Albany, NY — "Here, Nick, this one's for you!"
With a hearty yell, manager Jake Riviera passes the slip of paper he's just cracked out of a fortune cookie here in the Peking Restaurant to his charge, British pop singer-tunesmith-producer Nick Lowe. Lowe brushes his hair out of his eyes and reads the fortune aloud: "Sell your ideas: They are totally acceptable."
The whole dinner party — including pianist Paul Carrack, bassist James Eller, drummer Bobby Irwin and guitarist Martin Belmont, all of whom are members of Lowe's Noise to Go band — dissolves in fits of horselaughter. "Acceptable?" cries Lowe in mock horror. "To whom?"
For starters, there are the several hundred thoroughly plastered St. Patrick's Day revelers who cheer on Noise to Go later this night in Albany's small, sweaty club, J.B. Scott's. Most of these fans probably don't know that Lowe's production of albums by Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and the Damned forms a capsule history of England's 1976-1977 rock revolution. Or that Lowe's own LPs — from his 1978 U.S. solo debut, Pure Pop for Now People, through the new Nick the Knife, — are really funhouse mirror images of America's own deep pop roots in rockabilly, country and R&B. But they remember the pop 'n' party glory that was Lowe's last band, Rockpile, and they recognize in his new songs the same beguiling vintage-AM charm of his greatest hits, "Cruel to Be Kind" and "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass." The drunken ovation he gets at the end of the night indicates that everyone finds Lowe's ideas, in Confucius' words, "totally acceptable."
But what Nick Lowe, the thirty-three-year-old son of a Royal Air Force career man, cannot understand is why his American fans take his music so seriously. Since the release of Pure Pop for Now People, this pop fox with the wide rubbery smile and snappy interview patter has been hailed as rock's New Wave savior, a Jesus of cool whose commercial instincts, love of laughs and allegiance to American pop have revitalized the mainstream rock marketplace. As far as Lowe is concerned, though, he is just taking us all to the cleaners.
"What I like is indigenous American music — soul, country & western, R&B — that you guys gave the world, this glorious noise that changed people's lives. Look at the Beatles. They ransacked American music wholesale because American music is the best. All I do is ransack the music that I love — George Jones, Clarence Carter, Bobby Bland, the Jacksons.
"I'm not exactly a household name here, but I don't even know why I'm as popular as I am. I can't understand why someone else isn't doing what I'm doing, but much better. I don't even think of myself as a musician. I got someone to teach me all the guitar chords, and then I stopped. I never learned anything more than that. All I've got is an attitude, and, incredibly, there are enough people over here who go for it."
You can hear that attitude in everything Lowe has set down on record, from the organic Flying Burrito Brothers-Grateful Dead prairie soul of his mid-Seventies pub band, Brinsley Schwarz, through gag records like the 1977 Bay City Rollers sendup, "Rollers Show," and the punk spoof EP, Snuff Rock (produced for comic rock troupe Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias), to Rockpile's last gasp, 1980's Seconds of Pleasure.
"One of the reasons people got off on the Pile was because we were scruffy and unrehearsed," says Lowe of his five-year, six-LP collaboration with Welsh guitar wizard Dave Edmunds. "They could see that we were mates and we were enjoying it. That's fine if you're going to make music in that way. But as soon as it stops being fun, it becomes extremely noticeable. Rockpile relied so much on The fact that we were friends."
Lowe offers a moment of silence in memory of the band, which was mortally wounded last year by a managerial dispute between Edmunds and Riviera. "I'm not mad at Dave," he finally says, almost pleadingly. "But the most extraordinary thing is that I don't actually miss him."
Still, after the breakup, it was not easy for Lowe to get down to business as usual. Nick the Knife — cut with Noise to Go, wife Carlene Carter, organist Steve Nieve of Elvis Costello's Attractions and Rockpile's Billy Bremner and Terry Williams — took almost a year to finish, with Lowe squeezing in sessions on odd days between production assignments.
But unlike many of his peers working in the music industry's record-tour-record salt mines, Nick Lowe goes through rock life as if he hasn't a care in the world. For example, aside from the twelve new originals on Nick the Knife, he hasn't written a new song in "ages," and he couldn't care less. "You see, no one teaches you how to write songs or be in a rock & roll band. You learn how to play the guitar, but no one can teach you how to deal with it. That comes to you, and it will never leave you."
Besides, whatever it is would not be half as much fun without Lowe's unflappable good humor. "I've got a song that I've had for three years," he suddenly exclaims, as though he has just discovered buried treasure, "which I thought of when I was in L.A. once with Rockpile. I was watching an old film on TV late at night, and it was absolutely awful. It had this Humphrey Bogart-Johnny Ace-type guy with a faithful assistant who is a total half-wit, and they are both looking at this chick in a bar who is ugly as sin. And Johnny Ace says, 'I like her.' And the assistant says, 'Why don't you go talk to her, boss?' 'Yeah, but how do you talk to an angel?'
"God, what a terrible line. So I wrote a song with it, a real Thirties, Forties crooner. I've tried to record it about six times, but it's so corny that everyone who ever plays on it starts cracking up."
To prove his point, Lowe pulls out a painfully out-of-tune acoustic guitar and plays the song, singing such lines as, "How do you talk to an angel / Because I've never seen one before," like Der Bingle in front of a giant pancake microphone. Over in the corner, Bobby Irwin doubles over in hysterics.
Lowe turns to me, and his face lights up with a cat-ate-the-canary grin that says more about his pop attitude than all his press clips. "The fact that that song is sooo corny is what gets me off."
That sounds totally acceptable.