Nick Lowe has long been one of the wittiest and most affable fellows in rock 'n' roll. Now he also is one of the luckiest.
A few years ago, Lowe found himself in a queasy position for a recording artist of a certain age who is highly regarded, but not exactly a major star: Lowe's record company dropped him. Other labels weren't exactly clamoring to sign up a silver-haired Englishman who was entering his mid-40s, having placed just one album (the 1979-vintage "Labour of Lust") in the U.S. Top 40.
To the rescue came Lady Luck, in the cool, comely form of Whitney Houston. "I will always love yeeeewwww ," Whitney erupted, over and over. That illimitable voice, singing that inescapable refrain, set cash registers ringing. Since its 1992 release, "The Bodyguard" movie soundtrack album that contains Houston's hit has sold more than 13 million copies in the United States alone. And every beep or ching of the register has meant a few more pennies in the pocket of Nick Lowe.
For piggybacked onto the "The Bodyguard" album, after its six Whitney Houston opuses, its Kenny G/Aaron Neville duet and its Lisa Stansfield tune, is a rendition by Curtis Stigers of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Lowe wrote the song in the early 1970s, when he was playing in the British pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz. Elvis Costello made it a widely heard rock anthem in 1979, when he covered it on his "Armed Forces" album (like the rest of Costello's first five albums, "Armed Forces" was produced by Lowe).
Now, with "The Bodyguard" soundtrack still on the charts after more than two years, "Peace, Love and Understanding" is putting serious money in Lowe's bank account--quite a bit more than a million dollars, he said.
Lowe wasn't desperate for the cash: "I've earned a living out of the music business for quite a long time," he said over the phone from a Nashville nightclub, a stop on a tour that brings him to the Coach House on Sunday. "I live quite simply, but it's been a long time since I had to worry about buying a new shirt or taking somebody out to dinner. My one indulgence is my cars."
Nevertheless, Lowe acknowledges that "The Bodyguard" handed him a big, billowy parachute at a time when he needed a soft landing.
"It would be stupid to say it hasn't made any difference, because of course it does. When (the soundtrack album) came out, I'd just been dropped from Warner Bros., so it went from what was a potentially disastrous situation" to one where Lowe could make his next career move without any hint of desperation.
The move he made was to sign with Upstart Records, a tiny new offshoot of the independent Rounder label. Upstart recently issued the album Lowe was ready to present to Warners when it dumped him. The album, "The Impossible Bird," is one of the best in a career that includes such high-quality solo releases as "Pure Pop for Now People" (1978), "Labour of Lust" (1979), "The Rose of England" (1985) and "Party of One" (1990).
"Bird" blends Lowe's country and soul sources, capturing them with expert, attractively loose band arrangements. It also combines his oft-remarked-upon verbal wit with a sincere intent to sift the embers of love-gone-bad.
Lowe said his "Bodyguard" fortune is pure serendipity and none of his own doing--he had no role in pushing the song for use in the film--unless you consider his shrewd decision some years ago to retrieve his lost publishing rights to "Peace, Love and Understanding." To the holder of such rights go the songwriter's royalties--typically 6 cents per album for every song the writer has on an album.
"I had signed (an unfavorable) publishing contract in a cloud of marijuana smoke when I was about 19," Lowe recalled. "I can remember a guy in a loud, plaid sports jacket saying he liked my songs, and I was pitifully grateful. I bought (back) the rights to that song and 20 or 30 songs that went with it about 10 years ago. That was very, very nice."
Ironically, Lowe, a cinema buff, hasn't seen "The Bodyguard," which stars Houston and Kevin Costner. His tastes run toward artier fare than the romantic-action film.
"It seems terribly cheerless to say it, but I don't think it's the sort of thing I'd like very much."
Lowe said "The Impossible Bird" began for him as an exercise in self-discipline and turned out to be an expression of what he feels is a growing artistic maturity.
"Because I live on my own, I can make music whenever I feel like it," Lowe said. "The result is generally that you don't." He was complaining to buddy John Hiatt (with whom Lowe played in 1992, along with Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, in the one-shot, all-star band Little Village) about his inability to write, as Hiatt does, on a daily basis. "I said to him, 'How can you get 'round this, how can you discipline yourself to do it?' He said he rented an office in town (Nashville) and goes to work each day. So I started renting this place near where I live in west London. It's like a small village hall or dance hall, attached to a Victorian pub, with a wooden dance floor and a little stage and vaulted ceiling. I'd go on my own and just sing into the hall, take a little bit of equipment with me, and it was so great."
Lowe used that hall, the Turk's Head Function Room, and other unorthodox venues, including an old English cinema, as the recording locations for "The Impossible Bird." Nicknamed "the Basher" for his quick, knock-it-out approach to record-making, Lowe, who plays bass and rhythm guitar, decided to roll the tapes before his band--drummer Robert Trehern, guitarist Bill Kirchen, bassist Paul "Bassman" Riley and keyboards player Geraint Watkins--had properly learned the songs.
"My feeling is the sound of really great musicians who don't quite know what they're doing is where it's at," Lowe said. "I generally wouldn't teach them how (a song) went; we started recording straight away, and by the fourth take they'd be starting to know it, and it would start sounding like something. After take six, it was starting to get slick, and I said, 'Forget it.' " Snipping the best bits from live takes four through six, Lowe patched together his "Bird."
Most of the album's songs stemmed from a romantic breakup Lowe had recently gone through, although he took pains not to make them sound unduly confessional.
"I'm 46 now, and I wanted to do something bighearted and grown up," said Lowe, whose songbook includes many a breezy, cheeky number. Witness the '70s-vintage ode to vandalism, "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," and "Marie Provost," a fanciful number about a faded actress who dies a lonely death, accompanied only by a pet dachshund that is unfortunately trapped with its mistress's corpse. "She was a winner, that became a doggy's dinner," went Lowe's unforgettable, insouciant refrain.
Lowe says he doesn't have much zest for those tunes anymore. But "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" remains part of his repertoire--although Lowe wasn't entirely sincere about that one, either, when he wrote it.
"At that time, the hippie dream was being dumped by thousands of early-20s yuppies-to-be who'd had a little look at it and realized, 'Hey, I don't want this roach-infested apartment I'm sharing with these weird people.' The cocaine-filled '70s and '80s were approaching, so I wrote the song as an old hippie sort of sadly defending his (ideals). It was meant to have what I thought was that overblown, rather heavy-handed pretentious poetry: 'As I walk this wicked world, searching for light in the darkness . . .' " Quoting himself, Lowe slipped into a mock-stentorian caricature of Laurence Olivier.
"But when Elvis got hold of it, he gave the words a dignified, hymn-like thing. I do it (in Costello's idealistic, fervent way) in my show now and swallow it completely."
One "Impossible Bird" song that Lowe had particular trouble bashing out was "The Beast in Me," which he began to write around 1980 for his then father-in-law, Johnny Cash. (Lowe was married at the time to Cash's singing step-daughter, Carlene Carter.)
"It was one of those songs where I had the first verse, and it was so good I couldn't think of anything else. (Cash) was coming to London, and I finished it off rather quickly. He, being the fabulous man and great artist he is, spotted (its virtues and its flaws) right away. He said, 'You've got a good idea, but you've got to finish it off. It isn't right.'
"Every time I'd see him, he'd ask me, 'How is that song coming, "The Beast in Me?' " Eighteen months ago, I suddenly realized the song was about everybody, not just Johnny Cash, and as soon as I realized that, I finished it in an afternoon. I sent it off to him and didn't hear from him, and I thought, 'He still doesn't like it. Sod it, I'll do it.' "
Lowe said he recorded his gentle version of "The Beast in Me" before learning that Cash had, in fact, done a grim, demon-plagued rendition on his acclaimed solo-acoustic album, "American Songs."
"I think my way's fabulous, and so's his. It's a great song, an absolutely fireproof song--anyone could sing it. His beast is a really dark and horrible, haunting thing. Whereas mine is a clumsy but affable sort of stupid thing that I've got a sort of affection for."
For other songs on "The Impossible Bird," Lowe stuck to the principle that they should be about "everybody" and not just about recent sad times in his own life.
"I had a painful breakup of a relationship, which I didn't want to tell everybody about, because it's like listening to somebody sitting in a bar talking about the details of their broken romances. It's quite tedious to be the listener, and I thought, 'Why should I inflict that on my fabulous fans?' The story is always the same, but trying to explain what it feels like is really quite interesting."
For the first time in 10 years, Lowe is touring with a band--the same players who backed him on "The Impossible Bird." His million bucks in "Bodyguard" royalties notwithstanding, Lowe said his tour has taken him through some of the seedier establishments in American rock.
"We're playing very funky metal bars, very filthy, with bad PAs. They've been seriously trashed by a million grunge groups. But, that said, I've got a really fantastic band, and I'm performing well. I feel really on top of the game, and it overrides any difficulties."
Lowe probably could take an immediate step up to swanker clubs and theaters by reuniting with Dave Edmunds in Rockpile, the famously hard-partying band they jointly led and used for their late-'70s solo albums. But, even though he says die-hard fans urge him to do it all the time, Lowe says he has no desire to join the large and growing roster of once-popular rock acts staging reunions and comebacks.
"Edmunds just phoned me up and asked me about it; he's changed his mind (after not previously wanting to reform Rockpile). It's like a circus act, and I can't see the point in doing it. Even if we wrote some new songs, people would only be waiting for the old ones. In any case, I can't handle the enormous amounts of vodka and amphetamines, which were a crucial part of our sound."
Lowe, one of rock's most gifted gabbers, also says he has turned down offers to become a host on British television.
"It's one thing dashing on about yourself, and quite another having to entertain people in that capacity," he said. "I don't think I could pull it off; I'd be like a rabbit in the car headlights."
Also largely ruled out is a return to record production, in which capacity Lowe was responsible for such notable recordings as the Pretenders' debut single, "Stop Your Sobbin,' " Graham Parker's first album, "Howlin' Wind," Carlene Carter's "Musical Shapes," the Fabulous Thunderbirds' "T-Bird Rhythm" and Costello's "My Aim Is True," "This Year's Model" and "Armed Forces."
"It's really well-paid work, but there's a reason for it," Lowe said. "You have to devote yourself to somebody else 24 hours a day. If somebody real fantastic asked me to help them make a record, I might think about it. But I'm too out of touch with new developments. (Today) you've got to be a real whiz kid with equipment; my style was to tell some jokes and wave my arms around and keep a light atmosphere in the studio."
Neither is Lowe panting with ambition to get back into rock's big leagues. He is on a small, independent label for the first time since 1976, when he was the first artist to put out a single for Stiff Records, the influential company that launched England's New Wave movement.
"I couldn't understand why I felt sort of (ticked) off" after being dropped by Warner Bros., recalled Lowe, who had spent most of his career on Columbia.
"One day I woke up and thought, 'My days with the majors are over now.' I don't want for myself what a major label would want--international pop stardom, hanging around with other pop stars wearing dinner jackets at functions. I want it sort of low key."
What Lowe does plan to do is finish his tour, then (with that Whitney windfall to tide him over) take his time coming up with another album. Nearly five years passed between "Party of One" and the release of "The Impossible Bird," and Lowe says he sees no need to quicken his pace.
"I'm getting older, and you have some funny thoughts about it, whether it's seemly (to continue). But I don't think I've (passed) some great pinnacle: 'Look at those great days of Rockpile and those triumphant recordings of Elvis Costello.' I think I'm just starting to get the hang of it. God willing, by the time I'm 60, I'll be quite good."
* Nick Lowe and the Impossible Birds play Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $17.50. (714) 496-8930. Also on the bill are Jim Lauderdale and Gina Quartaro.