Sometimes, Nick Lowe wonders if the most famous song he ever wrote is really his at all
Forty years ago, British musician Nick Lowe wrote "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" a song that stands tall for humanity in a callous world. Few noticed, at first. Through time, however, it has become an anthem, adopted by artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Lucy Kaplansky to Bruce Springsteen.
Nick Lowe plays it onstage, every night, to this day. It is the most enduring song of his career. He's fascinated by the mystery of it: its genesis, its flight. Yet Lowe doesn't consider it a great tune. Sometimes, he's struck by the sensation that it's not even his at all.
"Everyone seems to know it. But it's never been a hit, a hit song so to speak, on the charts," says Lowe, reflecting on the song's legacy in advance of his Tuesday concert at La Zona Rosa. "It is really strange — and I don't want to sound too, kinda, ‘wet' — 'cause when I hear it, it doesn't really sort of sound like my song anymore. I don't feel hugely possessive about it."
Lowe first recorded "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" as a member of the Brinsley Schwarz band in 1974. The opening verse telegraphs a sense of earnestness — especially as Lowe sings it onstage now, almost tenderly, or as a declaration in prose:
"As I walk this wicked world, searching for light in the darkness of insanity, I ask myself, ‘Is all hope lost? Is there only pain, heartache and misery?' And each time I feel like this inside, there's one thing I'd like to know: What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?"
Lowe says the song's title came to him spontaneously while playing the guitar one day, perhaps as early as 1972. He was 23, 24 years old, still maturing as a songwriter, more apt to emulate his heroes than take a chance on his own voice. Then the words hit him: "What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?"
"I always think of that song as the first original idea I ever had," says Lowe, now 63, very much the white-haired, soft-spoken gentleman songwriter. "Although the title is a bit of a mouthful, I thought, ‘This is a fantastic idea.' I could not believe that it wasn't something I hadn't borrowed off somebody else. Then I remember thinking: Don't hammer it into the ground ... keep it light ... let the title do the work for you."
Lowe has always tended toward the observational in writing. His songs are rarely autobiographical. So it was with "Peace, Love and Understanding."
"The song had a rather humorous birth," he says. "It was written, initially, from the point of view of an old hippie who was still sticking to his guns and seeing his kind of followers all suddenly wearing pointy-toed shoes and drinking cocktails. ... It's like they had come to their senses, rediscovered alcohol and cocaine. ... They were rather embarrassed that they'd ever been hippies ... and thought the hippie thing rather funny.
"And he's saying to them: ‘Well, you all think I'm an idiot. You're sniggering now. But all I'm saying — and you can't argue with this — is what's so funny about peace, love and understanding?' "
Lowe's original version created barely a ripple. But in 1979, Elvis Costello (with Lowe as producer) resurrected the song and revved it up as musical trends were shifting toward labels of "punk" and "power pop." Costello's rendition is distinctive in the way it stays true to the song's inherent sincerity within a musical style normally associated with rebellion and disillusionment.
Lowe has assumed a variety of pop personas. His 1978 solo debut, "Jesus of Cool," was clever, cocksure — and celebrated by critics. Soon afterward, he charted a hit song, "Cruel to Be Kind." With his friend Dave Edmunds, Lowe fronted the super-adrenalin pop band Rockpile at the Armadillo World Headquarters in December 1980 — just weeks before the 'Dillo was shuttered and reduced to a rockpile.
Lowe struck up a friendship with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, produced their "T-Bird Rhythm" album, worked with Graham Parker, collaborated with John Hiatt on the breakthrough "Bring the Family." Johnny Cash covered his "The Beast in Me" in 1994. Over the last two decades, Lowe has focused more carefully on craftsmanship, trading backbeat for nuance, as demonstrated on his new CD, "The Old Magic."
Through it all, "Peace, Love and Understanding" has remained on Nick Lowe's set list. The obvious question: What must it feel like to perform that song in the context of war in the former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda, 9/11 or the Iraq War?
"As soon as something dramatic happens, that song sort of assumes an importance which I'm not sure whether it deserves," Lowe says thoughtfully. "But it does seem to strike a chord with people. I wouldn't make the comparison, but it's a little bit like John Lennon's ‘Imagine.' ... People go ecstatic about that tune, and it sends them off their rockers a little bit. But ... I'd rather hear ‘In My Life' any day."
Lowe is reluctant to talk politics when reflecting upon the song. His father was in the military, and he lived in the Middle East as a child. He does have vivid memories of performing it at the World Trade Center site in 2007.
"They had a concert there ... at Ground Zero ... when it was still great big pile of rubble, you know," he says. "I remember singing it there, and it echoed around the buildings, echoed off the skyscrapers. That was an extraordinary sensation. It was a very powerful feeling."
After 40 years, Nick Lowe has come to see his song as a wild vine — displaying colors, growing places he never imagined. Curtis Stigers did a cover for "The Bodyguard" soundtrack in 1992 — and the 15 million in U.S. album sales made Lowe a wealthy man. In 2008, Stephen Colbert featured a version with Feist, Toby Keith, John Legend and Willie Nelson on "A Colbert Christmas."
Nick Lowe concedes the humor that inspired his original song is long gone. "You can't sing something like that and have people in front of you in tears and not realize that," he says. "As I'm sure you know, the writer is the last person to know what they've done. And sometimes, you do something ... it's almost like another hand is guiding you. And you don't know till it's finished what it is you've done and how it comes across to people.
"Certainly, this song is one of those things. I go with it. Because it moves people. It's a mysterious thing that happens. A real mysterious thing."
Contact Brad Buchholz at 912-2967