MACLEANS MAGAZINE April 2012
Bryan Adams still sings straight from the heart
We’re in Paris, but you wouldn’t know it. There’s nothing Old World about Le Zénith, an arena in the shape of a concrete clamshell that sits next to a sculpture of pointless girders in a paved park inspired by a deconstructionist philosopher. The arena was built in 1983, the same year a 23-year-old Bryan Adams scored his breakthrough with the album Cuts Like a Knife. Now he’s 52, performing the title track at Le Zénith for 6,000 fans. During a two-hour show of wall-to-wall hits, the French fans, singing in perfect English, join in on every number. You can tell, because Adams often holds back a lyric to let the crowd ﬁll the vacuum. “It’s like f–king karaoke!” enthuses his veteran manager, Bruce Allen, who’s watching from the edge of the stage—still amazed by the kid who, at 18, vowed he’d be his biggest act ever.
No male Canadian singer-songwriter has sold more records than Bryan Adams—some 65 million albums. He’s sitting on a massive repertoire of hits, and is not about to let them go stale. He’s been touring the world with a show designed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Waking Up the Neighbours, the album that conﬁrmed him as a superstar. And next month Adams is bringing it all back home with his ﬁrst full-scale Canadian tour in two decades, a string of 21 shows that will kick off April 11 in St. John’s.
So what has changed? “I’d like to say nothing,” he says backstage in Paris, “but everything has changed. I can actually remember where I am now, whereas back then it just folded into a blur. In the old days I would have done 20 shows in a row, banging them out in a month.” But Adams will spread his Canadian tour over three months, hitting the eastern provinces and Quebec in April, Ontario in May, and the West in June. “It’s not cost-effective,” he says, “but it’s not about the money.”
Besides, there’s more to his life these days than rock ’n’ roll. Adams has developed a second career as a portrait photographer, shooting everyone from a naked Jann Arden to a grinning Queen Elizabeth II. And he has fathered his ﬁrst child, Mirabella Bunny, who marks her ﬁrst birthday next month. “He loves that kid,” says Allen. “Boy oh boy, I never thought I’d see that. Fifty-two years old! That’s the centre of his universe now. I have to schedule tours around christenings and stuff.”
Bruce Allen is the reason I’m in Paris. Twenty years ago, for the launch of the last full Canadian tour, I talked to Adams for a Maclean’s story. Allen dug up the article and was determined to reunite us for a time-lapse interview. Born in Kingston, Ont., the former Vancouverite now lives in London’s tony Chelsea neighbourhood, when not at his place on the Caribbean island of Mustique, next door to Mick Jagger. He also has a house in Paris. So I proposed a phone interview. The irascible Allen, 66, wouldn’t hear of it. He insisted on dipping into his “million points” and flying me to Paris for the launch of the European tour. That’s how I ended up sleeping with Canada’s most powerful music mogul at 35,000 feet, each of us cocooned in separate business-class pods.
My ﬁrst brush with Allen was in 1985, when I snuck into the recording session for the Ethiopian relief single, Tears Are Not Enough—co-written by Adams and Jim Vallance. I was there on a tip from producer David Foster. When Allen found out, he flew into a blue rage, dragged me into a backroom for interrogation and confiscated my notebook. Now he’s recruited me to lure the notoriously press-shy Adams into print. Problem is, Adams doesn’t want or need the publicity. His Canadian tour is virtually sold out. Yet, while he’s been steadily putting out CDs and playing sell-out shows around the world, Allen worries there’s a perception his client has fallen off the map. I know what he means. When I told my 94-year-old mother I was going to Paris to see Bryan Adams, even she said, “Isn’t he a bit past it?”
Greeting me in his dressing room at Le Zénith, Adams looks trim and ﬁt. The boyish features are more chiselled, the eyebrows a bit craggy, and with his blond hair slickly combed and parted, he could pass for an RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain. “So how did they suck you into doing this?” he says with a smile, as he makes a pot of tea. I point out he was the one who needed persuading—Allen had to stop him from cancelling the interview at the last minute. “I tried to squirm out of it,” Adams admits. “I just try to fly as low under the radar as possible.”
It hasn’t helped that he’s felt the heat of the London paparazzi ever since the birth of his daughter with 32-year-old Alicia Grimaldi, a Cambridge graduate who is a trustee and co-founder of the Bryan Adams Foundation. (Set up after the 2004 Asian tsunami, it ﬁnances projects to help the disadvantaged around the world, with a focus on youth.)
Wary, yet warm and gracious, he discusses everything from mixing rock ’n’ roll with fatherhood to getting lured into a photo op by Stephen Harper. Two years ago, Adams went to lunch at 24 Sussex Dr. on a mission to reform Canada’s “archaic” copyright laws and protect songwriters from ﬁle-sharing. “I remember him saying, ‘Well, you can still play live, can’t you?’ ” Adams recalls. “I said, ‘That’s missing the point. It’s all right for me, but what about the youngsters?’ The next thing you know, we’re playing music in his living room and I realize it’s a photo op. The only publicity the story got is that Bryan Adams got to play with Stephen Harper.”
“More like Stephen Harper got to play with Bryan Adams,” I suggest.
He shrugs. “It was quite disturbing.”
The last time we talked, his career was cresting with Waking Up the Neighbours (1991), along with its single (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, which remains his biggest hit. Now, his drop in the charts is reflected in his concert set list: only one of its 25 songs is from this century, and it’s 10 years old. “I wish I could write the songs I wrote back when I was 22,” Adams sighs. “But I don’t know how to do that anymore. I write the songs I write now that I’m 52. It’s a different thing.”
In recent years, Adams has tried to reinvent himself, mixing up arena gigs with a “Bare Bones” tour of acoustic shows, backed by just a piano player, and ﬁelding requests via Twitter. He also pushed Allen to create a gentler schedule, with just 10 shows a month. “He fought me,” says Adams, “and he still ﬁghts me, but he’s ﬁghting a losing battle . . . It’s like having a brother, a really annoying one.”
The oldest of two boys, Adams grew up travelling around the world with his British-born parents, Jane and Conrad Adams, now both retired in Vancouver. His father’s work in the Canadian diplomatic corps took them to Britain, Israel, Portugal and Australia. Still a “global nomad,” as he calls himself, the singer has a far-flung fan base. He’s one of the biggest white pop stars in India and was one of the ﬁrst major acts to play places like Pakistan and Nepal. The Pakistan gig, an earthquake relief beneﬁt, was held in the countryside, for easier crowd control. The band rode to a makeshift venue behind a pickup truck full of guards who would jump out at every stoplight waving AK-47s. “We played on a flatbed truck in a ﬁeld with 15,000 people,” says Adams, who was later commandeered to give a speech at a palace dinner hosted by then-president Pervez Musharraf.
As our allotted 20 minutes expire, Allen dutifully pokes his head in the door to see if his client wants to end the interview. Instead, Adams suggests we continue in a car outside to avoid interruptions and escape the din of the opening act’s sound check. In the backseat of a Mercedes sedan, talk turns to photography. “I always had a camera on tour and used to take hysterical photos of my guitar player [Keith Scott]. ‘Why don’t you fly across the room naked and I’ll get a shot of you in mid-air landing on the bed as hard as you can, okay?’ Just wacky things. Girls . . . All kinds of stuff. I didn’t realize I was honing a craft.”
But Adams, a vegan who shuns drugs and barely drinks, is no party animal. To unwind, he says, “I swim a lot. That’s what I like to do. I tell you when I do get squirrelly, it’s when I’m not doing something.” Scott, his guitarist for 35 years, says the singer has never been able to sit still. “In the ﬁrst years, we roomed together. Everyone would get up late. He’d be up at eight or nine o’clock phoning the station manager—‘You’re not playing my record. C’mon man, you gotta play my record.’ ”
As a teen, Adams chased music with fanatic zeal. “I was a bit of a club rat,” he says. “I made it my mission to go out as much as I could.” He remembers sneaking into Vancouver nightclubs to catch James Brown and Tina Turner. Years later he would record a hit single with Turner (It’s Only Love), who sent him baby clothes for the birth of his daughter.
So does fatherhood change everything? “I don’t feel a whole lot different, to be honest. I feel like things are better. You get a sense of purpose.” And will being a dad inspire new songs? “It already has. Funny songs. I come up with them all the time. There’s a whole children’s album you’re never going to hear. You’re walking down the stairs. Oh, there’s a good song—[singing] walkin’ down the stairs, walkin’ down the stairs.”
Though Adams is rock’s most unabashed romantic, with a repertoire almost exclusively devoted to open-heart anthems of love, he keeps his personal life strictly off-limits. I ask if he will stay single, and he corrects me: “No, I’m with my partner I had the baby with,” he says, without uttering her name. “I’ve got a baby now.” Adams has wanted a child for a long time, and “came close a number of times, but for one reason or another it didn’t happen. I made up this whimsical story that I tell her mother when Bunny can’t sleep—that she chose us. She was just circling overhead and thought, ‘Right, you two!’ ”
Bunny is already a world traveller. “The thing about my daughter,” says Adams, “is she’s Caribbean. She’s spent a lot of time there. She was conceived there.” She also joined her dad on his recent Japan tour. “I want her to get a taste of it. I want her to be a little rock ’n’ roll girl, to see the world the way I saw the world as a kid. I was on the road with my parents until I was 12.” Adams still longs to play places he’s never been to—he mentions Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. And the rocker who has recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Rod Stewart and Pavarotti is still up for new collaborators—he puts Rihanna and Adele at the top of his duet wish list.
With its infectious hooks and unvarnished clichés, Adams’s music doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. But to see him perform is to be reminded that he has a spectacular voice. It’s unique, a seductive mix of sandpaper and honey that comes (as the lyric says) straight from the heart. Veteran critic Dave Marsh calls his yearning tenor “one of the classic rock instruments” and says that, as a balladeer, Adams is “a master dramatist.”
After 20 years of wear, the voice is remarkably unscarred. In fact, it sounds more supple and controlled than when he was burning through a brutal tour schedule. On his live Bare Bones album, it reveals new depths of intimacy, as well as an ironic candour. Before singing Heaven, Adams tells the audience he ran across a version on YouTube, sung by a pretty girl in her living room. “I looked down and see 16 million hits . . . Okay, let’s go see what the original got . . . I couldn’t ﬁnd it.”
In Paris, the arena twinkles with waving lighters whenever Adams launches into a ballad, singing all those words women want to hear. But he can still electrify the crowd with raw rock ’n’ roll, and never puts down the guitar. “He’s Peter Pan,” says Bruce Allen. Or as Adams puts it, as he unleashes a familiar anthem: Don’t want to grow up / I don’t see why . . . gonna be 18 til I die / Sure feels good to be alive / Some day I’ll be 18 goin’ on 55.