Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Cruel To Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe'

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Will Birch's 'Cruel To Be Kind.'
Will Birch's 'Cruel To Be Kind: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

It's only appropriate that the best quote in Will Birch's new Nick Lowe biography comes from Elvis Costello.

"Who would you rather be," says Costello, "Steven Tyler or Nick Lowe? Steven's a good character, but isn't that an awful lot of work before you go out in the morning?"

It's been a bumper season for biographies and memoirs about rock and roll cult heroes: Warren Zevon (1947-2003), Ben Folds (b. 1966), Ani DiFranco (b. 1970), and now Lowe (b. 1949). The quartet span generations and musical sensibilities, but all four are musicians' musicians who've achieved widespread fame for novelties (Zevon's "Werewolves of London," Folds's Dr. Dre cover), labels (DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records, Lowe's Stiff Records), or other things that are only tangentially related to the reverence they receive from their fervent fans and fellow artists.

Near the end of his enjoyable book, Birch tries to puzzle out why Lowe isn't more famous, and lands on what might be a typically British distaste for self-promotion. That could be, but maybe the answer is that Lowe is exactly famous enough, maybe just about as famous as he ever wanted to be.

It seems telling that one of the formative musical experiences chronicled by Birch isn't a moment of epiphany like Bob Dylan seeing Buddy Holly: it involves an old war buddy of Lowe's dad, who was a heroic World War II pilot. The man, Lowe remembers, "was hideously burned. He had no face, no nose, little ears, no eyelids, no hair and no fingers either, just stumps." Still, the vet picked up the ukulele young Nick had recently been given and banged out a tune, with a group of friends singing along to wake the neighbors.

Nick Lowe would grow up to be one of the most beloved producers of his generation, a reputation that hinged in large part on his ability to set a warm mood that encouraged artists to do their best work. He's best-known for producing Elvis Costello's legendary run of albums from My Aim Is True (1977) through Trust (1981), but he also worked on releases by Johnny Cash (his stepfather-in-law for a time, when Lowe was married to Carlene Carter), Wreckless Eric, the Damned, John Hiatt, Dr. Feelgood, and the Pretenders.

Among the many artists who testify to Lowe's impact is Chrissie Hynde, who sent an early demo to Lowe, an essential connector and musical mastermind when she landed in London in the late '70s. "A very big chunk of what the Pretenders are would not have existed without Nick," says Hynde. "Meeting Nick was a catalyst for many, many aspects of what this band was."

In addition to his production work, if you know Nick Lowe it's probably as a songwriter. Back in the early '80s, Birch notes, Lowe figured he'd be remembered for his hit — the 1979 single that inspired the book's title — but in fact, today his best-known song is the possibly ironic "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding."

Lowe first wrote the song in 1974, for his then-group Brinsley Schwarz. "It was originally supposed to be a joke song," he later remembered, "but something told me there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up." If not for Lowe's later fame, Brinsley Schwarz might have gone down in history for being at the center of one of British music's biggest P.R. flops: their publicists booked a show opening for Van Morrison at the Fillmore East in New York, and flew a sky-high (in every sense of the word) planeload of U.K. journalists across the Atlantic to see the band. The show ended up being distinctly underwhelming, and the stunt itself became the story.

Costello's 1979 cover made the song a beloved classic, but the version that really made bank for the songwriter was an early '90s rendition by jazz singer Curtis Stigers. The mellow Stigers was using a soul-flavored version of the song as a show-closer, and Arista Records president Clive Davis tapped it for The Bodyguard, the top-selling soundtrack of all time. Lowe's royalties ran into the seven figures; Stigers was delighted to befriend as well as help line the pockets of one of his musical heroes.

Lowe has a much deeper songbook, though. He's also the writer of "I Knew the Bride," a retro rocker that became a wedding chestnut — produced by Huey Lewis (a friend of Lowe's since their shared pub-rock days) at the behest of Lowe's hit-seeking label. Then there are "So It Goes," "Marie Provost, and "Heart of the City" from his aptly titled 1978 album Jesus of Cool; and "Switchboard Susan" from the following year's Labour of Lust as well as "Half a Boy & Half a Man" from 1984's Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit. Lowe's songwriting skills are such that even when he tried to get his record company to drop him by releasing a doofy song about the Bay City Rollers ("Bay City Rollers We Love You," 1975), it became a hit in Japan and left the label wanting more.

He's also known for helping pioneer the model of an independent label at Stiff Records, launched in 1976 with a plethora of slogans: "the world's most flexible label," "undertakers to the industry," "if they're dead we'll sign 'em." Costello was one of the first visitors to the Stiff office in London: he bought Lowe's single and dropped off his own demo. The label also landed the Damned, Wreckless Eric, and others in the late '70s when Lowe was a de facto house producer and songwriter. In the '80s, they'd add the likes of Madness, the Pogues, and Kirsty MacColl.

Birch is eloquent on the nature of Lowe's latter-day fame. Still underappreciated in his homeland, Lowe can tour around the world and sell out shows whether playing (as he frequently does) entirely solo, or with simpatico bands like Los Straitjackets, with whom he visited The Current in 2014.

Lowe is also a welcome opener for just about anyone; a 2011 tour with Wilco was a particular success. "Nick Lowe is alone among rock stars in being better in his sixties than he was in his twenties," says music writer David Hepworth, quoted by Birch. "With the records he's made in this century he's arrived at a musical persona which really resonates with a lot of people. It is the persona of a man in late middle-age belatedly coming to terms with what the rest of us would call real life."

Affectionate and informed, Cruel to Be Kind isn't an "authorized" biography. "Nick Lowe is not ready to endorse or authorise any book about himself by anybody!" his manager wrote to the author...but then Lowe, who's known Birch since their bands shared a bill in the mid-1970s and sat for many hours of interviews, called to apologize for his manager. He also told a newspaper reporter "I sort of disapprove" of the biography project, even as he continued to meet Birch for interviews.

Blame the ambiguity on that ol' British reticence. Nick Lowe still isn't ready to toot his own horn; fortunately, he has Birch to do that for him.

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