Review: ‘Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe’ by Will Birch

Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe

Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe by Will Birch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before I begin this review, let me confess my bias with three disclosures:

1. I’m a huge Nick Lowe fan. Aside from Ray Davies, he may be my favorite songwriter. Both he and Davies – and Randy Newman, another favorite – share an impish, sometimes dark sense of humor, and all are blessed with the ability to craft memorable melodies. Lowe is also a terrific producer, having been the staff man for Stiff Records and behind the boards for several Elvis Costello records (including two of his best, “This Year’s Model” and “Armed Forces”).

2. I have interviewed Mr. Lowe three times. Each time, he was gracious, thoughtful, erudite and funny. He is one of my favorite interviews.

3. I’m in the book. I was not interviewed, but there’s my name, on page 5: “Nick Lowe will not write a memoir,” announced CNN in 2015, following his interview with reporter Todd Leopold. (I hasten to add that it was that made this announcement, not CNN the TV network. I worked for the website, and TV usually didn’t give a rat’s ass about the features we published online. Their loss.) I’m also in the index, just after John Lennon.

With that out of the way: So, what did you think of the book, Todd?

It’s breezy and entertaining and told me things I didn’t know about Nick Lowe. However, I wish it had more depth, more voices. Nick himself, who’s frequently quoted, emerges as the most colorful and engaging source Birch has.

Now, Birch confesses at the outset that he’s not only a Nick Lowe fan, but a Nick Lowe friend, so it was unlikely the book would be anything but laudatory. (Which isn’t to say it isn’t brutally honest about some episodes in Lowe’s life.) And though I’m probably among several people who would love Nick given the same in-depth treatment as, say, the subject of a Peter Guralnick biography, this isn’t that kind of book. (Six degrees of Nick: Peter Guralnick is the father of Lowe’s manager, Jake Guralnick. You find a lot of that kind of stuff with Nick Lowe.)

Still, when you have a subject as rich as Lowe – who’s been a part of so much pop music history despite having exactly one U.S. Top 40 hit – it’s a shame that there wasn’t room for just a few more anecdotes and a bit more context.

In fact, the best parts of “Cruel to Be Kind” – oh, how I wish Birch had called the book “Jesus of Cool,” the UK title of Nick’s first album, but I’m sure his publisher would have put the kibosh on that – involve Lowe’s rise in the music business, from an ill-fated New York concert with his band Brinsley Schwarz to the days when he was establishing himself as “Basher,” the quick-witted, enthusiastic staff producer at Stiff Records. His personality was obvious long before that; a hilarious anecdote features 9-year-old Nick interviewing for a position at a boarding school and then being invited to have tea with the headmaster: “I, by all accounts, went immediately to work on his wife, offering such drivel as, ‘What a charming home. Tell me, did you choose the wallpaper yourself?’ ”

Again, he was 9.

His childhood, in fact, was unusual. He was the younger child of a Royal Air Force pilot and a rather free-spirited mother. In a departure from rock cliché, he actually admired his military dad, who took him up in planes and was stationed in exotic places like Amman, Jordan. (His father was actually gifted an expensive Jaguar from King Hussein.)

Lowe formed bands in school, eventually creating Brinsley Schwarz with a school chum. It was Brinsley Schwarz that had that disastrous New York concert: After the band had spent just a short time together, its managers decided to fly them across the Atlantic to open at the Fillmore East, followed closely by an army of UK scribes for maximum publicity. Brinsley Schwarz was ragged, the scribes were drunk, and nobody made out well.

Other musicians may have packed it in. Brinsley Schwarz retreated to an old house away from the city and became leaders in what was known as pub rock – essentially the equivalent of a U.S. bar band but without the determination to blow the roof off the sucker. The Brinsleys had little commercial success (though one of their diehard fans was a young Elvis Costello), but one connection led to another, and suddenly Nick was recording and producing for Stiff Records, co-founded by his manager, Jake Riviera. When “New Wave” became a thing, Lowe was riding its crest.

What makes Lowe’s career even more intriguing was the way he reinvented himself. Once a heavy drug user and alcoholic – an early-‘70s LSD habit made him barely functional for several months, and his later cocaine and alcohol consumption is described as “skiing down a mountain of coke into a lake of vodka” – he got (mostly) clean and decided to model his work on people he admired, musicians who were songwriters first and interpreters second.

He also got lucky when a version of his most famous track, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” appeared on the “Bodyguard” soundtrack, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Nick’s initial royalties amounted to, rumor has it, about a million dollars. Instead of blowing it on wine and women, he funded an album of his new sound – “The Impossible Bird” – and hit the road.

Since then – the mid-‘90s – he’s put together a well-regarded, if not chartbusting, second (or third) act. Birch rightly singles out 2001’s “The Convincer” as perhaps the peak of late-period Lowe, when Nick’s performing matched his vision of songwriting. He’s now considered by many colleagues to be one of the finest still working, and his transformation from cocky Basher to careful craftsman is almost without precedent in pop music history.

So, with all this fine information – I haven’t even mentioned the stories about his former in-laws, Johnny and June Carter Cash – what’s missing?

Frankly, it’s the kind of wit and well-turned phrase that a Nick Lowe could bring to the proceedings. As I said a few paragraphs ago, I feel like I’m being unfair to Birch for reviewing the book I wanted to read – one written by Mr. Lowe himself – rather than the one I did, but other recent rock ‘n’ roll biographies and memoirs have managed to capture the flavor of their authors even if ghostwritten by others. (And yes, I know Nick, though helpful, wanted to keep this book at arm’s length … as he told me in that interview quoted on page 5.) Perhaps the market for a Nick Lowe biography isn’t as deep as, say, the market for a Bruce Springsteen or Elton John memoir, but given Lowe’s wide-ranging story and influence on ‘70s pop, I’d like to think there was room for a little more detail, a little more showmanship.

Still, if the result isn’t quite at the level of “Jesus of Cool,” it’s a perfectly fine analogue of, say, “The Rose of England”: sturdy, consistent, with some nice high points and few weak sections. After all these years, the man’s still got soul, and “Cruel to Be Kind” has it in the right measure.

View all my reviews