Kevin Rowland: Return of the soul rebels

Two decades after they were killed off, Dexys Midnight Runners are back. Nick Hasted meets their visionary leader, Kevin Rowland
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The Independent Culture

In a rehearsal room in south London, Kevin Rowland steps from behind a pillar and stalks to the front of Dexys Midnight Runners. He is dressed in a black pinstriped suit with billowing trousers, held up by pink braces, a marked transformation from his last, vilified stage appearance, in a dress at the Reading Festival in 1999. Now, with his thinning hair slicked back and sideburns sculpted, he looks 1940s hip - and nothing to do, as usual, with passing pop fashions. For the next two hours, he drills his old band through their greatest songs, as I sit, the only audience, two feet away. "Geno", "Come on Eileen" and more blast past me, with new lyrics, introductions and confessional interludes, every aspect of Dexys overhauled for 2003. I feel exhilarated, embarrassed and, most of all, disbelieving - at how close I've just been to one of Britain's greatest bands, and that Rowland and Dexys are here at all.

It's been 17 years, after all, since Dexys Midnight Runners disappeared. Their glory days had been brief, but so passionate and uncompromising that they inspired devotion like few others. Each album was a radical mutation. Searching for the Young Soul Rebels (1980) was a blast of super-charged, ecstatic soul, Too-Rye-Ay (1982) a marriage of Celtic folk and Stax. Don't Stand Me Down (1985), acknowledged now as a masterpiece, included long, spoken dialogues of stone-faced humour, and songs about nationality and love. This album was the most disorienting of the fashion switches with which Rowland announced each new Dexys chapter: the band wore Ivy League suits, which outraged the day's yuppie-loathing music press. The album stiffed, and killed Dexys.

But Kevin Rowland's story continued. The Dexys legend had been built on his unwillingness to compromise. For its 1981 incarnation, he made the band live and jog together; he stole the Soul Rebels master tapes from EMI before release, to force a better deal; he stopped talking to the music press for three years, paying for manifestos in their pages instead; when he did consent to an interview, he assaulted the journalist in the street for misquoting. But when the band disintegrated, Rowland almost went with it. In the Nineties, he was paralysed by self-hatred, and shattered by cocaine. His second solo album, My Beauty (1999), in which he shocked again with that dress, was dismissed as the work of an enfeebled mind. He seemed set to go the way of Syd Barrett.

That's what makes what I'm watching today such a triumph. The rehearsal - with Pete Williams and Mick Talbot from the 1980 Dexys - is good enough, promising greatness for their comeback tour, when it begins next week. Two new songs, "Manhood" and "My Life in England (Part One)" - from a new hits collection, Let's Make This Precious - have the old fire, too. But best of all is Rowland's sane self-assurance as I observe him for the afternoon. He seems cleansed, ready for the world again.

Sitting with Talbot in a darkened canteen at the day's end, Rowland reflects on how he's feeling now. "When I played the music tonight, I felt very open, very vulnerable," he says. "I feel like I could easily hurt myself. I just feel very lifted up, very alive - charged. I was nervous, too. Sometimes, I'm terrified. I'm normally 20 times more guarded doing interviews ...", he catches himself, still coming down.

The idea of bringing Dexys back came to him typically, he reveals, in a vision. "I visualised how it could work. Which was an awful lot to do with Pete Williams as my partner, singing right up front. I imagined great musicians all around us, with us guys from Dexys over the top of them. That was the vision. It was weird to be in the band again, at first. But it's comforting now, because I get the same sorts of feelings that I used to get quite often, which I didn't know still existed, and I'd forgotten about. A feeling of good work, that was pure, that I used to experience - when we did good work. When we worked hard. There's a spirituality to this music, when we get it as good as it can be. It puts me in my natural element. Something takes over. Do you know what I mean, Mick? It's like soul ..."

"It's like you're in a semi-trance," Talbot agrees, looking up from his paper. "It's magical. That's what first drew me to Dexys."

"Manhood", Dexys' shamefully ignored new single, highlights another of their strengths. A startlingly brave comeback song about male fear and weakness, it adds to a songbook bulging with emotional exposure and attempts at self-understanding - as if Rowland sees songwriting not just as a job, but as his path to salvation.

"I sometimes do think that," he admits. "I think it's a false thing. I feel that, and I get so excited - this is IT, this is fucking great. Oh man, this is going so well, get the band to play this exactly right, and then everything's going to be wonderful. But of course it isn't. That's not life, you know. It's just a piece of music. But I still am driven to do that. Because it seems so powerful, I think, 'Once everyone hears this, the world's going to be a wonderful place, and everyone's going to love it, and think I'm wonderful !' But at the end of the day, I have to bring myself back down to earth. My manager said to me recently - 'Look, no one's going to feel this as intensely as you do.' I'm trying not to take myself so seriously. I try to remember that great music comes from God, and I can't take responsibility for it. I almost thought I was a god, before. I try not to get so carried away now."

But he can't deny that Dexys always made music to get carried away by - from the very first words of their first album, when he sighed - exhausted by all the inferior music then, as now, clogging the radio - "Burn it down". It's music that makes you leap out of your chair, and feel part of something bigger than yourself.

"Right," he says eagerly, "like we've tapped into something? It's the same for us. That's how we know when it's good. You get a feeling. Something comes over you."

Watching Dexys rehearse also reminds me of a further quality often neglected in all the talk of their old pride and passion. The centrepiece of these new shows are duets with Pete Williams, which, like the dialogues on Don't Stand Me Down, are dramatic and deeply funny.

"Yeah. It's a real fine balance," Rowland says. "We don't wanna play this set for laughs. But there's an area in between funny and serious, where people don't actually know what's happening. It's both serious and funny, and it's quite poignant, and it means something. For want of a better word, it's slightly camp - not in a gay way. The first ones I heard do that were Roxy Music, on their first album [breaking suddenly into a Ferry quaver]: "I will do any-thing for you - I will climb moun-tains! I will swim all of the oceans blue, I will put roses round your door!" But he means it too, you see, he fucking means it."

It was just such a difficult balancing act from which, for many, Rowland toppled, with the cross-dressing assault on public sensibilities on My Beauty, which seemed to have finished his career once and for all. In retrospect, the album and image were as brave as anything he has ever done. The incomprehension and hate it aroused shocked him deeply.

"There weren't any champions for it," he recalls. "It was pretty much all negative. I was having psychotherapy at the time, and my therapist said, 'What you've done is tapped into something that's very threatening - to not be a man dressing up as woman, but wearing a dress because you want to, without trying to be feminine.' I think it was beautiful, in a way. The reaction to that dress was almost the same as for the Ivy League clothes on Don't Stand Me Down, which was just as vitriolic, for wearing suits. It's very hard for me to understand that kind of reaction. But that's show business."

Such wry equanimity is not something Rowland has ever been known for before. It seems his years of therapy, drug abuse, low self-esteem and commercial catastrophe have burned away much of his old fury. Watching him joke with canteen staff and his band, he seems confident, and almost healed. He isn't at all what I was expecting, I tell him. He always used to seem like music gave him pain and turmoil, not peace and pleasure.

"I think it gave me a lot of pleasure, but I'd forgotten about it," he says, "and I just dwelled on the pain for a long time. Now I'm just trying to do the job the best I possibly can. It's good just doing it. I'd almost forgotten. For me it's like, 'Ah, fuck, I can do this. I didn't think I could for a bit, you know?"

'Let's Make This Precious' is out now on EMI. Dexys tour starts 21 Oct at Portsmouth Guildhall (023-9282 4355; www.portsmouthguildhall.co.uk)

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