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Published: Friday, 5/11/2012

40 years later, Nick Lowe's signature song still resonates

BY BRAD BUCHHOLZ
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Musician Nick Lowe Musician Nick Lowe
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AUSTIN -- 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 on stage, 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. "It is really strange -- and I don't want to sound too, kind of, 'wet' -- 'cause when I hear it, it doesn't really sort of sound like my song any more. 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 on stage 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 suddenly, 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 five years later, 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 since writing "Peace, Love and Understanding." 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-adrenaline pop band Rockpile.

Lowe struck up a friendship with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, produced their "T-Bird Rhythm" album, worked with Graham Parker, and collaborated with John Hiatt on the breakthrough "Bring the Family" CD in the 1980s. Johnny Cash covered his tune "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, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) 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 ... or genocide in Rwanda ... or the 9-11 terrorist attacks ... or the U.S. "shock and awe" strike against Iraq?

"As soon as something dramatic happens, that song sort of assumes an importance which I'm not sure whether it deserves," says Lowe, 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 don't think of it as a 'great' song ... I'd rather hear 'In My Life' any day."

Lowe is reluctant to talk politics when reflecting upon the song. Lowe's father was in the military, and he lived in the Middle East for a time as a child. But he does, with some coaxing, note that he once played "Peace, Love and Understanding" in Nagasaki, Japan -- site of the second U.S. nuclear strike during World War II. He has 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."

Must have been hard, to stay inside the song, under those circumstances. ...

"It was, actually. I love singing the song; you get into performing it. But suddenly, to click into where you are and what this means to people in New York City, in this incredible place, and have it pinging around the buildings, off the P.A. It was really quite amazing."

After 40 years, 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."

John Lennon even referenced the famous refrain -- at least twice, apparently -- during the Rolling Stone interview sessions days before his death in 1980. He said: "I cannot be a punk in Hamburg and Liverpool anymore. I'm older now. I see the world through different eyes. I still believe in love, peace, and understanding, as Elvis Costello said, and what's so funny about love, peace, and understanding."

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."



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