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Kevin Rowland: ‘I was a lost soul in my teens’

The Dexys mainman gave up on his dreams as a teenager, but went on to taste chart-topping success with hits Geno and Come on Eileen
Kevin Rowland. Image: Eliza Hill

Kevin Rowland is one of the world’s great singers and songwriters. Since he formed his band Dexys Midnight Runners in 1978, Rowland has been a critically acclaimed and hugely successful pop pioneer, whose early singles Geno and Come On Eileen topped the charts and showed his range.

But, as he explained in a revealing Letter To My Younger Self, as told to The Big Issue’s Adrian Lobb, even at the height of his success he was plagued by doubt and what he refers to as ‘imposter syndrome’.

Now 67, Rowland is as open-hearted in this interview as he always has been in his songwriting as he reflects on life as a young soul rebel who had given up on his dreams and the highs and lows of his incredible career in music.

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I left school at 15 thinking I was a complete failure. If the word dyslexic existed, I’d never heard it. You were just stupid. And if you didn’t get what they were saying, they would hit you. It was so barbaric at school. I didn’t feel let down or misunderstood because I didn’t think I had the right to feel like that. But I often got hit with a strap.

I was arrested four times before leaving school. We would try to go to school but you had to walk past Burnt Oak station to get there – so it was either the dark, heavy vibe of school, Shakespeare and probably getting hit or the delights of the West End. No contest. I got arrested twice in one week. Me and a friend stole a scooter and were pulled over driving around Elephant and Castle roundabout in our school uniforms. Then, after our parents went to the police station and all of that, we got caught trying door handles by Regent’s Park. Two plain clothes police saw us. Back in the police cell again. 

My younger self couldn’t offer much in a world where he had given up on his dreams. I was so screwed up. I would say, there is nothing wrong with you, just trust your intuition, listen to yourself, check how you actually feel about things because I was so out of touch with that. I see a really lost soul at that point.

My passions at 16 were clothes, sex and music – I can’t say in what order. The number one shop was the Ivy League on Brewer Street – it was trailblazing and expensive as hell. Seven quid for a pair of shoes, which was a week’s wages. I tended to get cheaper versions elsewhere. At home, the currency was education, but my dad put way too much pressure on me. More than I could take. And he saw no value in the things I was interested in. I worked for a shop called Dunn and Co selling hats and suits. They were the only ones who valued me. They were lovely people and said I could be a manager by 21. I was really pleased with that idea – I would even go in on my day off to help tidy up. I was on probation at the time.

I was into reggae and soul – that is what was going on in the suburbs for kids who wanted to be cool. If you went to clubs, you didn’t hear Space Oddity or The Beatles. You would hear obscure black music. In 1969, even before the word skinhead had been invented, it felt like our time. I knew we were equivalent to the mods five years earlier or the teddy boys before that. It felt great to be part of something. I was in the Harrow Crew. We used to meet in the Wimpy bar on a Saturday night.

My hero was my older brother Pete. I really looked up to him. He was in a working men’s club covers band in Birmingham in 1974 when I moved there. He said the guitarist is leaving in six months, if you can learn the songs, you’re in. That was the push I needed. I started to write the odd song and Pete let me do some singing. The first time, I hated it. Then he let me put one of my songs in the set. I had nothing to lose and eventually packed up my job to do music in 1977. 

The thing that would most excite my younger self would be the idea of going on Top of the PopsI wasn’t thinking about critical acclaim or people saying our music was having a fantastic effect on them, I was just thinking about a bit of fame. But more than anything, it was about proving I wasn’t a piece of shit. That was driving me. The idea of showing I could do something. It would blow my mind that we actually did things – because it all seemed so out of reach. My horizons were tiny. It was off my radar completely.

I enjoyed success… for a couple of weeks. It was amazing going on Top of the Pops and people started coming up to us. But you think it is gonna take away all your feelings of low self-esteem and it doesn’t. It’s an illusion. It doesn’t solve everything. I started to feel like people could see through me, like ‘they know I’m not worthy’. I felt it even more after we’d had a number one single. Now there’s a phrase for it, imposter syndrome, but I didn’t know any phrases like that. These thoughts totally dominated me. Me being me, I didn’t tell anybody. You are worried people can smell weakness. It’s a ridiculous way to live. It’s exhausting.

Be honest, don’t lie to girls, and understand that sex is OK. Because I didn’t understand that sex was OK. My Catholic school didn’t mention sex at all and neither did my parents. Nobody told me the facts of life. I felt this powerful desire well up in me from the age of 14 but had no one to talk to about it. It was secret, so I got the impression it was wrong, and therefore girls who did it were wrong. Then you don’t respect them. I was brought up to believe girls who did that were bad, and it was an awful way to think. 

I don’t think success suits me and I don’t think a music career really suits me

I would tell my younger self to trust your band more. Certainly with Kevin Archer. He is such a great guy to have in a band, treat him with more respect. As is well documented, I was too influenced by demos he played me in 1981. But I was also too dictatorial. I was full of fear so I was trying to control everything around me. I didn’t know that at the time, but I know it now. I have apologised for that. I don’t think success suits me and I don’t think a music career really suits me. My ego is very easily seduced, probably because of the low self-esteem. They are two sides of the same coin.

I wouldn’t say to avoid excess because things are there to be enjoyed if you can control them. A lot of people can take drugs and not get addicted. But there was probably nothing I could do to stop myself getting addicted. I don’t want to go through it again but I feel glad now because it brought me into recovery and made me realise how lost I was. I feel more myself now than I’ve ever been, and it’s not always easy to be yourself.

The songs I recorded on My Beauty helped me find myself. It was a labour of love but was overlooked through a lot of ignorance around the clothes I was wearing. Now, I look back and think it’s ridiculous – the people saying I was crazy for wearing a dress? I would not go to them for style advice. It was a lifestyle choice not a gimmick.

I didn’t meet my daughter until she was 17. And three years later she had her first child. But I have a pretty good relationship with them now. I hope they know – I think they do – that I’m here to help. My grandson Roo is in my video for Rag Doll. What he wears in that is just how he dresses – he has been wearing dresses since he was 12. It was my dad’s 100th birthday party in Ireland a couple of years ago and Roo turned up like that and looked amazing. He already talks like an artist, which took me years to grasp.

I’m very grateful for Come On Eileen and I still get money from it. But I’ve never wanted to be a band that just goes out and plays the hits. After we released One Day I’m Gonna Soar [in 2012], we did nine shows at the Duke of York’s [in London] and played the whole album. We came to life in that theatre. They are the best shows we’ve ever done. We didn’t play Eileen but did a Latin version of Geno and got standing ovations. If we played a greatest hits show we could have filled the Albert Hall.

I would like to revisit all the original 1980s Dexys period and enjoy it more. I did the best I could and we made some good music but I would tell my younger self, just fucking chill, man. Have some fun. You’ve been on Top of the Pops, you’ve had a number one, in a couple of years you will have another one – so go and enjoy yourself. But I was never present. I was always looking for the next thing. I’d tell myself nothing is as serious as you think it is. Just enjoy the ride. That’s it.

My Beauty by Kevin Rowland was reissued on September 25 on Cherry Red Records