“Where were you when my ship went down? Where were you when I ran aground? Where were you when I turned it around? Where were you when they burned me down?”
Stuart Adamson sang this chorus on Big Country’s 1993 single “Ships.” It’s sadly telling if you know anything about Adamson and his battles with fame, the music industry and alcohol. On December 16, 2001, Adamson was found dead in a Best Western in Honolulu. He had hanged himself. The weeks leading up to his death are a mystery. He left no note. Despite public pleas from his wife and band members, he contacted no one. He just disappeared and went M.I.A. until hotel staff found his lifeless body hanging in a closet.
Allen Glen offers the first biography on this talented, talented man and he does a fine job of covering a life that ended way too soon. There’s just enough background to get into the meat of the matter, Adamson’s two main bands and the tragic circumstances surrounding his death.
Though born in Manchester, England, Adamson was raised in Scotland. It was there that he founded the seminal art punk outfit Skids at the age of 18. After three short years, he was done with that band and regrouped and re-emerged in 1982 with Big Country. Adamson was an amazing guitarist and songwriter who, in the wake of new wave, did not shy away from bringing crunching guitars back front and center. Whereas Skids held on to their DIY street cred, Big Country blew up around Adamson and Co. They were superstars before they knew it, and the instantaneous fame conflicted Adamson. By all accounts, he was an incredibly grounded man whose primary focus was on his family and his music. Touring and playing the games associated with the music industry were an afterthought. If he could have had a career based on just writing and recording he would probably still be alive today.
Adamson did his best to live up to everyone else’s expectations, often at his own expense. He did what he had to do to support himself and his family. While the other members of Skids were acting like snotty punks on the verge of taking over the world, Adamson was wrestling with a mortgage and a young child. He battled alcohol addiction and gave it up entirely in 1985. As music changed and Big Country was pigeonholed as “that band with the bagpipe guitars,” the stress and the rigors of his chosen career took its toll and he took up the bottle again.
Adamson is portrayed as a proud man, someone who wouldn’t take a handout or charity. A true Scotsman, he was his own beast of burden, and it did him in in the end.
When Adamson sang, “Where were you …?” One can answer him with his own lyrics from Lost Patrol, “We saved no souls. We break no promises.”