At a recent concert in New Jersey, Nick Lowe was, at 58, a lamppost-thin, bright-white-haired version of the 1970s punk-scene rocker who wrote ”(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” He strummed an acoustic guitar and sang a song from his new album, At My Age, called ”I Trained Her to Love Me.” It’s a tune about a guy who ”trains” women to fall in love with him solely for the pleasure of dumping them.
And suddenly, from the audience, there arose a small but fervent round of…female booing. Some of these die-hard Nick Lowe fans, most of them graying baby boomers like the British singer-songwriter himself, were offended by the un-PC sentiments. Guess there’s still a bit of the punk rocker in the old boy yet, eh?
”Most women get it — that I’m sympathetic to their point of view — so I was rather shocked to hear the boos,” Lowe says the next day, chuckling ruefully. ”But it’s also amazing how many men have stood up [during other shows] punching the air, yelling ‘Yay, Nick?way to go!’ That’s not what I had in mind. I’ve known men who fancy themselves ladies’ men, but in fact they don’t like women much at all.”
It’s not just his music that’s prickly; so are his spry, unpredictable opinions.
Ask him about Paul McCartney’s recent deal with Starbucks’ Hear Music label and Lowe nearly chokes on his coffee (Manhattan Diner — not Starbucks). ”Hasn’t he got enough dough? It would be much cooler to say, ‘Everyone’s had enough Paul McCartney. Everyone’s had enough Beatles now.’ But he’s never let go. This weird thing they’ve done in Las Vegas, this silly mime thing with stitched-together Beatles songs [i.e., the Cirque du Soleil extravaganza LOVE]…ghastly! He’s given the myth away.”
Ask him whether or not he watches American Idol and he answers, ”Yes, I do. All the ones I think are good are knocked out in the early rounds. Simon Cowell is unbelievable — can he really be such a cloth-eared git? [The show has]] a pre-rock sensibility. Johnny Mathis seems positively radical by comparison. But I do like Kelly [Clarkson] — I think she’s got a very good voice and has made some good singles with a lot of heart and soul.”
Heartfelt and soulful, Lowe’s At My Age is a beautiful and provocative album, with fine original and cover songs that showcase his enduring knack for rousing melodies and wry wordplay. Like many younger musicians, he fits right into the present mood of hip sincerity, a rejection of cheap irony, in songs such as ”People Change” (featuring backup vocals by the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde), ”Hope for Us All,” and ”A Better Man.”
Sure, they’re a far cry from the songs that made Lowe semi-famous 30-odd years ago, brash ditties like ”Cruel to Be Kind” and ”Cracking Up,” written, sung, and produced by Lowe in the slamming, DIY style that earned him the nickname Basher. He says now, with a happy wink, ”I lost a lot of fans who think, ‘Once, he rocked; now, he rocketh not.’ Whereas in fact I think I rock hard, except it’s quieter and a bit more intense.”
Emotional intensity has always been Lowe’s preferred mode. In the ’70s, he was in on the ground floor of punk, producing debut records for everyone from Elvis Costello to the Damned to the Pretenders. He partied hard as a member of new-wave forerunners Rockpile. He married and divorced Carlene Carter, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. But ”my career as a pop star was over, at about 1981 or ’82…. I was exhausted; I was an alcoholic.” Getting sober, he took stock of himself. ”I started to think of ways I could present myself using the fact that I was getting older, because up till then, there was no use whatsoever for aging pop stars, unlike in jazz or the blues.”
He’s had some luck: Curtis Stigers covered ”(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” for 1992’s The Bodyguard soundtrack, which sold more than 30 million copies worldwide; the royalties made Lowe a rich man. And he rebuilt his career with a series of solo albums (starting with 1994’s The Impossible Bird) that mixed pop, rock, and country with witty vigor.
Some things remain the same. His British manager is still Jake Riviera, a legendarily hot-tempered fellow from the punk era who once interrupted an interview this author was conducting with Elvis Costello to scream, ”If you ask one more question along those lines, I will pick up and throw Nick Lowe at you, and a drunk Nick Lowe is very heavy indeed!”
Of course, some things change. Lowe’s the father of a 2-year-old son, Roy, by his girlfriend Peta Waddington, a graphic designer who did the At My Age cover. ”Oh, yes, I change the nappies, the whole bit,” Lowe says. ”Last Sunday I took tea with Elvis Costello and Diana Krall. They’ve got twins now, and Elvis was sitting and talking to me — he has no trouble filling your ear, Elvis does — with one on each shoulder.” And Lowe adds, laughing, ”Back when we were recording ‘Pump It Up,’ who would have thought [30 years later] we’d be sitting around talking about jazz, country, and burping babies!”
Lowe’s High Points
Looking back on his career as pop star, producer, and songwriter
1 His 1978 Debut Solo Album, Pure Pop For Now People, Is Released
It had an even better title in England — Jesus of Cool — but his U.S. record company nixed it here, fearing protests. ”Calling yourself either ‘Jesus’ or ‘cool’ in America is just asking to be slagged off,” Lowe says.
2 Lowe Produces Elvis Costello’s First Five Albums
After Costello’s My Aim Is True (1977), Lowe helmed the next four releases by Costello and the Attractions. ”We were young, angry at the world, and just bashed them out.”
3 He Writes ”(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”
Originally recorded in 1974 by Lowe and his band, Brinsley Schwarz, the tune became a seminal smash for Costello and the Attractions five years later. ”Elvis gave it an anthemic quality that people reacted so positively to.”
4 His Biggest U.S. Single, ”Cruel To Be Kind,” Climbs To a High of No. 12
”Ah, for a moment, a star! [See for yourself on YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=-JJ7oGHwMTI.] I hear it now and think I sound like the Bay City Rollers.” It’s since been covered by Marshall Crenshaw and Letters to Cleo.
5 Johnny Cash Covers Lowe’s ”The Beast In Me”
”I sang the song for him in a nervous, squeaky voice…silence,” Lowe recalls. ”Then he said in his great rumble, ‘I can really do something with that.”’ Lowe’s ex-father-in-law included his own version on 1994’s American Recordings.