THE READING ROOM: Peace, Love, and Understanding Nick Lowe
Best known for his pop standard “Cruel to Be Kind” and his pensive anthem “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” Nick Lowe remains a bit of an enigma. He’s a hard-working, ceaselessly inventive songwriter and a first-rate musician, but his records come and go with little fanfare even though they reach a loyal and adoring fan base.
British journalist Will Birch, who’s known Lowe for over 40 years, takes note of that in his new biography, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe (Da Capo), to be released Aug. 20. “Why isn’t Nick Lowe more well-known? Why does he remain a cult-throb, singing only to the choir and maybe a couple of stragglers in the churchyard? Why haven’t any of his recordings this century scraped even the lower reaches of an album chart? Why, in the UK, has he been unable to fill modest venues in the provinces?”
Although Birch poses these questions, he doesn’t attempt to answer them in a direct way, content merely to let his reflections on Lowe’s music and Lowe’s own words tell Lowe’s story. Birch also draws deeply on interviews with Lowe’s friends and bandmates, allowing them to tell us why they admire him. Carlene Carter, Lowe’s former wife, declares: “He is a great songsmith. He taught me so much about writing songs. Not actual teaching, but being around him and with him, I learned a lot about the sound of words, the percussive quality of syllables.” Chrissie Hynde says that as a songwriter “he’s one of the greats, and I’d put him up there with the rest of the great songwriters. There aren’t that many … Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Ray Davies … I’d put Nick up there with them.” Huey Lewis says he “hopes [Lowe] lives and writes songs forever. He’s a treasure, a real authentic songwriter.” Ry Cooder, longtime friend and collaborator, rates Lowe “as a real songwriter, and that’s the reason he is a good musician and fun to work with. He plays the song, not just the notes, and his bass-player timing is the best. … Nick and myself — we’re of a generation lucky to come up in the happy golden age of pop songs: intro, verse, chorus, half an instrumental verse, chorus, and out; things we took to be an integral part of life, but gone now for the most part.”
Although Birch traces Lowe’s story in straightforward fashion — from his childhood listening to Tennessee Ernie Ford (“I had no idea it was country and western, but it was very strange, California country and western with all these jazz influences, fabulous music. I still love it.”), Elvis, and Lonnie Donegan to Lowe’s early gigs with the band Brinsley Schwarz and their opening for Van Morrison at the Fillmore East, his marriage to Carlene Carter, and his friendships and musical partnerships with Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, and Graham Parker, among others — the life story is not the main attraction in Cruel to Be Kind.
The best parts of Birch’s book reveal Lowe’s thoughts on songwriting. Lowe’s first theory is that “he might be waiting for inspiration and someone visits, unannounced.” Lowe knows only that the person is a really good songwriter “and they want to perform one of their songs. They show him a couple of their efforts and they are really good. Then the person disappears … if there’s no sign of them after a month or two, he will know their songwriting so well that he can do a pretty fair approximation of it — close, but not quite as good. All his best stuff is therefore, ‘written by someone else.’” Lowe’s second theory involves listening. He hears the sounds of a radio station playing through the walls of his apartment: “One day the station will programme a great new song which he can hear through the wall clearly enough, but it’s over before he can learn any of it. Knowing they might play it again at any time, he keeps a notepad ready so that with each play he can capture a little more of it, until he’s got it all.” As Lowe says, “It’s more of a listening process than anything else. And when I’m looking at a song that I feel I’ve had nothing to do with, a cover effectively, it’s finished.”
Cruel to Be Kind may be the closest we ever get to a memoir by Lowe, given his own reticence to talk about himself in a broader way and to be a self-promoter. Fans of Lowe will love the book, and Birch offers a colorful introduction to Lowe and his music, steering us to pick the music and give it a spin.