’70s rocker survives dark times; back on tour

The Canadian Press
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Singer Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers, a Scottish pop band whose popularity was highest in the 1970s, smiles during an interview in Toronto this week. — Photo by The Canadian Press

—TORONTO

For a long time, Les McKeown rebelled against his stint as a plaid-clad pin-up for the Bay City Rollers.

McKeown joined the sugary Scottish pop outfit as a teen and become frontman during their commercial peak — the 1973-78 period that yielded all the band’s hit albums and such fizzy chart-climbing ditties as “Saturday Night,” “Bye Bye Baby” and “Summer Love Sensation” — but struggled to be taken seriously after leaving the band, finding that few in music wanted to collaborate with someone they figured to be washed up.

During that time, crooning the sweet lyrics to one of the band’s cheerfully guileless hits would have felt like pulling teeth, even though McKeown did go out on the road with Bay City Rollers material from time to time.

“You go through a huge phase, and you hate it, you loathe it, you loathe yourself for being that person (that you were), because you no longer feel able to be anything else,” McKeown said during an interview in Toronto this week.

“You’re only that. You’re in a pigeonhole and that’s all you’ll ever be, all your life, so get used to it. And that, in itself, is a bit depressing if you’re creative or you want to do other things. It’s severely limiting, any time you come out. ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s the singer from the Bay City Rollers, he’s got a new single.’ Well there you go — that’s dead.

“In my particular case,” he added, “I started to hear it so much that I started drinking a lot, taking drugs a lot, which was compounded by lots of my friends dying and my parents dying and stuff. I fell into a black hole of extreme alcohol (use) and got pretty close to dying.”

McKeown’s rebirth, and the rebirth of his take on the Bay City Rollers, came a little more than five years ago, when he checked himself into rehab.

There, he underwent therapy and learned how to change his attitude toward the early-life accomplishments that had seemed to shadow him.

He launches a 12-date Canadian tour in Montreal today with a band helping him reproduce the band’s biggest tunes — technically, they’re now called Les McKeown’s Bay City Rollers — and feels as if he’s a “born-again Bay City Roller.”

“I realized that for all those years, I was in some kind of musical closet. I’m better now than I have been for the last five years,” said the 57-year-old, dressed in a trench coat, jeans and boots — all black.

“So much has come from my single decision to go to rehab. ... I’ve got sold-out tours, people coming to see me, they like what they hear, they like what they see, and one thing reinforces the other.

“I think it’s going to make me live longer,” he adds.

He looks back fondly at the band’s hysterical heights, when delirious teenage fans would go ballistic at the sight of the group. He recalls a show in Edmonton that had to be cut short due to a dangerous crush of fans pushing against the stage.

He says the trouble mostly started after the group’s fame faded, though he has for a long time been open about the sexual abuse he suffered under the group’s late manager, Tam Paton.

One element that’s changed since rehab is that McKeown tries to control elements of his career that he might previously have left to others. He gleefully micro-manages his tours, preferring to handle almost all duties but publicity himself.

Physically, he endeavours to stay road-ready too; he gets most of his exercise from gardening, though he soldiers through workouts on an elliptical trainer, a machine “for old people,” he laughs.

He says he has about a half an album’s worth of new material ready, but wants to find a record label willing to release and promote it, rather than putting it out online where it might only reach his existing core of fans.

Mostly, he’s upbeat about the future.

“I’m back now and there’s lots of life in me. And I’m sure I didn’t damage myself that much that I’m going to die of any horrible disease. Touch wood — or is that Formica?” he asks suspiciously after tapping a plastic table surface, before reaching out to rap his hand against a wooden stool.

“I’m just looking forward to doing more. I’m reconnecting with all the fans. And showing that I’m still around, and I’m still capable of singing well and performing well.”

Geographic location: Bay City, Toronto, Montreal Edmonton

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