The Legacy Of 'Adam's Song,' An Anthem To Darkness, Loss — And Recovery

Oct 4, 2018
Originally published on October 5, 2018 4:19 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.

Editor's note: The following story contains some frank discussion of suicide.


The opening lines to "Adam's Song" aren't particularly subtle:

I never thought I'd die alone
I laughed the loudest, who'd have known

Then again, we are talking about Blink-182 here — the band that named its breakthrough album Enema of the State, that went streaking through Los Angeles in videos, that joked onstage about diarrhea and animal sex. Still, "Adam's Song" was different: The 1999 song dealt with depression and loneliness, weaving classic "road song" themes together with lines that evoked a suicide note, before reaching a more hopeful conclusion.

As blunt as the messaging was, it took a while for it to click with TJ Kennedy. He's a 28-year-old second grade teacher, who I found on a Blink-182 message board. A few weeks ago at the start of the school season, he got his first paycheck, and decided he'd get a tattoo: The first three notes of "Adam's Song," written on a staff. Kennedy loved Blink as a kid, and says Enema of the State provided the soundtrack for plenty of lazy days playing Nintendo 64. But as he got older, he went through a period of deep depression — and in college, he attempted suicide himself. In a note he wrote at the time, he referenced a lyric from "Adam's Song":

Give all my things to all my friends
You'll never step foot in my room again

He says he had a particular friend in mind. "I just wanted him to have the things that meant the most in the world to me, which were my instruments," he says. "Because that's how I looked at our friendship: It was a great and beautiful thing. I just wanted to make sure he had a piece of that, even if I wasn't around." Kennedy says his emotional life has changed for the better since then: "I was able to work with it rather than against it, and just try and learn about myself and keep it at bay, even if it's still here." He still hasn't told his friend about that note.

Talking about these things isn't easy — even for the guy who wrote the song. Blink-182 bassist and singer Mark Hoppus says he was at a professional high when "Adam's Song" was born: Dude Ranch, the album before Enema, had gotten major-label distribution and sold better than expected. The next record was poised to be an even bigger hit. So he felt weird talking about how he depressed and isolated he felt.

"It feels ridiculous saying, 'Our band's doing really good, but personally, I'm not feeling like I'm connecting,' " Hoppus says. "It felt like I had too much good fortune to complain about anything."

Not to his bandmates, friends, producer or manager, anyway — but he did feel his fans listening. "I feel like they are helping me share the difficult time I went through," he says. "I'm talking about my personal darkest times, and they're talking about their personal darkest time. And we're talking about a song that helped us both get through that."

Personal dark times made "Adam's Song" an anthem of sorts for 23-year-old Brittney Berlin. She's a wellness blogger in Brooklyn who has coped with suicide herself: She's suffered depression, OCD, an eating disorder, and attempted to take her own life. Then she had to deal with the suicide of a friend – who happened to be named Adam.

Berlin says she'd learned in therapy that physical exertion could help calm her down. One day she was scrolling through her phone to find music for a run, and rediscovered "'Adam's Song."

"It connected me with with Adam, and it also helped me feel everything," she says, explaining that surviving when Adam had not had been one of the hardest things to process. "You feel so many different emotions all at once. Then you feel bad for some of those emotions, because some of them are just really, really ugly. But that song just ... I felt like it was for Adam. I mean, it was. It's him."

Liz Friedlander, the director of the "Adam's Song" music video — which became an MTV hit, with regular play on Total Request Live — says everyone relates to the song in their own way.

She'd come into the job aware of the band's gross-and-goofy reputation (Dude Ranch, for example, had closed with a skit about a dog drinking urine from a toilet), and though she knew this song was different, she also knew she couldn't really expect this band to "act." Instead, her vision was to focus not only on the musicians but the people around them: the couple having a fight backstage, the person on the payphone by the gas station — and what they might be going through.

"We never know what's going on in other people's lives — people who we have relationships with, but also the people you sit next to at a concert or pass on the street, these humans you brush up against," she says. "We all are dealing with our stuff, and we don't look, and don't see, and so then we don't notice."

The song got a different kind of attention in the year 2000, when national news media covered the death of Greg Barnes — a Columbine High School student who, a year after the mass shooting at his Colorado school, took his own life. The stories at the time reported that when his parents found him, "Adam's Song" was playing on repeat.

But pinning suicide to one event or one cause clearly oversimplifies a very complex issue. And "Adam's Song" certainly isn't just one thing to its fans.

When I posted on that Blink-182 message board, asking how this community related to "Adam's Song," I got stories about bullying, breakups, all sorts of issues, all sorts of problems. But what nearly everyone mentioned was the turn the song takes after the bridge — what Hoppus calls its "redemption." He stops singing about dying alone and how great things used to be, and starts singing about being alive tomorrow:

I never conquered, rarely came
Tomorrow holds such better days
Days when I can still feel alive
When I can't wait to get outside

There was a period of time when Blink-182 didn't play "Adam's Song" in concert. A musician friend of theirs, Adam Goldstein — better known as DJ AM — had died from an overdose in early 2009, and Hoppus says he couldn't bring himself to sing it. Now, though, after nearly a decade, the band is playing it again. "I think of it more, now, as almost a celebration," Hoppus says, "of hardships gone through and friends lost." It's a celebration that means a lot to a lot of people: Not an anthem in the usual sense of the word, more of a reminder.

You don't need subtlety to write an anthem; even the ones that are subversively tongue-in-cheek are pretty obvious about it. Most of the songs covered in this NPR series are huge: war songs, protest songs, songs that grace Super Bowl stages and national rallies. But there is room for the anthemic in small moments, too — when you're alone in your room and a song is the only thing that's there for you.

TJ Kennedy told me he never did get that tattoo of the opening notes of "Adam's Song": on the day he came up with the cash, the shop was too busy to take walk-ins. Now, though, he's says working with the artist to design an even better one. Tomorrow holds such better days.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, help is available online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLINK-182 SONG, "ALL THE SMALL THINGS")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1999, the pop-punk band Blink-182 had a certain reputation. For starters, they named their big album that year "Enema Of The State."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE SMALL THINGS")

BLINK-182: (Singing) All the small things, true care truth brings.

SHAPIRO: Their music videos involved streaking, and their stage banter included a lot of toilet humor. But the third single off the album was different. It was a song that dealt with depression, loneliness and, at its very core, suicide. It's called "Adam's Song," and it became a banner for the band's young fans to process feelings that they maybe didn't understand until they got older. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this for our series American Anthem.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Some of the songs we've billed as American anthems are huge, undeniable even - war songs, protest songs, the national anthem. But think smaller for a second.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLINK-182 SONG, "ADAM'S SONG")

LIMBONG: I'm not talking about Super Bowl stages or national rallies. This is about you alone in your room. And the only thing there for you is a song, one that begins with something as blunt as I never thought I'd die alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAM'S SONG")

BLINK-182: (Singing) I never thought I'd die alone. I laughed the loudest. Who'd have known? I trace the cord back to the wall. No wonder it was never plugged in at all.

LIMBONG: "Adam's Song" was there for TJ Kennedy. He's a 28-year-old second grade teacher who I found through a Blink-182 fan message board. "Adam's Song" means so much to him that...

T J KENNEDY: I got my first paycheck, and I'm like, all right, screw it. I'm going to get a tattoo.

LIMBONG: Of the first notes of the song on a staff.

KENNEDY: Those opening - like, the (vocalizing), yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAM'S SONG")

BLINK-182: (Singing) I never thought I'd die alone. Another six months, I'll be unknown. Give all my things to all my friends. You'll never step foot in my room again.

LIMBONG: Those lyrics didn't register with Kennedy as a kid. Mostly he just listened to "Enema Of The State" while playing some Nintendo 64. But as he got older, the words started to cut through. He says he went through a period of deep depression and in college attempted suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAM'S SONG")

BLINK-182: (Singing) I'm too depressed to go on. You'll be sorry when I'm gone.

KENNEDY: You'll be sorry when I'm gone I think is just a giant F-you to people because no one really takes mental illness as serious as they would if you, you know, broke a bone or had the flu or something. A lot of people are just like, oh, you know, just be happy, or think positive. But until they experience it, until they go through it, they don't understand how hard that can actually be for a person.

LIMBONG: In a note he wrote at the time, he referenced the lyric give all my things to all my friends, and he had a friend in mind.

KENNEDY: I just wanted him to have the things that meant the most in the world to me, which were my instruments, because that's how I looked at our friendship. Like, it was such a great and beautiful thing, and I just wanted to make sure he always had a piece of that even if I wasn't around.

LIMBONG: Does he know?

KENNEDY: No, I haven't told him (laughter).

LIMBONG: Talking about this sort of thing isn't easy, not even for the person who wrote the song.

MARK HOPPUS: When I get depressed, I tend to turn inward and kind of shut off from the outside world, much to my own detriment.

LIMBONG: Blink-182's Mark Hoppus wrote "Adam's Song" when he was at a professional high but a personal low.

HOPPUS: You know, it feels ridiculous saying, our band's doing really good, but personally I'm just not feeling like I'm connecting. And I don't know. It just - it felt like I had too much good fortune to complain about anything.

LIMBONG: So even though Hoppus couldn't talk about his feelings to his bandmates or manager or friends, he had his fans.

HOPPUS: I feel like they are helping me share the difficult time that I went through. So I'm talking about my personal darkest times, and they're talking about their personal darkest times. And we're coming together about this song that kind of helped us both get through that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAM'S SONG")

BLINK-182: (Singing) I never conquered, rarely came. Sixteen just held such better days, days when I still felt alive. We couldn't wait to get outside.

LIMBONG: "Adam's Song" became an anthem of sorts for Brittney Berlin. She's a wellness blogger who lives in Brooklyn who's coped with suicide herself. She's suffered depression, attempted to take her own life and then had to deal with the suicide of a friend who happened to be named Adam. And the song helped.

BRITTNEY BERLIN: It connected me with Adam. And it also just, like, helped me feel everything. Like, you feel so many different emotions all at once. And then you feel bad for some of those emotions because some of them are really, really just ugly emotions. But that song just kind of - I felt like it was for Adam. I mean, it was. It's him.

LIMBONG: Everyone relates to this song in their own way, says Liz Friedlander. She directed the music video for "Adam's Song," which was a hit on MTV. Her vision for the video wasn't to just focus on the musicians but the people around them and what they might be going through - the couple having a fight backstage, the person on the payphone by the gas station.

LIZ FRIEDLANDER: We never know what's going on in other people's lives. In people who we have relationships with we don't always know what's going on, but also in the people who you sit next to at a concert or pass on the street or these humans that you brush up against. We all are dealing with our own stuff. And sometimes we don't look, and we don't see, and so then we don't notice.

LIMBONG: The song got a different kind of attention in the year 2000 when national news media covered the death of Columbine High School student Greg Barnes. A year after the mass shooting at his school, he took his own life. The stories at the time reported that "Adam's Song" was playing on repeat when his parents found him. But pinning suicide to one event or one cause oversimplifies a very complex issue. And "Adam's Song" certainly isn't just one thing to its fans. When I posted on that Blink-182 message board, I got stories about bullying, breakups, all sorts of issues. But what nearly everyone mentioned was the turn the song takes after the bridge.

HOPPUS: The bridge and the last chorus is the redemption of the song.

LIMBONG: Blink-182's Mark Hoppus stops singing about dying alone and how great being 16 was and starts singing about being alive tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAM'S SONG")

BLINK-182: (Singing) I never conquered, rarely came. Tomorrow holds such better days.

LIMBONG: There was a period of time when Blink-182 didn't play "Adam's Song" in concert. A friend of theirs, Adam Goldstein, better known as DJ AM, had died from an overdose. Hoppus says he couldn't bring himself to sing it. Now, though, after nearly a decade, the band is playing it again.

HOPPUS: I think of it more now as almost a celebration of hardships gone through and friends lost.

LIMBONG: And it's a celebration that means a lot to a lot of people. Sure, it's not an anthem in the usual sense of the word. It's more of a reminder. Remember that tattoo that TJ Kennedy was going to get at the beginning of the story? He never actually got it. The shop was too busy to take walk-ins. Now he's working with the artist to make an even better one. As the song says, tomorrow holds such better days. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAM'S SONG")

BLINK-182: (Singing) I never conquered, rarely came. Tomorrow holds such better days, days when I could still feel alive, when I can't wait to get outside.

SHAPIRO: And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, help is available online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAM'S SONG")

BLINK-182: (Singing) Days when I could still feel alive, when I can't wait to get outside. The world is wide. The time goes by. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.