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“The headmaster of British rock” plays his old school, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2012.EXPAND
“The headmaster of British rock” plays his old school, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2012.
Photo by and © Tim Jenkins/Courtesy of Da Capo Press

The Highs and Lowes of the Jesus of Cool

Cruel To Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe
By Will Birch
416 pp.
$28
Da Capo Press

For the average music listener in America, familiarity with Nick Lowe and his music begins and often ends with his 1979 song “Cruel To Be Kind” and its accompanying video, ubiquitously played on the early days of MTV.

Deeper people might know “(I Knew the Bride) When She Used to Rock and Roll”, or that he wrote “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” a huge hit of Elvis Costello and for who Lowe also produced many albums. Or former father-in-law Johnny Cash’s late career hit “The Beast in Me.” Deep fans will wax rhapsodic about his bands Brinsley Schwarz, Rockpile, or solo records beginning with 1978’s Jesus of Cool.

And like contemporaries Graham Parker, Squeeze, Billy Bragg, and Dave Edmunds, Lowe is best known in England. Through time (and especially in the past two decades) he’s emerged as something of an Elder Stateman of rock/soul/country, with a dedicated following in America. It is to this audience, that the book is targeted to. If you’re in that group, the riches of the text are deep and satisfying.

Birch is upfront about his relationship with Lowe: that he’s been both a fan and a friend for decades. So he has the benefit of having conducted many, many hours of interviews with the subject over two decades, making this a not quite an “authorized” biography, but a participatory one. Sort of like Barry Miles, Fred Schruers, and Peter Ames Carlin’s books on Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen respectively. He also talked to scores of others as well.

Still, this is no hagiography. There’s plenty of Lowe’s lesser professional and personal moments here, and Lowe himself seems to have gone back and forth about approving or declaiming the project. Lowe’s heavy drinking and substance abuse and sometimes dispassion about his career seemed to help stall his trajectory at many points.

One funny incident occurs in 1984 when Lowe had a slate of radio interviews but couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed, his English tour manager Brendan Walsh did a series of interviews as “Nick Lowe” – the American DJs on the other end simply hearing an English accent and of course assuming it was the artist.

Lowe was in a relationship with and then married to Carlene Carter, a country music star in her own right and part of a Royal Family as the daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter Johnny Cash (and, who prior to dating Lowe, was with Rodney Crowell). The video for "Cruel To Be Kind" includes both actual video from their wedding alongside restaged comic parts.

There’s some funny tales of the Cashes visiting London to stay with the couple – Johnny walking the streets clad in his all-black and June wearing a mink coat and a diamond ring over her rubber gloves while cooking and cleaning. Still, Lowe and Carter’s relationship is a mysterious one with Lowe quoted after many years saying “I can’t remember ever having a serious conversation with Carlene.”

Today, the now 70-year-old Nick Lowe maintains a cache of cool for adoring live audiences in the United States though – surprisingly – at a much more modest level than his UK home. In 2009 on his TV show “Spectacle,” Elvis Costello called him “England’s Greatest Songwriter.” Solo tours and other jaunts opening for Wilco and playing with Los Straitjackets have kept him in around.

And the Houston Press makes its own appearance right there on pg. 306, where Birch reprints a quote that Lowe gave to Press writer William Michael Smith about the Wilco tour “I thought it was a bold idea. Would their audience go for it? Would my audience come to a Wilco show?”

In Cruel To Be Kind, Will Birch has penned a solid, detailed, and multi-faceted portrait of a performer who nonetheless seemed to eschew any spotlight offstage or out of the studio. Diehard fans will gobble it up, and others will be moved to explore more of Lowe’s work beyond the song that gives this book its title.

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