There’s such a deep well of British pop eccentrics that you could field a team of just Kevins – the lineage runs from Ayers to Coyne to Shields. Even Swell Maps’ late Epic Soundtracks was born a Kevin. But there is no greater (or more eccentric) Kevin than the once, future and forever frontman of Dexys Midnight Runners, Kevin Rowland.
As the singer in the Killjoys, Rowland was a bona fide member of the class of ’77, and though his punk dabblings were an inevitable product of age and temperament, he clearly needed a different form to contain his outpourings of raw emotion. Rowland’s cup constantly runneth over, and the result is some of the most affecting pop music of the early 80s.
“Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” is the second song on the band’s first album, “Searching For The Young Soul Rebels.” I could have picked any song from the group’s first two, completely flawless albums – their third, 1986’s “Don’t Stand Me Down” is also great but completely sui generis and deserves its own 33 1/3 or other longform explication – but what put this one over the top for me is its preposterous, perfect opening lyric. “Seen quite a bit in my twenty-three years, / I’ve been manic depressive and I’ve shed a few tears“ he sings in a voice that even Johnny Ray might have found a bit overcooked. (Rowland’s debt to Ray was sanctified in another perfect opening couplet, from the world-conquering “Come on Eileen.”) A world-weary 23-year-old is a ridiculous thing, and yet: he sings with such conviction, he legitimizes the claim in the act of singing it. The lyric made flesh.
Things get worse for our hero. “Spat on and shat on, would you please tell me when my light turns green?” he pleads as the peppy horn section blithely plays on. Rowland has always been the face and the one constant of the band’s frequently rotating membership, but he picks his players like a casting director, never skimping on chops, aesthetic or attitude. It’s the combination of his sheer force of personality with the pleasure of hearing the band play that helps put the lyrics across.
Rowland is also a master of sequencing and pacing, and the song’s placement on the second track of side 1 is like a quick right jab after the left hook of the album opener, “Burn It Down.” The album itself, “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” comes across as a complete aesthetic package – the cover image anticipates the kitchen sink anti-glamor of the Smiths by several years. On “Burn it Down,” Rowland asserts he “never heard about/won’t think about” a laundry list of Irish literary touchstones from Wilde to Beckett to Eugene O’Neill. Naming and dismissing your national heroes in the first 5 minutes of your debut album: you can take the singer out of punk, but you can’t take the punk out of the singer.
The song keeps evolving. On the “Too-Rye-Ay” tour, he altered the arrangement to suit the new fiddle-heavy “Celtic Soul” lineup. The sometimes statelier pace loses some of the attack of the original, and Rowland’s vocal mannerisms are occasionally indecipherable. A reunited band, the name shortened to Dexys, performed it in the 2014 concert film “Nowhere is Home.” Rowland, spry and wiry but looking his age, nods his head appreciatively to the opening horn riff, then sings an inevitably altered opening line – “Seen quite a bit in all of these years.” It’s been 34 years since the original. The song runs to twice the length of the studio track, including an improbable trombone-fiddle face-off. Rowland, whose stage presence early on could resemble a man prepared to fight his way out of a hostile theater, looks relaxed and happy.
I can only think of one other song that specifically mentions being 23 years old. That would be “La Cherite” by The Soft Boys, from their one-off reunion album Nextdoorland, released in 2002 and criminally out of print. The singer and lyricist is Robyn Hitchcock, yet another storied British eccentric with a long and meandering solo career. Hitchcock is Rowland’s opposite in temperament, floating through the firmament and turning up in the strangest places, often describing what he sees in bemusedly psychedelic lyrics. His two greatest influences are probably Syd Barrett & Bob Dylan, and as that implies, it’s rare for him to pen a completely straightforward lyric.
That’s why the stanza that begins midway through the song is such a surprise. It starts in typically oblique fashion. “Standing naked by the portal / With the orange moon ahead / Moon’s forever, we are mortal” So far, so Hitchcock. Then, like that orange moon breaking through the clouds: “I wish I could be 23/I could waste time.” He repeats the second line one more time, wistfully (although to be fair, Hitchcock always sounds wistful): “I could waste time.”
I turned 23 three months after Nextdoorland was released, and listened to it a lot that year. That line always stopped me short, not just for the eerie coincidence, but because that year all I was doing was wasting time, and I hated it. Stuck between college and grad school with no money, no prospects and no plan, there was nothing alluring about wasting time, but seemingly no alternative. Hitchcock was 50 that year and knew more about life’s strange, elastic flow than I was able to hear. I felt more spat on and shat on at the time, but of course it turned out I had more time to waste than I thought, and my light finally turned green a year later.
For Rowland, the intervening years included a seemingly inevitable solo career that never achieved liftoff, and was finally smothered by a bloodthirsty British music press following a 1999 covers album and festival performances in full drag, which prompted ridicule unthinkable today. In 2016, he released another covers album, this time under the Dexys name, that was suffused with a warm retrospection, breathing new life into chestnuts like “To Love Somebody” and “You Wear It Well.”
It also includes the song I may have listened to more than any other this decade, a recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” that shows just how sturdy and wise that song really is. Probably written when Mitchell was 23 (there’s that age again), Rowland uses it as an opportunity to look back at triumphs and mistakes with a wry but affectionate gaze. The payoff comes in the third verse, when he sings the lines “Now old friends are acting strange / they shake their heads and say I’ve changed / Well, something’s lost but something’s gained / in living every day.” He puts all 63 years of living just into that “well,” and it floors me every time. In one syllable, you can hear him total up the balance sheet. Watch the band take the stage like it’s a bank heist in 1980 to see what was lost. Look at Rowland’s satisfied smile in 2016 to see what’s been gained.