Article in UK Tatler Magazine, April 2008 edition
Rock star Bryan Adams directs Mikhail Gorbachev to stand outside on the balcony in the Baglioni Hotel, opposite the Albert Memorial. He tells him a joke that is then translated into Russian. Gorby beams. Adams clicks. "It was the most incredible moment, having the man who changed the world just chatting and chuckling”, says Adams, who is rarely star-struck.
For 25 years, Adams – dubbed by the tabloids ‘the Groover from Vancouver’ – has been a big star. His song ‘Summer of 69’ is a global anthem. He has sold tens of millions of records. He memorably opened Live Aid in America. It has been a meteoric rise to fame and fortune for the skinny young kid from British Columbia, Canada, who liked to whistle and hum Stevie Wonder songs as he walked to school. It’s also a rags-to-riches story for a man whose family was at once stage relying on handouts when they ran out of cash. “We were so skint that Mum couldn’t pay for Christmas dinner once and the Lions Club had to give it to us”.
This is rock’s renaissance man: photographer, vegan, cyclist, singer, love poet, Chelsea supporter, London resident, French speaker, green activist and one of Britain’s most eligible music stars. He charmed the Queen into posing for him at Buckingham Palace and the picture became a Canadian postage stamp. The recent M&S ad campaign with Bryan Ferry was shot by Adams. From the high-maintenance rock chicks to Dame Barbara Cartland, they have all fallen for him.
For instance, just a few days before Adams snapped Gorby he had photographed the wild-child actress Linday Lohan in New York. Then Elle Macpherson stripped almost naked for him on a beach in Mustique. Next stop Amsterdam, where 15,000 people swayed and clapped as he strummed his guitar and belted out his throaty rock. He performs roughly 10 days every month. His new album, ‘11’, has just been released, involving him in an 11-day, 11-city promotional tour (which comes to London on 11th March).
The new songs are upbeat; their subject is generally love and the unquashable human spirit. “It’s a searching record because that’s how I am. I’m always looking for a new thing, a new way of expressing an old idea, as, let’s face it, love has been sung about in a lot of ways”, he says, sipping Japanese tea in his sleek, modern house. In the basement, Elle Macpherson is having her hair blow-dried while she gets ready for a shoot with Adams. The housekeeper is scurrying around and a magazine fashion team hovers in the kitchen. He is the consummate multi-tasker. It’s too busy for him to concentrate when he wants to write, so to achieve the necessary calm he goes away.
This is his first new album for several years. The lyrics are freshly minted, sharp and passionate; the music is infectious rock. The message is can-do optimism in life and love, and there are unapologetically romantic lines: “Tomorrow may be raining, but tonight we have the stars...”; “I keep searching, I need something to believe in”; “We broke the rules, we had to do it, to get through it”. It all works – it’s why he can fill stadiums from Buenos Aires to Wembley.
And all this from a little boy who once thought he wanted to be a fireman. His parents were diplomats who were constantly on the move until their marriage broke up and the family’s fortunes spiraled downwards. Hew was left with an eye and an ear for high and low culture, but, leaving school aged 15, he had to learn on his own with self-discipline and hard work, fighting for his talent to be recognised. Early encounters with record producers led to the classic rejections. “I am uneducated” he says. “Dogmatic perseverance got me through. I focused on what I needed to do to get out of the hole I was in”.
The hole was a dreary and impecunious life in the suburbs with dead-end jobs to make ends meet. “I just wanted to know how to get out of the smelly apartment we were in”, he recalls. He knew he had to find ways to make his life change through music. He had been travelling the world on his parents’ shirt-tails, but that life of security and ease ended when they split. “We had gone form having a comfortable life to being absolutely broke”.
He was unfazed. “For some reason, I never really associated the problem with lack of money. It was always in my mind that I was going to make my own way. If it wasn’t a paper round or washing the dishes, there was something else to make cash. I knew I couldn’t get any money from home so I just got on with it. I dug ditches, cleaned cars, mowed lawns…you name it, I did it. I never for one moment thought that I couldn’t fend for myself. I’d just pick myself up and get on with things”. But even as a teenager he focused entirely on music. “Too far into it even to pay attention to girls”, he admits.
Adams is curious by nature. He chooses the unpredictable and quirky, and doesn’t do it dull. His favourite film is ‘Babel’, his song is Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’, and his book, Victor Hugo’s ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’. He has shirts by Alexander McQueen and has cooked spaghetti with his late friend Luciano Pavarottie, with whom he made an album.
In 1978, aged 18, he sent a demo tape to A&M records in Toronto and they signed him for a dollar. Key to his career was meeting the drummer Jim Vallance and starting a songwriting partnership that continues to this day. It was not, however, until 1984 that he struck gold. ‘Reckless’ was released on 5th November – his 25th Birthday – and it reached No. 1 on the US Billboard album charts. It had six hit singles, including ‘Summer of 69’, and his first No. 1, ‘Heaven’. Tina Turner recorded a duet with him, and more awards and accolades followed. His success has been huge, including 16 consecutive weeks at No.1 in the charts in 1991 with ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ – still a record. His music has been used in 42 films, notably ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’. He has been nominated for five Golden Globes for his songwriting, but still can’t read music.
He had an almost Messianic desire to make music. “I remember finishing a song and Jim and I were driving down the street and we saw somebody hitchhiking, so we stopped, picked her up and we played her the song. We were so desperate for someone to hear it because we were really excited about it. It was such a thrilling time. The hitchhiker – it was a girl I think – was like, “ok, that’s very nice, now can you just drop me off here?”. The song was called “Don’t turn me away”.
But he never wanted to be a singer. “I wanted to be a guitar player. I wanted to be the guy at the back of the stage, not at the front, but I knew there weren’t many singers around and I’d kind of worked out how to sing while walking to school. Aged 14, with my mates from school, we were fooling around, making a recording. We asked each other who was going to sing. I said “Umm, OK, I’ll sing”, and I did. After I’d sung no-one said anything. There was this stunned silence. I was like “was I that bad?” But at that point I figured that I could sing pretty good”.
And so he started. In lots of small clubs. “I would come home late, smelling like a donkey, night after night and I soon knew that I couldn’t go on doing it like that forever. I figured the next logical step was to write my own music”.
The rewards from his music have been good – the house in Mustique, the Chelsea pad consisting of three houses joined together overlooking the Thames. There is an understated natural cool about this stick-thin, puck-like figure, whose questing eyes and mind have him always on the go. No faux glam for him – he’s a jeans and t-shirt guy. Dressing up means putting on a white shirt.
Health is a priority. He gave up meat 20 years go, barely touches alcohol and never does drugs. He is a green-charity fundraises and his eco-awareness is not skin-deep. He cycles everywhere, and suffers cyclists’ usual frustrations – his Olympic-standard bike was stolen last year from outside a restaurant.
He doesn’t do the obvious. At a recent dinner at his London home (cooked by super-chef Tom Aiken, whose services he won in a charity auction), the guests included the beautiful 27-year old Sophie Winkelman, the British actress well on her way to becoming a Hollywood hit, and the 97-year-old actress Luise Rainer. She had scooped two consecutive Best Actress Oscars in the Thirties, then subsequently turned her back on Hollywood and now lives in London. She was the liveliest, most energized guest at the table, an echo of the Garbo era.
They met because Adams had wanted to take her portrait. She declined, but he said, ‘Let’s meet anyway’, and they became buddies. He has never lost the hunger to find great moments and great people. His Holy Grail of photographic subjects is another Hollywood legend, Olivia de Havilland, also in her 90s, who has virtually disappeared in Paris. Adams has not yet found her but “it has not been for want of trying”, he says good-naturedly.
Single at 48, Adams is never short of female company and has had several long, serious relationships, which he has never publicly discussed. The tabloids love to speculate, often wrongly, about his closeness to Elle Macpherson – they have simply been very good friends for a long time. Amy Winehouse was his guest in Mustique last Christmas – he offered her some protective calm, as her life was in such chaos. Mention her and he looks stung. He resented the fact that this private visit became tabloid fodder.
Adams likes to operate below the radar. Most noticeable is his modesty. He ambles into a room, slightly circumspect. He expects no special treatment. He is chatty, easy and always very curious, soaking up information like the autodidact he is. “I like learning stuff. I like new adventures”.
Catch him while you can – he’s a helluva catch.
SOURCE: TATLER MAGAZINE, APRIL 2008
by Helen Barton