Nick Lowe is embracing his maturing self
Many of singer Nick Lowe’s peers dye their hair or squeeze into clothes better suited for their children. Lowe has a shock of white hair and titles his latest CD “At My Age.”
He’s 58 and not afraid to admit it.
The simple act of not fighting the passage of time led Lowe to a surprising second stage for a career that flowered during the first punk rock generation.
Lowe frequently sings from the perspective of a man who’s lived a life and learned its lessons. It’s not geriatric rock, just the type of music you heard when dad played Frank Sinatra while driving you around on Saturday chores.
The man in his song “Long Limbed Girl” has come across a picture of an old girlfriend and wonders what’s become of her. The narrator of “I Trained Her to Love Me” is an aging lothario who knows he’s going to break another heart and couldn’t care less.
A younger Lowe had a hit single (“Cruel to Be Kind”), produced Elvis Costello’s early albums and was the bass player known as Basher in Rockpile, a cult favorite band that, like its music, was often like a speeding car careening out of control.
All during that time, Lowe said, he was looking over his shoulder, “waiting for it to end.”
“I knew how the industry talked about artists, how they despise them and kind of regard them as morons,” he said. “So I knew my career was going to come to an end, because I was not someone like Elton John or Cher.”
By the mid-1980s, with a string of non-hits, a music royalty marriage to Johnny Cash stepdaughter Carlene Carter that “had not so much collapsed as disappeared” and his own near-alcoholism, the bell was tolling.
But he wasn’t ready to give up on music. He noticed that age is no impediment to classical or jazz musicians and wondered why it couldn’t be the same for pop musicians. It made sense, particularly since the first vanguard of an influential generation was Lowe’s age.
“I was sure that I could find a way to use this to my advantage,” he said.
Stage Two Nick is reminiscent of Charlie Rich, with courtly country, jazz and rock influences mixed in. He slowed and quieted his songs, made his points more directly. The simple, scary reading of his song “The Beast in Me,” featured on the premiere episode of “The Sopranos” and also covered by his former father-in-law, is a good example of what he does now.
Basher is now a craftsman who looks back at some of his old songs and sees mistakes.
“The older I get, the simpler I want to make it,” he said. “I want to make absolutely no doubt what I’m on about lyrically. When you’re younger, you bluster or bluff so much because you’re impatient for the songs to come out. You can say, ‘It’s poetry, man,’ and come up with some rubbish.”
To somewhat humorous effect, clarity eludes some listeners when he plays “I Trained Her to Love Me” in concert. Women get right away they’re hearing a funny song about misogyny. Many men think he’s celebrating behavior they don’t recognize as caddish. Lowe just doesn’t want anyone thinking it’s autobiographical.
“I’ve known lots of men like that, who style themselves as ladies’ men when they’re the opposite of that,” he said. “They can’t stand them, and yet they’re extremely successful with them.”
“At My Age” is Lowe’s first new music in six years. Life intervened. Both of his parents died. He also became, somewhat unexpectedly, a dad for the first time. Having tea in London recently with Costello and his wife, Diana Krall, and their infant twins, they marveled at how improbable diaper-changing duties would have seemed years earlier.
“It’s really hard work, especially for someone who’s led an almost entirely selfish existence for 40 years,” he said. “It comes as quite a shock to suddenly have to worry about someone else and, indeed, his mother.”
Soul singers Solomon Burke and Howard Tate have sung versions of songs that Lowe includes on his new album. He also received an assist from old friend Chrissie Hynde in writing and singing “People Change.” The young Nick Lowe produced “Stop Your Sobbing,” the very first single from Hynde’s band, the Pretenders.
Lowe’s most enduring composition has been “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which has been covered more than 30 times and matured into an antiwar anthem for a new generation. Costello, whose cover is the best known, paid Lowe the ultimate compliment: playing the song during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Lowe wrote it as a comic song while a member of the band Brinsley Schwarz in 1973. The narrator was an old hippie from the 1960s being laughed at as outdated and responding by asking what was so funny about our ideals.
When he was done, Lowe considered it the first original thought he’d had as a songwriter.
“I’m extremely proud of it,” he said. “I’ve got Elvis to thank for that. He always liked it when the Brinsleys did it, and when he did it, he sort of gave it this anthemic thing, which was a brand-new idea. You can hear it done now in all different ways.”