Around the Stiff Records offices, where he served as house producer in the sunset days of the 1970s, they called him “Basher.” Artists who covered his songs — an extensive list including John Hiatt, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty, Dave Edmunds, the Knack, Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, Rod Stewart, BR5-49, the Ramones and the Flaming Lips — cited him as a songwriter of the very first rank. Hell, even people who couldn’t provide Nick Lowe’s name on a bet can sing the choruses to “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding” or “Cruel to Be Kind.”
So what’s so funny about a guy who finally gets what he deserves?
Nick Lowe’s current stateside tour — a rock-skip jaunt that begins at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival, swings way the hell over to New York and ends scarcely four weeks later in San Francisco — is a tying up of loose ends, of sorts. On the books, these 16 dates represent the end of a tour that was set to follow Lowe’s soulful 2001 album The Convincer — a tour that was cut short by the events of 9/11.
“That’s the official line,” says Lowe. “I think it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m doing it to get myself out of the house, and to do myself a bit of good in the meantime. I’m rather a reluctant ‘strolling player’ nowadays — reluctant not about the ‘playing’ part, but the ‘strolling’ part. But the older I get, the more I see — without sounding too wet about it — that it’s a tremendous privilege to be able to earn a living as a musician, and especially as a songwriter. I don’t have an enormous fan base, but I do have a consistent one, and when I come to town, there are people who come out quite regularly.
“And really,” he says dryly, “I think it’s pretty piss-poor if you can’t haul your arse up off the couch every now and then, and go play for people who want to hear it.”
For years, though, that was how Lowe made his living — tearing it up on the nascent British pub-rock circuit throughout the early 1970s in the country-rock band Brinsley Schwarz. The Brinsleys paved the way for the development of English roots rock by eschewing reductionist folk-pop and overblown psychedelia, taking rock back to its I-IV-V chord change beginnings; and, just as importantly, by blazing a “booking trail” through Britain’s public houses, thus bridging the vast, indifferent gulf between bands and audiences that had come to characterize mainstream rock in the late 1960s.
And after the pub rockers stomped the path, the punks brought up the rear.
Though Lowe’s every inch the gentleman, it should be noted that he’s never been above premeditated shit-disturbing in the service of maintaining creative independence. When his mid-1970s contract with United Artists became stifling, Lowe took to turning in a series of intentionally awful pseudonymous singles, hoping to get kicked. (One of these, the deliciously horrible “Bay City Rollers We Love You,” became a surprise hit in Japan.) After UA dropped him, Lowe moved to fledgling Stiff Records, becoming its first signatory artist and in-house producer for early recordings by the Damned, Elvis Costello and Wreckless Eric — a move that was looked upon dimly by many of his pub-rock contemporaries.
“A lot of them said, ‘Don’t you know this is nonsense, these guys can’t play.’ Well, I thought the Damned were actually quite a good group. But what I really loved about punk was the fact that the rulebook was thrown out the window. For about six glorious months the lunatics took over, and we were in charge, and anything we said went. All these dreary record executives were losing their jobs. It was absolutely great.” (It was also very grounding: The Damned didn’t call the 26-year-old Lowe “Basher.” They called him “Granddad.”)
By the early 1980s Lowe was fully settled in the second distinct phase of his career, as a rootsy singer/songwriter. He’d released one unassailably fine album, 1978’s Jesus of Cool (retitled Pure Pop for Now People in the U.S.), and scored a major U.S. hit, “Cruel to Be Kind” from the follow-up Labor of Lust. But a string of rather directionless early 1980s releases found him in a creative quandary.
“By the mid-80s, my career as a pop star was frankly over,” Lowe says forthrightly. “And I thought, well, that’s it, you’ve had your go, and I had this realization that I hadn’t really done anything. I’d had one hit: Big deal. And I was getting older, and trying to figure out a way to turn that to my advantage in a business that, unlike jazz or blues, doesn’t allow much room for graceful aging.”
The challenge, Lowe says now, was holistic rather than stylistic. Simply put, he was no longer certain how to record his own music, or how he wanted it to sound. And if he couldn’t resolve those elements, he was in danger of forever sounding like a dim echo of his younger, brasher self.
Then two changes of fortune, which occurred at roughly the same time, led him out of the mire: After an experimental period, he began at last to gravitate toward the vibe he wanted — a stripped-down, intimate feel, like the old jazz and R&B records he’d loved as a kid. And then Curtis Stigers became roughly the thousandth artist to cover “Peace, Love, and Understanding” — only Stigers’ cover wound up on the sound track to the film The Bodyguard, which rapidly became the best-selling sound track in history.
“It was a fantastic stroke of luck,” says Lowe, “and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I was on a small independent label, which back then was rather a thing to be ashamed of, and all of a sudden there was this huge injection of money, which coincided with my figuring this out about my recording. I was able to get studio time. I was able to pay my musicians right. I was able to go out on tour and have a reasonable bus. And people started saying, ‘Say, this Nick Lowe’s not bad. Let’s record a couple more of his songs.’”
And Nick Lowe — once a Mod, then a (pub) rocker, now a stylish gentleman of leisure — found his muse again.
Lowe’s most recent albums, The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood, and the aforementioned The Convincer, thus comprise an improbable third act in his career, a trilogy of moody, intimate records that run the gamut from loose rockabilly to blue jazz to out-and-out torch songs. Complemented by a wrecking-crew of longtime sidemen (including guitar slinger Geraint Watkins, the “national treasure” who’ll open for him on his upcoming U.S. dates), Lowe seems at last to have found a way to make, and preserve, the rather warmer sounds he wants.
“I never thought that I’d still be at it at this stage,” he says rather quietly. “But I always spent quite a bit of thought and care on trying to stay out of the limelight, while still doing enough so that people knew I hadn’t quit. It’s rather a fine balancing act, but I like the intimacy of this music.
“Anyway,” he says, “I like being able to get into conversations with the audience. These days I’d almost rather play in someone’s front room.”
Nick Lowe appears at the Ark (316 S. Main, Ann Arbor) on Tuesday, Sept. 14. Geraint Watkins supports. Call 734-763-8587 for info.Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org