Up Above The City, Down Beneath The Stars: Barry Adamson
Published on 30th September 2021
Up Above The City, Down Beneath The Stars is a remarkable insight into the childhood and early career of Barry Adamson. It’s funny, incredibly candid and ultimately heart-breaking and is probably the finest autobiography you will read this year.
He’s always been fond of a hat, Barry Adamson. Trilbies are something of a speciality. Nor is he averse to donning the darkest of dark glasses either. And, particularly in later years, he’s also favoured a bit of facial hair. Now, I’m no Freud, but it’s almost as though he is trying to hide behind something; to become somehow impenetrable. Therefore, what kind of autobiography might we expect from such a man? The smart money may be on something murky and opaque, full of enigmatic allusions, but the smart money isn’t always riding on the winner.
Up Above The City, Down Beneath The Stars seeks to hide nothing. It is a work of sheer transparency, oozing honesty throughout. Occasionally, brutally so. Here, Adamson has effectively discarded all of his apparatuses of disguise to reveal himself to us completely. However, he is incredibly subtle in doing so. I’m not sure if he does this as a defensive mechanism or not, but he tells this story in such a matter-of-fact, almost laconic, way that it feels much more like it’s being told by an observer rather than the subject himself; more biography than autobiography. Perhaps the title gives us a clue to that degree of detachment; as Adamson glides, far above the city (down beneath the stars), to report back from the front line. That might imply a lack of warmth or a degree of aloofness, yet this is an incredibly human story, one with love at its heart. Somehow, Adamson has managed to write as though he is unfastened from the story, whilst still delivering it in the most personal and touching way.
The writing style of this former Bad Seed elevates this book above the vast majority of biographies or autobiographies, particularly those with music as their subject matter. Over the years, I have read so many that are nothing more than a regurgitation of the subject’s day planner, as they plod ponderously from event to event with predictable monotony. Pleasingly, Adamson’s work is far removed from such banality. Instead, with Up Above The City, Down Beneath The Stars, Adamson is telling us a proper story, one that makes for an utterly compelling read. He achieves this by writing an autobiography that reads like a novel.
But, of course it does. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, the author is a man who has become renowned for creating imagined soundtracks; compositions for films that live only in his head. Music created to embellish and enhance a fiction that doesn’t actually exist. The mind of Barry Adamson is like a vault of ideas, scenes, plots and sub-plots. Therefore, he was bound to write his autobiography as though it was a work of fiction. Like the literary giants, he is utterly adept in leaving plenty to the imagination, never giving it all away. Throughout, he masterfully hints at some dark occurrence in his life and lets us, the reader, use our own imagination to paint the rest of the picture. This stylistic approach is largely why this book is so brilliant.
Earlier, I bemoaned the flaws of music literature and it’s timely to mention that, despite what you might assume from its author’s occupation, Up Above The City, Down Beneath The Stars is not actually a book about music. It has very little to do with life in a band, the thrills and spills of touring or the nuances of the recording process. Instead, it’s a story, told in two halves, of a boy who just happened to grow up and become one of the world’s most imaginative bass players in two of the most influential outfits to rise out of the ashes of punk – Magazine and The Bad Seeds – before going on to be an innovative pioneer of soundtracks. This is a human story, a tale of real life (pardon the pun).
The first half of the book is an everyday story, beautifully told, of a boy growing up in the sixties and seventies. Anyone who grew up in that period will revel in Adamson’s delightful cultural references. There are mentions of Raleigh Choppers and Crombie overcoats; The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and sherbet fountains. Adamson tells it as though it was the most ordinary, run-of-the-mill childhood, but it’s not. Barry Adamson is mixed-race, and that brings its own issues in the sixties and seventies Britain with its incessant, casual, insouciant form of racism. That would be challenging enough in itself, but the Adamson family also have to deal with the fact that young Barry has been born with Ollier’s disease, a rare skeletal disorder characterised by abnormal bone development. This means that Barry will require an osteotomy to basically reset his hips; a process that will necessitate months encased in plaster, from chest to ankle, with the legs spread wide from the hips by means of a metal bar that goes from one knee to the other. The witch’s broom. At the age of nine, Adamson undergoes the process.
The condition is omnipresent in Adamson’s telling of those formative years, but, like The Vulture who we are introduced to in the second half of the book, it is something that sits on the shoulder of the story. Always there, but never dominating. At no point does Adamson make a big deal of it. Like the fact that he is subjected to the most horrific racial insults, from children and adults alike, he tells the story as nonchalantly as he does when telling us about the joys of sugar butties (I can relate). At no point does he say, “poor me”. He never seeks sympathy, nor does he make any attempt to attribute the errors of his adult life to this tough upbringing. His approach reminds me of Kipling’s epic poem, If, as he treats those two imposters of triumph and disaster in exactly the same way. Floating above it all.
Another perfect example of this comes in his retelling of one particularly dark and disturbing incident. It is the day of the 1966 World Cup Final and the entire Adamson family are invited to spend the day (and night) watching it in an Oldham pub that belongs to young Barry’s ‘aunt and uncle’; who turn out not to be blood relatives, but friends of his mum. As the post-match euphoria grips the locked-in pub and the drinks flow, eight-year old Barry is left to the supervision of his much older ‘cousin’, Mark. Tonight, they will be sharing a room. A bed. The older boy plies the younger with shots of sherry and they retire. “Ever sucked anyone off?”, Mark asks his eight-year old ‘cousin’. There is no graphic detail, no melodrama. The absence of such gory detail only serves to make the story more powerful and the economy of detail in the passages like these (there are several in the book) confirm Adamson’s brilliance as a writer. Following that incident, there are hints and veiled indications of a conflicted sexuality. As the book unfolds, we are left in no doubt that Adamson is highly attractive, and attracted to, females. But there are fleeting references to occasional same-sex dalliances, none of which appear to be in the least romantic, and one of which is, initially, nothing short of jaw-dropping in its element of surprise.
The bridge between boyhood and manhood, first half and second half, arrives when Adamson leaves school to study graphic art at Stockport College. Not long after starting, he stops off one day to buy a record that he’s been reading about. It’s called Spiral Scratch and it’s by a band called The Buzzcocks, whose lead singer is Howard Devoto. The shop assistant who sells him the record is a long-haired hippy called Paul Morley. Planets are colliding and Adamson doesn’t even know it yet. Not long after, he is given a bass guitar. It’s a Gibson SG copy with two strings missing. The guy who gifts it doesn’t even know if it works. Of course, he cannot play. However, despite that pretty significant drawback, the following weekend he has the confidence to respond to an advert for musicians that has been posted on the wall of Virgin Records. It has been written by Devoto. Adamson, owner of a bass (that might not even be working) for a mere couple of days decides to call the guy who sings on the record he bought just weeks ago. That’s some level of bravado and it’s a decision (an “epiphany” Adamson calls it) that leads to the creation of Magazine. One is struck by the sense that this entire phase of his life is a series of ‘sliding doors’ moments; minute interactions all interlinking to eventually culminate in Magazine and The Bad Seeds. The fragility of events. Ultimate serendipity.
Music isn’t the only thing that Adamson is being introduced to at this time. Do-Dos are little amphetamine pills that keep you awake for days, which can only be advantageous to a teenage student trying to learn to play his new bass guitar. But, in every aspect of his life, transformation has begun. Magazine take off, quite spectacularly. The drug intake increases in regularity and, inevitably, potency. From Do-Dos to cocaine. It happens. Before long, it’s heroin and that addiction, that curse, shapes much of the latter stages of the book. Once again, Adamson resists the urge to hit us with full-on drama. Nor does he glamourize this addiction. Instead, he narrates in the same matter-of-fact way.
Despite Adamson’s tendency to avoid over-dramatising events, or maybe because of it, those final chapters are heart-achingly tragic. He marries and has a child, Christina. But, of course, a man cannot have two wives. Heroin wins; his ‘other’ wife, Caitlin, goes home to Australia, taking their baby daughter with her. Not long after this, his sister, who schooled him musically when he was young, sadly passes away after freak complications emanate from a routine gall bladder operation. He loses his mum and dad and fails in his attempts to go clean. Ultimately, he overdoses and only survives because the caretaker of a public toilet realises he has left his watch at work and returns to pick it up. Timepiece retrieved, he sets out for home again, but on departing he notices a foot sticking out from under the stall door. Once again, ultimate serendipity.
We now know that, despite those incredible childhood challenges and the string of tragic occurrences in early adulthood, all set against the horrific backdrop of the spiral of addiction, Adamson comes good. As the book ends, he is about to embark on his career as soundtrack composer extraordinaire. But the fact that we know there is a happy ending doesn’t dampen the impact of those latter tragic sections of this incredibly powerful book. Some of the events hit you like a Japanese bullet train. Up Above The City, Down Beneath The Stars is a book that will make you laugh and cry. It’s touching and shocking and it also has the ability to surprise you in parts. There are some passages that you will need to re-read because of their capacity to fly out of the blue and shock you to the core. It’s brilliantly and eloquently written and Adamson’s style makes it so easy to digest. At the same time, it continually challenges you to think deeply.
Finally, it’s a book for everyone who cares about real life. It’s irrelevant whether or not you are the world’s biggest aficionado of post-punk. Hell, you don’t even need to care about music at all to love this book. Because it’s not about the music. It’s about one man and his story of growing up in a working-class, northern family. Real life.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.