St. Nick: The Long, Strange and Wonderful Career of Nick Lowe
He helped shape punk rock, produced Elvis Costello and spent quality time with Johnny Cash. But his best role has been as a master songwriter who never takes himself too seriously.
By Mark Binelli
In January 1990, a couple of months shy of his 41st birthday, Nick Lowe welcomed a BBC film crew into his suburban London row house for an interview. Lowe had a new album to promote, Party of One, but he’d been in the music business for two decades, first in the band Brinsley Schwarz, which wore its Americana influences on its sleeve but never made much of an impression outside the U.K. (or within, for that matter), and then as a house producer at a scrappy independent label called Stiff Records. There, Lowe produced what’s widely considered the first U.K. punk single, the Damned’s “New Rose,” and began a fruitful collaboration with Elvis Costello, producing Costello’s first five albums, a legendary run. A Lowe-penned song, “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” would become one of Costello’s most indelible tunes, and Lowe’s own solo career took off as well, right alongside the rise of punk and New Wave, his signature hits remaining stone classics of the era: “Cruel to Be Kind,” “So It Goes,” “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass.”
By the time of Party of One, though, it had been five years since any of Lowe’s songs had charted. He’d quit drinking for a few years, but soon started up again, and his decade-long marriage to Carlene Carter, the singer-songwriter and child of Nashville royalty (daughter of June Carter Cash, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash), was nearing its official break. In the BBC video, Lowe looked older than 40, puffy, slightly haggard, wearing a drab tweed jacket that might’ve been nicked from a boarding-school headmaster nearing retirement. His feathered mop of hair had already started going gray.
Strumming a guitar, Lowe told funny, self-deprecating stories about his intimidating father-in-law and an early attempt at writing a novelty song about the Bay City Rollers. Then talk turned to his age. “I certainly never thought I’d still be doing [this] at 40,” he acknowledged. “No indeed.” He took a drag on a cigarette, suddenly pensive, and looked off to the side, as if considering whether or not to reveal a secret plan. Then he smiled, his eyes turning mischievous. “But the thing is, you see, now I really think I’m just starting to get good. . . . I think I’ll be real great when I’m 60. Point of fact, I think I’m going to look fantastic when I’m 60. That’s going to be the main thing. I’m going to look wild when I’m 60. But also I think my voice is going to sound great.”
It sounded like the start of another comic riff. Lowe clearly looked dreadful. And in interviews, he tended to scrupulously avoid speaking about his work in ways that might come off as pretentious, leaning heavily on a British taste for cool irony that also informed his approach to lyric-writing. The uncharacteristic swagger must be building to a punchline.
Except it wasn’t. Lowe’s eyes narrowed in the smoke. He wasn’t making a joke. He was making a prediction: “I’m going to know how to write a song when I’m 60. I’m just starting to get good now.” His smile had faded, and he jabbed the air with his cigarette for emphasis, maybe to help convince himself.
Twenty years from now, he vowed, “I’ll be happening. Really, seriously happening.”
Twenty-eight years later, Lowe opens the door of the same West London row house to greet a new visitor. In keeping with the forecast made by his unkempt younger self, Lowe, now closer to 70 than 60, looks terrific: tall, slim, dapper, sporting a brown corduroy jacket over a white dress shirt and dark cuffed Levis, with outsize black-frame Buddy Holly glasses, and his hair, now completely white, swooped into a dignified take on a pompadour.
Lowe lives in Brentford, a sleepy town once best known for its nylon factory. His house, he says, isn’t very old, but he means by English standards. (It was built in 1805.) These days, Lowe resides a few blocks away, in another row house, with his second wife, Peta Waddington, and their teenage son, Roy. In a wild bit of luck, a cover of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” by Curtis Stigers, appeared on the 1992 soundtrack to The Bodyguard, which, thanks to Whitney Houston, sold roughly 40 million copies and handed Lowe a windfall of songwriting royalties just as his career started moving in a less-commercial direction. The money allows his family to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
Lowe keeps the first place as a sort of workspace. It’s decorated in a tasteful reformed-bachelor style: packed bookshelves (a biography of Karl Marx, a pictorial history of boxing, Willie Dixon’s I Am the Blues, a Hans Fallada novel called The Drinkers), a copy of Johnny Cash’s debut album (signed “To Nick”), chic zinc-top dining table. A macabre painting of a topless woman reminiscent of Egon Schiele hangs directly opposite a painting of a cute toy dog with a bell around its neck.
Whether Lowe’s music, in the years since Party of One, has been “really, seriously happening” depends in part on one’s definition of “happening.” Having moved back to independent record labels, Lowe never had another hit single, so on a commercial level, no. But beginning with 1994’s excellent The Impossible Bird, his mastery of his craft increased with each album. The music was stripped down, often acoustic, embracing the American roots he’d first explored with Brinsley Schwarz. Sticking, to a rather astounding degree, with the plan outlined in the BBC interview, he made a seamless shift from would-be pop star to singer-songwriter operating in a lower, yet more sophisticated, key. His new songs included hymnlike ballads (“Shelley My Love”), acidic character studies in the mode of Randy Newman (“I Trained Her to Love Me,” the chorus of which features the nasty kicker “so I can go ahead and break her heart”), wayfaring folk (“Indian Queens”) and Memphis soul by way of Brentford (“High on a Hilltop”), and he crooned them as if they were already standards, leaving listeners hard-pressed to place their provenance.
I’ve been at Lowe’s home for only a few minutes when he says, suddenly, “I have to take my dog for a walk. Want to come?”
We climb into his Volkswagen Golf, his gray-and-white whippet, Larry, curled in the backseat, and drive to nearby Gunnersbury Park, once a private estate owned by the Rothschild family. It’s overcast, and Lowe carries an umbrella, looking quite the English gentleman, aside from the dog’s leash draped around his neck like a conventioneer’s lanyard. He watches Larry bound ahead of us on a dandelion-covered lawn, then notes dryly, “There are one or two good things about whippets. They’re affectionate, but not needy. And they’re very fast — you see, they’re ratters — and when they’re off-leash, they can run. So you only have to walk them once a day.”
On a path wending alongside a pond, Lowe points out a folly, a mock castle built when the park was privately owned. Then he brings up his shift to what he calls the second phase of his career, though he immediately chuckles at that word, “career.” Lowe thought about older artists who had managed to gracefully evolve, people like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. He wanted to do something like that, come up with an act “that could propel me into my sixties, something I could keep doing. I wouldn’t get rich, but I could make some good records. Plow my own furrow.” The only thing he knew for certain was that he didn’t want to end up on an oldies tour, doing a “slightly balding version” of his naughty self from the 1970s, while the crowd snickered, “Oh, God, this old tosh!” Lowe began to think about roots music, which he loved. “But I wasn’t interested in playing in their world, either,” he says. “Earnestness is the enemy.”
Lowe’s most recent release is a case study in the importance of not being earnest. It’s a four-song EP, his first new music in five years — so, an occasion. But Lowe’s backing group, these days, is Los Straitjackets, a surf-guitar band whose members all wear lucha libre masks while performing. Lowe and the Straitjackets share a manager (Jake Guralnick, the son of noted music journalist Peter Guralnick) and a record label (the North Carolina-based indie Yep Roc), so it’s not as mad of a match as it initially sounds. But, still, pretty mad: Now, when Lowe tours, he’s the only person onstage not wearing a Mexican wrestling mask, which is certainly one way to telegraph a lifelong, near-militant refusal to take oneself seriously, and which made a show I caught at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, New Jersey, feel, at times, more like a visit to the Roadhouse bar in Twin Peaks.
“That’s what’s really cool about a guy like Nick, that he’d agree to something like this,” says Eddie Angel, one of the Los Straitjackets guitarists and the group’s de facto leader. “We had nothing to lose. But he did: his reputation!”
The next afternoon, Lowe suggests we take another drive, this time to a location holding more personal significance for him, the Royal Air Force Museum, which takes up several hangars at a former airfield. Lowe’s father, Geoffrey Drain Lowe, a pilot, conducted bombing raids over Germany during the Second World War, rising to the rank of wing commander in the RAF. He also occasionally flew in air shows at Hendon, the airfield now housing the museum; disguised as an elderly woman, he would sometimes burst from the crowd, hop into a plane and begin flying trick circles. “Quite a lot of drink taken, from what the old man later told me,” Lowe says.
As much as Lowe embodies the look of a hipster dad, he’s also very comfortable lapsing into other dad modes — a goofy, intentionally embarrassing dad, for instance, goosing tales with an assumed accent or jazz hands. Or, here at the RAF Museum, the WWII-obsessed, History Channel-watching dad, eager to deliver a mini-lecture. We’ve happened to arrive on the anniversary of an attack called Operation Chastise, which, in addition to being the most British name possible for a military operation, involved special bouncing bombs that were able to destroy German dams and flood the Ruhr valley. After pausing briefly before a group of senior citizens in folding chairs listening to a talk on the subject, Lowe begins to whisper his own detailed account of the operation into my ear.
Sometimes, when he’s trying to write new music, Lowe will come to the museum and wander around, gazing up at the magnificent old planes. “Dad started off flying these,” Lowe says, pausing before a Hawker Hart bomber with a gleaming propeller, and still seeming as awestruck as a schoolboy. “No boasting. You couldn’t prise anything out of him.” A herd of actual schoolchildren on a field trip swarm past Lowe, oblivious.
Lowe’s mother, Patricia, came from a show-business family, English music-hall performers, a sort of West End version of vaudeville, a world of plate-spinners and trick-performing dogs. Her mother was a dancer; her father had been a piano-playing prodigy known (seriously) as “the Dudevenile.” “A real sort of creepy Victorian thing,” Lowe says. “They toured him around the circuit, and his mother kept him in short trousers, even when he was a grown man. Like the guy in AC/DC! It drove him to drink.”
Patricia sang (in the style of Rosemary Clooney), but her career was sidelined by the war. While she served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, a directive from the top brass scolding pilots for relieving themselves on the wheels of their planes — somehow this proved corrosive to the rubber — inspired Patricia to write a comedic song on the topic, which is how she met Lowe’s father. “The song caused quite a stir, and she was called in to get a bollocksing from
my dad, who had become squadron leader by that time,” Lowe says. “But he had thought it was pretty funny.”
Lowe grew up on military bases in Jordan and Cyprus. (He remembers pushing toy cars around in Amman, Jordan, with a young King Hussein, who had taken a liking to Lowe’s father and would occasionally show up at their house in his newest sports car.) As a kid, Lowe had a ukulele, and his mother taught him a few chords and turned him on to her rec-ord collection: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Lowe’s favorite, the impossibly exotic Tennessee Ernie Ford. He taught himself Ford’s “Fatback Louisiana, U.S.A.” phonetically, “almost as if it was French or something. I didn’t know what he was singing about. The lyrics were like, ‘Every house ain’t the Ritz, but it’s handy when you’re hungry ’cause they’re made out of grits.’ I thought, Whoa! ‘You get a black-eyed pea instead of a pill.’ It was all about this food that sounded revolting.”
Lowe possesses a talent, common among a certain strain of middle-class Brits, of marrying congenital self-effacement with supreme confidence, with neither personality trait ever quite overriding the other. He’s a natural-born raconteur, and he knows it, which allows him to launch without fear into meandering and digressive 25-minute anecdotes that inevitably pay off in spectacular fashion. And yet at the same time, most of these stories deliberately humble Lowe, wind up making him the butt of a joke. Take his origin story as a musician. It begins with Lowe being sent to boarding school in Suffolk, England, where, in 1963, he formed a band with his classmate Brinsley Schwarz. When Lowe volunteered to play bass, a friend from woodworking class built him one that had to be tuned with a pair of pliers. The band didn’t last. Lowe, upon graduating, had dreams of becoming a war correspondent, inspired by the hard-living men who would come to the base to talk to his father, but after landing an unsexy entry-level job at a suburban newspaper, he realized he couldn’t cut it — sent to review The Love Bug, Lowe got drunk and passed out during the screening — and instead reconnected with Schwarz, who by that point had signed a record deal with his new Sixties-pop band, Kippington Lodge. Lowe joined, insisting they ditch the session musicians who had been backing them in the studio: “I said, ‘This has got to go, boys! We’ve got to play on our own records. What kind of band are we?’ ” They turned out to be a band that sounded terrible without session musicians, and was soon dropped by the label.
The group soldiered on, eventually landing a weekly residency opening for Yes at a hot London club, and began a move, sonically, in the direction of American influences like the Band and Crosby, Stills and Nash, changing its name to Brinsley Schwarz. Lowe played bass, became the lead vocalist and began writing songs — including “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” A massive U.K. publicity campaign to push the Brinsleys’ 1970 debut — including flying a planeload of British journalists to New York to catch what turned out to be a disastrous show at the Fillmore East, where the band opened for Van Morrison and Quicksilver Messenger Service — backfired, and the band found itself the object of national ridicule (“the biggest hype of all time,” according to Melody Maker). It got a second chance with the rise of what became known as pub rock, a brief but influential London scene of bands like Dr. Feelgood, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and the 101ers (Joe Strummer’s first group) that represented a welcome, back-to-basics reaction against the bloat and pretension of the prog-rock era. “It really was the precursor to punk rock,” Lowe says. “There were a lot of oddballs who would not have got a look-see elsewhere.”
Around 1971, Lowe suffered something close to a nervous breakdown after years of taking too much acid. As he told the journalist Will Birch in the pub-rock history No Sleep Till Canvey Island, “I had to be literally led around for nine months. . . . I was covered in lice and I had gonorrhea. I was a horrible hippie case.” Lowe cleaned up, cut his hair, made the shift from LSD to booze (which is what passed for detox in the early Seventies), and a reinvigorated Brinsley Schwarz began playing the pubs. With their chops, they soon became the darlings of the scene. They introduced new material every week, mixing covers of whatever was topping the charts with their own songs. A kid in Liverpool, Declan MacManus (the future Elvis Costello), became a fan, nervously introducing himself to Lowe after a show. “There were all sorts of terrible imitators,” Lowe acknowledges. “I’ve even used the expression myself, ‘oh, that’s a bit pub rock,’ to denote a sort of worthy blues chuggery: don da don da don da don. To call something pub rock can be disparaging now. But originally it was quite fun.”
Still, five albums into their career, Brinsley Schwarz failed to cross over to the mainstream, and in 1975, the band broke up. Solo and adrift, Lowe wrote that novelty song about the Bay City Rollers (a hit in Japan!) and toured the States as a roadie for Dr. Feelgood, where, in San Francisco, he met Huey Lewis, later of “and the News,” at the time one of the singers in a band called Clover, whose records had somehow found their way into the hands of the pub rockers. Through Lowe, several members of Clover would serve in the backing band on Costello’s debut, My Aim Is True.
“We didn’t even know that scene existed,” Lewis tells me. “Nick introduced himself as a fan and we invited him to sit in. Back in those days, playing four sets a night, you’d get anyone you could to sit in. Nick said, ‘How about we play “Wine and Cigarettes”?’ This was an obscure Clover song we’d never played live. Nick played it perfectly. We ended up taking him and the entire band up to my mom’s house in Bolinas.”
Back in the VW, Lowe checks his phone — the words NICHOLAS’ PHONE appear on the car’s Bluetooth screen — and says, “Let me give Pete a ring. Get the lie of the land. See how she wants to play this.” He means Peta, his wife. They’ve invited me to dinner, and she has a short list of items for Lowe to pick up.
The couple met in 2000, at a screening of a documentary about Sam Phillips. Waddington, 51, a graphic designer, “loved music older than her, so I was sort of right up her stream,” Lowe says. She quickly negged him by making “a cheeky comment about how she could do much better versions of my record sleeves” (tough but fair), and they soon began dating. Roy was born in 2005, and Lowe seems to have thoroughly taken to late-in-life dadhood, though he initially grumbled about the indignities of having to trade in his Mercedes for a station wagon. (Lowe also helped raise Carlene Carter’s daughter from a previous marriage, Tiffany, who took his last name.)
Back home, Lowe prepares dinner, pasta with tuna, capers and fresh tomatoes. He’s a very good cook, though things look dodgy for a moment when he begins absent-mindedly feeding individual pinches of spaghetti into an extremely small pot of boiling water, as if they’re bundles of kindling. Waddington has a striking pixie haircut and lively, alert eyes. Later, she’ll tell me a crazy story about quitting her design job and moving to rural Eunice, Louisiana — long obsessed with swamp pop, she showed up, unannounced, at a local radio station, whose perplexed managers eventually got over their shock and hired her as a disc jockey. The move, she says, piqued the interest of a commitment-shy Lowe, and soon after they became more serious.
Now, watching Lowe from a stool at the kitchen counter with a mild look of concern, she says, “Nick, are you paying attention?”
Turning to me, Waddington asks if I plan to watch the royal wedding, which happens to be taking place in two days. “Nick isn’t very excited about it,” she says, smirking. “It’s too un-trad for him.”
Lowe shrugs. He did recently, belatedly enjoy the first season of The Crown, which Waddington convinced him to check out on Netflix.
Roy, a promising drummer, wanders downstairs. He has shaggy red hair and is preternaturally polite and well-spoken for a 13-year-old. A copy of Uncut, a British music magazine, sits on the counter. Roy picks it up and says, “Oh, look, it’s John Lydon.” The cover is a vintage shot from the early days of Public Image Ltd. Lowe glances over, bitchily raising an eyebrow, and says, “He doesn’t look like that now.” He turns back to the pasta, stirring it with a fork. “I always steered clear of John. He was too quick for me. You never knew where you’d end up. The other guys in the Pistols were all sweethearts.”
Roy asks, “Is he still alive?”
In the mid-Seventies, Lowe suddenly found himself on the ground floor of the U.K. punk scene when Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson, a pair of managers from the pub-rock boomlet, decided to start their own label, the proto-punk Stiff Records. At 27, Lowe already felt too old for the room. “The Damned used to call me ‘uncle’ or ‘dad,’ ” he says. Graham Parker, at the time an unknown singer-songwriter from southeast England who was being managed by Robinson, recalls, “Dave’s dream was to start a label and sign all of these people who couldn’t get arrested, including Nick Lowe. I thought, ‘That’s a waste of time.’ All I knew about Nick’s songwriting was he’d written a song called ‘We Love You Bay City Rollers.’ Then I heard Brinsley Schwarz, which sounded like Bob Dylan sitting in a chair. And I didn’t think Nick was going to be a songwriter of any note.”
Parker’s skepticism notwithstanding, Stiff would launch the careers of Costello, Madness, the Pogues and the Damned. (Lowe would also produce two of Parker’s best albums.) “Nick was all of Stiff Records when I read about the label in the music papers — their first and only artist, their proposed in-house producer and eventually my producer,” Costello notes via e-mail. The label’s first single was by Lowe: “So It Goes,” a wordy, infectious Steely Dan rip that would appear on his 1978 full-length debut, Jesus of Cool. (The self-mocking title, deemed too edgy for American audiences, was scrapped in the States in favor of Pure Pop for Now People.) With the Welsh singer and guitarist Dave Edmunds, Lowe also formed a power-pop band, Rockpile, and in 1979, the duo simultaneously released a pair of excellent solo albums, Lowe’s Labour of Lust and Edmunds’ Repeat When Necessary, that were both, in reality, Rockpile albums, a Speakerboxx/The Love Below move 25 years ahead of its time. Labour of Lust featured Lowe’s biggest U.S. hit, the barbed pop confection “Cruel to Be Kind.” For the video, he used footage from his wedding to Carter; Edmunds played the limo driver.
In addition to making his own music, Lowe had become an in-demand producer, earning the nickname Basher for his quick-and-dirty approach in the studio. “Nick’s production style (if that is the right word, as I had no point of comparison) was to exhibit massive enthusiasm for the moment and seem possessed with the conviction that whatever we had just played was absolutely ‘IT,’ ” Costello writes, adding that, more than as a producer, Lowe “has always been a songwriter from whom I’ve taken cues — see his song ‘When I Write the Book,’ and my song ‘Everyday I Write the Book.’ ”
Lowe met Carter at a 1978 recording session in London. Edmunds had been brought in as a producer on her debut, and Lowe showed up to play bass and asked Carter out a few days later. “I went to see him at Top of the Pops,” she recalls. “He was doing ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’ in his Riddler suit, covered with question marks. We had chemistry. On our first date, we wrote a song! We hadn’t even kissed yet.” (Ironically, it was a breakup song, “Too Many Teardrops,” which appeared on Lowe’s 1982 album Nick the Knife.)
For a country music fanatic like Lowe, meeting his future in-laws proved a surreal experience. At the time, Lowe says he looked like “a very English, Spinal Tap sort of guy”: long hair, thrift store shirts, tight jeans. Carl Smith, Carter’s father, a country music star from the 1950’s, “regarded me with some suspicion,” Lowe admits. “It was like the village idiot coming to call.” Smith eventually warmed to Lowe, showing him home movies of Carlene being pushed around in a pram by Elvis Presley.
On their first visit to the Cash family home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Carter Cash led Lowe into a bedroom filled with antiques “that could have come out of the palace of Versailles. And there’s a huge bed, in which lay John, in his silk pajamas, receiving visitors. I thought, ‘This is about as cool as it gets.’ ” Lowe eventually overcame his awe. “John was so fabulous to me, so friendly and kind,” he says. The pair would stay up late, getting drunk and listening to old rec-ords Cash thought Lowe should hear: Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Johnny Horton. Later, the Cashes would visit and stay at Lowe and Carlene’s home in Shepherd’s Bush, where June would come down to their tiny kitchen in the morning wearing a dressing gown, diamond rings and a jeweled turban. Around this period, Cash recorded a version of one of Lowe’s songs from Labour of Lust, “Without Love,” making it sound like a Sun Studio outtake.
After his early, ill-fated encounter with record–industry hype during the Brinsley Schwarz years, Lowe had cultivated a cynicism about the music business that served him well when punk hit. Working as artist and producer, with “a foot in both camps,” only distanced him further: “I heard how the people at the labels talked about the artists rather disparagingly, and indeed I joined in on occasion. At the same time, it helped me to be more objective about my time in that pop arena coming to an end. I was quite cynical about it all. I never bought into it.”
Rockpile broke up in 1981. By that point, Lowe’s reputation had already started to devolve from pop wunderkind to boozy underachiever. For an early Stiff package tour of England featuring Costello, Lowe, Dury and Wreckless Eric — the latter artists had a pair of hot singles, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” and “Whole Wide World,” respectively, the latter produced by Lowe — the plan had been to rotate the bill nightly, each artist taking turns headlining, but Lowe soon settled into an opening slot in order to leave the maximal time for drinking afterward. In the riveting final minutes of Born Fighters, a fly-on-the-wall Rockpile documentary from 1979, Edmunds attempts a sort of intervention with a wasted, slurring Lowe, pleading with a stern tenderness to his friend, “You have gotta pull onto the hard shoulder, mate.”
“I’m not one of those people who say, ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, too few to mention,’ ” Lowe says today. “I’m riddled with regrets.” Later, he expands on the thought: “You know, I shouldn’t have regrets. I’ve been such a lucky devil. Met some great people. Heroes of mine, people I thought I’d never even get to see play, let alone meet, work with, in some cases become very good friends with. So I’ve been incredibly lucky. But there were so many opportunities. . . .” He trails off. “I wish I hadn’t been so lazy. That I’d learned a bit more about actual music — if I knew more about music theory, I could get closer to what I would really like to do. And I regret the time wasted and the money wasted on taking drugs. Although—” He chuckles, then, at his compulsion to interrupt his own PSA. “You know, it led to some quite interesting situations. So . . . what are you going to do?”
Years after Lowe’s marriage to Carter dissolved, Cash’s haunted cover of another Lowe composition, “The Beast in Me,” would become a standout on his comeback album, American Recordings. When Lowe appeared on the WTF podcast, Marc Maron couldn’t believe those lyrics had no grounding in some unspeakable personal darkness. But Lowe, regrets aside, has never felt like he’s struggled with an inner demon caged by frail and fragile bars. In fact, he’d stayed up all night writing the song before one of his father-in-law’s Shepherd’s Bush visits, deliberately attempting to channel Cash’s voice. In the 1990 BBC interview, he tells a funny story about croaking out the song for Cash the next morning in a high-pitched warble, hungover and terrified: “The night before I’d been Johnny Cash. . . . But when I got down and sang this song . . . it was the wimpiest thing you ever heard.”
One of the starkest manifestations of Lowe’s self-effacement comes through in his songwriting, which he approaches with a Brill Building-era professionalism. “I’m always writing for somebody else,” he says, adding later, “I’m really pleased Marc thought that I was on the edge of a cliff, staring down. And I do know how it feels to feel bad, believe me. But I try and not make my songs autobiographical.”
For that reason, in part, there’s a timeless quality to Lowe’s repertoire; at their best, his songs achieve a level of craftsmanship that nearly erase their composer. Even limiting your choices to the Eighties, when Lowe was partying too much and making uneven records, you could make a playlist of deep cuts (“Ragin’ Eyes,” “My Heart Hurts,” “Raining Raining,” “Crying in My Sleep”) that would sound like a lost greatest-hits album unearthed in a vault. And from The Impossible Bird onward, when the former Basher embraced quiet as the new loud, the more intimate, after-hours feel of the music allowed Lowe’s voice, and the wit and structural intricacy of his writing, to move to the front of the stage. Close your eyes and it’s easy to hear the records as exquisitely produced demos for the vanished gods of his youth: Sinatra, Sam Cooke, George Jones, Solomon Burke.
On my last day in Brentford, we take a walk by the canal. A shirtless guy lies sleeping on the deck of a houseboat; beside him, a large knife juts from a pineapple. Lowe brings up the actress Margot Kidder, who died earlier in the week. Did I know they’d dated? I hadn’t. He’d met her in London, after his split with Carter. Once, while hiking with her dog in Los Angeles, Kidder suggested they visit her friend Rudy. Emerging from a trail onto a private lawn, they came upon a man sunbathing in the grass with his dog. “Rudy” turned out to be “Rudolf bloomin’ Nureyev,” Lowe says. The dogs began playing. Kidder’s dog, Harry, “had a buggered-up front leg, so it looked like it was begging all the time. And old Nureyev had a dauschund whose back legs had been crushed in a ghastly accident, so they would drag behind, almost like an aquatic animal, a seal.” “Oh, look at zem together, so sveeet!” Nureyev said, in Lowe’s Russian-accented telling. Lowe shakes his head. “I’d never seen anything so grotesque in my life!”
Lowe hadn’t spoken to Kidder in years. He reached out to her in the mid-Nineties, after her public breakdown, but never heard back. He still drinks — we visit a couple of Brentford pubs — but not like the old days, and he gave up smoking around the time Roy was born. He’d been singing a few songs at a neighborhood house party and broke into a coughing fit. “And I just couldn’t stop,” he says. “It was funny to start with. Then it wasn’t funny.”
Since then, two of Lowe’s dearest friends and collaborators, his drummer Bobby Irwin and his sound engineer, co-producer and tour manager Neil Brockbank, died in quick succession, both from cancer, Irwin in 2015, Brockbank only two years later. The men had been crucial to Lowe’s vision during the triumphant second act of his career. Beginning with The Impossible Bird, when Lowe began recording live in the studio (as opposed to overdubbing), Brockbank miked the players as if they were jazz sessions. Irwin, a Brit who had lived in Texas for years, shared Lowe’s passion for American country and soul music, and immediately understood, Lowe says, “how these country guys play so quiet — that’s how they swing.”
After their deaths, Lowe wasn’t sure he’d record again. It took working with Los Straitjackets to make him see a way forward. After playing together at a record-label anniversary show, they had toured with Lowe as his backing band, and before he died, Brockbank worked with the group on an instrumental, all-Lowe covers album, What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets. The idea appealed to Los Straitjackets because one of their favorite surf bands, the Ventures, had done the same thing in the Seventies, only with the songs of Jim Croce. (Surprisingly good!) Since the release of the Tokyo Bay/Crying Inside EP in June, Lowe and the Straitjackets have already recorded a second EP’s worth of material, due next year, and there’s talk of a third. Their set in Jersey City, raucous and styled in the manner of a rock & roll revue, was a total blast.
It’s funny how you can try to plot the phases of your career, or your life, really, and sometimes you end up following the plan as if it’s been laid out for you on a map — 20 years from now, I’ll be happening — but always, inevitably, you’ll wind up landing in unexpected places. In Lowe’s case, when it comes to music, he’s back to playing louder again.
As an encore in Jersey City, Lowe covered “Alison,” his old friend Costello’s 1977 classic. Costello once described the song, which Lowe produced, as “the result of a chemistry experiment” involving the Spinners’ “Ghetto Child” and the Lowe-penned Brinsley Schwarz tune “Don’t Lose Your Grip on Love.” The experiment worked: “Alison” is by far the best of the three songs, though you can hear a bit of Lowe’s DNA in the famous chorus, when Costello sings, “I know this world is killing you.” Around the same spot in “Don’t Lose Your Grip on Love,” the lyrics go, “Take me higher and higher, like a jet plane flies. . . .”
This reminds me of a story Lowe told about living in Jordan as a boy, where, occasionally, his dad would take the family out for a pilot’s equivalent of a Sunday drive, flying them over the desert in a little twin-engine Pembroke. Nick had his own helmet, and the old man used to let him sit in the co-pilot’s seat. On one such flight, on a summer afternoon — a beautiful day, cloudless blue sky — his father suddenly stood up, without saying a word, and walked to the back of the plane, where Nick’s mother was sitting.
Nick had no idea what was happening. He didn’t know about autopilot. But for some reason he didn’t panic, either, and after a few moments, he parted the curtain separating the cockpit from the cabin and saw his parents sitting there, facing each other — this particular plane had seats configured that way — so Nick wandered back and joined them. They were flying low enough to have the window open. Lowe remembers that part for sure, the little curtain over the window flapping in the breeze. You could see Bedouin tents below. They’d just crossed over the Dead Sea.
“It’s almost like a dream, you know?” Lowe says. “It’s one of those memories you have that really seems like a dream.”
The three of them sat there, looking out the window, while the plane flew itself.