Nick Lowe, pop music genius, made a fool of himself in his New York debut almost 30 years ago. He bombed at the Fillmore East before an audience largely made up of critics flown in especially from London to see his band take America by storm.
But there was a problem. “We weren’t any good,” he recalled. “We were hopeless, really.”
His upcoming New York show at the Supper Club on June 24 will almost certainly prove to be the opposite experience: There will be not much hype, and Mr. Lowe and his band of old pros will play a lovely show. In a weird and surprising second act to a loopy rock ‘n’ roll career, Mr. Lowe, who was perhaps the original slacker but is now too old to put himself out there and offer nothing, has hit on a way of translating his knowledge and experience into the best records of his career. Both The Impossible Bird , from 1994, and this year’s Dig My Mood find the singer in the rocky territory of early-morning regret, and both are deeply musical, with a deliciously loose feel. And in each, Mr. Lowe has managed to keep his characteristic light touch.
“I did a lot of squawking and squealing my head off when I was younger, and I’m not interested in doing that anymore. It just seems to work better,” said Mr. Lowe, who is 49, in a phone interview. “It’s curious. Something seems to have clicked, and I’ve got a handle on it.”
He was the Next Big Thing for about two minutes in 1970. Then, in the mid-1970′s, when even the Sex Pistols were signed with EMI, Mr. Lowe was making fast, funny pop records like I Love My Label for the independent Stiff Records. By the end of the decade, he had scored a big hit with “Cruel to Be Kind,” but was probably best known as a producer (for Elvis Costello, the Damned, the Pretenders). He nearly hit again with the rockabilly band Rockpile-remember “Teacher, Teacher” or “Play That Fast Thing One More Time”?-only to disappear in the 1980′s, when he pulled off the very difficult feat of making albums of catchy pop music that were incredibly unpopular.
For that disastrous New York gig in 1970, Mr. Lowe was part of a modest band called Brinsley Schwarz. The group’s management team hit upon what seemed like a brilliant scheme: Book the boys at the famed Fillmore East as part of a triple bill with Van Morrison and Quicksilver Messenger Service; fill a chartered 707 with dozens of music journalists and fly them from London to New York to witness the historic event; then stand back and watch Brinsley Schwarz become the latest British act to hit superstardom in the United States.
But a series of travel mishaps caused the journalists to spend something like 52 hours on the trip to New York, giving them the opportunity to get “drunk and sober and drunk and sober about 20 times,” in Mr. Lowe’s estimation. And Brinsley Schwarz, after having arrived at the Fillmore about 15 minutes before showtime, following the usual visa problems, played an awful show. By the time the boys got back to London, they were an English national joke.
Mr. Lowe had arrived in New York quite willing to accept the traditional perks that go with success in his chosen field-”I just wanted to go and be adored by groupies”-but went home a slightly changed man. “I can definitely remember standing at the back of the Fillmore East, watching Van Morrison,” Mr. Lowe said. “He had the band that was playing with him on Moondance , and they were so incredibly good-I thought, Oh my God, you’ve got a lot of work to do, pal.”
He did get down to the painstaking work of learning his craft. He learned it so well that his hits from the 1970′s-songs like “So It Goes” and “(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass”-sounded as if they took no effort at all. His stuff was always a welcome change from the tortured music that was all the rage at the time. But in the 1980′s, for every casually great pop music confection like “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” he put out something a little more casual and a little less great, like “Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine.” So Mr. Lowe bounced around from one major record label (Columbia) to the next (RCA), a grinning rock ‘n’ roll underachiever whose records were always good for a laugh.
“Columbia and RCA, when it’s album time, they want their album,” he said, recalling the days of such unforgettable pieces of vinyl as Nick the Nife and Abominable Showman . “Even though they had lost interest in it, nonetheless, you’re signed to them and you’ve got to come up with an album. So you just put out any old tosh …
“I took it lighter and lighter, I suppose, and I was getting away with it. Suddenly, the penny dropped when I got to be about 30 and I said, Look, you can’t carry on like this. This is stupid. You’ve got to figure out if you’re going to be a buffoon or you’re going to actually do something that’s good.… I’d stopped having hit records and, obviously, it’s pop music-by its very nature, they move on. Some people, like Elton John and Madonna, when the wheel turns, they’re able to roll with the wheel; but [for] most people, me included, the wheel started rolling away and I was going, Well, hang on a second! My career is over now, for all intents and purposes, and yet I don’t think I’ve done anything that’s worth a shit, so I better figure out how to do it.”
The hard part is making good on such a noble impulse in a medium best suited to the hot passions of youth. Luckily for Mr. Lowe, after years of expending energy coming up with novelty songs like “Let’s Go to the Disco” and “Bay City Rollers We Love You,” it wasn’t hard to explore the states of heartbreak and tenderness. So he has become that rare thing, the rocker who gets better as he gets older (even if he rocks a little more gently now), while others just fade away. He has also managed to go deeper without straying from the confines of the pop song.
“I still am quite interested by three or four chords and how you can bend them to your will,” he said. “The era I come from is two verses, chorus, middle eight and out.”
A couple years after Mr. Lowe bombed at the Fillmore East, when he was still part of Brinsley Schwarz, he wrote the semi-ironic ditty “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” That song is very much part of his resurgence. In 1994, a version by Curtis Stigers appeared on The Bodyguard soundtrack -the lead track of which was Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” a monster that propelled the album to multiplatinum sales. With the royalty checks rolling in unexpectedly, Mr. Lowe did not feel the sting of being dropped by Warner Brothers-Reprise that same year. Meaning that when his Impossible Bird album came out on the small Demon label in the U.K. and the smaller Upstart label in the United States, he could still afford to play live.
“I was able to tour with a degree of comfort, still playing the cruddy old rock clubs, which I like, but we could tour in a nice bus and I could pay my guys well and stay in a nice hotel every so often,” he said. “I put everything back into the firm and it paid for making Dig My Mood .… I don’t really make my living from record sales now because my records are really enjoyed and appreciated by other people in the music business, like musicians, producers and critics, who don’t actually buy records. But if your records are being played in those circles, you stand a very good chance of getting a cover.”
Lately, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Diana Ross and Nanci Griffith have turned in their own versions of Nick Lowe songs. “That’s really what I bank on happening,” he said-famous singers covering his songs. “So I can work on having a career that does not require my presence.” But seriously, Mr. Lowe’s days of making sort-of-good albums on a deadline for the major labels are gone.
Maybe his having shambled through most of his career saved him a lot of trouble. “When it looked like Rockpile could make it in the 80′s, we opened for a lot of people in stadiums,” he said. “One of the things I thought was, Blimey, do I really want to grind around those horrible sheds, playing at that volume? How you doin’, Dallas ? It was much more fun to be the opening act. It’s all over by 8:30 and you can be back to the Arapaho Inn or wherever with the Grade 3 groupies. You can be in the bar, and Grade 3 was just fine, you know, for young boys from London.”