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Canadian Idol: everything you need to know about Bryan Adams

Andrea Warner

Like breathing, sleeping and my grandma, Bryan Adams has just always been a part of my life. Thus, it’s been relatively easy to take the 54-year-old former Vancouverite for granted. But no more. Just as death, insomnia and the value of unconditional love made me appreciate the aforementioned "always," so has the prospect of CBC Music’s ’80s week afforded me the luxury of diving deep into Adams’s expansive back catalogue.

The time has come to salute his measured genius: the specificity of his voice; his Peter Pan-like enthusiasm and belief in himself; the way he attacks his guitar with ferocious dexterity; his easy showmanship and confident self-satisfaction; his ear for catchy, melodic rock that gives the people what they want.

Adams has been in the music business for more than three decades. And for much of that time, regardless of his massive success and the fact that he was, arguably, the biggest thing to happen to Canadian music in the 1980s, he’s also been the butt of many, many jokes, and someone critics could shrug off as being mainstream.

I wish "mainstream" wasn’t the go-to pejorative for elitists. That’s a lot of culture — yes, culture — to crap all over. Adams’s music has played a significant role in the evolution of Canadiana and our cultural identity. And not just the “worst” aspects of Canadian culture that are all stereotypes and terrible jokes about inferiority, maple syrup, tacit politeness and snow. If you were alive between 1983 and 1991, and relatively conscious or actively engaged in your life, chances are at least one of Adams’s songs is part of the soundtrack of your life.

Weddings, school dances, break-ups and hookups are the big tent poles here, but consider also the small moments: riding in the front seat for the first time as “Summer of ’69” blares through the tinny speakers of your dad’s dilapidated station wagon; really listening to the words to “Run to You” for the first time and figuring out people cheat; holding hands and ice skating to “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.”

Is Adams’s music cool in the classic definition? No. But it’s safe and familiar, it’s specific to its time and place, and each chorus a soaring monster that’s pretty much irresistible. The ballads are big and unapologetic, the rock numbers fun and frenzied. The man knows his way around a hit and he deserves a lot more credit than he gets.

In the gallery above, CBC Music takes a walk through Adams’s 30-plus years in the music business, the highs and lows of his career and the messy childhood that provides some interesting context for the singularity of his vision, his love of love songs and his need for privacy. Click play below to listen to the 10 tracks in our Bryan Adams appreciation playlist while you read.

Misspent youth and a troubled childhood

Adams is notoriously private and press shy, but there's one particular interview from The Guardian circa 2002 that is almost uncomfortably revealing and fascinating.

Among the revelations: Adams was a "highway to hell" before he was 16, drinking and doing drugs. He got a fresh start after going to jail:

"I was arrested and thrown in jail, and my mum came and got me out. I remember sitting with the sergeant at the time, and he said, 'Your mum's come to pick you up, and when you go out there I want you to go and look at her and see how unhappy you are making her.' And I went outside and looked at her, and thought, oh yeah, I can't do this to her anymore."

He blames drugs for leaving his face pockmarked all these years:

"It reminds me of that time. That's why I've never done anything to change it, because I just figure it's part of my character, it's what happened to me."

In that same interview, Adams claims that earlier stories about his father being abusive were exaggerated, though he admits they didn't speak for 10 years. They reunited following the release of Adams's second album.

"I remember sitting in L.A. just after my second album and I saw some really crappy emotional father-son story on television, and I said, 'Shit, I've got to call my dad, I've got to find him.' So I phoned London and they said no, he was in Korea. So I phoned Korea and they said no, he was in Japan. So I phoned Japan and his first reponse was [he barks in a posh British accent], 'Where the devil are you?' I said, 'Well, ironically, I'm going to be in Japan next week, let's have dinner.' And in one night 10 years evaporated. It was amazing."

Almost a Canadian supergroup?

Adams's (uncredited) backup vocals can be heard on Glass Tiger's "Don't Forget Me When I'm Gone."

His biggest hit took less than an hour to write

"Writing 'Everything I Do' with Mutt took about 45 minutes and it was a moment that I've only felt a few times — it's the moment when you know it's a good song, you don't know if it's a hit, you just know it's good."

Yes, yes, 'Summer of ’69' is about THAT sexual position

Adams told Songwriter Universe:

“A song like 'Summer of '69' is of course one of my faves, but it was the most difficult song to record and the biggest example of a song that didn't go to number one, but is known around the world. It was recorded in its entirety three or four times including demos, but it wasn't until I recorded it with a drummer [from a] quasi-punk ska band that the song took on the naive innocence that was required to convey the sexual energy of the song. While we are on the topic, let's clear up a misconception about that song, and that is it has nothing to do with the year 1969 — it's about making love and looking back on growin' up.”

But co-writer Jim Vallance has a different take:

“At no time during the weeks and months we spent writing and re-writing 'Summer Of '69' do I recall discussing sexual innuendo with Bryan … with one exception. When we recorded the final 'shoe-horn' demo in my basement, Bryan sang a little naughty bit towards the end of the song: 'Me and my baby in a '69.' The two of us had a laugh about it at the time, and Bryan decided to keep it in when he recorded the final version of the song at Little Mountain Sound in the spring of 1984.

“For nearly 20 years no one seemed to notice or care until Bryan started introducing the song that way, which suddenly cast the lyric in a different light.

“Sorry to disappoint, but the song really is about guitars, drive-ins, and 'standing on your mama's porch.' That's it!”

Whatever the story, Vallance has a very thorough line-by-line breakdown of “Summer of ’69” (not to mention of all of the other songs he’s written over the years), including this juicy tidbit:

“We toiled over the musical arrangement for several weeks, maybe longer. We recorded the song three or four different ways, and we still weren't convinced we had it right! Bryan even considered dropping the song from the Reckless album. Now, 35 years later, when I hear 'Summer of '69' on the radio, I can't remember what we didn't like about it.”

Imagine a world without "Summer of '69." I don't even want to.

Humble beginnings

At least one thing Adams and Vallance agree on about their origins: the dank room where they first began working together smelled of "cat piss." Google Bryan Adams + cat piss: there are more than five million results.

Bryan Adams is terrible at karaoke

"I went to a karaoke bar back some years ago now and I watched this guy up there singing and he did such a good job and everybody gave him a huge round of applause. I thought, 'This looks really easy. I’m going to go up there and do it.' So I chose a song. Went up and sang it. And there was just one guy at the back of the room that clapped — and that was it! I went up to the guy afterwards, I said, 'Man, what the hell? What do you do? What’s your gig?' He goes, 'I’m a professional singer.' My karaoke career started and ended on that day."

Bryan Adams is a world-renowned photographer

His work has raised money for breast cancer, profiled powerful women, revealed glimpses into the lives of his famous friends (Amy Winehouse, Mickey Rourke) and documented wounded soldiers.

Adams and Princess Diana

There have been plenty of rumours over the years about Adams and Princess Diana. The tongue-wagging started after Adams released the song "Diana" and continues to this day.

Adams's former girlfriend of 12 years, Cecilie Thomsen, confirmed the affair in a 2004 interview with the Daily Mail, claiming Adams had cheated on Thomsen with the Princess in 1996 after she left Prince Charles.

Adams recently photographed the Queen, though, so who knows what, if anything, actually took place.

Bryan Adams and Pamela Anderson

Adams recorded a second version of his hit "When You're Gone," tapping his friend Pamela Anderson (Baywatch) to replace Melanie C, a.k.a. Sporty Spice. He apparently thought this would allow the song to become a hit in the U.S.A. It did not, but you can listen to it here.

Adams on why he chose Anderson:

"Well, the song was a huge hit all around the world with the exception of the U.S. back in the '90s, so when the idea of the anthology came up, and with particularly this song, it didn't make sense to have it on the U.S. version unless it had a new angle. So I called Pam and she agreed to do a version, even though she had never sung before. I thought it would be fun as she is such an icon. She's a good sport and actually a good singer, too. I believe she could do an album of country songs or something like that, because her voice has a sort of melancholy to it."

And no, he and Anderson were never romantically involved. From a 2002 interview with The Guardian:

"I was taking photographs of her and she made a comment, 'Oh, I think I'd like to have Bryan Adams as my boyfriend.' Just a giggle." So he didn't take her up on it? "No, I didn't. I didn't fancy Tommy Lee banging on the door at three in the morning, thank you very much. Tommy's a friend of mine so I never wanted to get in between that kind of thing; that's just too big."

At the 1:57-minute mark of "When You're Gone," Adams shows off his juggling skills, providing a glimpse of what could have been with this video.

Advice to young songwriters

"Don't sign anything and if you have to — get a good lawyer first. Don't sign anything over to any dodgy managers or production companies, because unless they manage the Rolling Stones you'll get ripped off for sure. If they are good people, they won't ask for your publishing. That's actually a great judge of if they are creeps or not. Remember the most important thing about any song deals: they need you a lot more than you need them."

Adams is sometimes referred to as the "groover from Vancouver."

That's just the worst.

Come hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner