FOR YEARS LLOYD COLE HAS BEEN VILIFIED AS THE MAN WHO PUT THE NANCY INTO POIGNANCY. SHAM OR POP SHAMEN, BOGUS BOHEMIAN OR BRILLIANT BEATNIK – THE ARGUMENT RAGES ON. SIMON REYNOLDS MEETS A CHANGED POP STAR WHO’S STOPPED FEY NAME-DROPPING AND NOW HANGS AROUND IN NEW YORK POOL HALLS AND THINKS HIS DEBUT SOLO ALBUM MIGHT SIGNAL THE END OF HIS CAREER.
Upon reflection, it’s hard to see holy Lloyd Cole has been so thoroughly vilified, why his name (particularly round these parts) is so besmirched. What must be most galling for Cole is that his detractors aren’t consistent. Most recent example: Guy Chadwick, feted for much the same brand of Americanisms and plangent poignancy that has bitherto brought only a shower of ridicule on Cole’s head. And there’s the Blue Aeroplanes, who’ve long been allowed to style themselves as Beat Aeroplanes, who’ve long been allowed to style themselves as Beatnik poet rockers without a chorus of jeers.
Besides, most of the sins associated with Cole – over writing, name dropping, terminal irony – he grew out of a long time ago. Musically and lyrically, the new album, ‘Lloyd Cole’, is the leanest and sparest yet. Recorded with Fred Maher (drummer on Lou Reed’s ‘New York’) and Robert Quine (legendary guitarist, most known for his days with Richard Hell & The Voidoids) it’s the best, most refreshed album since ‘Rattlesnakes’.
But for some, Lloyd Cole will remain the guy who put the “nancy’ into poigancy; a bogus bobemian; a clever-dick. There’s abiding confusion about ‘authenticity’ here. In this post-modern age, our dreams are inevitably mediated through images and icons drawn from cinema, literature, pop history. When your mind is packed and bustling with this detritus, it’s inauthentic not to reflect it in your writing.
The Jesus and Mary Chain and Birdland have been celebrated for work that is nothing but flagrant homage, an iconographical inferno. Lloyd Cole, though, is derided for smug knowingness.
There’s no denying that Cole has frequently been embarrassing, usually when attempting the epic (“Forest Fire’, ‘Brand New Friend’). Other times, he’s been merely droll. But I’ve been touched by some of his delicately wrought, under played vignettes. For ‘Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken’, ‘Patience’, ‘2CV’, ‘Why I love Country Music’, ‘My Bag’, and a substantial portion of the new record, I can manage to take Lloyd Cole seriously.
What Lloyd Cole excels at is the evocation of a certain kind of autumnal melancholy: the willing of youthful idealism, love losing its bloom, romance stagnating into habitude. Cole’s character’s tend to be trapped in relationships that have inexplicably died on them. Or they’re desperate for a chance to relive a bohemian life prematurely exchanged for white collar sellout (‘Hey Rusty”). The opening track on the new album is called ‘Don’t look Back”, but it’s precisely the poignancy of retrospection that is Cole’s forte. And in a broader sense, Lloyd Cole, can’t help but communicate the feeling that the present era doesn’t compare with pop’s glory years.
In person, Cole radiates a strange mixture of unease and unshakeable confidence. He answers questions with the brisk concision of someone who has a very clear idea of what he’s all about. Every so often a half-smile darts fleetingly in between the terse replies, but mostly he seems rather guarded. I put to him what I’ve suggested above: that his forte is the melancholy of lost innocence, a sense of fading possibilities.
‘Generally my overview of life is that optimism is fairly redundant. Certainly it causes more unhappiness than a realistic, pessimistic approach to life. I don’t think I expect that much from life.’
Why do you think people respond to this? How much is it to do with people leaving college and realising they’re destined to settled mediocrity rather than doing something spectacular with their lives? Lloyd frowns at the allusion to the dread word ‘student’.
‘I don’t know exactly who I talk to,’ he says. ‘The only way 1 can think that people find it pleasurable is to think in terms of blues. That it’s some kind of catharsis for them, enables them to feel better about their own lives. Blues can be incredibly uplifting, even though, if one were to analyse it coldheartedly, its pretty depressing stuff.’
But blues is more about objection, whereas your thing is more about disillusionment, the slow relinquishing of dreams. The characters in your songs aren’t laid low, more…
‘Worn out. They’re burnt out cases. But I still feet that the way I write is connected to the sense of realism you get when you listen to, say, Robert Johnson singing ‘I’m gonna beat my woman till I’m satisfied’. He’s confronting the nature of his problems, the hideousness of it.
‘Certainly, in ‘Don’t look Back’, I attempted to take my worst fears about the kind of character I might become and put them into a song. I was writing about how the closer you get to death, the easier faith becormes. It’s rougbly about what might have happened if things hadn’t worked out for me.’
Do you have any regrets about your early music, the way it’s saddled you with an image you no longer deserve literary, Americanophile, etc.)?
‘I think what I’m doing now is a lot more natural. When I started, I’d just come out of studying literature, so in a way it was quite natural for me to write like that. I think I developed the idea of the proper noun as metaphor and simile. That’s one of the few innovations in song writing that I’m responsible for. To hear it referred to as name-dropping doesn’t seem very nice.
‘It certainly wasn’t name-dropping, I’d never met anyone like anyone like Norman Mailer, and I never even read Simone de Beauvoir. But I knew what she represents as a figure, so 1 thought she could easily be used as a metaphor. As for the literary thing … Well. Sure, next to Billy Idol, I look like a literary, intellectual guy. Next to the genuine article, I look like a pop singer. I don’t even regret anything, although I do think I over-estimated what the possibilities of the pop song were. I over-reached at times, wrote more to say less.’
Whereas nowadays your approach is, in the words of ‘A long Way Down’, ‘The reason it’s a ciiche is because its true,’.’You get to the point where, in writinq, the obvious is the best thing to do. I shied away from that for a long time. I think you have to be a better writer to use the obvious, and still make it sound fresh. Maybe I feel confident enough to do that now.’
Do you feel you have a peer group – Morrissey, Paddy McAloon, Roddy Frame Costello et al? ‘I feel a certain affinity to Paddy. I think when he writes a nice, simple song it’s usually rather beautiful. Sometimes he has the same problem as me, of trying to do too much. I don’t feel I’m part of movement so much… but I guess the three of us, and old Edwyn too, have promoted the idea of sensitivity. The idea that you con be sensitive and still be a cool dude.’
Is country rock very much your musical home?
‘It’s difficult for me to say, cos I really don’t listen to country music. I listen to The Jesus and Mary Chain. I think its my words that are country more than anything else. My attitude probably has more in common with country than with traditional rock’n’roll. The irony and the melancholy, the funny/sad lines like ‘The last word in lonesome is me’. For me, this ability to find humour in tragedy is what keeps one alive.’
Your reference points are certainly very un-black. I remember you once claimd that soul had become a bad influence on British pop, in that passion had been elevated over literacy.
‘I was talking more about the influence of soul on singing. With the exception Of Dylan and The Velvet Underground, rock singing has developed out of gospel and the blues. The whole idea of passion in delivery has become method rather than real passion. I just find it intolerable to listen to. Like a bad Simply Red record: it’s all technique. Whereas when you listen to Otis Redding singing ‘Try A little Tenderness’ that’s a real passion, he’s completely out of control’ What do you feel about the direction the culture’s going in? – the materialism, and the inevitable backlash against it? ‘I almost felt quite smug when a journalist reminded me that, two years ago, I had predicted a new hippy culture, a backlash against yuppiedom. And we really have it now, even in the adverts. Do you have the commercials for that Honda car called Infinity over here? Really, it’s most incredible. There’s this flock of geese making this V-sign against the sky, and this guy talking in a very gentle voice about how ‘we take the forms of nature’. They don’t even show the car, they just have the name of the end: Infinity.’
Although he’s always argued that pop and politics are poor bedfellows (‘Well-meaning gets to be an excuse for clumsy writing’) Cole is not averse to the occasional bout of denunciation. ‘He’s good at portraits that are simultaneously vitriol-laced and poignant, cruel and compassionate: witness his put-downs of a New Age casualty’s beatific certainty (‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’), or of soul-less social climbers and yuppie mercenaries (‘A long Way Down’). That one’s almost a morality tale a la ‘Wall Street.’
‘Yeah, it’s a slow version of ‘MyBag’ really, except it wasn’t specifically about cocaine, just about that mentality. I wrote it for this film that never got made, about a painter from Glasgow, who gets sucked into this New York high-life culture, and abandons his roots, his sense or morality, his sense of proportion.’
Cole himself has been in exile in New York for two years. Does he still find it a romantic place? ‘Not really. See, I’d been over quite a few times before I moved there. When I was younger, the idea that I could make a living writing songs and go live somewhere like New York seemed impossibly romantic. But now, it’s just my everyday life. I don’t see too much romance in my life these days. Just luck. I’ve been incredibly lucky.’
The nearest he’s come to selling his soul to the high-life is hiring out his face for an afternoon, posing for a series of adverts for Amoretto (an almond liqueur) that appeared in fashionable magazines.
‘I got paid the equivalent of five months rent for five hours Work. It’s the highest paid work I’ve done outside live work. And I direly needed the money. It didn’t do me any harm, cos it was kind of a cool campaign, and I checked out the kind of people I was being associated with. They’re mostly hip, upcoming young actors. I can’t complain, I was the only one they used two photos of. And they did humour me by taking my photo outside a porno theatre in Times Square.
‘On the original shot, the words ‘wild wet and willing’ were clearly visible behind me. But in the event, they fagged out, as we say, and printed the shot with the background out of focus. That was a shame. It would have made me feel better about the photo.’
Cole’s approach (if not dirty realism, at least slightly tarnished, off-colour realism) is at the opposite end from British rock’s current extremism and hunger for oblivion.
‘I have quite often been in pursuit of oblivion, but usually with a beer and whisky. But I remember seem Ray Manzarek on some TV documentary, and he said, ‘Jim Morrison, yeah man – he was living on the edge of reality’. And I just thought, ‘Fuck! How can a 45-year-old man still be thinking like a 12-year-old kid? ‘1’m not really interested in that kind of glamour. There’s enough glamour for me in being able to exist as a writer, and not having to work in a bar.’ Does this attitude (being more interested in projecting your work than your self) make you rock rather than pop?
‘I did start out with the aim of being a popstar, but within a year all my ambitions were achieved. I’d got on the cover of NME, I had appeared on ‘TOTP’. So I had to find something else. Now I just want to get better, do all kinds of-things with the music.
‘Do you think it’s true that you have a healthier than normal proportion of girls in your audience? ‘It’s not boys’ music, that’s for sure. Which I’m glad about. Certainly no one’s gonna accuse me of being misogynist. If I’m perceived as the sensitive New Man, that’s fine by me. I always try to champion sensitivity argue that it doesn’t mean you have to be a wimp.’
One of the best songs on the album, ‘Undressed’ appears to he an admission of voyeurism. Is it also about emotional voyeurism?
‘Yeah. Half the song is about nakedness, and the other half about emotional nakedness and, vulnerability. That’s why it opens with the line, ‘You look so good when you’re depressed’, because women do. It’s really unfair!’
Six weeks ago Lloyd married his 25-year-old American girlfriend Elizabeth, an Orange Juice fan ‘who doesn’t mind my stuff’. He says that these days he’s at his happiest “waking up in the morning with my wife. I usually find it hard to get up and go to work”.
Apart from matrimony, his life is occupied by writing songs, hanging out in local bars and pool halls with his musician buddies, and the occasional game of poker.
‘Y’know,’ he says as the interview dwindles towards its close, ‘recently I’ve been quite enjoying the realisation that I’m possibly closer to the end of my career than to the beginning. I just don’t want to do it for ever. Do I have my eyes on anything else? No. Having babies, maybe.’
Publication: Melody Maker
Publication date: 01/01/90