TO PARAPHRASE the Bob Dylan song, Lloyd Cole threw it all away. Three years ago, the British singer-songwriter chucked ready-made stardom, his home country and his girlfriend for a new life in America.
Cole had earned gold records for albums in the English Top 10 during the mid-’80s, when he was the leader of the brainy, broody rock band Lloyd Cole & the Commotions.
With a scruffy Bohemian image, and with lyrics that conjured up a tortured romantic soul, Cole was on his way to the sort of underground or cult status in the United States that could keep him in bed and board for as long as he pursued a career in pop music.
But in 1988 he busted up the band after three albums and moved across the Atlantic to Dylan’s old Folk Era haunt, Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan.
”I left London, because I was only there for two reasons,” said Cole. ”It was where the band recorded and it was where my girlfriend lived. I left to escape the shadow of these things after they had gone wrong. It was a chance to start over.”
Within a year’s time, Cole found a home in Manhattan, a wife and a solo career.
It’s easy to understand why Cole relocated to Greenwich Village. In a way, he was on a pilgrimage to the source of his musical avatars.
Ever since he made his initial splash on the British pop charts in 1984 with the Commotions single ”Perfect Skin,” critics have compared him to Dylan and native New Yorker Lou Reed.
”Perfect Skin” — a rocking love song to an enigmatic city girl — was a perfect calling card for Cole. Ringing guitar chords evoked the Byrds’ folk-rock cover versions of Dylan tunes while Cole’s Reed-style lyrics, replete with hip literary references, turned the song into a bittersweet urban vignette.
And the Commotions’ simple, straight-for-the-gut arrangement was in the spirit of Reed’s old downtown Manhattan band, the Velvet Underground.
”Bob Dylan and Lou Reed invented the form I work in,” said Cole, during a recent afternoon interview at a Capitol Records marketing office. He was in Los Angeles to promote ”Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe,” his second solo album on the Capitol label.
His duds — a black FBI baseball cap, a black Izod shirt and Khaki shorts — seemed the opposite of the poetic, intellectual image conveyed by his songs. Sipping on a can of cola between cigaret breaks, the 30-year-old Cole spoke in a quiet, somber tone that hinted at his sultry singing voice.
He paused occasionally to rub his 5 o’clock shadow or run his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
”When the Commotions started out, I felt we were carrying on a tradition: Dylan, the Byrds, the Beatles and the Velvets,” he said.
His first solo album, 1990’s ”Lloyd Cole,” continued in that vein. Produced in New York by Cole, Paul Hardiman and Fred Maher, it ranged from the stately, achingly beautiful ”No Blue Skies,” mapping the dissolution of a romance, to the hard-driving rock and roll of ”I Hate to See You, Baby, Doin’ That Stuff.” Despite middling sales in America, the album continued Cole’s string of Top 10 LPs in Britain.
Hardiman had worked in the studio with Cole and the Commotions, and Maher is frequently the drummer and producer for Lou Reed projects, so there was a real understanding of Cole’s prior work and influences.
They also co-produced ”Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe,” with a pack of lean, smart rock numbers from Cole, including ”Tell Your Sister” and ”Weeping Wine.” Now, surprisingly, Cole says he’s more interested in being Cole Porter than Dylan or Reed:
”I want to continue in the tradition of Cole Porter. He brought witty lyrics together with beautiful melodies. He enabled the pop song to be taken seriously. I’m not doing progressive rock. I aspire to writing songs like those of Cole Porter, Jim Webb, Bacharach and David.”
In a coincidence that offered Cole a whiff of pop music history, half of ”Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe” was recorded with full orchestrations by arranger Paul Buckmaster (Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Miles Davis) at the legendary Capitol Records Tower studio in Hollywood.
”It’s where Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle recorded the famous Sinatra big-band sides of the ’50s,” Cole explained. ”Songs like ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Margo’s Waltz’ on my album almost demanded a full orchestra. When I tour, keyboards can stand in for orchestration, but there’s something special about a real string section.
”I normally spend a lot of time in the studio f- – -ing about. With an orchestra, it’s so expensive that everything has to be written down exactly. Still, we finished at the last second of the session.
”It was a fluke to work at the Capitol Tower, but all the other studios were busy. Its reputation had gone down, but it was perfect for us. They’ve left the studio exactly as it was in the ’50s, although the equipment in the control room was revamped and updated.
”I sat there while the orchestra played and looked at all the old photos on the walls: Frank in a swingin’ mood, Nelson Riddle conducting ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. . .”
Cole was born in Derbyshire in Northern England. After completing secondary school, he began studying law in London, but a year of travel through Europe sparked a change of direction.
He turned to the study of philosophy at the University of Glasgow Arts Faculty in Scotland, where — inspired by his favorite rock band T. Rex — he formed the Commotions with guitarist Neil Clark and keyboardist Blair Cowen. An album contract in 1984 led back to London, the hit singles in Europe, the albums, the worldwide tours and Cole’s eventual dissatisfaction with the Commotions. ”I felt I was spinning my wheels,” he said.
Although the band broke up, Cole has continued to write, record and tour with Cowen in his backup band. In fact, Cole’s current American tour features both Cowen and Clark in the ensemble. The reunion of the charter Commotions pleases Cole, although he finds it ironic.
”In my songs, I write about people looking for something or missing something,” he said. ”Now, the three of us are back working together. It makes sense. Life goes on. My songs are about people dealing with their problems. You can be stoic, or you can take a drink and joke about it. Samuel Beckett said it. ‘There’s nothing funnier than human suffering.’ ”
Cole allowed that he is much happier in his life since his move from London. ”At 23, the Bohemian thing was fun. As a kid, I was into being an artist and living in a basement flat. When I first came to New York, I stayed drunk for six months. But a few months later, I was finished writing my first solo album, and I met and married Beth, my wife.
”The Village is actually a nice bourgeois part of town. Manhattan doesn’t have much more in common with the rest of the U.S. than Cuba, another island off the coast. English is a second language here. But New York makes me want to get up and work.”
Though he continues to write and perform songs such as ”Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” and ”What Do You Know About Love?,” he feels no need to act out the role of the angst-ridden poet. To unwind, he likes nothing better than a game of golf.
”I play golf to get away from my music,” he said. ”On my last tour, I got together in San Francisco with some friends and spent the afternoon off at a golf course. I was reading ‘Golf Digest’ on my way here. When I got married, I told my friends that they should get me a subscription as a wedding present. Away from the studio and the concert tour, I’m a totally ordinary guy.”
GRAPHIC: PHOTO, Lloyd Cole recorded his new album ‘Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe’ in the studios of Hollywood’s historic Capitol Records building
Publication: The San Francisco Chronicle
Publication date: 01/12/91