Adam Ant: 'Comeback? I never went away'
Adam Ant was the greatest pop star of his generation. Then came years of mental instability and depression. So what frame of mind is the dandy highwayman in now, as he tries to launch himself back into the spotlight?
Two-and-a-half hours into a set at north London shoebox the Garage – one of three comeback shows that Adam Ant played across London in December – and something has gone awry. Out of the blue, he has become very angry.
It has already been a curious evening. The 56-year-old New Wave pop icon of the 1980s has been playing to a half-full venue of mostly middle-aged fans, each of whom has shelled out £50 to witness the return of the man who was once their hero meander through an eclectic set list of still-thrilling old hits ("Stand and Deliver", "Prince Charming", "Ant Rap") alongside some arcane oddities that rely on k almost Carry On levels of innuendo. One is entitled "Why Do Women Like Horses?", another "Cock in My Pocket". Then, after a smattering of cover versions, each delivered with wild-eyed fury, he launches into a radically reimagined version of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA", retitled "Born in the UK" and featuring the line: "Oasis were a bunch of cunts with no style". At its climax, he spits on the audience before abruptly storming off stage.
Part of the act, or a sudden burst of genuine spleen? Frankly, it's difficult to tell, and it is only when the house lights go up that it becomes clear the show is over. As the crowd files out, more than one person wonders whether he has suffered one of his now sadly infamous episodes.
Two weeks later, and Ant is pottering about his mews house in South Kensington, west London, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. While he prepares himself for our chat, I am shown into the kitchen by his Girl Friday, Georgina Baillie, the young woman who, two years ago now, was at the centre of the "Sachsgate" scandal. The tiny kitchen is monumentally cluttered, and it's a wonder she can find the kettle amid the mountains of pornographic playing cards that spill from every surface. But she does and, coffee poured, she leads me into a living-room strewn with framed works of art its owner has yet to hang. (He moved in three months ago.) I sit on an armchair; opposite, Ant's two dogs, Billy and Elvis, are asleep on a sofa, from where they will release a series of silent but lethal farts over the next 90 minutes.
Ant enters the room, coffee in hand. His dogs immediately rouse, and he sits between them, lavishing each with love and praise. He looks unexpectedly well for his age, and is dressed today in a heavy-knit skull-and-crossbones jumper, a pair of army trousers and posture-correcting trainers that ease the strain on his cartilage-damaged knees. He appears slightly nervous, but when he talks – and he talks in great sentences that flow like ribbons from his mouth, often providing answers to questions that haven't been asked – he does so with earnest sincerity. The anxious little "V" between his eyebrows rarely dissolves.
Though he balks at the terminology, 2011 looks set to be his big comeback year. "Come back?" he says witheringly. "I never went away." Oh yes he did: Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter, comfortably the most unwieldy album title of recent memory, is his first in well over a decade. Those pre-Christmas gigs acted as warm-ups for what he hopes will be a productive 12 months.
A shame, then, that the Garage show ended so dramatically. Whatever had been bugging him? He sighs. "Look, I'm 56 years old and I was working my bollocks off up there. The crowd wasn't receptive enough, and I didn't like it." He shifts in his seat, and his frown deepens. "I wanted to be a graphic designer until I saw the Sex Pistols play live [in fact, the Pistols' first gig was as support to Ant's band Bazooka Joe]. This was 1975. That's when I knew I wanted to be a pop star, and that for me is like being a matador, a boxer. When I get up on stage, I expect everything to come together. When it doesn't, when I don't get enough back from the crowd..."
So he was let down by those people he hopes will be the most receptive to his return? "No, not really, not for long. They disappointed me, but I was fine. It was fine. It's all fine."
Adam Ant is... etc etc was originally scheduled for release last year. The singer had finally weaned himself off the anti-depressants he had for so long relied upon to moderate the bipolar disorder he'd been diagnosed with aged 21, because he'd become convinced they had stymied his creative juices. The moment they were out of his system, the juices returned, and he effortlessly churned out 16 tracks of chest-thrusting, at times cartoonishly virile rock'n'roll that confirms, if nothing else, that his peacock strut remains intact. But his plans to release it in the summer were scuppered when, not for the first time, he was sectioned.
"Everything in my life was going right," he says, still faintly bewildered by the recollection, "when this team of people turned up at my house. They told me they were taking me to meet my GP, but I ended up sectioned. For three weeks. For something like that to happen so unexpectedly..." He actually shudders. "I can't tell you how terrifying it was."
A short while previously, he had been invited to appear at a benefit concert in Portsmouth. Ant has always been quick to lend his name to good causes, and in his time has recorded a 9/11 tribute, and even reworked "Stand and Deliver" for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund as "Save the Gorillas". This particular benefit was for children who, he explains, "were eating rubbish; had bad diets". He took to the stage and performed what he believed was an appropriate song for the event, a version of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil". But somebody in the crowd took umbrage, shouting that it was inappropriate material for Christians.
"It wasn't so much a concert as a church meeting, but I still told him to fuck off," he says. It was at this point he spotted a seven-year-old in the audience. "It was gone 11 o'clock at night. What was he doing there? It was a set-up, clearly."
His sectioning thwarted his plans, setting him back many months. This was not the first time in his career that he had endured such an unexpected, and upsetting, hitch.
To suggest Adam Ant was the greatest pop star of his generation is to understate matters. He was unlike anybody before him, and has influenced more or less every other flamboyantly inclined pop star since. He was a post-punk, proto-New Romantic dandy, obsessively competitive and shamelessly commercial. At the band's height, for example, he happily appeared on the Cannon & Ball TV show, which, for many, killed his credibility. He remains unrepentant: "Do you know how many people watched that show?"
He was born Stuart Leslie Goddard in London in 1954 of Romany gypsy stock, to an alcoholic and abusive father, who left the family home when Ant was seven. A wilful child, he excelled in art, and pursued his initial ambition until his Sex Pistols epiphany revealed to him that his future lay as a strutting singer with a penchant for costumes that culminated in him dressing like a highwayman, replete with white stripe daubed across the bridge of his nose. In 1976, upon waking up in a hospital ward after a careless suicide attempt – his panicked reaction to the realisation he'd married too early – he rechristened himself Adam Ant, ditched the wife, and wormed his way into the company of Malcolm McLaren, convinced that this way lay fame, recognition and success.
By late 1980, he'd achieved it all, a superstar worthy of stalkers (and he would have several). But success came with a ceaseless workload, the stress of global expectation, and the belated realisation that he was receiving just 9 per cent of royalties. Within two years, the band imploded. Ant quickly dusted himself down and relaunched himself as a solo artist, but he would struggle to match former glories.
By the mid-1980s, he had relocated to America, where he set his sights on becoming a leading man, his propensity for musical drama, he believed, easily transferable to the silver screen. Though he did appear in sundry films and TV series, few were memorable. The rest of that decade, and much of the 1990s, were no kinder, wilderness years punctuated by high-profile love affairs (Jamie Lee Curtis, Heather Graham) and ruinous bouts of depression. In 1997, he married, briefly, for a second time, and became father to a girl, Lily, now 12.
By 2002, he had seemingly resigned himself to the nostalgia circuit, and signed up for the Here & Now tour alongside Spandau Ballet and Kim Wilde. But Ant would have to pull out at the last minute, when his private mental-health issues suddenly became rudely public.
A few weeks before, he says he had been physically threatened by the jealous husband of a market-stall holder who had been making him an outfit. He reacted in vigilante style, throwing a car alternator through a pub window and wielding a fake gun at its patrons. He says today that he acted primarily as a father: "The bloke threatened not just me but my daughter as well. I wasn't standing for that." He was arrested, fined and ordered into psychiatric care. A year later, he was arrested again, this time after an ugly conflict with a neighbour. He was charged with affray and criminal damage, and sent back into the psychiatric ward.
"The way they treat people with mental-health issues in this country," he says, "is shocking. I've never been one to mix politics with art before, but I do think I need to take a stand now and speak out about it. I want to discuss it on TV, ideally with the prime minister. He seems an open-minded guy. David Dimbleby could chair it."
It would be of national interest because every one of us, he claims, has some kind of mental-health issue, adding that his derived from an over-abundance of creativity that, once his career peaked, no longer had anywhere to go.
"If you look throughout history, anybody who was really creative in life suffered in a similar way: Coleridge, Oscar Wilde, Kurt Cobain, even Winston Churchill. My problem was that I was always terribly competitive, obsessively so. I don't care about any of that any more. All I want to do is create beauty, in music and art [he has recently begun to paint; his idol is Picasso], and I want that beauty to endure."
Two years ago, Ant, like the rest of the country, watched with mounting incredulity as a lewd message left by the comedian Russell Brand and the chat-show host Jonathan Ross on veteran actor Andrew Sachs' answerphone became one of the biggest news stories of the year. It concerned Sachs' then-22-year-old granddaughter, by all accounts a provocative performance artist also known as Voluptua, who was subsequently, and mercilessly, hounded by the tabloids. Ant befriended Baillie shortly after the episode, and they have remained close ever since. She oversees his day-to-day schedule, and provides backing vocals for live shows. The rumour is she's his girlfriend – they are very tactile with one another, especially on stage – but he insists he is more her "mentor".
His voice raises in pitch as he suggests Brand's behaviour was typical of many modern celebrities, a breed for whom he has little time. "I've never liked people like that," he says, waving his hands, "like Damien Hirst – that's not art, it's commerce! – and I've always hated stroppy [celebrity] behaviour, like that of the Gallaghers. Not the older one, Noel, he's OK, but Liam. His attitude, well, it's unacceptable."
Ant is currently at war with the younger Gallagher, a state prompted after he collaborated with the former Oasis bassist Andy Bell – now in Liam's new band Beady Eye – on a song called "Cool Zombie", which features on Ant's new album. "He told me there'd be trouble if I put the song on my record, but nobody tells me what to do, nobody. This is a personal thing between me and him, and we will deal with it man-to-man." He might mean this literally. Ant recently took up boxing. His personal trainer? Chris Eubank.
Before I leave, Ant signs my copy of his 2006 autobiography Stand & Deliver, which is soon to be made into a film. As he scribbles, music from his downstairs bedroom drifts up. It is his 1982 solo hit "Goody Two Shoes", and as we walk back into the kitchen, I see that alongside the photographs of bared breasts and erect members are countless photographs of himself through the ages. Perhaps it serves as a reminder of all he has achieved, and perhaps, too, it inspires him in the tackling of the future.
He says he is happy these days, and that the key to happiness is to keep busy. Which is why he is now ready to release his new album. He plans soon to revive Adam and the Ants again, albeit with a different line-up, as he's fallen out with most of the original one, and he is also putting together an all-girl group in which Baillie will feature.
"And I want to get back into films, writing and directing. Being busy," he notes, "is all the medication I need. Not pills. When the black dog comes around again, as it does for so many people, you shouldn't reach for pills. You should talk to somebody, a friend. You should walk the dog, hug a tree." He nods his head, solemnly. "It works for me."
'Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter' is out in early spring on Blueback Hussar Records
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