A banquet hall, early 1990s: The lights had just come up, following the final strains of Bryan Adams’s (Everything I Do) I Do it For You. While the bride was busy with her goodbyes, the groom sauntered over to my date and me and said, quietly, “Now I have to pretend that I like that [expletive deleted] song for the rest of my life.”
For early fans, it was weird – and for some of us highly disappointing – to witness the edgy rocker who had given us Cuts Like a Knife and Fits Ya Good transform into the king of the wedding dance song. How did that guy become an easy listening radio staple?
But he had also transformed into a gigantic star, and a point of pride for Canadians. Backpacking through Europe back in the day, it was not unusual to meet someone at the hostel, tell them you were from Canada and have them respond: “Canada? Bryan Adams!” He was waking up the neighbours everywhere.
If Canadians felt pride, it was heightened in Vancouver, then much sleepier than the city of glass it is today – and the place Adams had largely grown up (North Vancouver, to be specific), although he was born in Kingston.
So when Adams played Rogers Arena Saturday night, the 40-something-dominated crowd was charged with not just nostalgia but also with a whole bunch of middle-aged hometown pride. The guy who helped put this city on the rock ’n’ roll map was coming home.
“I love being back here. It’s amazing,” he told the sold-out crowd, about 20 minutes into the show. The audience went wild as he listed the various areas of Metro Vancouver in which he’d resided, a couple of times getting as specific as disclosing the locations where he’d written hit songs: I’m Ready at 12th and Carnarvon in Kitsilano; Straight from the Heart at the Kits Point apartment he shared with his brother: “I was downstairs trying to figure out how to play the piano,” he said, “and I wrote this song.” He was 18.
He had already fronted Sweeney Todd (briefly, post-Nick Gilder) and was trying to make a go of a solo career. A writing partnership with former Prism drummer Jim Vallance proved fertile.
His self-titled debut landed in 1980 with a bit of a thud, followed by You Want It, You Got It, which got some radio play. Cuts Like a Knife, released in 1983, was his breakthrough, paving the way for 1984’s Reckless, which produced six hit singles – Run To You, Somebody, Heaven, Summer of ‘69, One Night Love Affair and the duet It’s Only Love.
“The incredible thing ... was I got to sing with one of the most amazing singers in the world,” he told the crowd on Saturday. “[I’m] 24 and in walks Tina Turner. It was an amazing, amazing moment.”
Adams became an international star: He played JFK Stadium at Live Aid in 1985, and at the Prince’s Trust in 1986 he jammed with the likes of Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton while Princess Diana (a rumoured crush – or more) rocked out in the stands next to Prince Charles.
Adams’s songs have never been lyrically complex (or even, in fact, lyrically interesting), but the hooks are killer. The music was accessible and radio-friendly. That husky voice worked on a ballad as well as a pop tune. And in his white T-shirt and tight jeans, Adams looked good on TV in the early days of the music video.
His biggest hit was to come: (Everything I Do) I Do It For You on his 1991 album Waking Up the Neighbours – written for the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – was a juggernaut.
He’d released sappy ballads before ( Heaven, Straight From the Heart), but Everything I Do felt like a new low for fans who had liked the grittier Adams. Maybe it was the Hollywood movie with which it was connected, maybe it was the track’s ubiquity. Probably it was simply the song.
In any case, it got to the point where it was kind of embarrassing to be a fan.
On Saturday night, some of us got over it. Adams, now 52, put on an extraordinary show, playing for close to two-and-a-half hours with no breaks, and no skimping. Looking fit in a clingy long-sleeved black T-shirt and black jeans, he was energetic, engaged, funny. He sounded great and seemed to be savouring the experience of an arena tour launched to mark the 20th anniversary of Waking Up the Neighbours (now 21 years ago).
It’s been many years since he lived in Vancouver; London is home now, where he has taken up with a succession of models and also taken up – very seriously – photography, shooting fashion spreads and celebrity portraits – everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Queen Elizabeth.
And while he is intensely private about his personal life, the world knows that he became a father last year – to Mirabella Bunny (born on Good Friday, she was named in part for the Easter Bunny). The mother is Alicia Grimaldi, who helped set up the Bryan Adams Foundation in 2004. He made no mention of this Saturday night, Father’s Day Eve.
(The Globe’s interview requests with Adams were turned down.)
But London was far away Saturday, and the show felt very much like a homecoming – in particular toward the end when he brought his mother, who still lives here, onstage and sang Alberta Bound, changing the lyrics to “Vancouver Bound,” while she sat on the drum riser – “the best seat in the house” – behind him. “She gets to look at my better side,” he said.
This wasn’t your typical aging rocker drawing in a crowd on a money-grab tour boring everyone with a new album nobody cares about. He played the hits, and the crowd sang along. Boomers, second generation fans – everyone knew the lyrics.
For an audience (and hey, a stage full of musicians) getting on in years, the music was a time machine, transporting us to a moment when Reckless was the soundtrack to suburban dreams. It didn’t feel silly belting out “I’m gonna be 18 ’til I die.” It felt empowering. Here was a crowd 55 going on 18.
The nostalgia bomb Summer of ‘69 – with crowd-sung lyrics such as “And now the times are changin’ / Look at everything that’s come and gone” – was particularly poignant. It felt like Adams wasn’t just talking about his career, but about life, when after performing the mega-hit, he stopped and said: “That’s the whole story right there.”
Bryan Adams's career trajectory – in music videos
Cuts Like a Knife (1983)
Oh, it started off so promising. The intercutting between the jam session in the empty swimming pool, the woman in the change room and Adams peeling that apple was sexy, smart and suggestive – just like the young Canadian rocker in the white T-shirt. Empty swimming pool – meet MTV. We dove right in.
Summer of ’69 (1985)
Sure, anyone doing the math could easily determine that Adams was only nine that summer (and, we hope, not spending his evenings down at the drive-in) but Adams proved himself a music video star, bursting onto the screen, kicking in doors and tossing beer cans and fruit. The Chilliwack Drive-In makes an appearance, as does actress Lysette Anthony as his old girlfriend, now with a possessive jerk. The fictional couple’s story would play out in these early concept videos including Somebody, Heaven (possessive guy gets pulled over for drunk driving – across the street from a Bryan Adams show!) and Run To You, where they finally connect in the snow. Well, almost.
(Everything I Do) I Do It For You (1991)
Adams by this point was a superstar – even if some of his fan base was turning up its nose at the schlocky direction his music was taking, evidenced by this sugary ballad that appeared on the soundtrack to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner (more schlock!). Scenes from the film are intercut with Adams and his band performing in a misty Sherwood Forest. And who could forget that fancy point-of-view arrow shot? But like the song, the video remains extremely popular, judging by its traction on YouTube – proving that, yes, 63-million people can be wrong.
Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman? (1995)
Attracting the legendary Anton Corbijn to direct this video says a lot about what a giant deal Adams had become. And for a brief moment, with the opening shot, there is reason to hope that Adams had returned to his cool music video beginnings. Elegant black and white footage of a lingerie-clad beauty on a leopard-skin rug seems promising. And then Adams appears in the frame in full colour – and bandit mask (think Zorro). Granted, the song comes from the Don Juan DeMarco soundtrack, thus the bandit motif (and the shots of Johnny Depp in his mask), but if it seemed cool (or cheeky?) then, it does not stand up today. The cheese factor reaches its peak with another point-of-view shot – through the mask’s eyeholes.
I Thought I’d Seen Everything (2008)
Adams has swapped the trademark white T-shirt for a black one, and the concept video for a straight-up in-studio performance. No point-of-view shots, no hot models. Definitely lower budget than a flamenco shoot in Spain, but crisp and mature – and, sans mask, Adams looks like he’s having a good time, (soft) rocking out. Just like the old days.