Nick Lowe's Quality Rock & Roll Revue
Starring Los Straitjackets, and Tommy McLain and C.C. Adcock
A few days ago I told my son-in-law Joe that we were going to see Nick Lowe at the Landmark on Main Street Theater in Port Washington, N.Y., on Wednesday, June 22.
"Who is Nick Lowe?" he asked. Joe is very curious, very smart, and is a sponge for knowledge. It is an excellent question.
But how does one answer it? The short answer is that Lowe is one of rock & roll's great songwriters, a singer, performer, guitar player, and an influential presence on the Anglo-American rock scene for more than 50 years. Before punk, before new wave, before power pop, Nick Lowe, 73, was all of those things in a British band called Brinsley Schwarz. Yes, Brinsley Schwarz was the name of the nominal leader, and it leaned what was then called "country rock" with a twist, or even pub rock. (Nick Lowe does everything with a twist: that is one of the things that makes him Nick Lowe.)
Self-deprecation is one of Nick Lowe's virtues: It's a great survival mechanism for someone who has spent more than 50 years on the brink of . . . something between stardom and obscurity. When he spoke to the audience and poked fun at how people wanted to hear the hits (or at least his familiar non-hits), he noted that they hated to hear the phrase, "And here's a song from our new album." But Nick is quick. He added: "No need to worry about our new stuff. It sounds exactly like our old stuff," which is such a Nick Lowe thing to say.
The Brinsleys career in the U.S. stalled after a disastrous public relations stunt, the precise details forgotten except as a reminder of the time when record labels had more money than sense, flew a plane load of U.K. critics to see the band at the Fillmore East in New York, for a performance that flopped.
My favorite Lowe song, "They Called It Rock," was also not played in Port Washington. What endeared Lowe to critics was not only did we appreciate the barbed wit that made his instantly "commercial" pop songs instantly non-commercial, rendering him a cult artist who belonged to us and the wiser sliver of the public. He also he wrote about us, or them: Perhaps "They Called It Rock" explains the tenuous life span of Brinsley Schwarz, or anticipated Lowe's low potential for stardom: The song begins:
"They went and cut the record, the record hit the charts/
Someone in the newspaper said that it was art..." By the final verse, things have changed: "They cut another record, it never was a hit/Someone in the newspaper said it was shit." Career over and done. The U.K. music press could be that way, with a power and influence over the star-breaking machinery U.S. critics could perhaps envy. Not me: It was too much responsibility. We should have had more say, however, some larger impact to protect great artists like Nick Lowe from the vagaries of major labels, the dependence on radio airplay, and the corrupting influence of promotion, marketing, and sales.
"Jesus of Cool," a tongue in cheek early nickname for Lowe, was the title of Lowe's U.K. debut album for Radar Records in 1978, one of the great albums of that or any other era. It was released in the U.S. by Columbia as Pure Pop for Now People, with some different song configurations. The statute of limitations has expired on arguments about whether that was a good change or not: I mean, it's a little late in the game to argue about the self-serving venality of the record business on either side of the Atlantic. I kind of like the name Pure Pop for Now People: it was so ridiculous for 1978, so arch and self-aware.
I loved Brinsley Schwarz's recordings, including the seminal 1972 album Silver Pistol. A website called The Rising Storm declared that this band played "the best rock music Nick Lowe has ever made though I know many new wave fans will disagree with this statement, favoring his 78-79 solo material." The author, known as Jason, wrote this around 2009.
The title song, written by the Brinsley’s bass player Lowe, as was about half the band's material, is the only song I'm aware of that I thought name-dropped the Jewish Defense League (JDL). At least I was convinced of that for many years. Like, 50 years. Current lyric sites show the phrase to be "JBL," as in the speakers, and that would make sense, too. I often misheard lyrics, not in the prosaic way of "excuse me while I kiss this guy," the most notorious misreading from Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze." For example, country singer George Strait's beautiful song--his best, I think--is "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind." There is a line in which he sings, "you went to live with him in Dallas." But I kept hearing it as "you went to live with him and Alice." I like my version better.
Ditto "Silver Pistol." The song appears to be about an undercover agent refusing to carry out an assignment, which if unsuccessful required the spy to self-terminate.
"I wouldn't play their stupid games
With these orders to the holy land
And a silver pistol to blow my brains."
The spy goes into the wind. He's paranoid: "Even talking to the JBL/The things I hear don't sound the same." Now JBL is a well-known speaker company, riding high in the early 1970s. The "JBL" lyric does make sense: He's in hiding, talking to his speaker system. But. Wouldn't you think that perhaps he spoke to the JDL, which might have warned him off this suicide mission? He's still in England, and the police are after him: "Soon comes a hassle with the CID/Stop whatever you're doing now." The CID, or Criminal Investigation Division, is the plainclothes detective division of the British national police.
Anyway, Nick Lowe did not perform "Silver Pistol" in Port Washington, Long Island, Wednesday night, a delightful show in which he was backed by the instrumental act Los Straitjackets. This lively quartet of guitars, bass, and drums, is known for wearing Mexican wrestling masks while performing. Just their look livens up the stage for the snow-haired, self-effacing Lowe. In their own short mid-show set, they were tight and frenetic; with Lowe, more loose and workmanlike. I doubt if they play the same sets every night: They never sounded bored, and Lowe seemed to be choosing the songs with some spontaneity.
Los Straitjackets music is part surf guitar, part James Bond background action music, part Ennio Morricone soundtrack for Mario Bava giallo movies. Also, of course, roots rock of all kinds. They've made an entire album of instrumental versions of Nick Lowe songs, which by definition are roots rock of all kinds, with a heavy lean-in to lean rockabilly arrangements. At one point I thought it would be a fun project for Lowe and Los Straitjackets to do an entire album of deep cuts from Elvis Presley's movie soundtracks. The title song could be "Do the Clam," from the 1965 film Girl Happy. Historical footnote: The Rolling Stones had "(I Can't Get No Satisfaction)," Bob Dylan had "Like a Rolling Stone," and blessed Elvis Presley, the true Jesus of Cool, came out with "Do the Clam," in 1965.
To be so out of tune with his times was one of the things that made Elvis Presley Elvis Presley. The reason we need to spell out "Elvis Presley" is that Nick Lowe will be forever associated with Elvis Costello. Nick Lowe produced Costello's great early albums: It is as a record producer that Lowe may be better known to those of us who read record jackets and album credits for a living. Lowe produced the albums that provide the essential foundation for Costello's prolific album-a-year early career, all classics: My Aim is True (1977), This Year's Model (1978), Armed Forces (1979), Get Happy!! (1980), Trust (1981).
Lowe's one U.S. chart hit, "Cruel to be Kind," (No. 12, 1979) was performed Wednesday, as was "Heart of the City," which was more a laid-back shuffle then the out-of-the-gate rocker of the first studio version. And the encores were special: "I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll," written by Lowe, perhaps better known by Dave Edmunds, his bandmate in shoulda-woulda-coulda band Rockpile circa 1980; and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," which Lowe wrote, originally recorded by Brinsley Schwartz, and made more famous by Elvis Costello. The sentiments in that song still aim true, more than ever.
The newer songs, recorded with Los Straitjackets, were the cream of their crop, especially "Tokyo Bay" (Lowe almost duck-walking with enthusiasm), and "Love Starvation," which stand with the A-level of Lowe songs. There was also a midtempo ballad, "Blue on Blue," which they may not have played live very often: Lowe said at the introduction, "this might work, it might not."
As Los Straitjackets played the chords, I thought, ah, they're going to play "Louie Louie." It sounded to me like the same chord progression to that garage rock template, and if you say "Blue on Blue" and "Louie Louie," they sound similar. But then again, I'm the guy who thinks "JBL" was "JDL," and that George Strait's girl was entering a threesome in Dallas, so maybe I'm the wrong one to ask.
It would be cruel and unkind to leave out the opening act. It shows the depth of Lowe's curatorial skill to have chosen Tommy McLain and C.C. Adcock to open. Playing as a duo (McLain on Korg electric piano, Adcock on guitar), they represent two generations of Lafayette, La., swamp pop. McLain, who in recovery from drugs and drink, calls himself a "Catholic evangelist," is now 82. He had his one hit, a Cajun jukebox version of Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," in 1966. He's got a new album coming out on Yep Roc Records in August, with guests including Elvis Costello, who-co-wrote the title song, I Ran Down Every Dream. Adcock, 51, and music biz savvy, is well-known on the Cajun, zydeco, and Louisiana blues circuit as well. After the show, Adcock told me that McLain thought this tour might kill him. Adcock said he told McLain it was better than him sitting home with Fox News blaring all day. Then we talked a little about crawfish and Louisiana music, and he told me "come back home." Even though I've never lived there, I knew what I meant.
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