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Icons: Bruno Adams

Bruno Adams made his name in the late-1980s and ?90s bands Once Upon a Time and Fatal Shore (the latter pictured below, with Adams far right) and became a well-known personality around his adopted Berlin before succumbing to cancer in 2009. NATHAN ROCHE tracks down several of Bruno’s former bandmates and loved ones to tell his story.


Sometimes, in the multitude of musical genres, bands can get bunched together under the same umbrella and easily forgotten compared to the better-known ones in bold print. 1980s Australian post-punk could be seen as one of these creatively incestuous and self-influenced movements that encapsulated a very unique time when some of the more visionary bands in question (examples: The Bad Seeds, Crime and the City Solution, The Wreckery, The Moodists, etc.) were creating music far from whatever anyone else was doing around the world. In this strange land so ostracised from anything else, bands coming out of St. Kilda in particular seemed to have created a very dark and alienated atmosphere of creativity. One which was very far from the touristic image of beaches, all-year sunshine and prosperity that an Australian postcard designed by [Ken Done](http://www.sergent.com.au/phonecards/aust/tourism-beach.jpg) might suggest.

Sometimes these groups that get tossed in the same section on the shelf at the record store will often suffer loss of their own individual sound and vision after being typecast by journalists and listeners. For me there is no band or ringleader from this period more deserving of solitary appreciation than Bruno Adams (Once Upon a Time, Fatal Shore) – a man probably more recongised in the district of Kreuzberg, Berlin, where he lived and died of cancer in 2009, than anywhere else.

Bruno grew up in rural Victoria and formed his first band in around 1984 in Melbourne. Once Upon a Time primarily included drummer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Hughes and pianist Chris Russell.

Long-term collaborator Hughes says upon first meeting Adams in Melbourne:

Chris Hughes: ?I remember getting to know Bruno in the early ?80s. He was always an omnipresent, larger-than-life character who still dressed in ?sharpie? cardigans and had dreadlocks way before they were fashionable. I would meet him off and on at gigs by The Birthday Party, Laughing Clowns, etc. at places like the Crystal Ballroom and we would sometimes hang out at parties afterwards. We had a lot of old friends in common – and shared similarly dysfunctional family backgrounds and musical tastes, starting from the usual ?punk roots? suspects (Pistols, Saints, Boys Next Door, etc.).

?We played around Melbourne with mutually respected peers, but often to annoyingly indifferent and bemused style-conscious young Goths.?

?Even though we rehearsed often three times a week in a communal terrace house in Fitzroy and prolifically produced enough original material to have released two albums by late ?86, we remained something of an insider’s band and were dubbed by The Age as Melbourne’s best kept secret at one point. This was despite even having (under Mick Harvey’s invitation) supported Screamin? Jay Hawkins and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds at The Venue in late ?85. We played around Melbourne with mutually respected peers such as Harem Scarem, The Wreckery, Crime and the City Solution (which included Bruno’s sister, [Bronwyn Adams](http://www.discogs.com/artist/336693-Bronwyn-Adams)) but often to annoyingly indifferent and bemused style-conscious young Goths or suburban grungeheads.?

After playing around Melbourne for a few years to bewildered and confused audiences, following The Bad Seeds? European support tour OUAT decided to settle down in Berlin. The group produced three versatile records – [Once Upon a Time](http://www.discogs.com/Once-Upon-A-Time-Once-Upon-A-Time/release/922539)* (1990), *[In the Blink of an Eye](http://www.discogs.com/Once-Upon-A-Time-The-Blink-Of-An-Eye/master/67154)* (1992) and *[Don’t Look Down](http://www.discogs.com/Once-Upon-A-Time-Dont-Look-Down/release/2089904)* (1994) – and featured tireless supporter Mick Harvey occasionally on drums and in the producer seat (he was later to record a cover of the brilliant ?Planetarium? on his 2005 album *[One Man’s Treasure](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OneMan%27sTreasure).


I’d come across the OUAT albums quite a few years ago and was instantly sucked into the almost psychedelic whirlpool of poetic blues the band had managed to compose. It sometimes bordered on apocalyptic, as a song like ?Magic?, off their debut record, truly felt like the end of the world. But primarily I was transfixed by the versatile, no-holds-barred vocals of Bruno Adams and his strange, cryptic and sci-fi-like songwriting. He would be hitting the darkest tones in some sort of foreign accent, with so much timbre before howling mournfully like a werewolf at midnight in the higher ranges. This sort of skill, which would always catch me off guard, could very often be in the first three lines of a song – it almost felt as if he was playing different characters and summoning different voices from other dimensions. Much like an experienced actor or a possessed voodoo priest requiring exorcism from speaking in tongues. I hadn’t heard anything quite like it since [Astral Weeks](https://www.youtube.com/watch’v=stcNL-vSwkI ) by Van Morrison or perhaps the theatrics of [Peter Hammill](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Hammill).


According to prolific musician and author Phil Shoenfelt, Bruno’s bandmate from the post-OUAT group Fatal Shore, this personality of acting wasn’t uncommon for Adams.

Phil Shoenfelt: ?He was hard to put into words. There were a lot of facets to his character. To a certain extent he was acting a role. He had that ability to project a persona that natural-born actors have. He was really charismatic, a very powerful performer on stage. At the same time he’d be taking the piss, going in and out of role, provoking a reaction from the audience with his presence, his quality of absolute ?there-ness?. Not in a confrontational way, but with warmth and humour, passion and humanity. This impulse he had for comedy isn’t to say that he didn’t take himself and his music seriously. He most certainly did. But at the same time he had this kind of bigger view, like he was looking down on himself from somewhere up above and laughing. He’d have me in stitches on tour with these parodies he’d do of stock Australian characters – right-wing politicians from the Country Party, brain-damaged psychos from the suburbs, aggressively inquisitive immigration officials. He could have had a second career as a stand-up comic.

?You don’t get many people like that these days. Certainly not in rock and roll, which is famously full of self-obsessed dickheads.?

?Yet he was an extremely sensitive guy. He could convey these really deep, very real, very soulful emotions. As far as his off-stage character is concerned, I think I can say that I’ve never before or since met a human being who seemed so free of malice, envy or any kind of hatred for anyone. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t a hippie. If you were his friend you could count on him, he wouldn’t let you down. He had a big heart and he took friendship very seriously. You don’t get many people like that these days. Certainly not in rock and roll, which is famously full of self-obsessed dickheads.?

Shoenfelt formed the band Fatal Shore with Adams, and Chris Hughes also joined. The initial formation of Bruno’s second band was under somewhat bizarre and surreal circumstances, as he recalls.

Shoenfelt: ?Just before I met Bruno, I’d agreed to do a tour of Bosnia-Herzegovina under the aegis of George Soros’s [People in Need Foundation](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PeopleInNeed%28CzechRepublic%29) – cultural aid to former Yugoslavia. My Czech band, [Southern Cross](http://www.philshoenfelt.com/gate.html), were a bit dubious about going. It was still quite hairy down there, even though the [Dayton [Agreement]](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dayton_Agreement) had been signed: lots of unexploded landmines lying around, snipers in the forests taking pot shots. I mentioned the upcoming tour to Bruno at the OUAT gig, and he immediately expressed interest in coming along. He was that type of guy, up for anything adventurous. We agreed that he’d come back to Prague after the OUAT tour finished, and that we’d work up a set of songs to play in Bosnia.

?So that’s what happened. A couple of weeks later Bruno appeared on my doorstep with his guitar and we spent two or three days putting together a set of songs by artists such as Lee Hazlewood, Jacques Brel, Robert Johnson, Howlin? Wolf – songs that we both knew and loved and which were capable of being played by a duo. Most of these songs appeared on the first Fatal Shore CD [1997?s [self-titled album](http://www.discogs.com/Fatal-Shore-The-The-Fatal-Shore/release/2280866)], which was recorded the following year with Chris Hughes on drums. I already knew Chris from London, by the way. I’d met him when I supported These Immortal Souls at the Camden Underworld in 1991. Chris was playing drums with them during this period. But the origin of Fatal Shore was this very intense tour of Bosnia-Herzegovina that Bruno and I undertook. Bruno disbanded OUAT once he got back to Berlin. After Chris Hughes got involved, Fatal Shore really took off.?


As for the three records they made (another was released posthumously), the conditions couldn’t have been wilder and more different from each. ?Well, the first CD was recorded in Lu’enec, Slovakia. We were doing a Czech and Slovakian tour in the spring of ?97, and some fans took us to see their mate’s studio, the morning after the Lu’enec gig. It was really good and really cheap, so we booked it and came back a couple of months later to record the album. This studio was situated in an old factory building with concrete stairwells and steel railings. We put the amps in the stairwell and got this huge cavernous, metallic sound with lots of natural reverb.

?Suddenly, out of the blue, there’s an American record producer offering to fly us to the States.?

?The second CD, [2003?s] [Free Fall](http://www.discogs.com/Fatal-Shore-Free-Fall/release/2313258), was an entirely different matter. It was recorded in a 19th century church in Covington, Kentucky. The way that came about was totally off-the-wall. Towards the end of 1999 we were on tour in Germany, crossing an iced-up mountain pass on the way to the next gig in Pilsen. Chris mentioned that some American record producer called Dan May wanted to produce the second Fatal Shore CD. He was offering us return air tickets to Cincinnati and a month in his studio with all expenses paid. Bruno and I were like, ?Yeah Chris, sure, pull the other one?? I mean, we were starving at the time, we could barely afford the gas money to the next gig. There we were in a small car, slipping and sliding over this mountain pass, and suddenly, out of the blue, there’s an American record producer offering to fly us to the States.?

?It turned out to be true. [Nico Mansy](http://www.nicomansy.com/), who Chris had played with in Hugo Race & True Spirit, had married an American girl and moved to Cincinnati. He was working as an engineer in May’s studio, The Church. Dan had heard the first CD, really liked it, and wanted to produce the new one. So in the spring of 2000 we flew out of Berlin en route to Cincinnati. The project sounded great on paper, but the situation wasn’t quite what we’d been led to believe. Dan and his mates – they did have quite strong right-wing views – The thing is they were joking, but they were serious too. Wind-up merchants, overgrown rich kids trying to be provocative – Dan had his own band, [Kursk](http://vimeo.com/21965991), and he wanted to get into record producing. We were the guinea pigs, the experiment. So we were kind of trapped there in Kentucky with these people – no escape if we wanted to do the album! I mean, we didn’t even do any recording for the first week. Dan just wanted to party and show us off to the neighbourhood. It was like, ?These guys are over here from Berlin and I’m producing them.?


?Meanwhile, Bruno would be out in the backyard, drinking with Dan and the guys, getting into political arguments. I figured I was there to record an album and stayed out of it. I mean, you’re not going to convert these people to social democracy, so why bother? Do the album and get out fast.

?The third CD, [2007?s] [Real World](http://www.discogs.com/Fatal-Shore-Real-World/release/1165909), was a sedate affair by comparison. We’d acquired a bass player, [Yoyo R’hm](http://www.fatal-shore.de/yoyoroehm.html), who was also a producer and arranger. We recorded it in his home studio in Berlin, a much more relaxed environment. He did all the string arrangements and organized these top-notch Berlin classical musicians to play on it. It doesn’t have the manic edge of the second CD, or the metallic, extra-terrestrial resonances of the first, but I’d say it was our most accomplished recording. Yoyo did a fine job: the production is really lush, really deep, in the way that Lee Hazlewood recordings are lush and deep.?

?He loved Berlin and Berlin loved him back.?

Adams was embraced as something of a character around Berlin, and I was curious as to why he choose to stay there until his death. Katka Adams, Bruno’s wife at the time and mother to his children, noticed his presence around Berlin very early on.

Katka Adams: ?His influence around Berlin – Bruno was and still is a king of rock-and-roll/underground of Berlin. He was having in different places his own shows, where he was getting all different musicians together: ?Bruno Adams World Enterprises Presents?. And he wasn’t getting only a shows together but also people – when you wanted to have a good time, just call Bruno and ask him what is going on. When we were on the night out, we were moving from bar to bar and getting drinks for free. And if you had a problem you could come to Bruno and he would listen to you and he would give you down-to-earth advice.?

Shoenfelt tries to pinpoint the reasons why he stayed for the remainder of his life there: ?I guess because he liked it! He really fit in with the whole Berlin post-Bad Seeds, post-[Neubauten](https://neubauten.org/), post-[Die Haut](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Haut) scene. All those guys were his friends and contemporaries and they respected him. There was a cohesion to the Berlin scene at that time, which I think Bruno found very attractive. He was like a fish swimming in his own water. There were personal reasons too: his two marriages and three kids. I just think he’d built up such a network of relationships, he couldn’t imagine going back to live in Australia and leaving it all behind. Basically, he loved Berlin and Berlin loved him back.?


I wanted to know if he ever regretted his lack of presence as a musician back in Australia after facing the endlessly confused audiences that Chris Hughes mentioned with early OUAT concerts. ?He never talked about it, actually,? says Shoenfelt. ?Not to me anyway. He certainly never came across as embittered. He had his life in Berlin, a family to support, songs to write, bands to play with – and a huge network of friends, both native Berliners and Australian expats. He was well liked and highly respected, a larger-than-life character who attracted attention wherever he went. People responded to him, he was part of the furniture, an important fixture on the Berlin scene. He gave lots of new bands a chance, especially if he thought they were doing something original. Every bar you went in with him, someone would come out of the shadows and say, ?Hey, Bruno! What’s happening, man?? He was known for being fair and pragmatic, never stuck-up or precious, no hidden agendas. Certainly not a saint; he was too real for that. But he had this immense positive energy that just swept you along; you felt somehow enriched by knowing him. I think he was too busy living his life to dwell on stuff like his reputation back home. There were so many in Berlin who loved him. At his funeral it was amazing – about 200 people showed up. Most of the Berlin underground scene was there.

?And anyway, I think he was appreciated in Australia. Maybe not by the public at large, or even the critics, but by the cognoscenti. People like Mick Harvey, Simon Bonney [of Crime and the City Solution] and Warren Ellis knew and respected him. I think Bruno’s reputation as a songwriter will continue to grow. The Oslo-based New York singer Mark Steiner has just done a very nice cover version of [?Closing Time?](http://marksteiner.bandcamp.com/track/closing-time) on his new album [Saudade](http://marksteiner.bandcamp.com/album/saudade). Bruno did what he did to the best of his considerable talents and abilities. He put out the best music he was capable of making, then let the chips fall where they may. I mean, it wasn’t like he was networking the whole time, trying to be the flavour of the month. Maybe at the end, when it was obvious the cancer was winning, he did get introspective. But even then, even when he knew he was going to die, he never lapsed into self-pity or bitterness.?


In 2004 Bruno Adams was diagnosed with cancer and, in the development of the illness where he grew considerably weaker, his ex-wife Helena Giuffrida filmed the last few months of his life so his children could see what their father was like. Shoenfelt takes this into more detail.

Shoenfelt: ?Initially they thought it was a stomach ulcer, and the doc simply told him to stop drinking. When after three months the pain was still there, he went for some tests and was told he had colon cancer. He took the news philosophically and made his mind up he was going to beat the disease. He started to have chemotherapy, and they shrank the tumour till it was operable. We never stopped gigging, even though Bruno was frequently in pain and tired from the chemo. So he had the operation to remove the tumour, and at first they thought it had been successful.

?He wrote a lot of songs in this period, some of which ended up on Real World. You can sense the feeling of rebirth, the belief that he had survived a very dark period in his life, on songs such as ?So Glad I Did? and ?Between a Heaven and a Hell?. But a few months later they discovered they hadn’t got all of the tumour out after all, that it had gone into metastasis and the cancer was spreading through his body. This was truly heartbreaking. Imagine having gone through all this, feeling like you’ve been reprieved from a death sentence, then having your new life snatched away. Bruno and Katka had just had their second kid too. A horrible, tragic situation. Somehow he kept going, picked himself up and refused to admit defeat. We were still gigging, even though he was often in great pain and had to lie down on the stage. One time we had to fly him back to Berlin from a gig in southern Hungary, when he needed hospital treatment.


?But in spite of all this he insisted on continuing with the tour and missed only a couple of gigs. After the last one, at [Kino Ebensee](http://www.kino-ebensee.at/) in June 2008, he took the cable car and hiked around the top of a nearby mountain. Talk about a lust for life! Can you imagine what he must have been going through all this time? The feeling of encroaching, inevitable death, and the sheer bloody-minded determination to keep on living and loving and making music in spite of everything. He’d lost a lot of weight by then. Finally this big, hale, hearty guy with a huge appetite for life was reduced to a bloodless skeleton. Even then, when his cheeks were sunken and his skin was grey, the light never went from his eyes. Not until the last few weeks. Finally he did start to get this distant, faraway look, as if he were gazing out across some invisible line, some border. It could have been the morphine, but you really got the feeling he was staring into the void.

?If it was going to come down, let it be real: death is an inescapable part of life.?

?The documentary on the last few months of his life – and it follows him (literally) right up to the end – called ?So Glad I Did? (named after the Fatal Shore song) tracks him as he goes about his daily routine, all the things a person has to deal with when suffering from terminal cancer. Bruno agreed to be filmed. He wanted to deal with the whole thing scientifically, almost like it was an experiment. So here we see a guy who knows he’s going to die in a matter of months, visiting the hospital, discussing his condition with the doctors and nurses, talking to his friends, his family, his kids, telling them papa’s gonna be going away soon, meeting with the funeral director who’s going to bury him, visiting the cemetery so he can pick out the plot where he’ll be buried, being pushed in a wheelchair by Katka, sitting in the park taking the sun. All without any trace of self-pity, no feeling of bitterness that he’s drawn the short straw. To me it’s incredible how he was able face death in this seemingly detached way, especially when he loved life so much. What he went through was really hardcore, but he wanted it to be documented.

?If it was going to come down, then let it be real: this is death and death is an inescapable part of life. The last scene shows him lying in the coffin, with his two younger kids (four and seven at the time) trying to comprehend what has happened. They’re making it into a game, laying flowers around his head, saying stuff like, ?He was here before, but now he’s gone? and ?Feel his skin, it’s cold now, he’s different.?

?Man, it’s about the heaviest film you’re ever likely to see. I don’t know if I could take seeing it again.?

For a man who’d only known Bruno for a little bit over a decade of his life, Shoenfelt says not even his words could capture what he really was: ?Well, I could go on for several more thousand words and still not capture his essence. I think it’s clear from what I’ve said that he left an indelible mark on me and many others – both musically, and as a person. Let’s just say that he was one of the most impressive, inspiring human beings I’ve ever met and leave it at that.?

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##Nathan Roche thanks Phil Shoenfelt, Chris Hughes and Katka Adams for their help with this piece. Below, Helena Giuffrida has agreed to screen her remarkable film about Bruno, ?So Glad I Did?, for one week before it’s made private again. Nathan says, ?I urge everyone to see this very personal and somewhat unbelievable film!?