When Nick Lowe burst onto the pop scene in the late '70s, a musical locomotive, breaking down almost single-handedly the flimsy walls between serious stuff and silly symphonies with titles like "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," "American Squirm" and "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)" he claimed his only goal was "to make a big pile and get out while the getting's good."
A cheeky lad, this Suffolk schoolboy, but he had the goods to back up such a statement his music was solid, unpretentious pop, tightly (but never over-) produced, and he became one of the founding fathers of a grassroots return to simple, furl, innocuous pop music. In 1979, everybody loved Nick Lowe, and he seemed a cinch to make that big pile.
Last week Lowe was in Gainesville, playing his heart out for less than 500 people at Reality Kitchen. A great show, but what gives? Why isn't he playing in stadiums?
"I still make a very good living out of this business, and I enjoy it very much," he says. "A lot of my contemporaries have dropped by the wayside, people that started the same time as I did. In some cases, got a lot better than I did. Either drunk themselves to death or drugged themselves to death or just dried up. Lost their way.
"Course there's always times when you think 'Oh, God,! don't fancy this any more,' but it's the initial reason you start, you start off with a tennis racket in the bedroom mirror, posing away, and that's the reason you want to get up and show off in front of people.
"I don't feel like I'm striving after something, some unassailable 'Yes, I'm still hanging in here' sort of thing. I'll dolt till the day I drop, probably. 'Cause I don't really know how to do anything else."
Although he's maintained a solo career since he left the group Brinsley Schwarz in 1975, and was at one time the reigning king of what came to be called "power-pop" in England, most of Lowe's notoriety has been a result of his studio production of British artists Graham Parker, The Damned and Elvis Costello. He's also produced records for Dave Edmunds, Paul Carrack, Carlene Carter, John Hiatt and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but in nearly every case the rave reviews were not followed by large sales. And that bothered him.
"I felt on a few occasions I let them down, "he says, "because ... when you're the producer, you tell 'em how it goes. You say 'Do it like this, leave that bit out, put that bit here, do that bit twice as long, sing it softly, man.'
"And then when it comes out and gets terrific critical reviews, and then dies a death, you feel you've let them down because you told them how to doll And you can't live on great reviews." He says he's not keen on doing so much producing these days because "I got annoyed with myself for doing these records for people — they were a lot of fun to do, but when they came out it was always the kiss of death if my name was on it.
"Although I always warn them. I always say 'Look, man, I'll make you a great record, but the Curse of Lowe could be upon your in fact, you see, my reputation as a producer is far greater than my actual track record."
Case in point: Elvis Costello. Lowe was instrumental in getting the brilliant-but-inexperienced songwriter a contract in 1977, and went on to produce six albums for him, albums that together accumulated 28 critical stars in Rolling Stone magazine. And only one, Armed Forces, cracked the American Top Ten.
"I was only meant to do the first one," Lowe remembers. "The situation kept coming up where he would ask me to do another one — it was me saying 'You ought to get someone else to do this for you, 'cause you'll get locked into one thing.'
"He didn't know anything about recording. Neither did I, really, but I knew more than he did. So I sort of took him under my wing. Now I don't feel at all like he's a Big Star. He is, but I don't feel like that. Elvis and I enjoy a very peculiar relationship."
They're on the road together now — Lowe opening for his one-lime protege. Costello sells more records, but not many more. He now uses different producers, although Lowe admits the pair might again meet up in the studio.
"I think it's more likely than I would with, say, Edmunds" (Lowe and Edmunds had a less-than-amicable parting two years ago). "Elvis is such a music fan, far more than I am, really, he's at it all the bloody time. It's quite likely that something like that would happen."
Nick Lowe not a music fan? "I do a lot in the music business, you know, but I don't really listen to records very much. I like mostly boring matches and things like that. I'd far rather go out with my friends and talk about something else, I like the gossip about the pop business more than the music."
Lately Lowe's been a part of pop gossip, because of a bout with alcoholism, which he says he's beat. "I didn't go to AA or anything like that. I was never a secret drinker, I was a social drinker. I just stopped, because I couldn't do it in moderation any more. All the world's friend, after I'd had a couple.
"I think it helped (my career) that I quit drinking and cleaned up my act in a big way. That was getting in the way a lot."
He says his latest album, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, reflects his newfound sobriety and happiness with himself. "I think! can do a better one, as well. I feel much better nowadays, I feel I can do a lot better than I have done for a while."
And so, England's pop patriarch is plying his trade with both eyes firmly open. Even though he would rather be selling records in the millions, filling stadiums, he says he's not frustrated. Reputation is, after all, nine-tenths of notoriety.
"I've always thought of myself as a sort of observer. In England, whenever a 'new thing' happens, people hunt me up and ask for quota, what I think about it. I'm some sort of Old Man of the Mountains or something?'