In Britain, the newly solo Lloyd Cole is still trying to shrug off his precious Bohemian undergraduate image. But in France, he’s regarded as a maverick genius, stubblesome style guru and desert-booted visionary. “But it’s not all beer and skittles being an homme mysterieux,” he tells Adrian Deevoy.
Following a silence of truly Pinteresque proportions, the French journalist tugs nervously at his roll-neck sweater and asks, “Do you change your look to . . . stress a rupture?” Lloyd Cole frowns at the peculiar syntax, sighs wearily and says, “It’s just easier to look a mess. I was worried that I was becoming too good-looking.” “But,” the reporter persists, oblivious to the quip, “I ask this question because . . . you no longer want to look romantic?” “I dunno,” Cole mumbles absently, “. . . I do shave sometimes.”
The air in suite 501 of the George V hotel – a short bicycle ride from the Eiffel Tower – hangs heavy with blue Gitanes smoke, a rather strained intensity and a portentous atmosphere of general Frenchness.
“How has living in New York changed you?”
“Well, I’m told my accent has become annoyingly mid-Atlantic but I don’t know . . . ask my wife.”
“You like the art of comparing and contrasting beauty and ugliness.”
“It’s not exactly art but I like to have juxtapositions in my work.”
“Yes, it’s not such an original idea, is it?”
The writer – freshly dispatched from the editorial offices of the distinctly unromantic- sounding Parisian magazine Backstage – peers owl-like from behind round spectacles and scribbles notes at what one would assume are salient moments. Lloyd Cole attempts to lighten the proceedings by offering the journalist some friendly advice should he ever find himself drinking whisky in New York. “You get a smallish measure the first time and you tip the barman generously. Your second drink will be a little larger. You tip generously again. By the fourth drink your glass is being filled up to the brim. You’re happy, the barman’s happy. I guess that’s what I like about the place.”
The journalist gazes up from his pad appearing hurt and concerned and not a little love-struck.
“But is that not the way to become . . . alcoolique?” he worries. Cole shrugs. Not wishing to offend the celebrated songsmith, the young newsmonger shrugs identically and, as only the French can, dismisses his last question whit a hastily remorseful, Pffeur.
Lloyd Cole is in France to promote his first solo LP. The original idea was to combine a gentle promotional trip with a honeymoon (he recently married a New Yorker, Beth), but such is the French infatuation with him, all post-marital activities have been suspended until further notice.
In Britain, perceptions of the perma-scowling singer have always varied greatly. When he released his splendid debut album, Rattlesnakes, with The Commotions in 1984, some embraced him as a new Dylan, a brilliantly gifted Bohemian with an intellectually shaggable bookcase. His critics, however, saw him as a pudding-faced pseud with one too many Penguin Modern Classics and an annoying line in non-sexist trousers.
Lloyd Cole And The Commotions’ second and third LPs did little to affect these precon- ceptions. Easy Pieces was an adequate pop record but invariably invited judgements of the “could do better” kind, while Mainstream came through as less a navel-scrutinising, more worldly reworking of Rattlesnakes. Then, in 1988, just as commercial status began to tally with long-standing critical acclaim, Cole disbanded the group and offed to New York.
His departure was greeted by a variety of responses. Cynics announced that they keenly awaited the estranged group’s first album while many mourned the loss of a fine songwriter, believing that it was the last we would hear of the sulky artiste.
For the French, Lloyd Cole’s move to New York fitted perfectly with the image of maverick genius, unrepentant poet and desert-booted visionary they had created around him. It put him up there with The Cure’s Robert Smith, the other tousle-haired English aesthete revered throughout France and quite possibly studied, if such a thing existed, at “Eau” Level.
“This whole French idea is a bit of a sham I suppose,” says Cole in the bar of the George V, eight hours of vigorous interrogation and unblushing flattery successfully negotiated. “They try to make me almost embarrassingly romantic. I’ve always been an homme mysterieux as far as the French press are concerned. I understand it in a way because you don’t want to put on a record by somebody and think, He’s just an ordinary guy. When I was an adolescent I listened to people that I adored in some way and aspired to be. There are still some people, Bob Dylan for example, who are like that for me. He makes you fell so ordinary.”
In May 1966, Bob Dylan was sitting in the self-same bar, Blonde On Blonde swirling around his head, wondering exactly the same thing about the French and the bizarre press conference he had just given.
What do you think about death? they had enquired.
Dylan: Very exciting.
Are you married?
Dylan: I’d be lying if I answered you.
What makes you happy?
Dylan: Oh, a bowl of soup. Being kicked in the ribs by a friend.
Are you happy?
Dylan: Yes. As an ashtray maybe.
“They all stayed here in the second half of the ’60’s,” says Cole, nibbling at a club sandwich ( – it’s not the principle, it’s the money) and swigging his beer ( ), “Dylan, the Stones, The Beatles. They say you should emulate your heroes . . .”
The suggestion has been ventured that, in his time, Cole has done more than his fair share of hero-emulation, that his “tribute-paying” lyrics have verged on the, excusez-moi, magpiesque. Similarly, accusations of name-dropping and indecent library-card exposure have never been far away.
“There are standard criticisms that are levelled at me and either you accept the worst or you reject it,” he says, a flicker of the old arrogant defiance in his eye. ” I don’t really think I should use logic to legitimise my career. I can do if I need to. I’ve developed pat answers and pat arguments and I can argue my way out of all those allegations of name-dropping and over-intellecualising.”
“But some journalists’ remarks have been painful, I can’t deny that. When I released My Bag, someone wrote, ‘The only good bag would be on his head’. That type of remark doesn’t hurt long-term but at the time you read it and it really stings. It’s a similar feeling to asking someone out and the saying, Sorry I’d never go out with you because I find you extremely physically unattractive.”
Tomorrow morning, starting sharply at 11 with discuss his move to America, the split for The Commotions, why his LP has no name and what inspired him to grow a beard. This will be followed by a very similar conversation with Guitar Et Clavier magazine, although this will inevitably be spiced up with a few teasers concerning guitar string gauges and fret action.
“It can be very difficult sometimes,” he exhales resignedly, not relishing the prospect of visiting seven European countries in as many days to perform further polite promotional duties. “All the time you’re thinking, These are questions that I don’t really want to think about. They’re aspects of my life that I’d really rather not consider. Do I find inspiration in New York? I dunno. Do I think this album will bring me a new audience? What the hell? But you answer the questions as best you think you can without just telling people to shut up. The thing in Europe is that, generally, people only interview you if they like you. So the record company are very happy and I end up reading a lot of articles telling me how great I am. It makes for very uninteresting reading.
“You lie too, mainly to keep yourself entertained and especially if you’re being interviewed by someone you don’t like or someone completely devoid of humour. Sometimes you can sense they just don’t have anything to ask you. I was meant to interview Tom Waits once. It never happened for various geographical reasons but I remember thinking that all I really wanted to ask him was, Will you admit that all your songs are pretty well the same? . . . I think I’d say that to me”.
Later that evening he endures a stultifyingly dull radio interview with Europe 1, the second biggest rock station in Paris. “I’m only really doing it because they are going to play three quarters of my album at prime time,” he grimaces apologetically.
As the silver-haired DJ enquires, via an interpreter, who plays bass on each track, Cole toys with his oily thatch, puffs on Lucky Strikes and gamely attempts to steer the conversation in a slightly more engrossing direction. After some time, Loveless, a track from the album, looks like it might prompt an inspired question. There is a hush in the control room as the presenter assumes, correctly so, that this is a song about heartbreak.
“Loveless is exactly how I felt,” explains Cole. “You’ve been left and you find yourself sitting in an empty apartment and you realise that suddenly you have nobody . . .”
“And this was with the same band?” pipes the DJ, demanding yet another personnel breakdown and frustratingly ruining the programme’s one promising moment.
Back in the George V bar, Cole is understandably a touch morose. “Last time I was in Europe,” he smiles wryly, “I said I didn’t want to talk about the actual songs. I thought they spoke for themselves. Then we set up all these interviews and no-one had a single question. You begin to think that maybe no-one is interested in you as a person, that they don’t want to acknowledge anything outside of the neat image they have of you.”
Indeed, throughout the Parisian visit, not one word has been breathed about Cole’s promising golfing career.
“That sort of died when I sold my soul for rock’n’roll,” he says, cheering up. “I average about five games a year now. My game’s suffered a bit though. I used to play off a handicap of six or eight and now I play off 12. I was an OK golfer. My parents lived on a golf course – my dad ran the clubhouse – and I was literally surrounded by golf. If I’d have been playing off anything less than 10 I would have been a complete cretin. I intend to take it up again. There’s a maximum of five things in my life that enable me to forget my work and golf’s one of them.”
Scant mention has been made of his one-time pop chum Morrissey and the brief friendship they enjoyed in 1985.
“I suppose we were pop chums,” he smiles, ordering a whisky and plumping, after much deliberation, for a packet of untipped Gitanes. “He’s desperate for friends. He doesn’t have any friends. It’s sad. I get these postcards, ‘You never call me. Why not?’ I think, I never call you because you’ve changed your phone number four times in the last year. I can’t get in touch. I liked him but I can’t reach him any more. I’m not going to ring up his record company and whine, It’s Lloyd, can I have Morrissey’s home number, please? We weren’t that good friend.”
Not a soul has alluded to his fondness for the “old sauce” and his recent endorsement of Amaretto. The viscous Italian liqueur.
“I’m not entirely sure why they asked me to advertise the stuff,” he laughs. “I know they see me as this cool English songwriter in New York. They don’t seem to mind that The Commotions sold zero records there. It’s like this inverse relationship between respect and success. I didn’t really see it as a compliment because most people in the Amaretto adverts are pretty ugly: Tama Janovitz, Eric Roberts, some day-time soap opera star. I never drink the stuff out of choice but apparently it’s very nice on ice cream. Almond flavoured. You know when you’ve been in an Italian restaurant all night and the owners get drunk and insist you have a drink with them? That’s the drink they wheel out. But frankly, I’d put money into certain things that I’d abandoned, and I needed the cash.
“But I do drink so I don’t mind advertising alcohol. Although I get drunk less these days. I think I’ve peaked really. When I get drunk now, I generally believe I’m a much better poker player or better pool player than I am . . . and I get much more handsome. But I’m not a bad drunk. I had a couple of dry weeks last year because I was a bit worried. I got a problem and the worrying is justified. But I didn’t crave a drink at all.”
It would also appear to be a crime, under French law, to ask Lloyd Cole if he has ever been embarrassed by any of his earlier, wordier – dare one? – more naive works.
“God,” he grins sheepishly, “any or many? She looks like Eve Marie Saint/ In On The Waterfront. Yes, some of the earlier lyrics were very naive. But I was a young man! I really was. You can just imagine me trying to wear a French trenchcoat at the time, thinking I looked very cool when, in fact, I looked really stupid. But maybe that’s why people liked it. Maybe they felt we shared some common ground. I got to a point where I was over-analysing myself. There are two terrible songs on Easy Pieces, one called Grace and another called Minor Character which is literally the worst lyric ever written. I really believed I was the Raymond Carver Of song when I wrote that. It’s truly appalling.”
At the Club Sherazade – the interior of which is likened by Cole’s international press officer to Brian Jones’s trousers – innumerable underemployed television technicians wander aimlessly around carrying lengths of cable and telling the small audience of extras to keep quiet. In the basement, Lloyd Cole is having his “slap” applied. “In a perfect world,” he muses, eyes shut, “I’d have a make-up artist and a dresser sort me out every morning. It seems so civilised.” He struggles, in the grand English tradition, to hold a conversation in French with the make-up girl who, it transpires, is virtually bilingual. “Your hair,” she says stroking Cole’s long black mane. “is so thick.” His reply loosely translated, appears to be: “Thank you. I always sweep my one horse.”
A reverential silence descends upon the club as Cole ascends the stairs to take his position behind an antique microphone in order to mime his new single, No Blue Skies, for the poetically titled TV programme Lunettes Noires Pour Nuits Blanches. Before the cameras roll, three hand-picked examples of fashionable youth are artfully arranged behind him and instructed to behave naturally, which, of course, they fail miserably to do.
Four takes later, during which the crew add a fresh dimension to the expression “prima donna”, Cole is on his way to a photo session with acclaimed French smudge Claude Gassian. This is swiftly followed by a session with Channel 5 news for national TV and three more magazine interviews.
The next afternoon, an espresso coffee in a gently trembling had, Cole grimly thumbs through his itinerary – a blur of 24-hour clock times and foreign place names – for the forth coming week.
“The only solution,” he decides, “is to develop a monumental drug problem.”
The French would love it
“Wouldn’t they just?” he sniffs. “I’m a bit of a let down in that department. I’ve taken fewer drugs in my life than almost anyone I know. I’ve always thought that heroin made people into assholes. I did cocaine once to find out what it was like and it really was a lot of fun, but apparently I telephoned my girlfriend at the time and I thought I was being impossibly witty but she told me a couple of days later that I was being a complete bore.”
Heading down the Champs Elysee for yet another photo session, Cole is spotted by two young Parisennes. “Ooh, c’est Lloydcole,” one whispers, pronouncing the name as if it were all one word. They dreamily watch the handsome pop star as he stalks towards them. Then they pause.
“Qui?” hisses her friend.
-The re-invented hirsute and bestubbled Cole en Paris: “I was becoming too good-looking. . .”
-(Above) The brooding French photo session: “In a perfect world I’d have a make-up artist sort me out every morning.”
-(Left) “An interior like Brain Jones’ trousers”- Club
-(Above) Lloyd Cole And The Commotions in ’87 (from left): Cole, Lawrence Donnegan, Neil Clarke, Stephen Irvine.
-(Left) Modelling in US advertisement for viscous Italian liqueur Amaretto: “Frankly, I needed the money.”
Publication: Q magazine
Publication date: 01/01/90