Nick Lowe's indomitable charm revealed in new bio 'Cruel to Be Kind'

Nick Lowe at the Dakota in January 2019.

Nick Lowe at the Dakota in January 2019. Star Tribune

Nick Lowe used to while away the hours on the road with his first band Brinsley Schwarz by telling “mile melters”—stories from the stage and beyond that helped pass the lonely hours on the highway between gigs. Will Birch first unveiled this tidbit in his superb 2000 history No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution, a revelation that suggested Lowe could write a ripping memoir if he only had the desire to set all these stories down on paper.

As it turns out, autobiography seemed gauche to Lowe. Instead, he participated in Birch's Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe—a biography that wasn’t authorized so much as endorsed. Lowe sat for interviews and encouraged his family and friends to do so too, all with the realization he wouldn’t have the final say. It's perhaps the ideal biographical situation for a raconteur like Lowe, capturing all of the great tall tales, including ones he may not remember at all.

Lowe did have a wild spell in the 1970s, a period he later dubbed The Wilderness Years on a 1991 compilation. It was the time between the breakup of Brinsley Schwarz, the pub rock pioneers who launched his career, and the rise of Rockpile, the hypercharged roots-rockers he co-led with Dave Edmunds. During this time, songs came to Lowe in a frenetic rush and in his downtime he served as the house producer for Stiff Records, helming classics by the Damned and Elvis Costello. 

This period serves as the anchor for Lowe's career and while it eats up a fair chunk of Cruel to Be Kind, Birch makes it clear from the start of his book that Nick has plenty of good stories. The son of an RAF airman—he remembers King Hussein swinging by to see his father while he was stationed in Jordan—Lowe was an unrepentant hippie so unconcerned with rules, he didn't know enough to keep himself being electrocuted onstage. Despite an indifference to hygiene, Lowe possessed enough charm to woo the ladies and irritate his older sister Penelope Anne, whose wry commentary in Birch's book helps deflate Nick's rock & roll pretensions. 

Lowe grew tired of rock & roll, too, reinventing himself as a sly, genial crooner, a man of self-styled sophistication. Birch devotes the back third of his book to this latter-day transition (one that will be showcased at First Avenue tonight, as he plays with Los Straitjackets as part of his Quality Rock & Roll Revue) and given the madness of Lowe's '80s, it's heartening to see how Nick figured out how to build a sustainable, dignified career.

Cruel to Be Kind makes it clear that Nick Lowe was a stranger to dignity for a good period of time. During the Live Stiffs tour, he made sure he was first on the bill, so he could spend the rest of the night swilling gallons of lager. All the excess took hold in the early 1980s, after "Cruel to Be Kind" gave him his only big hit, peaking at both sides of the Atlantic. He soon married Carlene Carter, spent evenings listening to records with her stepfather Johnny Cash, then split with Edmunds, who got on his nerves after the release of Rockpile's lone album in 1980. Birch doesn't linger upon any of these dark periods, though in a series of new interviews, Lowe demonstrates considerable self-knowledge about his indulgences.

Maybe both the subject and author treat Lowe's early aimlessness and mid-period recklessness with a soft touch because Nick wound up surviving; it'd be a much different story if Lowe wound up stuck in his cups, bitterly reminiscing about his glory days. But, as Cruel to Be Kind makes plain, survival and clever reinvention lie at the core of Lowe's story. He's lived long enough to not only air his dirty laundry but to not care that it's preserved for posterity. That casually cavalier attitude is key to Lowe's charm, both as a musician and a persona, and Birch expertly captures it with his immensely entertaining semi-official biography.