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reviews | scottish sunday times (september 23rd, 2001)

Neon Lights album
Jim Kerr

The bright lights beckoned for Jim Kerr while he was still in short trousers. In his bedroom, at the top of one of Toryglen's notorious high-rise flats, the Simple Minds singer experienced none of the isolation of Glasgow's skyscraper weans.

"It was the sparkly lights," he says, sipping coffee in the private members' bar of the Corinthian. "It was probably only Ravenscraig but it seemed they were full of possibilities. I loved those flats. I felt I was on top of the world."

The ability to see heaven in a grain of sand comes easily to Kerr. A sense of wonder ran through his early work. It also fed his delusions. "I've never been intimidated by scope or size or grandeur," he says. "The great thing was realising 'hey, we can have it all here'."

Having it all meant a gig in Madison Square Gardens, enough chunky gold jewellery to kit out the New York mafia, a wardrobe full of crushed-velvet trouser suits and Patsy Kensit, serial wife to the stars, on short-term loan. It meant surviving the 1980s, the decade Kerr came to epitomise.

Simple Minds, formed by Kerr and his childhood friend Charlie Burchill, started out with the hunger, determination and optimism that characterised the Thatcher generation. As the 1990s approached, pretension, pomposity and very loud music replaced early promise. By 1989 Simple Minds were informing their audience at Wembley Arena that they had "transcended the pop song". What they were now offering was "rock as mini-opera."

A decade and a half later, there is little sign of this bombast. Kerr is relaxed and chatty, good-naturedly savouring the glory days without experiencing the bitter aftertaste of regret. The outre wardrobe has been replaced by a black Armani suit and a shot silk shirt. He has finally learnt the art of understatement.

We are meant to be discussing Neon Lights, a collection of cover versions paying homage to the songs that inspired Simple Minds. It is the band's first album in five years. The CD will pave the way for an album of new material early next year and then a tour. "It's a bit like going into the water at Troon," says Kerr. "You go in one toe at a time".

Neon Lights canters through Bowie, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel and Van Morrison; there is nothing to frighten the horses. But there is really only one question I'm burning to ask and it isn't about the influences of Kraut Rock on the band's early sound. It is: how does Kerr choose his wives? How can you go from Chrissie Hynde - dark, smart, rock chick - to Kensit - blonde tabloid fodder - and retain a semblance of sanity?

"Chrissie and Patsy are both women of their time," answers Kerr. "Chrissie was steeped in the '60s and was brought up with the radicalism of those days. Patsy was steeped in the '80s, full stop. I can be introspective and they both brought me out of myself. Also, I met both of these women when I was on a world tour. When you're on a world tour, you're bonkers. Don't ever decide anything on a world tour."

Kerr met The Pretenders singer in 1984. He was 24 and Hynde, who was 32, had a one-year-old daughter, Natalie, with Ray Davies of The Kinks. A year later, Yasmin, her daughter by Kerr, was born. Kerr regards both girls, now 19 and 17, as his own and is involved with them.

His marriage to Hynde in the mid-1980s came when Kerr's love affair with the band was faltering. "We were knackered. We were desensitised. The band started to fracture," he recalls.

"We were lads who had grown up together, we were meant to grow together, politically, spiritually and artistically. But we were getting tired with each other. There was an element of the chore creeping in. We were coasting and this whole other thing was a challenge."

The "whole other thing" was his relationship with Hynde. Kerr is the oldest of three boys and attended a Catholic school where the sexes were not encouraged to mix. He has said he had little real experience of relationships. Listening to him talk about love and marriage, that is entirely believable.

"I was such a fan of hers," Kerr says of Hynde. "Suddenly there was somebody who was older than me, who was American, who had travelled, had bummed about and was full of opinions. It was great. And because of who I am and where I'm from, I got married."

Almost as soon as the wedding was over, he escaped on a two-year world tour. Simple Minds had recorded Don't You (Forget About Me) for the soundtrack of the film The Breakfast Club and it went to number one in the American charts. When the tour was over, instead of returning to London to live with Hynde and his daughters, Kerr went to Scotland to write songs.

"I genuinely don't have regrets," he says, "though it was a bit nuts being married and not being around. But before you have a marriage, you have a relationship and we still have a relationship which is great." On his birthday it is Hynde and his daughters who take him out to the theatre and dinner.

In the eight years between meeting Hynde and marrying Kensit - a 3,000 antique crocheted dress and 400 fans for the ceremony - Kerr does not seem to have learnt much about women.

"The small print I'm all over," he says, explaining why he has managed to hang on to his multi-million-pound fortune but not his bride. "The big decisions I just say let's do it. My dad says 'Jim, you don't have to marry them'."

According to Kerr, Kensit is not the gold-digging desperado so often portrayed. "The way Pats is has never really come out," he says. "She's incredibly beautiful, funny as hell, a fantastic comic and mimic with great, great style."

Handling the break-up, Kerr was a model of decorum. Kensit publicly humiliated him by speaking openly of their non-existent sex life. It was a time when Simple Minds' fortunes were on the wane. If he feels any schadenfreude at the disintegration of Kensit's subsequent marriage to Liam Gallagher, he hides it well.

"When anyone splits up it's sad," says Kerr of the debacle. "I don't mean to be cynical but it wasn't entirely unexpected." His concerns were for the welfare of his nine-year-old son James. "It's a minefield of diplomacy and confusion, but the people that ended up around James (Gallagher and his family) genuinely seemed to love him."

"I don't know if he's the greatest role model," says Kerr about the Oasis frontman, "but who is? There are a million things I've done and said which wouldn't set the best example. We're family, we have to support each other. I don't know any other way."

Last year Kerr sold Ardchullarie, his Perthshire estate and the nearest thing he had to a family home. "Amid the myriad breakdowns, that was the place the kids came, and their friends came and often the ex-wives would come as well," he says. "We might be a fractured family, but we are a family."

If the arrangement sounds a bit too cosy, it is. "I might make it sound like there was logic to the break-up of my relationships, but there were periods of disillusionment, fears, chaos and sadness," he says.

"I was never the one to give in. That's part of the modern way. People give in, because they can.

"The magazines suggest if you're not having ten orgasms a night or you're not having eight holidays a year then you're not having a great life. Expectations are very high. If it doesn't happen, then they're off. But the fallout when it goes wrong is awful. I just thought: 'I could do without this for a while and it's better not to get involved.' I wouldn't trade those moments or emotions for anything but I'd be wary of them should they crop up again."

Have they? "No. Marriage is about 'the one' and I don't believe in that any more. It's great if it works out but it's a tall order. Now I think if there is a right person, they're right for you at that period in your life."

Kerr's close and enduring relationship has been with Charlie Burchill, Simple Minds' guitarist. They met in a sandpit in Toryglen when they were eight. By 14, they were writing music and going to everything they could at Glasgow's Apollo.

Kerr and Burchill formed a punk band with 150 given to them by Kerr's father. The relationship was really cemented when they were 17 and they hitchhiked to southern Europe.

"Like me, the band has an intense meaning for him," says Kerr of Burchill. "He's never felt like giving up or walking away even when he's had a bellyful of me or the band. We shared that. Where he's weak, I'm strong and vice versa."

He knows that Burchill is seen as cool while he is considered "naff", a sobriquet he earns by referring to the band as "the real deal".

"We're locked in," he says. "But we know how to give each other space. We're good friends in a Glasgow sense. We'll talk about anything as long as it's not emotional problems. But his demeanour lets me know that he is feeling for me."

Burchill and Kerr have spent nearly 25 years working together in one of the most lucrative partnerships in pop. Kerr's fortune is estimated at 30m.

He has invested in restaurants and the Internet. Two years ago he tried, but failed, to buy a controlling stake in Celtic.

"I'm not into making money," he says. "It's not what I do. I'm trying not to own things any more because maintaining them drags your bag. If you have one car, do you need eight? Do you need seven houses, especially when you can't remember where your favourite jacket is? I don't know how many copies I've bought of Midnight's Children, and I still haven't read it."

His main homes are in Sicily and Glasgow, although he has a sizable property portfolio that is in a constant state of flux. "It came through a basic restlessness and not knowing where to settle," he says.

Such comments belie a basic canniness. He drinks moderately, half a glass of wine with a meal and a whisky for Dutch courage if he is on stage. Perhaps he's just too sensible to be a real rock star.

"Oh, we dipped our hands in the sweetie tray," he laughs, "but only two or three nights a week, not every night. Did we really handle the fame well? I don't know. I mean, we bought Porsches without having driving licences. I did, after all, marry a blonde starlet whom I met in a lift while on tour. You'd be letting people down if you didn't do a bit of that. It would have been like winning the lottery and going to work on a Monday morning."

For all his sang-froid about marriage and music, Kerr retains that sense of boyhood awe. "I'm a born optimist," he says. "I believe the world begins at the bottom of your street, it doesn't end there."

Scottish Sunday Times Interview
September 23rd 2001