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Nick Lowe Reflects on a Life in Rock 'n' Roll

Dec. 7, 2011
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Rocker Nick Lowe was late for his interview. As someone who prides himself on reliability and punctuality, he was very apologetic, even though he had a good excuse. “I have a very young son, Roy, and I was all over London today looking for a certain type of Lego set for him,” Lowe says. “So it's not like I was out carousing with my mates or anything.”

At age 62, with the rigors of relatively new fatherhood consuming his and second wife Peta Waddington's energies, Lowe's carousing days may be past. But making music remains the core of the singer/songwriter/guitarist's life. In fact, touring as the opening act for Wilco—he comes to the Riverside Theater on Dec. 9—and releasing a new album, The Old Magic (Yep Roc), have created a new buzz for the artist, once known in his native England as “the Jesus of Cool.”

“I don't quite know what's going on, but the record seems to be ringing some bells,” Lowe says. “People seem to get what I've been going on about. It's very gratifying.”

Lowe first emerged from London's blues-rock scene in 1967, playing with a band that eventually became Brinsley Schwarz. In 1975, he moved on to Rockpile with Dave Edmunds before launching a career as a solo musician and as a record producer for artists like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and others. He also was part of Little Village, mainly a studio band with John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner.

Lowe's seminal solo hit “Cruel to Be Kind,” recorded in 1979, still receives airplay, but the artist may be even better known for “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a song he wrote for Elvis Costello that remains a cornerstone of Costello's live performances. It's been said that Lowe's songs are better known than he is, a dynamic he hopes to change with The Old Magic.

“When my pop career ended in the 1980s and I got my hit singles out of the way, I decided I could move on to something more important,” Lowe says. “I am 62, but I don't think I am entirely cardigan-and-slippers yet. I still have a rock 'n' roll attitude.”

That attitude shows in the new record's 11 cuts, which also draw heavily on the artist's blues and country roots. Spare, clean production characterizes the disc's songs, which paint maturing pictures of love, loss and other common experiences. Although Lowe has been through his share of life's challenges, he claims the cuts are not strictly autobiographical other than for the emotions upon which they draw.

“I think of myself as more of a Tin Pan Alley hack,” Lowe says. “The songs really aren't personal, but it's the way that you put the pieces together that makes a song original.”

Some of the songs flavored by the blues have been influenced by the work of Alabama-born country-soul pioneer Arthur Alexander, a major inspiration for Lowe whose works also have been covered by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and others. There is also a strong country thread laced through the songs, no doubt thanks to the influence of Lowe's former father-in-law, Johnny Cash. Lowe was married to Carlene Carter, daughter of Johnny and June Carter Cash, from 1979-1990.

“Johnny Cash was a wonderful, generous man and would play music with anybody,” Lowe says of his former father-in-law, who recorded Lowe's “The Beast in Me.” “He always said the secret to music was to be yourself. If you can put what you have across to people, then they will get it.”

Lowe's most vivid memories of his in-laws include the time when Cash and Carter visited them when they lived in a rough, mostly Irish part of London. They arrived from Heathrow Airport in three taxis—one for them and two more for their luggage. Cash always dressed as the Man in Black, Lowe says, and was an immediate hit with the musician's Irish neighbors.

“I remember coming down one morning to our tiny kitchen and there was Johnny Cash having breakfast, smoking a cigarette and playing guitar in his pajamas,” Lowe recalls.

Cash, of course, was living his own advice and simply being himself. “It took me until I was about 50 to understand what he meant by that,” Lowe says.

The fresh wind pushing Lowe's career revival forward indicates that the sexagenarian rocker finally got it, too.

Nick Lowe opens for Wilco's sold-out show at the Riverside Theater on Friday, Dec. 9.


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