Kevin Rowland: ‘I woke up at 3am with my chest so tight I thought that was it’
The Dexys star on his his brush with Covid-19, the misunderstood My Beauty album, and rediscovering his femininity
Kevin Rowland: “I remember having to write something, saying it’s not a gay thing, it’s not this, it’s not that.” Photograph: David M. Benett/Getty Images)
“I’ve been waiting to talk about this for years,” says Kevin Rowland. “There are so many myths and misunderstandings around it.” He’s referring to his 1999 covers album, My Beauty, a record mocked by the music press at the time for the choice of songs, Rowland’s earnest delivery and, above all else, the fact he chose to wear stockings and a pearl necklace for the cover image.
When it first came out, critics claimed the Dexys Midnight Runners frontman was in the middle of a nervous breakdown, that the record only sold 500 copies, that he was bottled off stage at Reading festival, that Bruce Springsteen was so appalled by his interpretation of Thunder Road he had personally rejected Rowland’s lyrical changes. The only thing was … none of it was true. “There was this idea that I was mad, that this was all part of some crack-up,” says Rowland. “Just so patronising.”
I woke up at 3am with my chest so tight I thought that was it
Indeed, what really strikes you, as My Beauty gears up for a 21st-birthday reissue on pink vinyl, is just how well it chimes with the current times. Rowland has made a new video for his cover of the Four Seasons’ Rag Doll, which recreates the era in which My Beauty was released – lad mags, Britpop, casual homophobia – before flashing to the future, where a teenage boy is happily singing the song in a black dress, pink cropped hair and blue eyeshadow. Heartwarmingly, it turns out this is Rowland’s grandson, Roo. “I’m so proud of him,” he says. “He’s been wearing dresses and makeup since he was 13.”
Today Rowland is in good spirits, despite having struggled since lockdown with what he thinks must be a persistent case of Covid-19. “I was only really bad for a few nights,” he says. “One in particular I woke up at 3am with my chest so tight I thought that was it – ‘Have I got everything sorted out, is everything OK with my daughter?’ But that didn’t last long. It’s only now that it’s started slightly to come back again, a lot of fatigue.”
There’s no listlessness on show as he spends an hour setting the record straight about My Beauty. Yes, he says, the project sprang from a dark place: by the end of the 1980s, Dexys had split following a lacklustre reaction to what many now regard as their masterpiece, Don’t Stand Me Down. He became hooked on cocaine – “not doing too many drugs, hopelessly addicted”, he emphasises – and was living in a squat. “Pretty grimy. You had to shout up to me to get in, the electric was wired up to bypass the meter, that kind of place.”
One day he drove out to the West Country to get away from it all – en route, he put a tape on and heard George Benson’s version of The Greatest Love of All. “I don’t know what happened, man, it was highly unusual, because I’d never registered that song before, if anything I thought it was corny. But I just burst into tears, the first time I’d cried in years.”
By the mid 1990s, Rowland had put the drugs behind him and bought a flat in Brighton. Yet the songs he’d found himself reappraising during his darkest period – You’ll Never Walk Alone, This Guy’s In Love With You, Labelled With Love – remained in his head. When Creation records signed him to make another Dexys record, Rowland told label boss Alan McGee he needed to record a solo album of covers first, documenting his bleakest period. “Alan loved it. He said, ‘This puts us into Radio 1 land.’”
Rowland credits a method acting course he took for being able to “get to the truth” of the songs. “Back in 95/96 I was going to the Strasbourg School in Holborn,” he says. “You can’t pretend to be a murderer … but you can find something, a memory within you, that will make you very angry so that you feel like you could murder.”
Can you believe it? That people got so worked up about what someone was wearing?
He built a little cocoon in the studio around the microphone, decorated it with clothes and photographs that triggered the painful memories, and sang his heart out: Greatest Love of All offers striking vulnerability (“It’s over, no more. Mum, mum? It’s f**king heavy, innit?” runs the spoken word intro); Rag Doll builds to a stunning choral climax (“A beautiful choir, all singing for you/ They’re singing the truth, the bad stuff’s over”); his rewritten lyrics to Thunder Road are given a stirring delivery.
“That’s another myth, that Springsteen turned my version down,” says Rowland. The truth, he says, is that nobody at Creation bothered to get it to the Boss in time. Now, with Springsteen’s management’s approval, the album can be heard as was originally intended. Does this mean Springsteen has heard it himself? “I did read somewhere on the internet that he’d heard it and he thought it was neat, but who knows man?”
The lyrical controversy, though, was nothing compared with the noise caused by Rowland’s outfit. “Can you believe it? That people got so worked up about what someone was wearing?” he says. But they did, and even those sympathetic to Rowland’s vision seemed baffled. One marketing guy at Creation sent him a bunch of material about cross-dressing. “And I was like, no, I don’t wanna wear a wig! I had sideburns on, a male haircut. I just wanted to wear a dress.”
He sighs. “Someone else at the label thought it was about sexuality. It may have been a bit. But I remember having to write something, saying it’s not a gay thing, it’s not this, it’s not that. I kind of defined it through people misinterpreting it. Because I’m not the kind of guy to go, ‘This is a statement and it means this.’ It was all intuitive.”
Still, Rowland took the negative reactions personally. One reviewer, commenting on his version of the Monkees’ Daydream Believer, said it “brought a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘homecoming queen’”. Even today, Rowland says people just don’t get it. “Irvine Welsh, who is a friend and I respect him, put a tweet up recently saying it was an amazing album but the cover was a mistake. He doesn’t understand me! It was a lifestyle choice, not a f**king career move. That’s what I was wearing, that’s what I was into, that was who I am. All of my looks, everything I do, is like that. It’s not a gimmick.”
Besides, he adds, “the people saying the dress was all part of my craziness and that I was mad – well, not to be disparaging, but they wouldn’t exactly be the people I was going to for style tips.”
Perhaps the peak of the criticism came during his infamous appearance at Reading and Leeds festival where he performed a short guest spot dressed in a white dress and stockings. I was at the Leeds leg of the festival and remember feeling disillusioned by the boos and insults ringing out among the crowd. But Rowland doesn’t remember the incident as all bad.
“We certainly didn’t get bottled off at Reading,” he says. “We were only ever going to do three songs. There were bottles thrown at us, definitely. Four, five, maybe six. But they weren’t glass bottles. During the third song, Greatest Love, I stopped singing and said, ‘Listen, I’m singing this song to the best of my ability. If there’s anybody next to you about to throw a bottle do me a favour – stop.’ And a big round of applause came out from the crowd. I finished it with more gusto than I’d had previously and we walked off victorious.”
The Leeds leg he admits was trickier. “I was about to go on, and then a woman called Hobbs … Mary Anne Hobbs? … introduced me. She said, ‘Here’s a legend in his own lingerie!’ And I thought, ‘What the f**k?’ It threw me, to be honest. I think Alan [McGee] thought the confrontation would be punk rock, but I didn’t want that. I’d done all that 20 years earlier.”
I must admit that, even back then, as a huge Dexys fan, I regarded My Beauty more as a curio – I admired the sheer bloody-mindedness of it but found the arrangements a bit schmaltzy. It wasn’t until several years later that the album finally made sense to me. I’d started having panic attacks – traumatic events where I’d be out of the house and suddenly feel like I had no control over my body or mind – and when I received medication for those I was left bed-bound with depression.
At the time it felt like I’d never get better. But I can pinpoint the moment when the clouds began to part, and that was while playing Rowland’s The Greatest Love of All – it felt like he was singing from the very same place I was at, offering a hand in the darkness and telling me that it would be OK. Even the sleeve made sense to me now, not as a big statement on gender so much as a visual metaphor that Rowland was laying it all on the line with an incredibly personal gesture. When I mention the record’s powerful effect on me that day, Rowland is keen to know more. “What was the feeling?” he asks.
“I guess it felt like a way out,” I say.
“That’s it. That’s it! I think that’s what it was for me when I heard Greatest Love in the car. It was a way out of it.”
There’s a part of you that starts to believe it. Like, maybe I am mad
Since then, I’ve come to regard My Beauty as one of the most misunderstood albums of all time. The irony of people calling it a breakdown record is that it was precisely the opposite. “It really was,” says Rowland. “That’s exactly it.”
Rowland says there are plentiful stories of people being floored by the album: co-producer Pete Schwier’s wife burst into tears on hearing The Greatest Love of All; Billy Adams from Dexys sobbed to Reflections of My Life on a train in India; a Swedish man in his 50s told him it was his favourite ever album (“He was holding a vinyl copy of me in a dress, showing my underwear, asking me to sign it … I thought, you’d never see this in England”). And it’s another myth that it flopped – Rowland reckons it sold around 20,000 copies worldwide in the first year or so. Yet the criticism still got to him. “There’s a part of you that starts to believe it,” he says. “Like, maybe I am mad? For a period of time I probably did deny that feminine side of myself, because of the reaction. I shouldn’t have been affected by it but I was.”
Is he nervous about bringing it back? “Am I hell!” he says forcefully, before shifting to a more vulnerable position. “I am nervous about getting influenced by … f**kwits, basically. I looked on a Dexys chat [forum] recently and they were going on about how My Beauty was a mistake and how they were too embarrassed to go into the record shop to get it. I don’t like that I get affected by it but I do.”
Still, he knows we’re in a more open-minded era now. “I just get on so much better with young people,” says Rowland. “I mean, I love lots of my old friends, but if I stick around them too much I get a bit negative, you know?”
Does he feel like he was ahead of the curve?
“I don’t think about it like that. But I do feel more positive. And funnily enough, I’m really back in touch with my femininity again. Would I still wear those clothes? Definitely … and maybe I do, but I won’t go into that.”
Watching the Rag Doll video, with Rowland and Roo stood side by side at the end of it, it seems obvious that reissuing My Beauty has been a healing experience for Rowland, much like recording the album was for him in the first place. “Oh definitely,” he says softly. “Definitely, man.” – Guardian
My Beauty is out in September