Nick Lowe muses on Elvis Costello, Barry Manilow, Johnny Cash, groupies
If British singer/songwriter Nick Lowe hadn’t made it as a musician, he could have had a great career as a raconteur. His gift for telling a witty story was on grand display Tuesday night, Aug. 16, as the 200-seat Grammy Museum in Los Angeles hosted “An Evening With Nick Lowe.”
I interviewed Lowe in New York when I was at Billboard for his 1995 album, “The Impossible Bird.” I remember it well and it remains one of my favorite times with an artist. It was a cold January evening, the night of the Super Bowl. We were the only two people who seemingly didn’t care about the game. He was staying at the now gone Mayflower Hotel on the edge of Central Park. We sat in the hotel bar, the Conservatory, for hours, while the game played on a TV screen behind us, neither one of us paying any attention.
He regaled me with stories, the vast majority of which never made my article simply because there were so many witty and charming tales to choose from. There was something endearingly humble about Lowe. I asked him how many people he thought bought the soundtrack to “The Bodyguard” because Curtis Stigers’ cover of Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding’ was on it. Without missing a beat, he told me “I’m 110% sure that none did. I’ve had a lot of people come up at shows with my records to sign from all over the world...and not one person has shoved a copy of ‘The Bodyguard’ under my nose and asked me to sign it.”
Last night, Lowe, one of modern music’s finest purveyors of power pop, discussed his early days with British pub-rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz, producing the likes of Elvis Costello, being Johnny Cash’s son-in-law, and his new album, “The Old Magic,” out Sept. 13 on Yep Roc. It follows his critically acclaimed 2007 set, “At My Age.”
He performed two songs from the forthcoming set — the wry “A Sensitive Man,” and the achingly sad “I Read A Lot,” as well as a crowd-pleasing rendition of his biggest—and only— U.S. Top 40 hit, “Cruel To Be Kind.”
Below are highlights from the evening.
On his surprising earliest influence: Tennessee Ernie Ford. “In that era, everyone had six records. My Mom had Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, ‘South Pacific.’” Plus, two Tennessee Ernie Ford albums. “One of them was ‘This Lusty Land’...He sounded like he was from another planet.”
On songwriting: After joining Brinsley Schwarz at a time “when anyone who could string together a few chords could get a deal.” Though it was still an era where acts often relied on outside songwriters, Lowe says, “I figured out if you want to have any longtime career you have to write your own songs.” He learned to write by copying his favorite songwriter. Then he'd copy his second favorite songwriter. “You drop in a little of the first one,” he says. Then you copy your third favorite songwriter and drop in elements of the first and the second, and before you know it, you’ve created your own “stew.” “I remember the day I had my first original [song idea]. I was astonished. It’s a song I still do to this day: ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding’.” He paused and then clarified, “A little bit was pinched from ‘Jesus Was a Crossmaker’ by Judee Sill.”
On producing Elvis Costello: “Elvis brought a tape into Stiff [Records, where Lowe was staff producer] I wasn’t that attracted at the start. I thought there were too many words, too many chords,” Lowe recalled. “When I started producing him, I was El Jefe: ‘This has got to go! You can make three songs out of this one!’ That didn’t last very long. It was terrific.” When asked what he brought to Costello as his producer, Lowe said, “I really can’t remember doing anything. He had a fabulous group, The Attractions. They were volatile. I spent a lot of time trying to mend fences. That’s what I enjoyed.” He added that when producing became “a science, I went off it. I’m not a knob twiddler.”
On his “brief career as a pop star”: “Cruel To Be Kind” hit No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and in the U.K. in 1979, where Lowe also had a No. 7 record in “I Love The Sound Of Broken Glass,” and for a period of three to four years, Lowe enjoyed the spoils of fame, including “gorgeous Italian birds who wanted to go out with me simply because I was on the telly.” But by the time his 15 minutes of fame wound down, he was ready. “I was very ill. I was pretty much an alcoholic and all the other clap-trap.”
On his father-in-law Johnny Cash: Lowe was married to Cash’s step-daughter, Carlene Carter, for 11 years. “Johnny Cash said, ‘Nick, all you gotta do is be yourself.’ I was like, ‘Who the hell wants to see that?’ But it’s true...He was a lovely bloke. He was kind of uncool, which made me love him even more...he was kind. I thought he was the most charismatic man in world until I met Solomon Burke.”
On Rockpile’s underwhelming ambition: Despite the critical acclaim heaped upon Rockpile, the rockabilly/power pop band he formed with Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams in the late ‘70s, Lowe says the band never took itself too seriously or had great desire to be stars. “We were our own worst enemies. We couldn’t hack it. We liked being the opening act. As [the headliners] were taking the stage, we’d be off to the Arapahoe Inn by the airport with third division groupies.”
On showing a little respect, please: “Elton John, Cher, Barry Manilow: you have to take your hat off to these people. It’s extremely hard to keep a career going [that long] and to stay healthy. Most people have two hits and it’s back to the biscuit factory."