Jim Kerr is a dreamer. "I think that dreamers are the most powerful people in the world," says the lead singer, lyricist and guiding force behind the Scottish band Simple Minds. "I think it's because of dreamers that the world turns."
These days, Kerr is sharing his dream with a lot of people. Simple Minds' last two albums — 1982's New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) and the current Sparkle in the Rain — have both been massive commercial successes in Britain (the latter LP entered the charts there at Number One). And though the group has yet to duplicate that feat in America, their recent releases have done well enough to indicate that a stateside breakthrough is imminent.
Simple Minds make music of heroic proportions, crafting grand, majestic songs with swirling synthesizers, booming drums and sharp, razorlike guitar lines. And while Kerr's voice at times recalls Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry, it also possesses a heartfelt resonance that is a perfect match for the singer's optimistic lyrics. "Everything is possible," Kerr sings in "Promised You a Miracle," a British hit from New Gold Dream, and you know he means it.
"I really believe that if people put everything they have into something, they can really surprise themselves most of the time," he says. "I mean, I have to believe that; otherwise, I would never have had the nerve to do what I'm doing."
Nerve is something Jim Kerr learned about early in his life. Born into a Catholic working-class family — his father is a freelance builder, his mother works in a bakery — Kerr and his two younger brothers grew up in a government-owned "corporation house" in the Gorbals, one of the toughest parts of a notoriously tough city, Glasgow.
"There's this image of Glasgow as a city of violence, with razor gangs and all that," says Kerr, sprawled out on a hotel bed in Leeds, where Simple Minds will later play one more gig on their sold-out U.K. tour. "And some of that did go on, surely."
But none of that stopped Kerr from having fun. "It was a lot like those Bill Forsyth movies; we did all that stuff," he says, referring to the Glaswegian director and his romanticized comedies about adolescence (Gregory's Girl and That Sinking Feeling). And, indeed, once the shy, soft-spoken 24-year-old opens up, he relates plenty of teen tales that would fit comfortably into a Forsyth film. Like the time he was arrested for stealing lead off a roof, or the way he and his pals used to lift record jackets from a store owned by Bruce Findlay, who would later become Simple Minds' manager.
Still, this wasn't your average teenage prankster — what kind of juvenile delinquent skips school to go to the library, as Kerr did? People called him "Gentleman Jim" because he was so polite and tidy. He was the serious one in the family, and the one with the vivid imagination. He can remember, for example, lying in bed when he was eight, dreaming up an imaginary railroad line. "When you're young and it's dark outside, and you're awake and you shouldn't be, you tend to think that you're the only person in the world who's not sleeping. And I used to hear these trains go by, and I would think about the people on the trains and where they were going. It was kind of reassuring."
One morning, Kerr decided to record his musings from the previous night. He jotted down a little story — then he hid it. It was a process he would repeat time and again. But he never told anyone about his scribblings, not even his best friend, Charlie Burchill. "I never admitted that I was writing until I was at least 16," says Kerr. "When you're from that kind of background, you tend to think that all you're good for is shuffling papers or something like that. If you're going to be an artist, you must be from Vienna or one of those great cities."
Kerr's artistic inclinations flowered when his parents scraped together enough money to send him to Holyrood School, one of the best Catholic secondary schools in the area. Kerr's teachers encouraged him to spend time at an experimental theater company in Glasgow.
By the time he was 16, however, Kerr felt that a formal education no longer guaranteed a secure future. So he and Burchill both quit school. They headed to London, and then to Europe. It was 1976, and as they hitchhiked around the continent, they noticed for the first time the political turmoil that was brewing. One night in Munich, terrorists exploded a bomb in a train station; another time, in Paris, there was an explosion in a synagogue. "The experience opened our eyes and ears," Kerr says. "I was writing things down the whole time. It was a real emancipation."
After four months, their money exhausted, Kerr and Burchill returned to Glasgow. Given their limited employment options, they decided to form a band. The first attempt was a seven-piece Velvet Underground-influenced punk ensemble called Johnny and the Self Abusers. While the group managed to record one single for the independent English label Chiswick, Kerr wasn't satisfied. Musically, he felt stifled; he also aspired to more than playing gigs in tiny pubs filled with seething, sweaty punks. And so, in early 1978, Simple Minds were born, with Kerr on vocals, Burchill on guitar, Derek Forbes on bass, Mick MacNeil on keyboards and Brian McGee on drums. (McGee has since been replaced by Mel Gaynor.)
Inspired by David Bowie and Roxy Music, Simple Minds started out as an artsy synthesizer band whose music ranged from postpunk pop (their maiden LP, Life in a Day) to near-noise (the aptly titled Real to Real Cacophony). They were a strange bunch: Kerr had dyed his naturally brown hair jet-black and was so introverted he couldn't look an audience in the eye. There was also a lot of drugs. "Those were funny days," Kerr says, amused at the recollection. "We were taking speed and other strange drugs. We were just cruising for months: staying up all night, not even checking into hotels, just keeping the money and driving. It was like, 'Get me a motorway. Wham!'"
But the band was also maturing. By the time of their third album, 1980's Empires and Dance, Simple Minds were garnering a considerable amount of critical acclaim in the U.K. The music was cold Euro-disco, and the lyrics, which largely dealt with Kerr's European fascination, evoked a sense of despair, a feeling that all was not well in the world. Within two years, however, all that would change.
New Gold Dream, released in 1982, was a much warmer offering, both musically and lyrically. The album is sprinkled with religious imagery — a cross graces its front cover — and Kerr sounds like a walking advertisement for the power of positive thinking. What happened, says Kerr, is that he returned to the beliefs he'd held as a child.
"When you're young," he says, "you believe in the most basic things. You believe that there are good people around you. And you don't just take things for granted, like the ocean or the sky, or even being able to dream, to have a vision, to have ambition. As you grow up, all that gets knocked out of you. I remember when I was in school, if you said someone was a dreamer, it was like he was a fool or he didn't get anything done. I don't believe that. And I just started to go much more with what was naturally going through me, as opposed to acting as everyone would expect."
He rises to brew a pot of tea. "People ask me if I've been born again," he says, "and I say, 'No. I didn't have to be born again. I didn't go away.' But I think it's dead naive to think that these four walls are the only thing. I refuse to drift through life without a vision, or without hope."
"I've always maintained that a whisper could be more than a scream," says Jim Kerr.
Onstage at the University of Leeds, he puts that belief into action. Crouching near the edge of the stage, he peers intently into the audience, determined to draw each and every fan into his world. By the end, he's captivated the crowd.
As is the case with U2 and Big Country, a Simple Minds show transcends the boundaries of the usual rock & roll concert. It's more like a celebration. For Kerr, it's imperative that Simple Minds continue to make music that can evoke that kind of feeling.
"It's a challenge to sell a million records or more and to do it with dignity, style and grace," he says. "To do it with music that doesn't patronize, doesn't condescend, doesn't tranquilize. We make music that embraces. Just as the noises of those men and those trains reassured me, the noises of these songs make you know you're alive."