11th April 2008
Stuart Adamson would've been 50 years old today. If you're not familiar with the man, his music, or the major details of his life, I say "would've" because, sadly, he passed away in 2001. Actually, he didn't "pass away." He took his own life. He traveled all the way toHawaii, one of the most beautiful, wide open spaces in the world, only to end his life in a small hotel room closet, engulfed in a haze of alcoholism and depression. It's a cold fact that still fires a wide spectrum of emotions in me whenever I think about it, from deep sorrow to intense anger to a resolve not to let the darkness of his final actions overshadow the intense light he brought into the world for the great majority of his life.
Stuart was the guitarist and principle songwriter in Scottish band The Skids, and then became the singer/guitarist/principle songwriter in the far more famous Big Country. The sad irony is that the band's biggest hit, "In a Big Country," featured an oft-repeated chorus that ended with the words "Stay Alive." The song was a plea to those who were facing their own sorrows, dejection, hopelessness, despair. "Stay Alive."
It was the way Stuart would end the band's shows, as the four of them held up their arms triumphantly. "Remember, Stay Alive," he would say.
It became a rallying cry among the band's fans, a galvanizing phrase that spoke of common bonds, of ties that bind, of hopes shared….
So beautiful, so honest, so simple.
So, perhaps you can imagine how tough it can be at times, how cruel it can seem, to be one of those who took up the "Stay Alive" banner for all those years as a Big Country fan(atic), only to see the originator of the phrase ignore that advice so completely.
Stuart was one of my few true heroes. He is probably my biggest influence when it comes to the development of my guitar playing and my songwriting, but his effect on me goes so much further, so much deeper than that. When I was a young teen, before I even started playing guitar, his music was a constant positive force in my life, a constant companion. So often, I'd sit in my room, listening to Steeltown (later trying in vain to figure out how to play those songs), letting those melancholy yet hopeful lyrics wash over me, those straight-from-the-highlands guitar orchestrations that to this day are unrivaled and unequaled in their lethal beauty.
"Music to MoveMountains By." That's how others described the band's music. That's what it felt like to me. It took root in the deepest depths of my soul. It wove itself around my heart with unbreakable stitch. And I know that describes how Stuart's music affected thousands of others, maybe even you.
Initially when Stuart died, I couldn't even listen to his music. For probably a year, I simply couldn't bring myself to play it. I drew a lot of strength from that Big Country well over the years, and it seemed somehow tainted to me now. Consciously, outwardly, I forgave Stuart, I said all the right things, but, beneath the surface, I was angry that one of those things I'd always associated with beauty, with hope, one of those things I felt I could always turn to for emotional sustenance, was forever poisoned. I'll admit it, I felt betrayed, as selfish as that might sound. But I tried to bury those feelings and move on. It was tough enough coming to grips with Stuart's death in general terms – To deal with the feelings brought on by the manner of his death seemed too much.
One of my favorite lines in all of filmdom comes from the movie "The Royal Tennenbaums." In the scene, Gene Hackman's character Royal, a lifelong liar and scammer, has just been caught in a huge lie by his formerly estranged family. He'd told them that he suffered from a terrible illness, when in reality he was perfectly healthy and only wanted to mooch off his ex-wife and live in the family mansion now that he was broke. Anyway, when he's discovered, his first inclination is to try to lie his way out of it by telling his family how much he loves them, how much they mean to him. Then, the voice-over kicks in:
"Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized it was true."
I just love that line. It's very funny, for one thing, but it says so much about the character in so few words. Well, that was me for awhile in relation to handling the Stuart situation. (Except for the lifelong liar and scammer thing, of course.) I said all the right things, the things I thought I should say, but I didn't feel the truth of what I was saying.
But one day, I said those things to myself, and…I realized they were true. Enough time passed for me to much more objectively weigh the sorrow and disappointment of Stuart's passing against the enduring gifts he left to so many of us, and, well, there was no comparison between the two extremes.
You see, one horrible choice in one confused and desperate moment, as far-reaching as the effects of that choice were, can't come close to eroding the mountains of beauty, love and joy that are the enduring legacy of Stuart Adamson's life.
I can only speak for myself here, but I know many, many others have similar stories. Without Stuart, I might've never been inspired enough to write and record my own music. Without Stuart, I would've never met some of my best friends. In fact, most monumentally for me, without Stuart, I would've never met my wife, who is by far the most amazing woman I've ever encountered. We met through a mutual love of Big Country's music, and we've been together for more than 10 amazing years now. In fact, on a related note, without Stuart, LIVES would not have come into existence. Yes, there are actual life forms among us as I type that would not exist on this planet if it hadn't been for Stuart Adamson and his music bringing two people together who would go on to create that life (see video at bottom of this blog for confirmation ). How does one repay such gifts? One can't. How can such gifts be negated? They can't be.
Once I realized that, that's when the metaphorical rust on those countless amazing songs, forever etched into my soul, began to fade. The gleam sprang to life again. It wasn't exactly the same gleam. Some scars never fully heal. But it was a new and yet familiar gleam. I wrote a song called "Pick Up the Flag" around that time, which had a lot to do with these feelings I was going through. Some of the lines went:
Passing through shadows
Down where the storms blow
I'm searching for you
Can't let my fear show
Straining my red eyes
Praying for sunrise
That's when I see you
That's when I realize that you
You are the one that I chose,
You are the wild, red rose
You are the seed that still grows
And here, here is your wound become scar
Running the length of my heart
Never again will we part
I honestly don't know what I believe about an afterlife, but somewhere, somehow, I began to feel that Stuart was OK. I began to realize that those of us who loved him and his music so dearly now had the duty to keep the spirit of that music alive, whether it be playing it as loud as possible whenever possible, whether it be embracing his influence in writing our own music (for the musicians and songwriters among us), or whether it be something as simple as refusing to let his death and the circumstances surrounding it sap the emotional power that so many of us had taken from his music for so many years.
I will never get over Stuart's untimely death. But, for the most part, I'm at peace with it now, just as I believe that he is at peace.
I met Stuart a few times and got to know him a little bit. I want to recount the most memorable of those times, as it remains one of my fondest memories.
Stuart was living in Nashville then and was working on a side project, a band called The Raphaels. My wife and I (although we weren't married then, I'm still going to refer to her as my wife for simplicity's sake, OK?) traveled to Nashville to see the band perform at a small club called Café Milano.
I had met Stuart once before briefly after a Big Country show in Washington, D.C. in 1993 during the Buffalo Skinners tour. It was a short but great conversation in which he told me that Kate Bush "smoked more dope than anyone I've ever seen in my life" and talked about how much he loved the Beavis and Butthead episode that good-naturedly mocked the "In a Big Country" video. Good times.
Prior to this second meeting, Stuart had been frequenting a chat room where a few BC fans, including me, had been meeting and talking with him in the cyberspace sense. I had actually sent him some of my own music, which he called "neat." Not exactly the most rousing endorsement, I suppose, but it was cool nonetheless. I actually saved a lot of those chat transcripts, and when I look at them now, they are humiliatingly embarrassing for me. What can I say, I was just so shocked to have the opportunity to "speak" with my number one musical idol and, well, I was probably a bit hyperactive initially, as were most there in attendance. My future wife was there, too, though, and since she's now my "present" wife, I guess she didn't find me to be quite the buffoon I see myself as looking back over those transcripts. But I digress…
Back to Nashville: my wife and I met up with some other traveling freaks in a seated area of the club before the show started. We commiserated about Big Country, favorite songs, what the band meant to us, etc. And then, in walks Stuart and down drops that reverent silence that appears when you meet a hero. That sort of "holy crap, there he is standing right in front of me, the guy whose music meant so much to me, inspired me so much, got me through so much, what do I say without looking like a complete imbecile" kind of reverent silence.
Well, it didn't last for long, because Stuart was engaging us in conversation within moments, and it struck me immediately how unassuming he was, how down-to-earth, how completely uninterested he was in being "adored" or treated with ANY sort of "reverence." We spoke with him about the set for the evening, the next Big Country album (which would be "Driving to Damascus") and a recent Big Country fan tribute CD that had been put together. I had contributed a few songs to it acoustically, including "Close Action," and was very curious to hear what he thought. I can't lie when I admit I was a little disappointed when he said how much he loved a full band version of an obscure BC song, "Never Take Your Place," done by a band called Nodnol. The dopey fan in me wanted him to say, "Yeah, Diss, your versions were just incredible, really, the best I've ever heard." But hey, that Nodnol cover WAS pretty damn good.
After a bit more small talk, Stuart left us to meet up with his bandmates. The Raphaels played a great show, although I was much more partial to Stuart's songs. He shared songwriting and singing duties with a guy named Marcus Hummon, one of the most successful writers in Nashville, who had written number ones for people like the Dixie Chicks and other mainstream country artists I can't remember. Marcus was really skilled, obviously, but his songs just sounded a bit too polished for my tastes. I much preferred Stuart's more raw approach.
Anyway, my most enduring memory of the show was the final encore. A slow, acoustic version of "In a Big Country." There were two young girls at the front of the stage, arms around each other and belting out every word as if their lives depended on it, just as a lot of us other fans had done when we were their age and Big Country was a new force on the music scene. It affirmed to me how timeless the music was and remains. (In fact, I saw Bruce Watson's band in Virginia last year, and a very young bartender talked about how much he hoped they'd play In a Big Country, as it was an "incredible song." They did, of course.)
The show ended, and I approached Stuart again. I just wanted another chance to thank him personally for the music, to tell him how much he and it meant to me, and to go my merry way with some nice memories of a great show.
Much to my surprise, after saying those very things to him, he asked, "What are you doing now?"
"Uh….going back to the hotel?"
"Why don't you come out with us?" He and Marcus were going out to another club/bar. How could we pass this invitation up? He gave us the directions (I think it was within walking distance, but can't quite remember), and we all met up at this place with cowboy boots covering the walls. A nice little Nashville haunt. Wish I could remember the name.
So, Joanie, me, a few other fans and Stuart and Marcus Hummon sat and talked and drank and ate. (I noticed that Stuart consumed no alcohol that night, though. I've never been a drinker at all, so I didn't, either, but, knowing even then that Stuart was a recovering alcoholic, I wondered how tough it must be for him, then, to constantly be surrounded by bars and that "let's go for a drink" culture that's especially so strong in the music industry, especially in Nashville.
That entire night was a blur to me and remains so. I remember Marcus being a really great, friendly guy. We both shared an interest in Harper's Ferry, a little town in West Virginia that is one of my favorite places. I also remember trading Spinal Tap impressions with Stuart, particularly of Nigel, the Christopher Guest character. I remember he was very big on the new album by Gillian Welch, which at the time was either "Revival" or "Hell Among the Yearlings." I remember him telling me how great it was and then saying, "I'm going to take you out to the record store and get that for you, because you have to hear it." I just nodded my head, thinking, "Stuart Adamson is going to buy me a CD? What's going on here?" (I wasn't about to tell him that I'd already heard the album and didn't like it much on first listen. Besides, if he loved it this much, it definitely deserved a second listen. Turns out, years later, he was right. Just buy Gillian Welch's "Time the Revelator" album and you'll most likely agree.)
Now let me stop the story for a second just to explain my mindset here. I'm not the kind of guy who "worships" other artists, stars, etc. I don't give a crap about getting autographs, and I don't think it's healthy to place someone so high on a pedestal, and that's not what I was doing that night and not the sort of vibe I'm trying to convey here. It's just such a strange, precarious situation, though, to meet and hang out with someone who really is JUST becoming aware of your existence in the world while you've been following their deepest thoughts and emotions for years as a devotee of their music, music that's actually affected you in tremendous, long-term ways. It's tough at first to meet someone like that and deal with them on equal footing, because you're both coming at the meeting from such vastly different perspectives. It's probably impossible, actually, for all but the most socially suave among us. And that ain't me. My wife and I both kept exchanging glances with each other, like "is this really happening?" It also takes an incredibly strong, special and intuitive person to be on the OTHER end of such a meeting, like Stuart was, and be not only aware of what the starstruck fan might be going through, but also able to make those fans feel more like friends. That was Stuart. He was just so easy to talk to, so understanding and so open and generous with his attention and time, that it didn't take long for that natural and expected façade to start eroding.
Once night began giving way to morning, the party started to wind down and the feeling that we were all about to change back into pumpkins began to take hold. But what a night it had been. Once again, I thanked Stuart for everything, told him how appreciative we were to be able to spend some time with him, hear his music, etc…I'd already experienced more than I ever thought I would from this trip.
Then Stuart asks, "What are you doing tomorrow?"
"I want to take you out to lunch."
Flights home can wait. Stuart Adamson just invited us to lunch.
He asks me where my wife and I are staying. I tell him and he asks me to call him the next morning at his home, and then he'll come by the hotel and we can follow him in our rental car to the restaurant he had in mind. He writes down his phone number on a piece of paper and hands it to me.
"Sound great, I'll call you in the morning," I say, with as much normalcy as my emotions would allow.
Back at the hotel, the wife and I continue to stare at each other in silence. Neither one of us needed to say anything. We both understood. She had been a 13-year-old girl who cried until her daddy felt guilty enough to take her to see the band on their first tour inAmerica. I had been a kid who made the band's output my musical Bible. And of course, the whole meeting-because-of-BigCountry thing was always there between us. So yeah, this had become a pretty cool and worthwhile trip for both of us.
I didn't sleep much that night. I kept thinking, "I'm calling Stuart tomorrow morning. When should I call him? He only said 'Call me in the morning'. What's 'morning' to him? 7? 8? 11? What do I say when he answers?"
I decided that, based on our mutual love of Spinal Tap, I would speak in the voice of Nigel Tuffnel when he answered. I can't remember exactly when I worked up the nerve to call him, but I think it was around 10-ish. He answered the phone, and I said something in that stupid Nigel accent. He responded in kind immediately. I made sure to then drop the accent and tell him who it was, just to make sure he knew. He did. He said he'd be coming by the hotel in about 90 minutes or so, and we arranged to meet in the lobby.
An hour later, I was down in that lobby waiting. My wife was still getting ready at that point, so I told her to just come down as soon as she could. I was lost in my own thoughts, still trying to come to grips with everything that was happening when Stuart came gliding through the door. I waved to him, and he came over to the couch I was sitting on, and I told him the wife would be down very soon.
So there I was, sitting with this guy, just the two of us, and finally the whole overwhelming nature of the situation began to lessen, and I began to approach him as ahuman being rather than some surreal, abstract force. We talked about the band's music. I particularly remember talking about the song "Charlotte" and how much I loved the guitar breaks in the bridge section, how much they reminded me of "Angle Park," an older BC song. He agreed. We talked about the demos for the new album, some of which had been officially released through the band's Web site. I remember him saying how much he liked the track "Medicine Show" from those demo sessions, but how the rest of the band weren't too keen on it. I told him I wasn't a very good flier, and how getting on a plane can be a big effort for me. He told me he used to feel the same way in the beginning days of the band, but ended up just forcing himself to do it and he got used to it. I wish I could remember everything we talked about. It was probably trivial from an outsider's perspective, but for me, it was monumental.
Joanie came down finally (women!), and off we went. I'll never forget following Stuart and his red pickup truck through the streets of Nashville. I think I said that to my wife during the journey: "We're following Stuart Adamson's truck in Nashville because he's taking us to lunch."
We arrived at the restaurant, meeting up with 3 other people who had joined us the night before. Can't remember the name of the place, but it was one of those Friday's-like places. I wouldn't have cared if we'd met behind a dumpster at 7-11.
We all sat at a round table, and I remember the conversations just flowed warm and friendly for the next couple of hours. Stuart talked about who was the better captain, Kirk or Piccard. I think we both agreed on Kirk. I also remember talking with him about the movie "Cable Guy." I always thought the film was hilarious and unique (until its sort of cop-out ending), but could never find anyone to agree. Until Stuart. He loved it, too.
My favorite moment of that lunch, though, looking back, was being able to tell Stuart what my favorite lines he ever wrote were and to see his reaction.
They're from the song "The Great Divide", and they go:
"And suddenly I find the truth
And all it is is sighs and youth."
Those lines still make me tear up. I remember telling him that, and he fell silent for a moment, thinking about them, and he had a real look of satisfaction on his face, like, "Wow, that is pretty damn good, isn't it?" In fact, I think he even spoke those words, or something to that effect. I was so happy to have been able to tell him that face to face and to see how appreciative he was to be reminded of some amazing work from his past.
As the meal came to an end, Stuart even paid for everyone. Ridiculous.
In the early days of the band, Stuart would often say how he wanted to break down that whole star mentality that rock bands so often perpetuated. He didn't want there to be a divide between band and audience. He wanted the music to be a uniting bond, not some source of "look at me" power wielded by the great, mythical rock star. Meeting and talking with him over those two days, it was obvious that he still felt that way, that those words he'd spoken at the height of the band's success weren't just some sort of empty sloganeering. He couldn't have been more genuine, more kind, more understanding, more forgiving of those of us who at times fumbled over ourselves as to how to talk to this "musical idol" who now sat before us in all his normal human "glory."
I kept in touch with him through e-mail from time to time after that. We both shared an interest at the time in religious history and would discuss it every once in awhile. My wife and I also saw him again when we witnessed the last Big Country concert in America, again at Nashville at a small but raucous club. The band was playing there just before the release of "Driving to Damascus." Thankfully, I had the foresight to film the show. I'll never forget hearing "Chance" sung by the audience in three-part harmonies. "Only inNashville," Stuart said, as he and Tony listened in stunned appreciation.
Stuart was kind as usual. In fact, I remember coming into the club to find the band setting up their equipment, and Stuart looked at me and said, "Hey, Diss," then introduced me to Bruce Watson and the other guys. So cool. We talked about his latest ESP guitar and the themes for some of the songs on the new album. He was as unassuming and generous with his time as always, but something seemed a bit off that night. After the show, he quickly departed and didn't hang out with the rest of the band. His mind seemed elsewhere. Maybe that's just my imagination, but it's not a thought only born from hindsight. I remember thinking it at the time, too.
I don't think it was too long after that when he disappeared for the first time. Big Country had some dates scheduled opening for Brian Adams, and Stuart was nowhere to be found, so the dates had to be canceled at the last minute. A lot of people were very worried about him. I wrote him an e-mail titled, "Add this one the heap," meaning, "here's another note hoping everything's OK with you."
Here's his response:
glorious to hear from you again. Truth of the matter is this. All year long our schedule has changed from day to day. I am a family man who cares totally about the people in his life. Due to my commitment to BC, I have let a lot of people down, with my constantly changing schedule. That's not me at all. I was told November would be off, so I planned a bunch of things. Got back from a business seminar in New Orleans to find that stuff had been booked for me. I then sent a E-mail saying I wasn.t doing them because I had a planned Thanksgiving,then the ass covering started…Took my phone off the hook and had a fabulous holiday….isn't life fun
Love and peace
It all seemed like one big misunderstanding from a guy who was starting a new life and wanted to see his own personal needs fulfilled for a change. Then, of course, the band went back on tour for Driving to Damascus and word began to spread that Stuart was having a lot of difficulties that aren't worth getting into here. Basically, after years of sobriety, he'd fallen back into alcoholism's grip. And by all accounts, it was a hard grip.
I did get one last e-mail from him that I found really interesting, back on the whole religious topic. It was the last I would ever hear from him. I wish I had the full text of that email, but I can't seem to find it. In any case, he was explaining his belief that everyone, no matter how much of a mess their lives had been in, no matter what they had done or what had been done to them, would eventually find their way back to what he called "that great miasma", basically a sort of heaven where every soul would eventually find peace and complete love.
I don't mention this here because I believe the same things, although his views certainly sounded beautiful at the time. Still, I don't even know if Stuart was in a good place when he wrote that. But I just find it so interesting, so moving, and so like Stuart that he was always thinking about the people who were hurting, always offering some sort of hope to them, that everything could be OK, everything could work out in the end, even as he was, behind the scenes, struggling for his life.
If only he'd have taken that advice to heart for himself during his darkest moments.
I have trouble with the last BC album and the Raphaels album, because they seem to be uncharacteristically dark to me at times, obviously reflecting the struggles Stuart was going through. Still, there are the usual great moments, such as this line in "Your Spirit to Me," which says:
"There's only seconds of your life
That ever count for anything
All the rest is killing time, waiting for a train"
It's a beautiful line, and I understand what he's saying, but I reject the sentiment, and I wish Stuart had rejected it, too. I wish he'd understood that the parts of his life that "counted for something" encompassed far, far more than just seconds. The effect he's had on those who've been inspired by his music will continue to blossom, and its roots will only continue to strengthen as time wears on. And yet, the knowledge of that fact didn't seem to be enough to get him through his own rough waters. We've seen that before in other celebrities, stars, musicians. It's an oft-repeated tale. The human condition is such an odd one. I guess no matter how many strangers one might influence for the better, it can't take the place of fulfilling those more personal needs that we all have. Somehow, for whatever reason, those needs in Stuart's life weren't being fulfilled, as that earlier email seems to indicate. His life's work had given so much to so many, yet there didn't seem to be enough that was being given to him. It doesn't seem fair. Shouldn't there be some sort of cosmic law that rewards those who give so much love with equal love in return? I can't pretend to know the intricacies of what finally pushed Stuart to that final end. Only those closest to him can know, and even they probably still have loads of questions. I feel for his two talented children especially, and I certainly hope they can make peace with the whole thing.
But what's done is done. As Stuart once said in one of those chat room transcripts I mentioned:
"Relax, accept what you can..t change, be brave enough to change what you can and wise enough to know the difference."
We can't change what happened to him and we can't change how it happened. But for those who care, for those who are ready to celebrate Stuart's life again instead of sinking in sorrow's quicksand, we can reclaim his music. Today's a good day to play his most potent, most alive, and most triumphant music, and let it sink into your bones and every fiber of your being once again. Play his guitar break on "The Olympian" from The Skids' "Days in Europa" album at deafening volume. The opening salvo of "One Decree"… Play a live version of "Porrohman," as those drums thunder along and the guitars build to a ferocious crescendo…the opening of "Tall Ships Go" from the peerless "Steeltown" album…."Eiledon" in its entirety from "The Seer"…you'll have your own favorites, I'm sure. Whatever they are, just play them. Reclaim them, welcome them back into your life with open arms. That's what I'll be trying to do from this point forward.
To that end, I've added a number of new and old BC covers to the songlist for the time being. I don't want to turn this site into a tribute site, but for now, the songs will remain and they're there for you to download if you like, as well as some of my originals, including "(One More Song) For the Ones Who Love You", which was definitely written for Stuart. I hope you enjoy them. Although, if you've actually made it this far, you are probably ready to enter a deep sleep…they'll still be here when you wake up.
So, happy birthday, Stuart. And many more. We love you