‘Music is still a mysterious, magical alchemy for me.’
It’s a brilliant word, isn’t it? Alchemy: a power or process of transforming something common into something special, or, to use its original etymology, an attempt at turning an ordinary metal into gold. Alchemy is a word the articulate Adam Clayton, bassist to the world’s greatest rock band, U2, uses when we speak, to elegantly describe his enduring belief – his awe, almost – in the transformative power of music. And who better to champion music as a magic elixir? Without music, Adam Clayton’s life story could have echoed in an entirely different tone. Without music, the boy from Dublin’s north side, a self-confessed ‘brat’ at school, was more than unlikely to achieve the international acclaim and influence now synonymous with U2.
That first acoustic guitar, bought in a junk shop for the princely sum of five old Irish pounds, lit the touchpaper that would turn a bedroom strummer into a global, stadium-bursting superstar. Without music, the well providing a life rich in extraordinary experience, success, spiritual satisfaction even, would have run dry. And it is through music that Clayton continues to find refreshment. ‘I’m always fascinated by it,’ he tells me. ‘I’m a little like the goldfish swimming around in the bowl – it always sounds new to me, whichever music is popular at any given time.’
Adam Clayton was born to parents Brian, an RAF pilot, and Jo, a stewardess, in Oxfordshire, England, in 1960; his family relocating briefly to Kenya before making a home in Dublin’s coastal town of Malahide when Adam was five years old. Recounting his student experience, he has described himself variously as the ‘shy’ kid and the ‘class clown’, a seeming contradiction, yet one thing is certain: academia was not his bag. ‘I was a hopeless case,’ he tells me through a wry smile. ‘An absolute brat. And I did get asked to leave a couple of schools. I did my Inter and got really very bad grades…and I never did my Leaving…so I’m not a great example of anything other than perhaps pure determination and awkwardness. I don’t recommend it for anyone else!’
The determination element was fuelled, of course, by music, and allied to this an ambition to somehow make his early passion a life’s work. Its realisation was initially supported by his parents – who gifted a fifteen-year-old Adam with his first bass guitar – and fated by a friendship with another boy born in England, who now happened to be living down the road. Adam Clayton made firm friends with Dave ‘The Edge’ Evans, and they answered an ad posted by Larry Mullen at Mount Temple Secondary School, a band was formed (Feedback, later to become U2), and so began a rock story of unbelievable – and unparalleled – scale. Does Adam still pinch himself in disbelief today, I ask, more than four decades, 150 million album sales and twenty-two Grammy Awards later? ‘I still scratch my head sometimes and wonder how I got to where I am now,’ he responds. ‘To have come from North Dublin, with not one piece of education to my name…I was just lucky that I ended up a in great band with people that supported me, and that I found music very therapeutic early on.’
I could discuss U2’s discography – or ask for a chord of my favourite song – but what interests me is what happens when an untrained group of unknowns becomes globally adored. It’s fascinating, especially when you consider it’s a question very few individuals on earth can answer. ‘I think the very fast rise,’ Adam tells me, ‘which happened in about ‘87, ‘88, when the band was number one with The Joshua Tree in America and in something like thirty countries worldwide, it was hard to cope with. There’s no denying that. And perhaps it took about ten years to adjust to being that kind of – famous is almost the wrong word – certainly being that recognisable to the large majority of young people…it was an odd responsibility, let’s put it that way.’
And so music, the great saviour, led to a great power and hence a great and unusual responsibility. The music that had influenced U2, ‘it was very much punk music that represented our generation; spoke to us as seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds’ now fell under their remit, the inspiration of a generation now lying on the shoulders of these four young fellas from Dublin. I ask how Adam and his bandmates approached this mantle: what was their music’s mission statement? ‘We wanted to push that (punk) further because that music did come very much out of the frustration of the Ireland of the 1970s, the recession, three-day week, very high unemployment. That frustration was an aspect of where we were coming from – because there were no jobs in Ireland at the time –- but I think we wanted to move things along on a more spiritual and emotional basis as well.’ #
Which brings me to the spiritual side of our discussion. As Adam’s passion for music was exercised on a world stage, his proclivity to ‘escape’ from the world – manifested in alcohol abuse – also played out. He has described his relationship with alcohol as something akin to an anaesthetic, one designed to mitigate a low-level depression experienced since his youth. And, as with all false panaceas, a rock-bottom moment tends to light the way to recovery. For Adam, it was his failure to perform at a 1993 sold-out Australian gig, due to overindulgence, that sounded the alarm bell loudly both in his ears and those of his bandmates. A successful stint in rehab was to follow. Of this personal nadir, he has commented: ‘That was the end of my world. The only thing I wanted to do was be in a band and perform great songs.’
Now a confirmed and contented ex-drinker, I ask him to discuss his attitude to alcohol today, particularly in the context of the Irish relationship with the stuff. Is depression the root cause of our depressing alcohol abuse statistics, I wonder? ‘I think depression is generally a symptom of alcohol, rather than a cause,’ he says, ‘In my case, however, I was kind of aware, but without understanding the language of it, I was aware that I was using drinking to escape, quite early on. I always thought…I’ll be alright, I’ll be able to handle it. But of course alcohol feeds back on itself as it is a depressive. It also leads to risky behaviour, which creates more problems.’ What has he learnt from his experience, and his recovery? ‘What I’ve learnt is that two or three drinks for anybody is enough,’ he considers, ‘Enough to create a change in a person’s psychology and their physiology – yet that’s not how Irish people tend to drink…two or three drinks and they’re just getting started. I felt I enjoyed it, had fun with it, but looking back now, I realise that it was not responsible drinking.’
Responsible for himself, responsible to his fans and responsible for a wider message: that’s where Adam Clayton stands today, and music can reasonably be thanked for it all. It has provided him both with an inducement to overcome personal challenges and, more recently, with a platform to help others battle issues of their own.
I first met Ad