When the song comes out of the speakers, for the first time or the 500th, it seems almost too perfect: Johnny Cash, his voice a beautifully rotten croak that falls somewhere between singing and speaking, tells of the monster trapped within him — the monster that makes him who he is, a beast of his own creation over which he has no power. It's a monster, Cash gargles, that is "restless by day and by night," that "rants and rages at the stars," that "has learned to live with pain." Finally, in a tone that suggests submission rather than sympathy, Cash can only say, "God help the beast in me."
When Cash sings these words, he not only does so with all his baggage in hand, but with the contents spilled upon the floor. Without "The Beast in Me," American Recordings is a great album, the best of last year's releases and one of the finest of Cash's estimable career. But with it, American Recordings is a masterpiece, the history of American music — the religious hoodoo of the blues, the staggering remorse of country, the overpowering strength of rock and roll — set forth at the feet of the listener. To hear Cash perform that song is to understand what it means to do evil, to inflict pain, without a drop of remorse.
But the words are not the creation of Johnny Cash; rather, he merely interpreted them from the printed page upon which they were penned by another man. They actually belong to Nick Lowe, a man who has made a reputable (and, just recently, a whoppingly profitable) career hiding such raw thoughts and emotions underneath sarcasm, wit, puns, jokes, asides, and other literary devices that soften blows and couch criticism. For more than two decades, Lowe has written of roadies who lose arms and of actresses killed by dogs and of hippies looking for a little peace and love and understanding, and always, each song was surrounded by the quotation marks of irony.
But Nick Lowe is now a different man. With the recent demise of a serious relationship and the "housecleaning" that followed, the 45-year-old Lowe has decided one can only hide behind clever words for so long before one has to make the decision to commit to the fight or bow out. And so, on the newly released The Impossible Bird, Lowe goes all the way — revealing a man who knows what it is to feel pain, who begs his lover to stay as the door closes behind her, who has grown weary of finding each relationship withered on the vine. When he equates love with a battlefield, Lowe does so with the intimacy and immediacy of a survivor instead of with the distance of a casual observer. For the old Lowe, it would have been a witty metaphor; for the new Lowe, it's a tale told from the front lines.
"I'm 45 now, and I think that anyone that's got to the age of 45 and they haven't had a few brushes with life and the world in general, then they've probably been in sheltered accommodations or have been doing well," Lowe says from his home in England. "And so, I find that, now, I have to sing about stuff that I know about. And so I aspire to write songs that are rugged, that you can sing under any circumstances, really. And it takes time. It's hard to write them. At least, I think it's harder than writing a Yes track. I think Yes music is a lot easier than the stuff that I do."
Perhaps the best place to begin is with Lowe's own version of "The Beast in Me," performed in an atmosphere almost as stark as Cash's, but with one great difference. Where Cash seems to embrace his demons, Lowe struggles to reconcile his. Lowe began writing the song 15 years ago for his one-time stepfather-in-law but could never finish it; it finally took the recent end of Lowe's relationship with an English TV anchorwoman to jar loose the remaining pieces of the puzzle, to force him to realize that though he began writing the song for the Man in Black, it wasn't really about Cash at all. Rather, it was about Nick Lowe — for better or worse.
"Both of the versions are very bare bones," Lowe says of the song, which he did not know Cash was going to record till American Recordings was already in stores last spring. "John's is absolutely very bare bones, and mine is one breath all painted in. And I think I've got more sympathy for my beast. It seems that I sort of like it, whereas John is interpreting it as this real problem that he's got — this beast in him. Whereas for my beast, I feel rather, sort of, well-disposed or pitying towards it. I kind of like it."
"When I first began playing," Nick Lowe is saying, "I was really only interested in becoming famous. That was the only thing I was keen on. And I thought that once you get your name in the papers, you are simply famous and everyone loves you. Well, it didn't take me bloody long to find out that was not the case."
Indeed, Nick Lowe has never been particularly popular in this country. He has to his credit barely a handful of Top 40 hits — the most prominent being "Cruel to Be Kind" and "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'N' Roll)" — and is perhaps best known for a song he wrote and recorded but that Elvis Costello elevated to the status of classic: "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding"). Rather, Lowe is a critics' and cultists' favorite, which no doubt ensures commercial failure quicker than touring with Vanilla Ice.
His resume, though, encompasses some of the finest pop-music moments of the past two decades. He began his career in the late '60s and reached notoriety in the early 1970s fronting the London pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz, blending the Byrds with the Band, then switched to producing the likes of Graham Parker and the Rumor. In 1976, he and manager Jake Riviera formed Stiff Records, which became home to the likes of Costello, the Damned, Joe "King" Carrasco, and Madness; joined the now-legendary "Live Stiffs" tour; and recorded the seminal single ("Heart of the City"/"So It Goes") that ushered in new-wave (or so the story goes).
Lowe then produced Costello's debut My Aim is True in 1977 and the four albums that followed, released his own Jesus of Cool in 1978 (retitled Pure Pop for Now People in the States — of course) and a handful of other albums including the much-revered Rockpile one-off Seconds of Pleasure, and married and divorced Carlene Carter — all the while producing the Pretenders, John Hiatt, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and several other lesser-known artists.
But his own fame remains quite limited. Little Village — a band featuring Lowe, Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Keltner — in 1992 lent him a certain marquee value, but because the resulting album was such a disappointment, that one shot at substantial recognition died a quick death.
"I realized early on that being famous is sort of a drag," he says now. "But making music and being able to play with good people and make good records and have as many people as possible hear your stuff and just having an audience, that's enough. And, hopefully, you get a hit from time to time."
Perhaps, though, Lowe's stature as a cult hero is inevitable. He may well have written dozens of wonderful, catchy songs (including "Cracking Up," "Big Kick, Plain Scrap," and "Little Hitler"), but, like Costello, he appeared on the surface to have been too smart for his own good. In the end, pop audiences don't like to feel dumber than the songwriter; they want to relate to the subject matter, to be able to sing along with a favorite song, to latch onto one memorable phrase and chant it like a mantra. Lowe offered none of that, only clever turns of phrase that turned in on themselves like pretzels, and the masses found them too hard to swallow.
The only reason "Cruel to Be Kind" became any kind of a hit was because, when heard on the radio, it sounded like any other love song; listeners perhaps were first caught by its unforgettable hook, but its subject matter seemed familiar, reassuring even. As critic Greil Marcus once pointed out when discussing how "irony is dissolved by its use as public discourse," "Cruel to Be Kind" was meant a parody of a "sappy love song" within the context of 1979's Labour of Lust, where it sat next to "Without Love" and "Switchboard Susan."
But taken out of its proper place, when heard as the Top 40 single it became, "Cruel" (with its cheery chorus of, "Cruel to be kind means that I love you, bay-bee") becomes what it pokes fun at — that very same sappy, peppy little love ditty "even if you'd already gotten the joke," Marcus noted. Same thing happened to Randy Newman's "I Love L.A."; same thing happened to Elvis Costello's "Alison."
But perhaps no better example of that is Lowe's 1974 "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," which became associated with Costello because of its inclusion on Armed Forces. To anyone who listens to the original version cut by Brinsley Schwarz, the song was clearly a joke, Lowe's way of mocking the idealistic peace-and-loveniks whose presence spilled over into the early part of the '70s. The way he sang it, his voice filled with goofy optimism, revealed the true intentions behind the lyrics: "As I walk through this wicked world / Searching for light in the darkness of insanity / I ask myself is all hope lost / Is there only pain and hatred and misery?" It's no accident the song was released as the B-side to the scabrous, power-pop anthem "American Squirm" — as in, "I made an American squirm, and it felt so ri-ight."
But when Costello recorded "Peace, Love, and Understanding," he made it his own, pouring a desperate edge into the material that Lowe has never possessed. If Lowe was out to stick it to the hippies, Costello — a man whose own material often was driven by pain and hatred and misery — was there to seize it for the punks who honestly were searching for a light in the darkness. Costello and Lowe share a common acid wit, but this time out, Costello chose to infuse that wit with an uncommon anger.
And then, last year, the song again resurfaced on, of all things, the sound track to the Whitney Houston egofest The Bodyguard. Though it's all but undetectable in the film itself, it appears on the record, performed by Curtis Stigers, a second-rate American soul singer. Whatever comedy or menace could be found in the first two versions is replaced by an inappropriate slickness, and it's almost as if Stigers thinks it's a love song — a man hoping his woman will help guide him through "this wicked world." At least there is no irony to be lost in the small fact that because the sound track went platinum many times over, Lowe racked in more than a million dollars in royalties, and there ain't nothing funny 'bout that.
Lowe, ever the modest man, has long maintained his albums aren't very good — not necessarily bad, but not enduring for the long haul. He began to feel that way especially during the early '80s, as his marriage to Carlene Carter began to crumble and his songwriting began to suffer. Though Lowe and Carter's partnership seemed a fruitful one artistically — he produced her best albums, they co-wrote the ironically titled "Time Heals All Wounds" for his The Abominable Showman — it imploded less than two years into it.
As Lowe recalls that period, he was "extremely unhappy because I couldn't express myself musically." As a result, where he once fused emotion with wit, honesty with irony, he completely tossed out what was real in the songs and supplanted it with puns and ill-gotten humor, and the material seemed sloppy and half-thought-out.
Lowe wandered through the mid-'80s, releasing hit-and-miss albums that bore some wonderful moments (most notably the Tex-Mex rave-up "Half a Boy & Half a Man" on Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit and the biting cover of John Hiatt's "She Don't Love Nobody" on The Rose of England) and some lousy ones (the tepid remake of "I Knew the Bride" with Huey Lewis and the News), and he seemed a man confused and without direction. He was torn between creating more "disposable pop trash" (as he once described his material) and becoming a "genre artist of roots eclectic" (as Village Voice critic Robert Christgau described him in 1984), and the struggle seemed to both energize and destroy him.
Elvis Costello noticed his pal's problem and suggested he hit the road as a solo act, replacing the band with an acoustic guitar. Lowe, reticent at first, finally hit the road as Costello's opening act and, in 1987, came through Texas on a two-city national tour supporting Costello's King of America and Blood and Chocolate albums. And even now, Lowe's performance in Austin, opening for Costello and the Confederates at the Opera House, remains a striking memory — not simply because it was a great performance, but because Lowe seemed so damned uncomfortable on that stage even after all those years.
Sitting on a stool, holding his guitar, Lowe appeared terribly nervous and alone. He was comfortable enough in front of the audience — he had spent considerable time in Austin producing the Fabulous Thunderbirds' T-Bird Rhythm in 1982 — but as he ran through some of his best-known material, from "Marie Provost" to "Time Wounds All Heels," he was surprised by how the material unfolded before him, almost without him. Removed from their thick shells — from the power-pop production, from the protection provided by a handful of the musicians — the songs revealed their vulnerable hearts, and Lowe seemed almost embarrassed by the revelation. And, in the end, it would forever change his approach to songwriting.
"Now, what I'm trying to do is explain how it feels — how it feels," Lowe says. "And that it is sort of an anonymous thing. It has to be something I conjure up that isn't me. If I started telling what my story was, people would find it tedious instead of empathizing with it. I don't really like the records I make — I mean, the songs I write. I can write songs, the bloke talking on the phone to you right now, but the best ones I do are when this sort of mysterious other person comes around to call. I don't know their phone number, I don't their name, I don't know anything about them. I don't even know when they're going to come around.
"But this person comes around and helps me do the best stuff. And, if you're following my drift, it's a sort of a muse. And when the muse comes around, I drop everything. Some people have disciplined themselves, like John Hiatt. I've talked to him about it, about how to bring the muse on, where he can actually go to work each day and bring the muse on. But I can't with mine. Sometimes, it stays away for months and months and months. Other times, I can't bloody get rid of it. It's in the house all the time.