Years after stardom didn't stick, singer still just wants to make beautiful music
EASTHAMPTON -- Twenty years ago, after the release of "Rattlesnakes," a record most music critics agree is a modern classic, Lloyd Cole seemed a good bet to hit it big. The British singer was not only handsome with a Presley-esque pile of hair, but he was capable of crafting masterful pop.
Cole and his band, the Commotions, commanded arena-size audiences in Europe, and some of his celebrated contemporaries -- the misanthropic Morrissey, for one -- were singing his praises, envious of Cole's ability to put wry, literate lyrics to lovely melodies.
But stardom didn't stick, and for several years Cole has been living anonymously with his wife and two children in Western Massachusetts. Now 45 and more jowled than lantern-jawed, he's still making tuneful, often terrific music, but no one seems to notice. His last record, which ranks among his best, sold a scant 6,600 copies in the United States.
On Friday, Cole will be at the Paradise promoting his latest CD, "Antidepressant," which he wrote and recorded, mostly alone, in the small, cluttered studio he maintains in a renovated mill building in Easthampton. Described as "discreetly brilliant" by one British critic, Cole's new record is more of the same: subdued, smart, and bittersweet.
"I don't feel like I've taken myself out of the game," says Cole, unrecognized as he eats a tuna sandwich in a diner downstairs from his studio. "I just want to make the kind of records I want to make, and I don't want to sit in a room thinking about who my target audience is."
Finding fans wasn't always so difficult. The Commotions, the quintet Cole formed while studying English and philosophy at the University of Glasgow, were a success from the start. Their debut album, "Rattlesnakes," released in 1984, was a masterpiece of what used to be called college rock. A welcome relief from the droning synth-pop of the day, the LP was full of infectious guitar and organ grooves.
But what really distinguished "Rattlesnakes" were Cole's uncommonly clever -- some would say pretentious -- lyrics referencing erstwhile movie stars such as Eva Marie Saint, and literary figures like Renata Adler, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion, from whose novel "Play It as It Lays" the album title is taken.
"I was trying to do what Bob Dylan and Booker T. & the MGs did," says Cole, "but my studies were also a big influence."
The Commotions released two more records, "Easy Pieces" and "Mainstream," before finally breaking up in 1989. The clean-cut Cole then moved to New York, got married, and began living like the rock star people predicted he'd be.
"I sort of experimented with the concept of not being well-behaved," he says vaguely. "I grew my hair out for the first time and drank quite a lot, but I wasn't very good at being a rock 'n' roller. I basically tried and failed."
Cole succeeded in the studio, however, recording two superb solo albums with an ace band of American indie icons, including Matthew Sweet on bass, Fred Maher on drums, and the late Robert Quine on guitar.
"I'd always wanted to work with him," Cole says of Quine, who made his name with Richard Hell & the Voidoids and Lou Reed. "Quine could apply a level of brutality to the music that I hadn't been accustomed to."
Dave Derby, the former Dambuilders singer with whom Cole has occasionally collaborated over the years, believes the first solo album, simply called "Lloyd Cole," was his friend's best chance to become a hit in the United States.
"It only happens once, twice if you're lucky," says Derby. "That record was chock full of great songs, and it really could have catapulted him. But for whatever reason, it didn't line up."
By 1999, Cole and his wife had grown weary of living in New York, and decided to move to Northampton, a college town where many writers and musicians seeking to escape the city have settled in recent years. (Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon also moved there from New York.)
"You meet people in Northampton who say things like, 'I don't know why anyone would want to live in New York,' " says the chronically malcontented Cole. "They have an Italian restaurant that they think is as good as every one in New York, but it's not as good as any one in New York."
Not long after he arrived in the Pioneer Valley, Cole was dropped by Universal. The label had two albums' worth of material but refused to release any of it. Cole's response was to stop writing music altogether, and focus instead on Web design, gardening, golf -- which he plays seriously enough to have a 5 handicap and a library of books about the sport -- and, of course, literature.
"He quite likes that disheveled rake look. You can easily see Lloyd walking about in a corduroy jacket with a slim volume of something under his arm," says his friend Chris Hughes, a musician and producer who has worked with Tears for Fears and Adam & the Ants. "For one minute, Lloyd would like to be the greatest since Elton John, and for the other 59 minutes he's quite sensible."
Two years ago, Cole finally reemerged, releasing a new CD, the Leonard Cohen-influenced "Music in a Foreign Language," and touring Europe with the Commotions to mark the 20th anniversary of "Rattlesnakes." He's no longer stalked on the streets of London, but Cole remains a popular figure overseas, and the shows quickly sold out.
"It's not that I'm doing all that well over there," he says. "It's just that there's still an expectation that I might do well."
His ego got another boost this summer when the Scottish band Camera Obscura scored a Top 10 hit in the United Kingdom with its song "Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken," a cheeky reply to the Commotions's tune "Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?"
"As a courtesy, Lloyd was one of the first people we sent it to, just to see what he thought," says the band's singer Tracyanne Campbell. "He suggested a few edits and said it was nice. I said, 'What? It's better than nice!' "
In July, Camera Obscura played at the Allston club Great Scott, and Cole's wife, Elizabeth, drove from Northampton with her children, 14-year-old William and 7-year-old Frank, to see the show. But because the boys are underage, they weren't allowed inside to hear the band's tribute to their dad.
"We tried to at least get them to open the fire door so his kids could listen," says Campbell. "It was really rotten."
Friday, Cole will take the stage at the Paradise with Neil Clark, his former guitarist in the Commotions, and a computer that he's programmed to play rhythm.
Realistic about his prospects for breakout success, Cole said his expectations for the new CD are modest.
"I just want to make something beautiful," he says, "and, hopefully, if it's beautiful, people will want to listen to it."