There was a time when Lloyd Cole could cause a commotion just by walking down the street.
Especially in Portugal.
“Believe it or not, the most famous I ever was would have been about 1987 in Portugal. Go figure, eh?” Cole says 20 years later by phone from a hotel room in Lisbon, where he is vacationing.
It was in Lisbon during the mid-’80s when he and his band, the Commotions, were ambushed at the airport by Portuguese paparazzi.
“We walked into the airport looking behind us to see who the famous people on the airplane were that the film crew was there to meet,” Cole says with a laugh. “It must’ve been quite amusing to watch us on television because we were looking behind us the whole time going, ‘Who are these cameras for?’ ”
That night, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions performed their British top 20 hits “Brand New Friend” and “Lost Weekend” at a basketball stadium filled with 8,000 screaming fans. Outside the sold-out show, nearly 10,000 people who couldn’t get tickets screamed even louder.
“It was complete chaos. It took us an hour for our tiny little bus to get through the last half mile to the gig,” says Cole, who, unless he relies on the 38 Geary, probably won’t have that problem getting to his solo gig tonight at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. His gig will be packed with intimacy rather than intensity.
But the English “Top of the Pops” star, now a 46-year-old father of two living in western Massachusetts, has come full circle in at least one way.
“I distinctly remember doing interviews in those early days and saying about future records, ‘Well, there might not be another one,’ ” Cole says of now-classic albums such as 1984’s “Rattlesnakes” and 1985’s “Easy Pieces.” “I didn’t come off any of those records knowing I wanted to do more. It was more like, ‘I’m happy with that. Is it possible to do more?’ That was ultimately more healthy because it meant we had a fresh start for the next one and we weren’t resting on our laurels.”
Although Cole acknowledges that he later did have a period during which he took music for granted, he says his most recent acclaimed solo albums, “Music in a Foreign Language” (2003) and “Antidepressant” (2006), are the results of not rushing creativity.
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions came together in 1984 while Cole, a failed law student, was studying philosophy at the University of Glasgow. The band enjoyed a solid five years that included three British-chart-topping albums and several hit singles. By 1989, Cole didn’t want to be in a band anymore.
He got married, moved to New York and began a solo career featuring music with a more cerebral and introspective tone.
“It was probably around the mid-’90s when I fell into that very typical scenario that a lot musicians fall into,” Cole says. “The record company gives you money. You have to be creative. And somehow, you are. By about 1998, I realized I did not like that relationship. I didn’t like the idea that I would have to switch on or otherwise I wouldn’t get paid.”
That’s when Cole says he retired from writing songs as a job and decided to write only when he was inspired. He also moved his family out of New York and into small-town New England, where his sons can safely walk to school and Cole can get to a golf course (his mistress to music) without taking a cab.
“When we left New York, I thought it would be hard to write away from the city,” Cole says. “My younger music was city music. But here I am in Lisbon, a great big city, and I’ve basically done the same thing I did in New York, where I found a small neighborhood that I like. I think I enjoy putting a macro lens on a small area instead of trying to get the general picture of a massive town.”
That’s exactly what Cole did in the songs on his past two albums, on which he played most of the instruments and recorded himself.
In 2004, Cole rereleased “Music in a Foreign Language” in the United States, on the boutique label One Little Indian U.S. that is home to Björk and Sigor Rós. The album has a stripped-down purity to it that Cole says “sounds exactly like the idea that I had in my head.” It was the realization of a musical dream that Cole hadn’t fulfilled since “Rattlesnakes.” “Antidepressant” has the same lucid quality.
From his point of view, Cole, who is particularly impatient when it comes to new music with bad lyrics, the title “Music in a Foreign Language” is not a metaphor.
“It’s possible to get to an age where you feel full up with culture or music or sometimes relationships, and you just don’t have the desire to go out looking for something new and fresh anymore. That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “When you’re young and constantly digesting new art and music all the time, you see the idea of some 45-year-old geezer sitting in his rocking chair digesting nothing, and you might think he’s a sad character.
“But, at 45, that person may have digested 1,000 times as much as you have, and he’s got so much in his brain he needs time to ruminate. Quite often, I listen to Brazilian music because I don’t know what they’re saying. That may sound like a cynical exercise, but sometimes it works.”
Back in Lisbon, Cole still turns a few heads.
“I was talking to a guy in the bar last night. He had no idea who I was. Then I went to the bathroom and the guy says, ‘You’re Lloyd Cole, aren’t you?’ He didn’t know. The bartender told him. And I don’t know who told the bartender.”
The Portuguese paparazzi may be gone. But the spirit of a Lloyd Cole song is still easy to recognize.
Publication: San Fran Chronicle
Publication date: 09/11/07