ONLY NOISE: Love From Afar

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They say everyone is good at something. My mom can tie cherry stems into knots with her tongue. My tenth grade English teacher looked alarmingly natural in pirate shirts. I once saw a man scale a 30-foot coconut tree with his bare extremities. Personally, I have a long history of romancing incredible men…who live very far away from me. It is a history that dates back to the preteen era: my first kiss occurred at a punk show (Clit 45, inappropriately enough) in Costa Mesa, California, approximately 1,000 miles south of my hometown. His name was Kevin. It didn’t work out.

A couple of years later, I fell head over heels for a punk rock Adonis at a tiny gig in Seattle. I can’t remember my exact tactics, but I somehow acquired his email address, which was surely a Hotmail account. That was it. I would finally have my mohawked boyfriend I had so longed for throughout my rural Washington existence. I gathered the courage to e-ask him out. He e-laughed, and informed me that he lived in New Jersey.

I don’t want to sound like Ludacris by saying I have hoes in different area codes or anything, but I must admit, traveling romances and meeting men who are just passing through has turned into an unwanted skill. I think guys can just smell the unavailability when you step off the plane, ya know? Whether it’s Portland or Paris, I’ve found myself loving from afar more than a couple of times. It has turned into some cruel joke at this point, but fortunately, I have a wonderful sense of humor. Ha. Ha.

Typically, when someone sees a continual pattern in their life, they might try to thwart it, or at least analyze why it keeps happening. But I tend to just score the phenomena with appropriate songs. Which is kind of like giving someone who’s starving an issue of Food and Wine Magazine instead of making them a sandwich?

I guess my point is, this week I am saluting the long-distance love song. We’ve all missed someone, so naturally, there is an entire canon of music to nurse such a woe. One of my favorites is the unbearably obvious, but undeniably good “So Far Away” by Carole King from her groundbreaking LP Tapestry. “So Far Away” exists within a mini-theme of the album, which includes “Way Over Yonder” and “Where You Lead-” tracks that likewise express a longing for faraway things. “So Far” takes the trophy, however, as it is the only song with the required dose of hopelessness lyrically. What can I say? I don’t like half-assed sad. Might as well do it right. King laments her solitude by wryly asking: “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” No, Carole. No.

The great thing about love songs is their ability to be universal, but also to be even more universal in their specificity. I am in utter admiration not only of the fact that humans went beyond inventing the wheel and created the love song, but also that there are so many iterations and sub-genres of such. I can’t think of a more absurdly specific faraway tune than “Come Back From San Francisco” by the morose Magnetic Fields, who excel at writing a particular brand of pathetic love song. It is probably one of the most alienating miss-you tunes, with its nods to bisexual, novelist city dwellers, but, being a pretentious music journalist living in New York City, I’d say it’s right on the money for me.

When we zoom in on music this much or any medium for that matter, there is always the risk of ruining things; it’s fair to ask if we are accidentally taking the soul out of it all. Getting too close can expose blemishes, imperfections, or worse, isolate the beautiful abstract from the mere molecules; like reminding someone that gravy is essentially boiled blood. I want to keep these songs categorized as gravy, but I like to dig a little deeper. I like to see how the gravy is made.

It is funny, and also frustrating that though all of humanity has felt the sensation of longing for another person, only a select few of us can distill that longing into an art form. Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, and of course, songwriters write songs. The rest of us make playlists, mixtapes, CDs. They are in a way collages or monuments of found objects…a kind of paint-by-numbers for those of us who know dick about color theory. It feels democratic, even like recycling to use someone else’s song to express your adoration for a far off lover. Because in the age of text and email, how do you expect to get your weightiest points across? Emoji?

There is, of course, snail mail, but what’s in a letter that hasn’t been bested by Tom Waits singing about slow-grown love in “Long Way Home” off of Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards? Chances are what you pen in that note won’t be sticking in anyone’s head the way a ballad can. To forge an association between yourself and a song in someone else’s mind is like snagging free ad space during the Super Bowl. That sounds creepy, but you know what I mean.

A classic phrase for the faraway is: “Wish You Were Here,” but I will spare you the Pink Floyd and Incubus references. Nick Lowe has his own version from 1983’s The Abominable Showman, which could sneak by as an upbeat number if it weren’t for the subject matter. Because despite all of the puns and harmonies, there is still a lack that can only be answered thus: “having said that my dear/how I wish that you were here.”

Of course, at the end of the day, someone has to offer a solution to all of this wanting. Who better to lay down a piece of his mind than Bob Dylan, who closes 1969’s Nashville Skyline with one of my favorite songs in this category, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” It is the quintessential, end-of-the-romantic-comedy song, in which the protagonist disrupts some form of transportation to spend at least a little more time with the object of their affection. In movies, it’s usually a plane. With Dylan, it’s obviously a train.

“Throw my ticket out the window/Throw my suitcase out there too/Throw my troubles out the door/I don’t need them anymore/’Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.

I should have left this town this morning/But it was more than I could do/Oh, your love comes on so strong/And I’ve waited all day long/For tonight when I’ll be staying here with you.”

It’s the end we all hope for, but that few can afford. Finding a new suitcase and train ticket were obviously within Dylan’s realm of financial capabilities. But I’d like to end with this one, because despite the rest, it’s the one song within this hyper-specific class that at the very least offers a modicum of hope…that maybe throwing caution, and one’s worldly possessions to the literal wind and living off impulse is a very good idea. That remains to be seen, but at least we can commiserate with a few songs before taking that leap off the train, so to speak.


Jesus of Cool

If Elvis Costello had a reclusive older brother, it would be Nick Lowe.  Among music nerds, Nick Lowe is not exactly an obscure name.  However, I’d say he’s one of the most painfully overlooked songwriters of the past few decades.  Within England’s mid ‘70s-‘80s New Wave scene, I can’t think of anyone who had more fingers in so many pies.

Lowe’s relationship to Elvis Costello was vital in their early days together.  As well as playing live with Costello and as on his records, Lowe produced Costello’s first five studio albums.  I believe it was the record sleeve of Trust that jested: “*Nick Lowe not to blame for this one.” Lowe was in fact “to blame” and it’s a great fault to bear.  He also wrote :(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?: while a member of Brinsley Schwarz (1969-75).  This emotive ballad has been constantly mis-credited to Costello, and while I doubt Lowe loses sleep over it (his royalty checks know who wrote it) it’s a shame so few recognize Lowe as the savant he is.

Lowe also had a long-standing musical relationship with English New Wave vet Dave Edmunds.  Edmunds and Lowe co-wrote albums worth of songs while remaining solo acts.  The second they congealed their talents formally under the name Rockpile, they released one album, and broke up.

Additionally, and this is my favorite Lowe factoid, he was an invisible hand in lifting English punk to the level it is now.  The man produced not only The Damned’s first single “New Rose,” but their entire debut album, Damned Damned Damned. You want more?  He also married June Carter-Cash’s daughter from her first marriage and was close friends with the Carter-Cash family, chilling, playing, and recording with Johnny Cash on a regular basis.

Despite this tome of accomplishments, Nick Lowe has only had two songs in the Top 10 of the UK Singles Chart (“I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass,” and “Milk and Alcohol” which was performed by Dr. Feelgood).  “Cruel To Be Kind” was Nick Lowe’s only composition to ever make the US Top 40. Cruel indeed.

My interest in Nick Lowe extends from the fact that my dad has most of his albums on vinyl.  I grew up listening to them.  Yet whenever my dad has a selection of albums by the same person, he always seems to be missing their first release.  Therefore it’s my duty to go to record stores, find it, and then hold it above his head.  My dad has almost EVERY early Elvis Costello album, yet he doesn’t have My Aim Is True; but I do.  The same went for Nick Lowe.  He has every album, but no Jesus Of Cool, Lowe’s debut solo album released in ’78.  So I was thrilled when digging through a dusty basement in Greenpoint a few years ago and finding an original UK release of it.  For ONE DOLLAR, Dad.

The record is a pop-opus.  It’s also the catchiest F-U to the music industry ever written.  Track one, “Music For Money,” is a heavy-hitting rock anti-anthem.  The lyrics pointedly and humorously compare the sycophantic nature of the record industry to that of prostitution:


Music for money//Busking for bucks//Greeedin’ for greenies//Singing for sucks

Music for money//Isn’t it queer//Handsome promotion//No – here

Music for money//Bleeding for bucks//Quippin’ for rabble//Fakin’ for fucks



The next two songs, “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass” and “Little Hitler” are milestones in acerbic pop.  Nick Lowe, much like Elvis Costello, Morrissey, and Bob Dylan, is an absolute master of making you smile at an insult.  That is to say, lyrically his songs are biting and sardonic, but they’re the catchiest, smoothest, and most sweetly produced pop songs you’ve ever heard.  Naturally, Lowe produced the album.

The record’s scope is also impressive.  Each track is fully equipped with minimalist texture and perfect harmonies, but the songs range from silly pop hits, to sincere ballads, to eerie compositions.  One of my favorites is 36” High, which sounds like no other Nick Lowe song.  It’s a strange, bass-heavy, lo-fi, synth teasing homage to guilt and loss that proves Lowe’s dexterity and genius as a songwriter.  There’s also a song on the album entitled “Nutted By Reality.” I could write an article on the greatness of that alone.

Visually the record is just as brilliant as it is audibly.  The cover depicts Lowe dressed as archetypes from six distinct genres of music…everything from folk-hippie to early metal head.  The record is sub-titled “Pure Pop For Now People,” but the letters of the title are hidden in the corners of each photograph.  The record’s hind-side displays three tacky glass swans, floating on water with sprigs of foliage and carnations.  Even the record sleeve has tedious inside jokes emblazoned upon it, my favorite being a graph of “The Artiste At Work” which plots Lowe’s commercial success over his career.  The amount of thought that went into every aspect of this record is downright mind-blowing.

If you haven’t heard this album, give it a listen.  If you hadn’t heard of Nick Lowe, now you have.


Side One:

01: Music For Money

02: I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass

03: Little Hitler

04: Shake And Pop

05: So It Goes


Side Two:

01: So It Goes

02: No Reason

03: 36” High

04: Marie Provost

05: Nutted By Reality

06: Heart Of The City

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