Sunday, November 3, 2019

And So It Goes

A newly published biography turns a rare spotlight on Nick Lowe, the clever British songwriter, producer and singer who influenced the New Wave and roots movements before crafting a second-act career that's become a refreshing display of cool dignity for aging rockers, with nearly all those developments taking place just below the radar.

CRUEL TO BE KIND, by musician turned writer Will Birch, features a lot of witty and wise quotations from the subject, with whom he has been acquainted since they each were struggling musicians in the 1970s (Birch was the drummer for the Records) and again as adults in lengthy interviews, funerals and projects with mutual collaborators. Birch relates an engaging if lengthy tale of a droll, versatile but fame-cautious pop craftsman who continues to evolve decades into a career of more near-misses than hits.

Nicholas Drain Lowe, born in 1949, was the son of a buttoned-up WWII Royal Air Force pilot, and a dancer mother from a long line of entertainers. He grew up in Surrey and for a time in Jordan and Cyprus, where his father was stationed in the RAF, taking an interest in the 50s rock and roll originating in America, and learning songs on a toy ukulele. At boarding school in England, teenage Nick played the banjo, spent more time discovering new music than studying, and assembles any number of bands as a means to attract attention from girls. Some of these groups would include fellow student Brinsley Schwarz, whom Nick joined with a homemade bass guitar he tuned with a pair of pliers.

A stint in a community college got Lowe a job as low-level gofer for a local newspaper, but that ambition took a back seat to a desire to sing in a band and drink with his Mod pals. Birch relates a tale of Lowe flaming out of the newspaper gig after sleeping through a film he was supposed to be reviewing. His school friend Brinsley Schwarz called asking Lowe to join his band, then called Kippington Lodge, and signed to EMI. Kippington played a brand of harmless post-Sgt. Pepper pop, and had a string of unsuccessful singles including the B-side "I Can See Her Face," Nick Lowe's first written-and-sung recording, at age 19.

Kippington was going nowhere, and after Nick is nearly killed in an on-stage electrocution, the band in 1970 rebrands itself after its guitarist's name and pursues a country-roots-and-harmony sound then becoming popular with the rise of Crosby Stills & Nash and The Band. A big-thinking Irish manager, Dave Robinson, pulls an elaborate promotional stunt-- flying a planeful of Brit music journalists to a showcase in New York where the rookie band was to make its stage debut. As Birch relates in detail, the promo was a monumental flop: The band encountered visa problems, the jet carrying the journalists ran behind schedule, and though the show went on, it badly underdelivered on the hype, with writers assailing them as "inept twerps" in Lowe's recollection and dooming them to a second-tier status.

So though Brinsley Schwarz had eyes on flying the world as a first-class attraction, they instead become a budget-friendly communal bar band, producing six albums over five years and performing not in arenas but in pubs. Lowe however was sharpening his pop songwriting chops, some in partnership with Brinsley's new addition, Ian Gomm. And in contrast to emerging arena rock performed by peers, the group developed a reputation as Britian's "quietest band," traveling with the smallest amps they could find to highlight the Americana/roots sound they were pursuing.

The approach yielded few hits but plenty of fans. Their influence helped to spawn a number of group with a similar grounding working the same circuit, including Graham Parker & the Rumour, Martin Belmont (of Ducks Deluxe), and Ian Dury. Fans included a Liverpool teenager named Declan MacManus, whom Birch says passed Lowe a homemade tape after a show and began a relationship that would eventually result in one of Lowe's Brinsley songs ("What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding" becoming a breakout smash for MacManus under his performing name Elvis Costello. Lowe would become the producer of Costello's first five albums.

Lowe calls penning "PLU" as "the seismic moment" of his songwriting career. While there's obvious irony and hippy ridicule to the lyric, the delivery is just earnest enough. This sense of clever playfulness is a strain running throughout Lowe's writing, and can be seen in brilliant if sometimes over the top punmaking and wordplay that lent his work a sense that it was intended primarily for those who got the inside jokes ("The Abominable Showman," You Stabbed Me in the Front," "Time Wounds All Heels." He once titled an EP BOWI, a sly reference to a David Bowie album called LOW).

The Brinsley's broke up in 1975. Lowe fell in with manager Jake Riviera, penned and performed (as the Tartan Horde) a ridiculous novelty song "Bay City Rollers We Love You" and was recruited to produce the debut album for Graham Parker. Lowe had zero experience as a producer but didn't fret over the details, instead using his humor and his feel for musicians to inspire performances, earning the nickname "Basher" for the speed at which he produced.

Touring with Graham Parker as they opened for Thin Lizzy, the latter's "The Boys Are Back In Town" helped to inspire a Lowe original, "So It Goes" which became a Stiff Records single and a cut a 1978 debut solo album (called JESUS OF COOL in the UK and PURE POP FOR NOW PEOPLE in the US). Stiff was a spirited independent label co-founded by Lowe's manager Riviera and his former manager Robinson that collected a roster of pub-rock vets and others in the scene including Dury, Wreckless Eric, and MacManus, now known as Elvis Costello. The opening chords of "So It Goes" basically launched the New Wave movement on its own.

Lowe's records with Stiff drew strong reviews but the performer wasn't necessarily fit for stardom, Birch writes. Stiff package tours were to feature a rotating lineup of its acts but Lowe preferred to go first so as not to interrupt his post-show drinking time (Lowe spent much of the 70s and 80s drunk, Birch reveals, and his prodigious intake of acid interfered with Schwarz' success). In the studio he was frequently collaborating with older counterpart Dave Edmunds, the Welsh guitar whiz who'd produced Brinsely's last album. Those two, along with Billy Bremner, and drummer Terry Williams, backed Edmunds on two albums for Swansong and Lowe on 1979's LABOR OF LUST but Rockpile, as they would eventually be known, weren't billed as such due to competing solo contracts of its co-leaders.

Rockpile toured as Edmunds' anonymous backing band, regularly upstaging headliners Bad Company on a U.S. tour, gaining Rockpile a stateside following and critical praise. But between songwriting, a solo career, production work and his drinking, Lowe was never fully committed to the band and didn't always see eye-to-eye with Edmunds, himself an enigmatic and committed drinker. Edmunds eventually tangled with Riviera and Rockpile died after one billed album, SECONDS OF PLEASURE (1980).

Lowe had much more still to pursue. He'd met the American county singer Carlene Carter--whose mother, June Carter, was the wife of Johnny Cash-- during a London recording session in 1977. It would be many years before Nick would summon the courage to write a song for his one-time father-in-law, but when he did years later, "The Beast In Me" was a standout of Cash's chilling 1994 AMERICAN RECORDINGS comeback.

Lowe's work in the 1980s showed an increasing increasing influence of American roots and country even if his popular reputation as a new waver never really went away as "Cruel to Be Kind" -- one of only two Lowe singles to reach the Billboard Hot 100 -- endured in popular popular memory (it peaked at No. 12 in 1979; "I Knew the Bride" peaked at #77 in 1986). This tune from 1984's NICK LOWE & HIS COWBOY OUTFIT should have been a hit but wasn't:

As he had with Rockpile in the 1970s, Lowe fell in with a pack of like-minded roots musicians backing one another in the studio. Lowe, singer John Hiatt, guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Kelner played together on Hiatt's excellent BRING THE FAMILY (1987) and Lowe's PARTY OF ONE (1990) and eventually the group recorded and toured as Little Village in 1992 but like Rockpile, the project died after a single album and tour.

Lowe's obscurity was only deepening when a performance of "Peace Love and Understanding" by singer Curtis Stigers latched onto the bazillion-selling soundtrack LP for the 1992 film "The Bodyguard," and the ensuing financial windfall allowed Lowe the freedom to hone his songwriting craftsmanship and release a series of paced-out late-career albums beginning with terrific THE IMPOSSIBLE BIRD (1994) as a kind of hip white-haired grandfather of country-swing rock and songs with Sinatraeasque singing, Lowe-like wit and the ability to pack an understated wallop like the reflection on drinking from THE CONVINCER (2001). As Birch makes clear it's a refreshing break from the parade of contemporaries still trying the same act they did 40 years before. Most recently he is touring and recording with the American surf/roots band Los Straightjackets. That they perform while wearing Mexican wrestling masks goes unremarked upon.

Similar to the feeling I'd had reading Billy Joel's bio--another book relying heavily on after-the-fact reflections of the subject-- there's probably too much reflection on balance in Birch's book. Lowe gives great quotes but in his style they're arch and detached so much it reads more as look back then a as-it-happened bio, and it's awfully long even if you skip the family history in the appendix. But as a chronicle of a clever and important figure who's career is overdue for recognition and reflection, "it will make the hardest-hearted of critic's hearts melt."

Monday, January 21, 2019

Listenin' With A Young Man's Ear

“Any career disappointment I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the ‘New Bob Dylan’” Steve Forbert writes in his new book, BIG CITY CAT. “…In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”

To the extent there’s blame to go around, Forbert confesses his part. He badly wanted success but was uncomfortable having attained it, and the same hard-headedness that allowed him to cut a path as a folksinger in New York’s punk-driven downtown of the 1970s played out in some bad decisions in the studio and in his personal life that eventually had professional repercussions.

Just as ALIVE ON ARRIVAL captured the energy of a wide-eyed Mississippi kid’s happy ambition to make it, BIG CITY CAT provides honest and at times funny perspective on that magical ascent, and then on a career once its trajectory had changed for good. Along the way Forbert conveys an underlying appreciation for music itself that has kept him going 40 years later.

The popular story Forbert fans (like me) knew until now was that he blew into New York from Mississippi with a denim jacket and acoustic guitar, but Forbert reveals that came only after years of trying to make it as a rocker down South. And New York was actually the second city he’d tried to establish himself, recounting a brief but futile trek to Atlanta with a bandmate.

Forbert was always absorbing a scene, listening and learning. “I began to see that one member with a discerning approach to material and some sort of original overall vision is worth at least three hot-shot guitar players,” he notes. Widening tastes lead him away from British-Invasion influences to Americana, he starts writing and playing more acoustic guitar, and departs for New York alone when he realizes his bandmates aren’t feeling it quite the way he is.

Forbert would render his struggle to make it in the city musically in ALIVE ON ARRIVAL, while the book provides the details including excerpts from a diary he kept then that are every bit as charming. He played anywhere he could, for anything he could earn, while holding down a day job as a messenger. He cracked the punk scene at CBGB’s on his personal appeal to owner Hilly Kristal, who fancied himself a country singer. Forbert soon picked up the same managers as the Ramones, who never got over the young singer beating them to a hit. A rave review of one of his performances in the New York Times – “Mr. Forbert is the kind of performer who makes you realize his worth the minute he begins to sing,” John Rockwell wrote – starts a label bidding war.

Forbert’s idealism could be his enemy. As a rookie recording artist, he brazenly overrules top-notch session sax player David Sanborn by keeping what Sanborn considered a goofed solo, and nearly sentences ALIVE ON ARRIVAL to death on arrival on an insistence that it not include reverb—only the opinion of Bonnie Raitt can convince him otherwise. He followed it up with the rockier JACKRABBIT SLIM (1979), containing his signature hit, “Romeo’s Tune” recorded with the same musicians he’d been touring with.

Forbert flubbed on “Romeo’s” momentum. He stunned management by refusing an offer of a ROLLING STONE magazine cover feature, and instead of giving fans more of what they wanted—there was more than enough material leftover from ALIVE and JACKRABBIT for a third record—opted for an abrupt sonic reinvention on LITTLE STEVIE ORBIT (1980). That record, led by the hard-drinking English producer Pete Solley, was a critical and commercial flop. And by the time he returned to ALIVE producer Steve Burgh for 1982’s STEVE FORBERT, his moment seemed to have escaped but his issues with the big time were only beginning. As an aside I’m one of the few people in America to have acquired that one, and I never had a problem with it (especially side A) or really with any of Forbert’s efforts.

Forbert attempts to restart with Columbia and engages Neil Girardo as a producer but the label rejects submitted tracks, and subsequently refuses to release him from his contract. Steve speculates that the freeze-out was personal in nature—he’d slept with the secretary of CBS boss Walter Yentikoff—and he’s in recording limbo for years but still writing and touring with crack bands, the Flying Squirrels and the Rough Squirrels. An encounter with a Steve Forbert fan--Springsteen’s bassist Garry Tallent—finally leads to a new contract with Geffen and STREETS OF THIS TOWN comeback, positioning Forbert somewhere in the Springsteen/Mellencamp arena, and a 1992 followup THE AMERICAN IN ME (1992), which leaned more toward Americana.

Back on the road as a solo performer Forbert has continued to release albums independently ever since, describing writing a new “manifesto” every couple of years. He describes raising a family—including twin sons who interestingly enough toured for a time in a death-metal outfit—in Nashville, a divorce, rehab for a drinking problem, a subsequent marriage to a Jersey girl, a budding photography hobby, and passing time between gigs listening to CDs in his car. “When you’re on top, the job—although stressful—is made as comfortable as possible for you, and it pays incredibly well,” he observes. “On less successful levels you do a lot of work all over the place but can soon wind up wondering if it’s all worth it.”