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‘There is a lot of bravado from both sides’ – Bryan Adams on competing with Bono

“I have a Bono story,” Bryan Adams says of his friend. “I was on tour with him and U2 on the Amnesty International tour in 1986 with Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Sting, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez…”

itled ‘A Conspiracy of Hope’, the shows across America were to raise awareness about the work of the organisation and to highlight human rights abuses in places like South Africa and Central America. “But when we got to Denver, the promoter had refused to promote the concert because he didn’t understand what Amnesty International was. He probably thought we were a bunch of communists. So, we all walked onstage to an empty house.”

“Jesus,” I say. 

“No, not even Jesus was there!” he laughs.

There’s no doubt that when Canadian superstar Bryan Adams walks onstage at the 3Arena in Dublin and the SSE Arena in Belfast in May, there will be a full house. He has sold more than 75 million albums, been nominated for Grammy awards 15 times, and released one of the biggest-selling singles of all time with ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’. His most ardent fans will own a copy of his new album, his 15th, So Happy It Hurts. Happiness, however, was hard won.

Adams was born in 1959 in Ontario, Canada, to Elizabeth Watson and Captain Conrad Adams. His father would later become a foreign service diplomat whose postings included Austria, England, Israel and Portugal.

The young Bryan attended St Columban’s in Lisbon in the late 1960s and the Church of Scotland School in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, in 1970.

“I loved Israel,” he says. “I mean, I don’t love the politics there, but I loved the country. I loved the people. It was a beautiful place to go to school.”

He describes his childhood as “reasonably unstable because I never stayed in one place long enough. But, by the same token, the instability of that nomadic lifestyle also gave me a sense of wanderlust for the future. I think that’s part of what makes me who I am”.

There were other factors that made Bryan Adams who he is. His parents’ marriage was volatile. In fact, the arguments at home were such that between the ages of 11 and 12, he would lock himself away in his bedroom – by then he was living in Reading, England – and listen to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, Deep Purple’s Machine Head and Alice Cooper’s Killer.

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Bono, Sting and Bryan Adams join the finale of the June 11, 1986 Amnesty benefit concert in Atlanta, Georgia. Picture by Ebet Roberts/Redferns

“You find solace in words and music,” he says.

His parents sent him to see a psychiatrist twice a week when he was 12. It was a formative experience. “He [the psychiatrist] said to me one time: ‘I want you to know something. You’re really alright, kid. You shouldn’t be here. It’s your parents who should be here.’”

“I never forgot that,” he says. “It was such a weight off my shoulders to hear that, because people were saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re not doing well in school. You’re being argumentative.’ It was great to just sit with someone who had a chance to chat with me and then told me I was alright.”

His parents’ marriage broke up when he was 12. He and his mother and younger brother Bruce moved to Vancouver. Money was tight.

“There was nothing in the fridge. It wasn’t a very good time. We had nothing,” he says. “I had to do something.”

Just before his 15th birthday, Adams (who was then the singer in a local band called Shock) told his mother that he was going to leave school and get a job. His mother saw the sense in his plan and went to see the headmaster of his school, Argyle Secondary in Vancouver. She informed him that she was taking Bryan out of school and he was going to join a band.

The headmaster’s reaction, Bryan recalls, was near righteous fury. “You’re a bad mother and you are going to regret this for the rest of your life,” he told her.

To which she replied: “It’s my choice. My son’s going to do what he is going to do. He is going to be alright and I am going to support him.”

“She was following her instinct,” he says now, adding, “She told me that, for the longest time, those words the headmaster said echoed in her head.”

He played in a band, worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant and sold pet food to help the family make ends meet.

Then by chance, in 1978, 18-year-old Adams met fellow songwriter Jim Vallance in a record shop. Vallance, who was eight years his senior, would loan him the bus fare to travel to downtown Vancouver where they would write songs together. In February 1980, Adams’ self-titled album, mostly co-written with Vallance, was released. Around that time, he says, he was sitting in his hotel room in Los Angeles preparing for a tour when a movie on television caught his attention.

“I watched this film about sons and dads. I thought, ‘I’m going to find my dad.’”

He hadn’t spoken to his father in nine years. “Not by choice,” he says.

Why did he wait almost a decade? “I hadn’t sought him out before because, first, I didn’t know how to and, secondly, I didn’t have the money to, and thirdly, I didn’t want to upset my mum.

“In the end, I thought it was the right time. I found him [in Japan]. It just turned out that I was going to Japan around the same time on tour. It was a strange coincidence.”

“I said to him on the phone, ‘I’m actually coming to Japan.’ He said, ‘Great. Let’s go out to dinner.’ That’s what we did. Nine years evaporated like that.

“There was no animosity between us. It was just a f**ked-up family. Instead of people being civil about it and just saying, ‘This isn’t working, let’s move on, let’s figure out a way to make everybody happy’, it was that unbelievable, tempestuous thing of people not getting along.

“So, when I did sit with him, he would say something like, ‘Well, you know, your mother…’ And I interrupted him and said, ‘Hold on, you married her, mate. I didn’t marry her. I am the product of it. Let’s just get on with it.’ He looked at me and sort of smiled.”

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Bryan Adams poses in front of portraits of celebrities he took during a project to aid the ‘Hear the World’ initiative and bring awareness to hearing loss in New York, May 2008. Picture by Reuters/Lucas Jackson

He channelled all of that childhood pain into his subsequent music. “Pick up any of the albums, it’s in the music. There is an obligation to yourself as a songwriter to tell your truth, to sing your truth, to write your truth. Music is a great cathartic release of whatever you have going in your life. If you can write your truth, then you’re on the road to being on your way.”

There were a lot of bumps on the road before he was on his way. He once signed a management contract for one dollar because that was the minimum amount to make it legally binding. (He is now worth an estimated $75m.)

His debut album meant, he says, “getting out of the shitty clubs into the better shitty clubs – because if you had a record, you could put it on the marquee – ‘A&M recording artist’ – people would think, ‘Oh, he’s got a record. He must be OK.’”

Things were more than OK by 1984. His fourth album, Reckless, made him an international star with hits like ‘Run to You’ and ‘Summer of ’69’. It sold 12 million copies.

The following year, he played the American leg of the Live Aid concert from Philadelphia for Bob Geldof (“He’s one of the great raconteurs,” he says of the Irish singer). On stage, and record, he came across like a young, blue-eyed Bruce Springsteen who sang with a gravelly Don Henley voice.

Before long, he was playing at sold-out concerts around the world. In 1991, ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’ spent 16 weeks at the top of the charts in England.

By the mid-1990s, he had begun a parallel career as a photographer. He attributes his passion for the medium to one of his uncles who worked at the Ilford film company and would send him cartridges of black and white film to use on his parents’ camera.

Over time, Adams photographed everyone from Salman Rushdie to Mikhail Gorbachev to Mick Jagger. In 1999, he published his first photo book Made in Canada, featuring prominent Canadian women like Alice Munro, Joni Mitchell, Margaret Atwood (who wrote the preface), Celine Dion and Margaret Trudeau Kemper. All the royalties went to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, and he dedicated the book to his friend Donna who died in the middle of the project from breast cancer at the age of 38. “She was my muse,” he said.

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Amy Winehouse is included in a photographic exhibition of portraits by Bryan Adams at the Museum NRW forum in Dusseldorf, Germany, February 2013. Picture by Patrik Stollarz/AFP via Getty Images

In 2007, he photographed singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse for a charity, and the two became friends. In December, he loaned the troubled singer his home on the island of Mustique so that she could have time away from the spotlight. Their friendship lasted until her untimely death at the age of 27 due to accidental alcohol poisoning. Two empty vodka bottles were found beside her bed in Camden in 2011. When her posthumous album Lioness: Hidden Treasures was released, the cover photograph was by Adams.

“She was on her own mission,” he says. “There was nothing I could have said [to her] that would have helped her. All you could do was try and lessen the load. I was just there for her whenever she needed me. That’s basically what it was.

“She would call and say: ‘Can we do this together?’ I remember once she called me and asked: ‘Can you get some photos you took of me for Blake? I want to send them to him in prison.’ I said, sure I can.” He is referring to Winehouse’s former husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a heroin addict, who in 2008 was given a 27-month sentence at Pentonville Prison for perverting the course of justice on a charge of inflicting grievous bodily harm on a pub landlord.

“I saw an interview with Amy recently. She was coming off the stage. Someone said to her, ‘That was great.’ She replied, ‘I thought it was shit,’ and walked away. She was a character.”

He also photographed Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in 2003 to mark her Golden Jubilee. “She was lovely,” he says.

In 2011, he and his partner Alicia Grimaldi had their first daughter, Mirabella Bunny – and two years later, a second girl, Lula Rosylea. In 2018 the family moved from London to Vancouver.

How would he feel if either of his daughters told him they were leaving school to join a rock band?

“The difference between myself wanting to do that and them would be that my mother and I didn’t have anything. It was a means to an end. It was me getting a job that was going to pay. I’m not sure my daughters joining a rock band because they have some songs and are having a laugh is the same principle.”

In 2013, he published the photo book Wounded: The Legacy of War. It featured moving portraits of British soldiers with life-changing injuries from their time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ahead of its release, he said in an interview: “War is not the answer in solving problems.”

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Bryan Adams on stage at the GQ Men of the Year Award show at Komische Oper on November 5, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Picture by Sean Gallup/Getty Images for GQ

What does he feel about Russian troops bringing war to Ukraine? He gives an answer worthy of his diplomat father. “None of it’s good, is it? But by the same token, there is always going to be another side to the story than the side that we’re given in the West. It’s important that, whenever you comment on things like this, you get both sides of the story. It’s very complicated. It’s really something I couldn’t comment on because I don’t know much about it. There’s your side. There’s my side. And there’s the truth.

“As long as you can remember, it doesn’t matter what year or what decade we’ve been in, there has been some sort of altercation. If it’s not Israel and Palestine, it’s Syria. If it’s not Syria, it’s Iraq. It just goes on and on.”

In 1994 Luciano Pavarotti rang Adams to ask him to perform ‘O Sole Mio’ with him on a television show in Italy. At first, Adams thought the call was a prank because of the famous tenor’s booming, theatrical Italian accent. He told Pavarotti he would think about it. Pavarotti persuaded him by saying: “One day you will need me, and I will be there for you.”

Adam’s father, Conrad, was a big opera fan – he had bought Pavarotti’s first album Una Furtiva Lagrima: Donizetti Arias when it came out. In August 2018, when Conrad was dying, he played him the record on his deathbed.

“So, Luciano was there for me in the end,” he said in a previous interview.

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Bryan Adams in concert at The Point Depot, Dublin, July, 1996. Picture: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

I ask him about being with his father when he died. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

He co-wrote ‘Shine a Light’ with Ed Sheeran in 2019, in homage to his parents. In February 2021, he posted a picture on social media at his mother’s bedside in Lions Gate Hospital in Vancouver, thanking the staff for their help in her “speedy recovery”. She is about to turn 94.

“She is part Irish,” he tells me. “That must have something to do with it. Her family is originally from Wicklow.”

He says he never discussed his father with his pal Bono, who had a complicated relationship with his own father, Bob.

“No, I have never talked to Bono about that. We just play tennis once in a while. It is usually Canada versus Ireland. So, there is a lot of bravado from both sides.”

He is tactful about whether the U2 singer is the better tennis player. “I wouldn’t say so. And I don’t know whether he would say he is better than me either. It is a friendly tennis match with a lot of bravado.”

(Canadians seem to be generally decent, I say at one point. “That’s true. They are nice people. I say to people: ‘I’m from Canada. We’re like the nice Americans!’’’)

He has a deep affection for this country as well as its music. “I always loved Rory Gallagher, and, of course, Thin Lizzy, Van Morrison and U2,” says the singer.

Over two nights just before Christmas in 1987, he played to 1,200 fans at the National Stadium, encoring with ‘Summer of ’69’ each night. In 1994, he played to an audience of 40,000 at the RDS Arena in Dublin. In August 2000, he sold out Slane Castle in Co Meath with 65,000 fans lapping up every note. The following year he released a DVD of the show.

At 62, Adams’ passion for music is as strong as ever. “I have three albums coming out in the next few weeks,” he says, referring to So Happy It Hurts, Pretty Woman: The Musical – 16 songs co-written with Jim Vallance – and a third one, which features re-recordings of some of his old songs. “I have done a Taylor Swift,” he laughs.

But who is Bryan Adams? The groover from Vancouver or the Canadian conundrum? Six years ago he cancelled a concert in Mississippi because of a state law that means religious groups and companies can refuse to provide their services to same-sex couples.

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Bryan Adams meets Princess Diana in Vancouver during her 1986 tour of Canada. Picture by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

He was rumoured to have had dalliances with Linda Evangelista, Elle Macpherson, Gwyneth Paltrow – even Princess Diana. (When Diana’s former butler, Paul Burrell, was reported as saying in 2018 that he had to sneak the singer into Kensington Palace so that they could meet in private, Adams said on a chat show that they were just “great friends. And she didn’t sneak me in. I would just roll up”.)

Towards the end of our interview, I circle back to his childhood. I use the word “turbulent”.

“I didn’t have a turbulent childhood. I don’t want you to say that. It was a turbulent family. I was fine. There are people who have had way worse lives than I had. I am not that person. They [his parents] had their troubles. A lot of people do. That is life. You get on with it. You dust yourself down, and you keep going.” 

Bryan Adams brings his ‘So Happy It Hurts’ tour to The SSE Arena in Belfast on May 29 and Dublin’s 3Arena on May 30.  See ticketmaster.ie

https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/there-is-a-lot-of-bravado-from-both-sides-bryan-adams-on-competing-with-bono-41410692.html ‘There is a lot of bravado from both sides’ – Bryan Adams on competing with Bono

Fry Electronics Team

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