Oh you dreamer|
Is this the way that you believed your life
Was going to turn out?
Oh you dreamer
Is this the better world that you were
Making all those plans for?
On December 17, 2001, Stuart Adamson was found dead in a Honolulu hotel room, having hanged himself. His suicide followed a long struggle with alcoholism and a recent brief disappearance. He was 43 years old. What an unspeakably sad and tragic end for the singer and guitarist who was the driving force behind Big Country, one of my all-time favorite rock bands.
In the United States, Big Country was generally regarded as yet another one-hit wonder from the '80s. They were those Scottish guys whose guitars sounded like bagpipes, and they just had that one song that had the name of their band in it. You know, they had that video where they rode around on three-wheelers and stuff. Whatever happened to those guys, many nostalgic thirtysomethings must have asked at some time or another.
Many of us know the answer. Big Country was much more than a 1983 flash in the pan. They recorded eight albums, wrote bucketsful of beautiful and intelligent rock music, and earned a reputation as a superb live act. They had their problems, all right, suffering from a few poorly produced albums and shuffling from one recording contract to another. Drummer Mark Brzezicki quit for a while and the band split up a couple of times. They never even came close to the sort of U2-level success they rightly deserved. But through it all, the band always seemed to work things out and prove themselves, again and again. When Big Country was good, they were freakin' great.
I have to admit, I used to be one of those who had written off Big Country as a has-been. In the early '90s they began to seem outdated and I lost touch with their music. Then in 1997 when I was flipping through the bargain bin at a music store in Washington, D.C., I found a copy of their '95 album Why the Long Face for about five bucks. I thought what the heck, for that price I'll see what those guys are up to these days. It would be good for a laugh, at least.
I listened to that CD and found out it wasn't bad. I kept listening to it more and more, and realized it was actually very good. Finally I decided it was probably the best thing they had ever recorded, and a small masterpiece. Where had they been all these years? I felt like a total dumbass for abandoning this great band just because they weren't "cool" anymore. I set out to buy the whole back catalogue I'd missed out on, and I had the pleasure of getting 1999's Driving to Damascus as soon as it was released. I was so happy to be back in the Big Country fold. It was like being reunited with an old buddy you haven't seen for years, and unexpectedly finding yourselves becoming closer friends than ever before.
Stuart Adamson created Big Country because he was tired of the punk rock scene of loud distorted noise and furious bellowing. He had a vision of "big music," a more lyrical brand of rock that would use a powerhouse of two guitars and a rhythm section to create beautiful wall-of-sound landscapes, rather than headbanging cacophonies. This new approach ran the risk of being cheesy and melodramatic, and definitely carried the danger of being folkishly out of synch with the times. But Stuart realized his dream. It was a tall order, but Stuart, Bruce, Tony and Mark were talented enough and dedicated enough to pull it off. Big Country truly sounded like no one else ever has before, or ever will again. Stuart's big music was realized in all the greatest of their songs, with their apparent lack of hipness ultimately translating into a timeless resonance.
It's also important to note, though, that Big Country avoided the trap of being a one-note folk-rock gimmick band. They didn't get stuck in a rut of singing about the pastoral Scottish highlands and the sweeping romance of ye olden Celtic lore and whatnot. Big Country dealt with contemporary issues and politics from their second album in 1984, which featured a ruthless indictment of Ronald Reagan's hypocrisy in "Flame of the West." Later on Stuart's lyrics exhibited effortless references to Indiana Jones, Elvis, UFOs and other pop-culture detritus, tweaking the band's perceived mystique of traditionalism and "seriousness" without making a mockery of themselves. To again mention U2, I think the latter-day Big Country did a much more deft and clever job of de-mythologizing themselves than Bono and co. have ever managed.
Musically, Big Country no doubt had their own distinctive sound, but at the same time, they were so versatile and multi-faceted it was scary. For instance, on their covers album, the band fearlessly tackled the unlikely choices of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Down on the Corner," Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," and Black Sabbath's "Paranoid." All of these covers were executed with complete skill and faithfulness to the originals. Now that's what I call range. (Hell, how many non-metal vocalists could cover Ozzy without sounding like a moron?)
And come on, let's face it: their guitars never really sounded much like bagpipes. Reportedly, the band got fed up with that culturally demeaning comparison, and who can blame them?
In May 2000, Big Country embarked on a tour of Great Britain they dubbed "The Final Fling." Ostensibly it was to be a big hurrah before the band would go on hiatus for a while, and take some time to do their own things. The band had taken several breaks over their history, and it's doubtful anyone seriously expected it to be the final fling. But it was.
Fortunately, that last tour was preserved for posterity as a 2-CD live album entitled Come Up Screaming. This release has become my favorite Big Country album, and it's one of the very best live albums I've ever heard. You know how the performances on live recordings are often unsatisfying, with the songs falling somewhat short of the studio versions? Well, every single one of the 22 songs on Come Up Screaming, containing selections from all eight Big Country albums, is actually better than the original. The guys were absolutely on fire on this tour, playing their hearts out with a passion you can't help but feel. I regret more than I can say that I never got to see Big Country in concert, but I have to imagine that this is an extremely accurate facsimile of what it was like to be there in person.
A little while back, I had a very bad day at work, and that evening I had to make a four-hour drive straight from the office. I was totally an emotional wreck, and I was not looking forward to stewing and fuming behind the wheel on that long trip. I cranked up Come Up Screaming in my CD player and I sang along with Stuart at the top of my lungs for a couple of hours. And you know, it made me so happy. That music was so full of life and hope and vigor that I was able to set aside my personal turmoil and get myself centered again.
That was when I fully appreciated how much Big Country means to me. Their music is an old familiar friend I can always count on to make me feel better. Right now, I'm experiencing the unfamiliar sensation of their music making me feel loss and sadness. Suicide is always a horrible event, but for a talented artist in the prime of his life, who has touched the lives of millions with his brilliant work, to somehow reach that point of complete desperation on loneliness with only one way out... it's simply unfathomable.
Still I know, in time, the pain and shock of this tragedy will subside, and the big music of Big Country will be there to make me feel happy again.
So take that look out of here,
It doesn't fit you.
Because it's happened doesn't mean you've been discarded.
Pull up your head off the floor,
Come up screaming,
Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted.
I thought that pain and truth were the things that really mattered
But you can't stand here with
Every single hope you've had shattered.
Rest easy, Stuart.
Big Country Albums
The Crossing (1983)|
Wonderland (EP, 1984)|
The Seer (1986)|
Peace In Our Time (1987)|
No Place Like Home (1991)|
The Buffalo Skinners (1993)|
Why The Long Face (1995)|
Restless Natives & Rarities (Compilation, 1998)|
Driving to Damascus (1999)|
Rarities II (Compilation, 2001)|
Under Cover (Covers compilation, 2001)|
Big Country Live Albums
King Biscuit Flour Hour (Recorded 1984, released 1997)|
Without the Aid of a Safety Net (1994)|
Brighton Rock (1997)|
Come Up Screaming (2000)|