tubes, so we latched onto him.” Then, he added with a smile: “I knew he was going to be big, because he moved on to a another band pretty fast.”
Two of the four musicians in Adams’s current band are old friends from Vancouver— guitarist Keith Scott and bassist Dave Taylor, who have been with him for 11 years. But the singer’s partnership with Vallance ended in acrimony. “It was a question of commitment,” said Adams, who had initially planned to make his new album with Vallance and included four songs that they co-wrote on Waking Up the Neighbours. “He wasn’t willing to put in the time necessary to make the record.” But Vallance told Maclean’s last week: “No one gave more time or was more committed to Bryan than I was. I literally spent years of my life with the guy—I’m disappointed to see how quickly he’s forgotten.” Offering his version of the breakup, Vallance added: “We simply ran out of steam. The other reasons are more personal and complicated, but let me say that things deteriorated to the point where I decided it was time to walk away.”
Still, Vallance looks back on his years with Adams as “exhilarating.” Asked to explain the singer’s popularity, he replied: “Bryan has a genuine charm that projects in concert and on video. He is also an exceptionally good singer.” For his part, Allen, 46, who watched the Halifax concert from behind the soundboard, says that he still finds his client’s performances moving, even after seeing thousands of concerts. He added that he even listens to Adams at home. “There is an honesty from the songs and an honesty from the stage,” said Allen. “Bryan exudes a genuine warmth.” Indeed, Adams undergoes a transformation onstage that seems quite miraculous. His angled features, with the Dennisthe-Menace shock of blond hair, turn strangely handsome in the spotlight. And the songs, which sometimes sound shallow on record, come alive as Adams pushes his sandpaper voice up against the screams of the fans.
On a bare stage, his band plays hard, no-nonsense rock, with an urgent bass and soaring, evenkeeled guitar lines—more stainless steel than heavy metal. And I amid the slashing optimism of his music, Adams creates surprising pockets of intimacy. He interrupts the jagged rhythms of Cuts like a Knife for a relaxed singalong. In Do I Have to Say the Words? while stalking the edge of Words? stalking the edge the stage with a mike stand in his hands, he brings the song down to a hoarse whisper. When it is over, he says not just “thank you,” but “thank you very much.” One minute he is the brat next door, waking up the neighbors, and the next he is a model of gallantry, gracefully accepting a bouquet from the front row. And by the end of the concert, with its sevensong encore, the limitations of the music seem superfluous. The cultivated immaturity of Bryan Adams becomes his greatest asset. And rock ’n’ roll seems young again.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Halifax with PAMELA YOUNG in Toronto
BRIAN D. JOHNSON