By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007
British rocker, songwriter and bassist Nick Lowe is proud of being an elder statesman in the world of rock-and-roll and the head of white hair that goes along with it.
Why shouldn't he be? His career has included a stint for the seminal but cult country/pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz and being house producer for the legendary Stiff Records. He also wrote the anthem "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," which has been covered by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Lowe's close friend Elvis Costello.
At 58 Lowe embraces his senior status with the aplomb of someone who understands that it's better than the alternative.
"The other month, I played Glastonbury [a huge three-day rock festival in England], a real conveyor belt where pretty much everybody who has made a record within the last year or so is asked to play," he recounts during a phone interview from England. "Waiting to go on, I was sitting reading the paper in my dressing room and a succession of young, gilded youth came by, knocked at the canvas and came in. I felt rather papal, sitting there, as if I was saying, 'Yes, draw nearer, my child, what do you need?' "
Lowe relates this cheerfully -- most everything he does is done cheerfully -- and notes that some fans were from his old days, some from his new. "Most were younger so, broadly speaking, they thought I had a career which stretched back ye unto the dawn of rock: 1968, when I went into it [with Brinsley Schwarz]. And I thought it was all over, that even back then I'd missed the boat completely. Of course, to a youngster, that is a pretty long time."
In England, even as pub-rock seeded punk rock, Lowe moved on to making new wave as house producer for Stiff Records. For some of Lowe's eager young fans, Stiff Records in the '70s was like Sun Records in the '50s, so "they think I'm like Sam Phillips because I produced a lot of records back then," suggests Lowe, whose early solo albums were power-pop sleepers before he rewired himself in Rockpile's rockabilly revival with pal Dave Edmunds.
"And because my most recent records have been so well received and somehow I've managed to pull this off, they figure I've got s omething going there," Lowe says.
What they can't factor in is good luck (and irony), which Lowe learned a great deal about in 1992 with "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," a song he'd written for Brinsley Schwarz in 1973 and was turned into an anthem in 1979 by pal Elvis Costello. (Lowe produced Costello's first three albums, the classics "My Aim Is True," "This Year's Model" and "Armed Forces").
Lowe's "break" came when Curtis Stigers's cover of "Peace, Love and Understanding" was included on the soundtrack album for the 1992 film "The Bodyguard." It became the second biggest-selling soundtrack of all time (after "Saturday Night Fever"), with more than 17 million copies sold in North America and 42 million worldwide. Since Lowe received royalties from each album sale, he found himself a sudden, and at least temporary, millionaire. That allowed him to finance his musical makeover into lovably misanthropic elder statesman, a run that began with 1994's critically lauded "The Impossible Bird" and continues with the recently released "At My Age," his first studio album in six years.
Lowe says all that money is long gone, but as with most things, he seems to take it in stride and keep the smile in his voice.
What's amazing, he says, is "I always think that that song was the first actual original idea that I had. Up till then, I'd been figuring out how to write songs, and, really, I was still rewriting the Band's tunes or Van Morrison's tunes, whoever I thought was really good back then, because that's how anybody starts: You copy the people you admire."
Lowe recorded "Peace, Love and Understanding" with Brinsley Schwarz, but it was Costello who "pulled it out of the dustbin" and gave it "that anthemic sort of quality to which everybody has reacted and which seems to have touched everybody," Lowe says.
There are more than 40 versions of the song, including the Springsteen/Pearl Jam performances at 2004 Vote for Change concerts and most recently an exquisite gospel/blues version by the Holmes Brothers.
"Just as I thought that song has been sung every way -- I've got unbelievable covers of it in Swahili, a black choir in Harlem doing it unaccompanied -- when I thought it was difficult to do a straight reading of it, or bring anything else to the party -- I heard that beautiful version by the Holmes Brothers and thought, ' This is really something.' "
Costello, whose cover remains the best known, paid Lowe the ultimate compliment, eschewing his own stellar songbook to perform the song during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
"That was really sweet of him," Lowe says. "He's a lovely guy, and we've been friends for a long time. I don't see him as much these days because he works so hard -- a damn sight harder than I do! I'm very proud of the records we did together -- we managed to do some good ones."
These days, when Lowe and Costello do get together, they're as likely to be talking about kids as about music. Several years ago, the rakish and rambling Lowe began a committed relationship, and two years ago, at age 56, became a father for the first time. In 2003, Costello married jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall, who gave birth to twin sons in December.
Recently, Lowe recounts, "we took our lad around to see Elvis and Diana at Claridge's, and we had tea with them. Elvis had one boy on each shoulder, jamming a bottle into whosever face needed it -- to the manner born! -- while talking about Allen Toussaint and who he was going to use to play drums on his next tour."
Like Lowe's more recent solo albums, "At My Age" mines a wealth of American roots music, drawing on vintage country, soul and R&B to create an elegant mix of seemingly weathered originals tempering somber reflections on life and love with Lowe-ish wit ("Love's Got a Lot to Answer For," "I Trained Her to Love Me"), along with a few choice, usually obscure covers (Charlie Feathers's "The Man in Love," Faron Young's "Feel Again").
"I've always been in it for the long run," Lowe says of a career that has made him a cult and critical favorite. "In any case, you always have the best fun if you're just about to make it. Scuffling around in the basement is no fun at all, and being famous is no fun at all because of everybody wanting to pull you down. But being just about to make it is a great place to be, and that's where I've always tried to stay."
Nick Lowe Appearing Monday at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria Tickets:$25, available through Ticketmaster or at the Birchmere box office (5 to 9 on nights when there are performances). 202-397-7328 or http://www.birchmere.com.