“I would argue against a word like contrived,” says Lloyd Cole, looking up from his lunch. “All I’m interested in is being remembered as someone who wrote good songs, I guess. I’m never going to be the world’s best singer or guitarist or anything like that. I think I’d have problems getting anyone else to sing my songs.
“When I started I’d just come out of studying literature at Glasgow and I was really interested in what you could do with words. I’d recently discovered vintage BOB DYLAN – so I should imagine one naturally imitates one’s heroes, and I suppose that’s the way I go started. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but having evolved a way of writing now which is my own, it doesn’t sound like anyone else, not to me.”
It’s not that easy to engage Lloyd Cole in conversation – he deliberately looks perplexed, even a bit bored, as he gives you that expression which says: I’ve been asked this question a hundred times, and I know what you’re driving at, but I’ve got a bloody good answer for it.” Consequently you find it easier than expected to accuse him of everything from mediocrity on a small scale to pomposity on a grand one.
In his own way I suppose you could say he encourages criticism; you can say what you like to Lloyd Cole, call him contrived, mannered, precious, earnest, every niggling adjective under the sun, and he’ll take it in, pause, look you briefly in the eye and probably bounce back with: “Look, I’ve had to come to terms with what kind of a writer I am, to accept it and not worry about it. As for being contrived there would be a lot more contrivance if I tried to make myself into something else. With the Commotions we tried to turn ourselves into different groups on numerous occasions, and they were all very unsuccessful – most of which no one’s heard. We tried to be the ROLLING STONES once, and couldn’t do that, too self-conscious; tried to be TALKING HEADS for a while, couldn’t do that, thank God. Lots of things.”
While Cole encourages criticism, he deflects it too; he’s had some savage attacks in the press these past few years, and appears to know all the angles. On the other hand he’s been hailed as the best songwriter this country’s produced since, for example, RAY DAVIES, ELVIS COSTELLO, MORRISSEY etc. But the thing which winds critics up the most is the fact that they simply don’t believe him. Though they know he often writes in the third person, this doesn’t stop them from labeling him the bourgeois Bohemian; that quiet kid who writes the jangly soporific sophomoric pop. You know, the slumming singer-songwriter.
“I’ve always said that I’m totally entrenched in the bourgeoisie, I always have been. Theses guys are always middle-class, you know? JAGGER and RICHARDS, DYLAN, LENNON. . . I’m not Bohemian, I’m comfortable. The only two things I fell any affinity with – regarding the Beats – is their dress sense and their sensitivity. Insensitivity is not something to champion. It gets championed a lot in rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s one of the reasons people don’t like me – because I champion sensitivity, education, at the same time as admitting I like a drink. There’s this and there’s this, and then there’s this jerk who won’t fit in.”
It’s mid-summer. In a cheap SoHo restaurant (inexplicably called Elephant & Castle), downtown Manhattan, Lloyd Cole orders his fourth beer of the day, as we sit down for lunch. He doesn’t eat much, and seems distracted by the noise from the street. He smokes Lucky Strikes constantly, and talks in an annoying mid-Atlantic accent.
He moved to New York last year after his group of six years, the Commotions, split up. After three LP’s, “Rattlesnakes” (1984), “Easy Pieces” (1985), and “Mainstream” (1987), endless tours and more than a modicum of success, Cole thought his future looked brighter without the other.
“I was tired and unhappy,” he says now. “Unhappy with the decision-making process – unhappy that money was becoming more relevant in the way decisions were being made. Before we made the first record I told the other guys that we might only make one record. I didn’t know if I could keep doing it. There’s quite a lot of stress involved in being in a band. It jus got to the point where the grief factor was too much. We’d taken the group as far as we could, and I didn’t want to make a record which sounded just like one of the other one.”
Did he think the group deserved to be more successful?
“You don’t deserve anything from music – if you think that, it’s a recipe for disaster. You see all these characters who’ve been around for years making good records becoming embittered because they didn’t sell . . . but there’s no logic in it – just because it’s good doesn’t mean people are going to buy it.
“Of course I don’t like being a cult star – that’s like saying would you rather be rich or poor. I would very much like for more people to buy my records, but it’s not going to affect the way I make them. Ultimately I’ve got a fairly high regard for myself, and I don’t want to be regarded as just some guy who was around for a while, I guess.”
Did he come out of the Commotions with any financial security?
“I did all right. I got more money than the other guys. But there’s things that would be better not going into print about where it went.”
Five years ago I met Lloyd Cole in that supposed haven of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery The Columbia Hotel, opposite Hyde Park in London. From his first record and his publicity picture I had been expecting an angry young ball of confusion, but instead was greeted by an opinionated shy bookworm, obviously confused by the fact that the mythical rock’n’roll lifestyle glamorised in his Brit-crit music wasn’t reflected in this London hostelry. He’d recently left college and enrolled in the University of Life, he looked worried, anxious, and dreadfully homesick – hardly the man sitting opposite me in this SoHo cafe.
Today Lloyd Cole is far more sure of himself, if a little less bothered by the success or influence of his records. Of course he still cares, is still assured he’s “one of the best songwriters in the world at the moment”, but maybe less urgent, less interested in forcing himself upon the world. By going solo, he’s not only made a determined effort to gain a slightly higher profile, but he’s also slowed down. He thinks if he makes grand enough statements then the world will surely come to him.
In those five years he’s written some good songs, a handful of great songs – “Forest Fire”, “Rattlesnakes”, “Perfect Skin”, “My Bag” – and his fair share of mediocre one. Like every good songwriter, he’s at his best (which, it must be said, isn’t as often as he’d like) when he combines T-shirt slogans with clever, nagging melodies, songs which linger. None of the songs on his new LP, “Lloyd Cole”, can be considered classic, but there are some very good ones, and in general he appears to have stepped up a gear, relying less on the clever-clever wordplay of previous years, becoming more ‘adult’ in the process.
It was recorded mostly in New York with Commotions producer Paul Hardiman and Fred Maher (the former SCRITTI POLITTI drummer who worked with LOU REED on his most recent LP “New York”), and sounds more sophisticated than the records Cole made with the Commotions
“When someone writes fiction they make up composite characters, usually using real people as the basis. And so it goes with pop songs. This is the first time I’ve written obvious love songs – you’ve got to get out of it to be able to write about it. When I started out I made a conscious decision to write in the third person. I was more interested in prose, journalistic prose. But I look back and realise those songs were about me anyway. You never really know why you’re writing a song.
“I’ve never tried to make overstatements in my songs, I’ve always despised dogma in lyrics, THE CLASH’s politics were awful – I remember Joe Strummer saying once that they were more interested in their sunglasses than their politics. They were a great rock ‘n’ roll band, but their politics sucked. I don’t really like picking individuals and tearing their work apart, but Paul Weller knows that I think ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ is one of the worst lyrics ever written. In terms of that area of music I’m just totally detached from it.”
Nevertheless, he is still immersing himself in the mythology of America, and in particular New York. Did he simply move to the source of his muse? Or was he trying to exorcise his obsession?
“It was either here or Barcelona, basically, I just wanted to get out of London. I liked the idea of coming to the place which is the home of what got me interested in music in first place – home of TELEVISION, THE VOIDOIDS etc. That was one of the reasons New York was romantic to me before I ever set foot in it. Since I was about 16 I’ve never really had a permanent home. I’ve lived in Derbyshire, Lancashire, Glasgow, London – so I’ve never really written about things close too home. Abstract notions have always made more sense. I’ve got no fondness for Britain any more, and now I realise that New York is the only place I’ve ever wanted to make my home.”
While the boho bleatings of Lloyd Cole don’t always ring true with the critics, the marketing men think differently. For over two years now Amaretto di Saronno has used cult celebrities to sell its sweet almond liqueur in America. Kid Creole, Buster Poindexter, Tama Janowitz, Eric Roberts, Joan Chen, Richard Donner and a host of singers, actors, and dancers and on-the cusp celebrities have all appeared in the small quarter-page Amaretto ads which frequent many fasionable American magazines. Dawn Dresher, the account supervisor at Saronno’s advertising agency, says they pick people who are hip, yet who haven’t necessarily hit the big time in the States.
“Lloyd was my choice,” she says. “He’s got a fresh image, he’s very talented . . . and he’s hot. He’s quite a cult figure over here. We’ve used over 20 people since the campaign started, and there haven’t been any major falls from grace. No one’s turned out to be an embarrassment yet. Lloyd’s got something you can’t quite put your finger on.”
Lloyd Cole sees his involvement rather differently: “Why did I do it? They gave me $5,000 for an afternoon’s work, that’s why. I never earn that normally. That was it, done. It paid my rent for six months. It was as simple as that, I needed the money.”
Does he drink the stuff? “No! I’ve got a case of it coming soon – I’m going to give it to my enemies. I don’t know why they picked me, maybe because I’m obscure. The only downside is that over here I’m now more famous for being the guy in the Amaretto ads than I am for the records I make. I drink, so I don’t mind endorsing alcohol. It’s a joy to be able to get income from something other than music. I hate the idea of thinking about the music I do in terms of returns. It’s not the way it should be done.”
In these reactionary times, black music has ceased to be so fashionable with some of the white faces who grew up with guitar-based pop, and the garage/house/swingbeat re-mix has come to be regarded with the same disdain as the disco remix a decade ago. Cole is particularly uninterested: “After ‘The Message’ I saw no reason for any more rap music. I like TONE LOC, he’s funny, but I haven’t rally been affected by any black music since CHIC and FUNKADELIC. Having listened to YO! MTV every afternoon for six months in the studio, I’m sick of it. My favourite records of all time are pretty traditional; I’ve got no funk in me at all. Zero. But I’ve got a fair bit of rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s what I’m best at.”
I asked Lloyd Cole how good he thought he was and he told me in no uncertain terms. “I’ve got to think I’m good. I can write songs better than a lot of people. MORISSEY has two songs, just like BRYAN FERRY said he used to have; he’s got his angry one and he’s got his maudlin one. Ferry used to have his melancholy one and his uptempo one.” But Lloyd Cole makes no secret of the fact that he think he’s got more than two.
“People hardly ever understand that some of my songs are funny. This business is just light entertainment. I’m not interested in people writing critical essays about them, I just want them to like them. Some people just can’t understand that I’m capable of putting my tongue in my cheek. It’s not high art, you know, ‘Perfect Skin’ is probably one of my funniest songs. Here is this ridiculous Bohemian character who’s using as many long words as he possibly can, to create this image with which he’s trying to attract women. And then in the chorus he collapses, realising how stupid he is . . . because when she smiles he just falls apart, and he’s a jerk like everybody else, I guess.”After the interview he takes me to a little bar – his favourite in New York – in Prince Street, in the middle of SoHo. We shoot pool, drink some more beer and wait for a photographer. Slowly Cole begins to merge with the blue-collar regulars of the bar. Even with his JIM MORRISON-style clothes, his spectacles and his sullen, puffy cheeks he blends in the with biceps, the braggadocio and the beer-swilling. Like Morrison, Cole knows that alcohol is a great leveller.
“I can disappear here,” he says, buying me another beer, “I can merge, and I can relax.”
Publication date: 01/12/89