Although three decades ago he was Britain’s biggest pop star, Adam Ant hasn’t put out an album in 17 years—an unproductive streak that comes to an end with a comeback album this week. The inevitable “whatever happened to…” questions produce a more interesting than usual answer in Ant’s case: Several times, he’s been admitted to a psychiatric hospital—either of his own accord or by being “sectioned,” as they call involuntary commitment in England. “I’m a bit of a nutcase,” he told the Quietus this month.
The jokes almost write themselves. Should the 58-year-old rocker’s new album be called “Madmusic for Sectionedpeople”? If he suffers from bipolar disorder, maybe one of his early ‘80s hits should be updated to “Goody Two-Moods”?
Finding the humor in Ant’s condition may seem out of order, but he certainly isn’t afraid of a wisecrack or two in the service of addressing the mental illness that became “the elephant in the room” of his haphazard career. He told the Telegraph this year: “If you look at the symptoms of bipolar disorder, in all seriousness, the actual alarm signals are practically my job description: promiscuity, spending money lavishly, and wearing weird clothes. It’s very hard to get that across to a psychiatrist, who’ll say 'Why are you wearing a leather jacket with studs on?’ ‘I don’t know. I’m a rocker!’”
His comeback album has an almost Fiona Apple-esque title: Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter, which frankly sounds like the kind of thing that someone might come up with during a manic episode. It’s a combination of naval/nautical slang phrases that, in their way, hark back to the new-wave days when Ant dressed up in glam-rock pirate regalia on the covers of albums like Kings of the Wild Frontier, the top-selling British record of 1981. Nowadays he tends to look like a more aged, but no less dapper, Johnny Depp. “He was once named the Sexiest Man in America by MTV and the years have been pretty kind to his cheekbones; less so to his hairline,” reported back the Times journalist who was dispatched to meet the bandana-ed up pop star.
Ant believes he’s doing a public service by openly discussing his mental illness as part of the new album’s publicity campaign. “They call it bipolar disorder—that’s the modern term,” he told the Telegraph. “It only means up and down; it used to be manic depression, black dog, whatever. It’s a subject surrounded by a lot of ignorance and taboo. Where I come from, there’s the poorhouse–and worse than that is the madhouse. You should never feel ashamed of it, but you do. A lot of the time you can’t take these problems even to close family because you fear that you’ll alienate them. So anyone in the public eye that comes forward and discusses it, I think it helps.”
Reviews in the UK press for Blueblack Hussar… have been mixed. The Independent gave it four out of five stars, opining that the album is “sprawling, overdue and not for everyone, but at least it's not a play-it-safe comeback with the hot producer of the day. And for that, the Hussar should be saluted.” A less pleased Contactmusic.com wrote that “17 tracks really is too long, particularly when those tracks are largely an uncoordinated mish mash of lo-fi punk throwback, drippy acoustic balladry, Casio keyboard industrial music interpretations and spaghetti western guitars.”
In a three-star review, the Guardian said, “The 17 tracks offer a rickety but entertaining mix of the best elements of his imperial period: tribal glam stomps, razor-slashed T Rex guitars, two-drummer Glitter beats, knowing homages to cult icons (Vince Taylor and Vivienne Westwood) and sex... While nothing quite reaches the dizzy heights of 'Antmusic,’ ‘Shrink’–a perhaps autobiographical romp about a man who needs medication to feel normal–is as riotous as he's sounded in three decades.”
Ant has told interviewers recently that he’s not on meds anymore, himself. "I've come off the very heavy medication,” he told the Sun in 2010. “I was on sodium valproate for seven years, which tells your brain not to get excited. I couldn't sleep when I wanted to sleep and I didn't make love for seven years. My hair fell out and I couldn't pick up a book, as I couldn't concentrate. I didn't write a song or pick up a guitar in that time—and piled on the weight. I may as well have been dead."
He considers the affliction as “nothing I’m ashamed of… Every creative artist I’ve ever admired–Keats, Byron and Kurt Cobain–had bipolar disorder. A lot of creative people are born like that and it’s their different take on things that give them the edge,” he told the Times. Yet, although he takes some pride in identifying himself with those troubled artists, he also resists over-romanticizing the disorder. “I wouldn’t wish (bipolar disorder) on my worst enemy,” he said. “It’s inexplicably painful. It’s like going to hell. It’s very easy for me to lie and say: ‘Nah, it makes me a stronger person.’ It makes good copy but it’s not like that. It’s a fist in the skull.”
Born Stuard Goddard, he came up through the London punk scene and formed Adam and the Ants in 1977, briefly hooking up with the Sex Pistols’ manager, the late Malcolm McLaren—whose death prompted one of the songs on his new album. The band had seven top 10 songs in the UK (including “Stand and Deliver,” “Antmusic,” and “Prince Charming”) before Ant went solo in ’82 with the chart-topping “Goody Two-Shoes.” But 1983’s “Puss ‘n Boots” was his last top 10 single in Britain. In 1995, he released what looked for a long time like it might be his final album, Wonderful, whose title song peaked at an unremarkable No. 32 in his home country but did make it to No. 7 on the modern-rock chart in America. Then came radio silence.
Ant had shown signs of trouble as a youth, including bouts with anorexia, a suicide attempt at 21, and an early, pre-fame stay in a mental hospital. But his problems seemed to come to a head in the early 2000s. In January 2002, he went looking for someone he believed had made telephone threats against his family and threw a car alternator he found in the street through a pub window, then drew an antique starting pistol when he was chased down, which resulted in being ordered to psychiatric care with a suspended jail sentence. “I was in a state of hypermania where it’s like a film,” he said. “It was the biggest mistake of my life.”
There were more mistakes to come. A year and a half later, he attempted to break into a neighbor’s house and then was found lying naked in a café basement. The courts sent him to a psychiatric hospital for six months. He still thinks he didn’t merit that commitment. “The 1983 Mental Health Act needs a great deal of work,” he said. “It’s extremely easy to get someone sectioned.” He spent another month at a psychiatric hospital in mid-2010, shortly after he first announced plans for the Blueblack Hussar album. This treatment came just after reports of a strange gig in Portsmouth where he was reportedly booed off the stage after telling any Christians in the audience to “f--- off.”
Ant has not been living out of the public eye this whole time, at least not in Britain. He published an autobiography, Stand & Deliver, in 2006. Several spates of touring in Europe (and, briefly, America) in recent years resulted in mostly positive notices. And there is a forthcoming documentary, made by
Jamie Reynolds of the Klaxons, which Ant describes as “quite raw and brutal... It culminates with me playing with Rod Stewart in Hyde Park in front of 100,000 people."
If he ends up as the poster boy for bipolar disorder in popular music, that’s all right by him: “It’s nice to feel like you can offer some kind of comfort,” he says, “because there is hope… The Blueback Hussar is me coming back to life… I was like a dead man walking. I look at boxer Muhammad Ali, who is the greatest person I have ever met, and the battle he has had with his health. I am a fighter too. They can hold you down, like they did me, but I'll always be back."
After all this publicity, fans will of course be curious to hear for themselves whether Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter seems nutty in a lovable-eccentric way or nutty in an actually clinical, hypomanic way. His return to his lo-fi, glam-rock roots seems particularly sane in this climate. On the other hand, writing the song “Punkyoungirl” about his infatuation with Kate Moss will raise some eyebrows. “Punky young girl needs a middle aged man/ Whose mid-life crisis you began… Such a work of art… Lift up your skirt… What’s under there? I hope to Christ it’s lingerie.” It may skirt the fine line between typical mid-life crisis and “creepy,” as one critic opined, but if it’s crazy, at least half the male gender probably needs to be sectioned along with Ant.