Keeping Bad Company
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British rocker Brian Howe always knew what he wanted to be.
“According to my parents, I was telling people I was going to be a singer from the age of three,” Howe said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t know how I got it in my head so early. Maybe because I saw my dad singing when I was a tiny toddler. He sang in working man’s clubs, and my mom took me to him in my push chair. I’d sit by the stage while Dad did his 45 minutes. I was probably influenced by that.”
But many of the people he told weren’t always convinced his choice was the right one. Howe grew up in Portsmouth, a industrial shipping town on England’s south coast. Aspirations for a life beyond dockyard or factory work were considered not simply unrealistic, but delusional. In fact, when he shared his ambitions with his middle school guidance counselors, they recommended therapy.
“Just about everybody in my class wanted to work in the naval dockyards,” Howe said. “They were the main employers in Portsmouth where I’m from, so when I said I was going to be a singer, no one knew what to make of me. They actually sent me to a psychiatrist. They thought I was nuts, that I was living a pipe dream.”
Howe is best known for his work as the frontman of the second coming of Bad Company. When Paul Rodgers left the hard rock act in 1982, Howe stepped in on lead vocals and also wrote the bulk of the band’s final four studio albums – 1986’s Fame and Fortune, 1988’s Dangerous Age, 1990’s Holy Water and 1992’s Here Comes Trouble. The records spawned a number of radio hits, including “No Smoke Without Fire,” “One Night,” “If You Needed Somebody,” “Walk Through Fire” and “Shake It Up.” Not bad for a band everyone thought was on its way out.
“So I guess I could tell those folks back at school, ‘Hey, guess what? I proved you wrong,” Howe said.
Howe, who will be at Brandt’s Harley Davidson in Wabash Saturday, July 15 for a free concert, obviously started singing at a very young age, but his big break came in 1983 when Ted Nugent hand-picked him to sing on his Penetrator album. Howe then joined Nugent on the Penetrator world tour. It’s probably safe to say that Nugent is one of American rock music’s most controversial figures. He has both his die-hard fans and his vocal critics, but to Howe he is a “consummate professional” who taught him everything he knows about being a disciplined road warrior.
“It’s odd because I think Ted has a reputation for being a complete lunatic, but he is so far from that it’s amazing to me,” Howe said. “I mean, he can play the part when he has to, but deep down Ted is a nice guy; he’s a nice person, and he taught me that no matter what is going on – maybe you have a twisted knee or ankle or something is happening in your personal life – you have to give it all you got on stage. You give it everything you have, period. That’s one of the first lessons I learned in music, and it has stood me in good stead.”
That lesson in how to be a disciplined performer helped Howe when he was fronting Bad Company, and it also saw him through that band’s dramatic breakup, which he described as “very sad.”
“It was really great for a while. They gave me the chance to become their writer and singer which was very cool. The only regret I have is that the more successful we became, the more conflicts arose. There were egos involved. I wish it hadn’t happened that way.”
How does that old saying go? When rock turns off a mic it plugs in an amp? Bad Company’s bust-up meant that Howe could pursue a solo career, something he’s done with passion and dedication since 1997 when he released Tangled in Blue, a record dealing primarily with a difficult divorce he was going through at the time. He followed that up with Touch in 2003 and Circus Bar in 2010. Three solo albums might suggest on the surface that Howe hasn’t been busy, but the fact is, he tours constantly, treating audience to his own original solo material and all the hits from the Bad Company catalog, even those that pre-dated his time with the band.
“I’m the only one who’s authorized to sing all those old songs, so if you come to my show, you’re sure to hear your favorites.”
When I caught up with him, he was hanging out on his Florida patio with his seven dogs and resting in advance of a tour that will take him not only to the Midwest but all over the U.S. and Europe. Howe said he hopes this trip gives him time to come home between gigs. A devoted animal lover, he hates to leave his dogs for too long at a stretch.
“Somebody has to feed them,” he said, “and I prefer that someone be me.”
At his age (Howe is 64) he knows it would be easy to put his feet up, pet his dogs and relive his glory days. But that isn’t his style. He isn’t and vows never to be the kind of musician content to rest on his laurels.
“I’m not one for looking back,” he said. “Apparently I have a bunch of Platinum and Gold discs, but I don’t think about them. They’re not hanging on my walls anywhere. I just don’t celebrate the past that way. What I hope is that the next song I write is the best song I’ve ever written. I like to look forward, and even though the road in front of me is getting shorter, I still hope there’s life in the old dog yet.”