Nick Lowe and the power of pop to save you

Blue on blue  / I’ve got a message in a song for you 

There’s a song in my head, and it keeps going around.

1. NICK LOWE

In my mind / I’m on the end of a ball of twine 

I saw Nick Lowe and his backing band Los Straitjackets earlier this week at The Powerstation in Auckland. It was a terrific power-pop crooner night out.

Nick Lowe isn’t quite a household name, but he should be. He’s a music geek’s musician, who’s written some fantastic earworms over a 50-year career. “Cruel To Be Kind,” “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass” – all Lowe’s work. He also produced Elvis Costello’s first five albums, a streak of genius rarely matched in music history, and The Damned’s debut. He was even Johnny Cash’s son-in-law for a while.

Lowe’s songs are cutting yet warm, a gentler reflection of Elvis Costello perhaps. With Los Straitjackets (a Mexican wrestling mask-wearing surf guitar instrumental rock band, and yes, that’s as awesome as it sounds), it was one heck of a good show.

And there was that one song.

2. BAD THOUGHTS

Blue on blue  / How has it come to this 

It’s harder to control things lately. The 2010s sucked in a lot of ways, with death, professional turmoil, sickness and disillusionment, and the ever tick-tocking drumbeat of time passing. To cap it all off I had a life-threatening health crisis almost exactly two years ago, which left me taking pills for the rest of my life and feeling diminished.

I know by any normal metric, I’m an incredibly lucky guy. My problems are nowhere near as bad as a lot of other people. Intellectually, I know that. But the problem is that somewhere inside me it feels like a regulator broke down a while back, and it’s harder to take control of how I feel sometimes. That I’m at the mercy of chemicals or biology or some angry cloud. That’s when everything is blue. Or black. 

3. POWER OF POP

I can’t sleep/ For all the promises you don’t keep/ I wanna run but I’m in too deep

Lowe’s set was terrific, engaging and fun, but there was one song that just hit me much harder than anything else. It’s a song in my head, and it keeps going around. 

“Blue On Blue” is the name, from the EP Love Starvation. It’s a simple, elegant little ode to love lost, and yet for some reason, in the way a song does, it stopped time a little bit for me. Inches from the speakers, front of the club, I felt like Nick Lowe was singing it only to me. Just a guitar, a spotlight, a 70-year-old man with white hair and a song. 

It’s not even a song about depression. It’s a romantic ballad, about not being able to leave her behind, and the pain that lingers. It’s a beautiful little song, and at one point as Lowe’s backing band dropped out and he sang a verse alone, the crowd silent, it felt like the power of pop sliding into my veins. Slightly sad songs have always made me feel things more than others. That’s why power pop is kind of beautiful, because the great bands like Big Star and Badfinger and Teenage Fanclub and Cheap Trick and Nick Lowe all master the art of pretty, glittering songs that are still kind of sweetly melancholy in their cores. 

Everyone’s blue sometimes. 

Sometimes a song doesn’t mean what it means. How a song gets to me doesn’t mean it’ll get to you.

Everyone has those tunes that stick in their mind, glued to a place, a time, a person. Peter Gabriel’s “Solisbury Hill” is about my graduating high school in California and moving to the other side of the country. Sebadoh’s “Ocean” is about the girl who got away. The Bangles’ “Different Light” will always be the soundtrack to my first kiss. Lou Reed’s “Magic And Loss” is about pushing through the darkness. Freedy Johnston’s “The Lucky One” is about taking a chance and changing your life. 

And for some reason, that night at the club, Nick Lowe’s “Blue On Blue” felt like a reminder that a song can be the best medicine. 

It’s the power of pop, of a song to get to you. Blue on blue is how I feel sometimes, pushing through. 

There’ll always be songs. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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