And Now, a Less Informed Opinion
There are certain inevitabilities in life, all of which we have
There are certain inevitabilities in life, all of which we haveknown, consciously or otherwise, since we were very young. One isthat all earthly existence will one day perish in an apocalypse ofour own making. Another: We can expect that until that time, foodwill be made ever more good-tasting and aerodynamic. Lastly, wehave all been certain, no matter how hard we tried to deny it, thatthis column would one day be devoted to the music of Big Country.That one day is this day, which is now. Thursday.
Thereare certain inevitabilities in life, all of which we have known,consciously or otherwise, since we were very young. One is that allearthly existence will one day perish in an apocalypse of our ownmaking. Another: We can expect that until that time, food will be madeever more good-tasting and aerodynamic. Lastly, we have all beencertain, no matter how hard we tried to deny it, that this column wouldone day be devoted to the music of Big Country. That one day is thisday, which is now. Thursday.
I discovered Big Country through one of the non-MTV video shows, most likely Friday Night Videos,which used to air on NBC in the early ’80s. The “In a Big Country” clipfeatured the band (presumably–they were wearing helmets) riding aroundScotland on ATVs, chasing some willful young lass. But I bought The Crossing,Big Country’s 1983 debut album, as many did, not only because the soundwas so distinctive–the guitars as bagpipes–but because when they sangabout the largeness of the land and how it might inspire someoneneeding uplift, they seemed completely serious.
Stuart Adamson, the band’s singer and songwriter, wroteabout Scotland–not the new, semi-Americanized Scotland growing in thecities of Glasgow or Edinburgh, but the old Highlands Scotland ofglacial creation and gray skies and evil English lords and WilliamWallace. There were songs on The Crossing about famine(“Harvest Home”), missionaries making their way home in the dark (“LostPatrol”), and great bloody battles (“Fields of Fire”). All were grand,all were panoramic. Even the occasional love song (“1000 Stars”)sounded as if a man and a woman were breaking up on the edge of arocky, windswept cliff.
The album’s inner sleeve was illustrated withblack-and-white renderings of lighthouses, oceans, men dodging fallingrocks. The band’s logo included a compass. A compass! Who else, exceptperhaps John Denver, about whom no more shall be said, has dared towrite songs about the land, about mountains and storms? With MarkBrzezicki’s martial drumming and Adamson’s booming voice, the album wasintimate yet vast, gritty yet atmospheric, universal yet ferventlynationalistic. Listening to it, you really felt–prepare for a wordthis magazine will regret publishing–transported. Even theband’s videos sought to immerse you in a frigidly exotic place andtime. While U2 rode horses in the snow in “New Year’s Day,” Big Countrydressed as World War I soldiers and ran through minefields in “Fieldsof Fire.” It was so corny it ached, but its unfettered earnestness waswelcome, given the vapidity of the era.
Big Country were born in 1981, when the United Kingdom wasproducing some of the most ludicrous music ever devised. Synthesizershad sent thousands of actual-instrument-playing musicians onto thedole, and most successful bands traveled with a hair architect, a jeansripper, and someone to tie scarves around the members’ necks andankles. Still, there was some good music to be found, smart, tight popthat took punk’s energy and polished it, exploding the fatuousness ofBoston-Journey-ELO spaceship rock, stripping things down, bringing itback to Earth. Squeeze made it, as did XTC, Elvis Costello, and theGo-Go’s. We listen to their tight, well-crafted songs and we think, “Of course!This is the way songs are supposed to be–they should be neat andpolished and no more than three minutes long.” There are no loose ends,no mistakes, and this gives us a sense, dare we say, of the order wecan make of the world.
Butthen we hear something different. We hear something huge and loose andflawed, and when that somehow works, we switch our allegiance and wesay, “No, no–this is it, this is the way it should be.”Such music unravels everything we know but makes that unraveling, thatfraying of all order, feel like the best idea anyone’s ever had. Ithits higher highs and lower lows, and by the end, you wind up somewherevery different from where you began. This is the Epic Album, achievedby bands like U2, Radiohead, and, most recently, the Walkmen (holylord, that record is great). The difference between the tidysong/Perfect Album and the crazy song/Epic Album is the differencebetween driving an efficient, shiny sports car that can acceleratequickly and turn on a dime and driving an 18-wheeler at 200 miles anhour and having it take off, become airborne, and just barely missflying into a mountain.The Crossing was that kind of album.
So I started following pretty much everything BigCountry did. I was too young (13) to go to a concert at a club–and Idon’t even know if they made it to Chicago–but I caught them when theygave a short TV interview, which I taped on our new Montgomery WardVCR. Stuart Adamson sat with bassist Tony Butler, at that point theonly black man I’d ever heard speak with a Scottish accent. Adamson waspasty, his hair short but gelled in a bedhead style, his eyes small,close-set, and dark. He looked and sounded like a Boy Scout, talkingvery solemnly about how few bands were making real music, how slick anduninspired things had become.
He and Butler were wearing plaid shirts–one red, one blue.Big Country wore a lot of plaid. This was an era when bands, like theimage-conscious gangs in The Warriors, wore matching outfits:The Jacksons had their space-admiral look, Dexy’s Midnight Runners hadtheir waif-in-overalls motif, and Bananarama?also had awaif-in-overalls motif. And though such ensembles, even then, seemedtragic, Big Country’s somehow felt unplanned, as if the members allhappened to show up, night after night, photo shoot after photo shoot,in plaid shirts, presumably selected from closets holding nothing else.These men were so unmistakably sincere that everything they did defiedpity or suspicion.
I can’t say it was all Big Country’s doing, but I toostarted wearing a lot of flannel. That winter I walked through the snowfor hours listening to The Crossing, jumping down ravines,looking for caves, walking on frozen lakes, letting in the cold. Iwould come home chilled to the bone, my feet itchy from the onset offrostbite, but I felt stoic, like I knew something about the fightingmen of the harsh Scottish countryside. It was sad, yes, but this is thekind of experience-through-osmosis adolescents usually get by reading Wuthering Heights or Dune, not from listening to an album. How many bands could claim to have created, in ten songs, an entire troubled, inspired, rainy, sorrowful but persevering world?
Big Country became well known for their live shows,which were spirited, revival-like. During “Fields of Fire” they oftendid a sort of jig, kicking at the same time, left and right, a littlebit Highlands, a little bit rock’n’roll. I eventually found a liveimport of a New Year’s Eve concert in Edinburgh. At the end of theshow, while the drummer did a long snare buildup to “In a Big Country,”Adamson spoke to the audience, out of breath. “I just want to say…”he said, then he seemed to lose his train of thought. “I just want tosay…” he repeated, and trailed off again. After a long pause, hefinished: “I just want to say…stay alive.” He spoke the words veryquickly, as if for whatever reason they were difficult to get out. Atleast that’s how I remember it. Then the band kicked in.
Big Country’s next two recordings, 1984’s Wonderland EP and Steeltown, were every bit as good as The Crossing,but the quartet never had another hit in the U.S. Eventually theyseemed to capitulate to what they felt the American market wanted,creating a series of shatteringly mainstream singles, as if Adamson hadbeen possessed by Kip Winger. Or Kip Winger’s less talented brother.Worse, the band traded in their denim and flannel for tapered linenpants and Miami Vice jackets. It was rough.
And now, while a series of ’80s bands have been eulogized oreven resurrected, nobody talks much about Big Country. Maybe it’sbecause they defy classification. Those interested in the kitsch valueof the era might recall Big Country for their plaid and for committingRock Sin No. 41–having a song with their name in it–but any deeperlook into their music separates them from the Kajagoogoos orDramaramas. Big Country had an original take on the world and mighthave followed a path similar to U2’s–their sound was just as big, andAdamson’s worldview was just as idealistic. Yet before they had thechance to make the leap from curiosity to full respectability–a leapmade by Beck, the Beastie Boys, and others who started their careerswith a misunderstood crossover hit–they abandoned what made themdistinctive. And many of their loyalists deserted them.
Stuart Adamson hanged himself in a hotel room inHawaii in 2001, at the age of 43. He’d disappeared a few weeks earlierfrom his home in Tennessee, where he’d moved in 1997. He’d struggledwith alcoholism for years, and an autopsy revealed that at the time ofhis death, he had a blood-alcohol level over 0.2. His passing made thewire services, but it wasn’t big news in America. It had been, afterall, 18 years since “In a Big Country.” But for those who stillcared–and there are dozens of websites that dissect every word hewrote and publicly spoke–Adamson’s death was as affecting as anyone’s,including Kurt Cobain’s.
For the previous six months, I’d been in touch with theband’s manager, Ian Grant, because I was planning to write somethingabout Big Country–I didn’t know what, maybe a short biography, or atribute; I wasn’t sure. Grant told me that Adamson was living inNashville with his wife, who owned a beauty parlor, and that he waswriting country music with a band called the Raphaels. At some pointwhile we were trying to arrange a time for me to visit, news ofAdamson’s disappearance arrived. The official Big Country websiteposted pleas to fans to report any sightings. It was devastating towatch it all unfold.
Kurt Cobain’s suicide wasn’t entirely surprising. His headwas known to be a dark and tortured place, and there were countlessclues that he might someday choose an early exit. But it’s harder toget your mind around things, isn’t it, when someone whose vision seemedso positive and outward-focusing decides to end his life. How can a manwho finished his concerts with the words “stay alive,” the words spokento throngs of young people as they looked up at him soaked in sweat andgrinning, hang himself in a Hawaii hotel room?
There’s no moral here. There are lessons, maybe, but theycancel each other out. Lesson: Don’t forget who you are, and don’tpretend to be, say, Kip Winger or a country singer from Nashville. Onthe other hand: Was Adamson supposed to play Scot-rock in plaid flannelall his life? Lesson: More bands should write about the land, the sky,soldiers, storms, oceans; the world is vast and rock music is uniquelypoised to reflect that. Counterpoint: One false move and you’ve gotGordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Lesson: Go buy The Crossing.Listen to the eight-minute “Porrohman” and tell me these guys didn’tknow something about soul and suffering and uplift. Counterpoint: Thereis no counterpoint to that one. Final lesson: Support your local EpicAlbum makers. Let the Walkmen and Interpol and Grandaddy know they’renecessary to the mix, lest they take the easy way out.