In this monthly series, Scott Timberg interviews musicians on the literary work that has inspired and informed their music.
IF THE SINGER-SONGWRITER tradition produced a figure remotely comparable to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen in the ’80s and ’90s, Lloyd Cole was it. The Englishman emerged from the music scene in Glasgow, where he briefly attended college, with the LP Rattlesnakes, credited to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Wordy, folky, and at times portentously serious, the album — with songs like “Perfect Skin” and “Forest Fire” — announced the beginning of a major, if not always terribly marketable, career for a romantic, often biting songwriter. (“Must you tell me all your secrets / When it’s hard enough to love you knowing nothing?”)
A few years later, Cole broke up the band, moved to the States, and began a solo career that has recently been revisited in a six-CD box set, Lloyd Cole in New York: Collected Recordings 1988-1996.
What follows is an edited version of a series of phone conversations with Cole, who lives in western Massachusetts and regularly plays Los Angeles venues such as McCabe’s and Largo at the Coronet.
SCOTT TIMBERG: So, I think from the very beginning you announced yourself as a very literary young guy. You quoted or name-dropped Norman Mailer and Simone de Beauvoir; a few years later you named a record after a line from Raymond Carver. What were your literary influences when you were leading the Commotions? How important were they?
LLOYD COLE: You know, I think when you’re young and have lived a fairly sheltered life — the way you understand the world is often through reading. You just haven’t lived. I think the reason I put so much of that into the early songs is that that was what I knew. I mean my life hadn’t been particularly interesting — there hadn’t been a lot of noteworthy things going on until, you know … I mean, how much has a 23-year-old lived? How much has a 23-year-old really got to offer in terms of something interesting, unless you’re into the kind of purity or honesty of Morrissey …
Right, or if you’re basing yourself on Charles Bukowski and living this sort of Baudelairean kind of life. The most dramatic things that would’ve happened to you — a middle-class suburban kid going to university — and to most of your listeners, would’ve been the things you read, right?
A lot of the time, yeah. I had key experiences that helped me want to write, I think, but in terms of fleshing things out, it was … I read a lot. [Literature and philosophy] was what I was studying, and that was my life, so it makes sense that there’s a lot of that in the songs.
When you had free time as a Sixth Form or high school kid — whatever you call it there — what were you grabbing and obsessing over?
Well, I actually didn’t become interested in literature until I was a little older — I was sort of a math whiz, I suppose. Math was what I was good at, and I remember in English when we were doing O levels — so that would be 15 and 16 — I remember they had us read Good-Bye to All That — the autobiography Robert Graves wrote after World War I. And I hated it. I absolutely think it was a terrible choice of a book for 15- and 16-year-olds. Because it was an adult book, even though he was relatively young when he wrote it. It was not — it didn’t — the nuance of it was quite lost. The same way when I tried to read Ulysses when I was maybe 19 …
Basically I was a math student, and when I read for pleasure as a young person it was generally science fantasy and Tolkien, and that kind of terrible thing. I loved Michael Moorcock when I was 14, 15 — and then Tolkien. By the time I was 21, I was starting to be interested in proper literature, I suppose.
I think of ’80s Glasgow as having a very rich musical and literary bohemia; certainly a lot of great bands and writers have come out of there. Did it seem like there was this electric intellectual atmosphere?
Basically, in 1982 in Glasgow, you couldn’t get the perfect girlfriend unless you were trying to be a writer or trying to be an architect or trying to be a painter. You couldn’t just be sort of, you know, be doing nothing.
Or you couldn’t just be doing something pragmatic.
Right. If you weren’t doing something in the arts, there’s no way that you could get that girlfriend. That simple. It was incredibly competitive — there were a lot of people doing music, and it was a great stimulus. Without Glasgow, I’m not sure I would ever have had the impetus to take the leap.
At some point, when you were in college, you started writing songs that name-dropped various writers, and I think you once mentioned that, in some cases, you hadn’t even read these people. Had you read Norman Mailer?
Absolutely. I mean, I tried. I tried, but I certainly didn’t like him. But, you know, the idea — the names, the proper noun … I mean, Mailer’s in the songs for the same reason that Grace Kelly is in a song. Mailer, to my eye, was probably — if you wanted to have a symbol of machismo, Mailer was it. And if you wanted to a have a symbol of a modern, thinking woman, de Beauvoir was that.
Right, and “Mailer” also rhymed with “tailor.”
But yeah, I was very much immersed in reading, and wanting to think that I might be some kind of writer, hopefully writing in music. Yeah, it’s just all over the place. “Perfect Skin,” I think — I’ve said this many times — is just me showing off, like, “Look what I can do.” It’s very childish, really. It’s basically just a rewrite of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is Dylan saying, “Look what I can do.”
… saying, “Look what I can do,” to some beautiful woman, so she’ll sleep with him. Dylan was famous for that. There may be a few writers, a few artists who are motivated by less base concepts. Springsteen is pretty honest about it: you get into music to get girls.
It says something about the worlds you and Dylan were in, that the way to get a girl was to write very literary love songs. Where I grew up, that would not have been effective.
The other thing I think we’re doing is saying, “I’m definitely not stupid.” I wrote a piece for NYU, and picked two songs to compare and contrast. I chose “Yesterday” as an example of an almost perfectly structured and composed song, and I chose “More Than Words” by that group Extreme … and obviously, if you look at how many YouTube hits “More Than Words” has and how many “Yesterday” has, more than half the population disagrees with me on this. But I think there is nothing less sexy than stupidity. And the lyrics to “More Than Words” are the most stupid lyrics I’ve ever heard. And I wondered, “How on earth could it succeed?” And yet it did.
So what we’re basically doing is trying to make clear that we’re not like them. And the music that we’re making … we were contemporary with Bon Jovi, and also Rick Astley. Those were great pop records, but we were making sure that people understood that we were not like that.
One thing your early songs were noted for at the time is a kind of reflection on misspent youth, a bittersweet quality, rueful nostalgia … This is something you were putting out when you were just past 20, so I’m not sure where these impulses came from. Were you drawn to writers who had that sort of reflective quality or temperament? And the obvious reference here is Proust.
I’ve given up trying to read Proust like 10 times. I’m finally going to find a home for the Proust. He and I don’t gel. I was reading some Clive James recently … A friend was a radio DJ in Australia, and she had me read and review a book every week, so I read the great omnibus of Clive James essays, Cultural Amnesia. He was saying everybody had to read Proust, and I just said, “I can’t!” My taste in literature is maybe kind of lowbrow, really. I love Dickens, I love Raymond Chandler, I love Joan Didion.
To get back to your nostalgic songs, there’s a tradition of this in British poetry — what did Wordsworth call it, “emotion recollected in tranquility”?
There’s a certain type of song that wants to talk about the present, and there are basically two of those songs. There’s “Da Doo Ron Ron,” which says I’m-so-happy — a great song. And there’s “Wonderwall,” which says nobody-understands-me, which is the worst idea for a song ever.
Well, the Beatles made it work — “Misery,” “There’s a Place.”
Some people can. Morrissey does this: this is how I feel, now.
I have always felt, from when I started writing, that when you’re in the middle of things, in the present, you can’t possibly have any perspective. It may have had to do with my English teacher … When I was studying, Derrida was the in guy.
Harder to say something interesting about the present, something beyond the obvious.
So if I’m reflective, it may be because I don’t find the idea of talking about things in the present very interesting. Perspective comes after a certain amount of time has passed. I don’t think this is because of my taste in literature, but just because that’s what makes sense to me.
I’m a fan of numerous songwriters who are considered “gloomy” and depressive — Richard Thompson, Gillian Welch, Delta blues people like Son House. I just don’t think songs about being happy are all that interesting most of the time. If I’m feeling happy, or in the moment, or exalted, I want to be experiencing it, with people.
Exactly — you don’t want to be writing about it.
Or listening to someone describe it. While “I was happy once, things went wrong, here’s what I learned from it” — that goes back in the American songbook, with songs like “My Old Flame” … That has a lot more resonance than “something wonderful happened to me today.”
If one wants to be a little cynical about it — and I’m not, I’m skeptical, but I’ve never given up hope — the bottom line is that the language of melancholia is a lot richer than the language of happiness. And, most of the time, writers are more concerned with language than they are with subject matter.
Let’s pivot to the period of your box set. I think it was in 1989 that you moved to New York, and the set begins with the first, self-titled solo record, with Bad Vibes and Love Story and Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe in there as well. I’m sure there were all kinds of exciting things in your life, but what was your reading during that period? You named a song after a Raymond Carver story.
I started reading Carver in ’84, I think, and the lyrics on Easy Pieces suffer because I thought, “If Raymond Carver can get so much out of just a four page story, think of what I can get out of a three-minute songs.” And I think I suffocated some of my songs with words, the way Paul Weller used to do all the time. So yes, I was still a big Carver fan in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Let’s take a quick walk around my room and see what else I was into at that time … Richard Russo. Probably trying to read Proust again. Dawn Powell — she was rediscovered in the ’90s.
I think around that time I also got into Penguin classics, mid-’60s British sort of grim-up-North stuff — “Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” that sort of thing.
I stayed with Joan Didion my whole life; I don’t think I’ll ever not love Joan. But yeah, I probably read too much Bukowski in the early ’90s. And a writer I really loved around then was James Crumley, but only the one book was great: The Wrong Case.
James Ellroy. What else? Ellen Gilchrist — maybe that was a little earlier. And I’ve probably read the complete Chandler every five years. The problem with Chandler is that he ruins almost all detective fiction for you, the language … Chandler’s dialogue is the best. If any of my songs sound like they’re trying to copy Chandler, it’s probably true.
I remember being very excited to be in New York, and reading Joseph Mitchell. There was a compilation of his New Yorker stuff, Up in the Old Hotel, which came out about that time.
Round about that time I also became interested in Japanese writing. I liked the idea of getting into haiku, but never really could. I wonder if you know a writer named Sei Shōnagon. She wrote some of the first things you could call literature, or even a novel, in the 10th and 11th centuries. One of the essays, or chapters, was called “Hateful Things,” and I swear to God, Wilde definitely must have read it — and Morrissey, if he didn’t read it, got it via Wilde. It is incredibly acerbic and hilarious.
I never would have imagined a link between you, Morrissey, and an 11th-century Japanese writer.
Nor would I. But I can thank Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay for that.
Any other major writer you were obsessed with in that period?
Probably. I’ve never really been someone who reads poetry; I’ve tried. There are some odd exceptions. I was very into Wallace Stevens around that time.
Which of his poems?
Probably the one that turned me on was “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” The idea that we have to understand something to enjoy it is not helpful. I’m assuming that much of literature is still taught in that awful manner of trying to understand what the author’s “message” is. And I don’t think that’s useful at all, really. I guess I’m with Susan Sontag here — to think about a work of art as being about something demeans the art. It just is. It’s a thing. If you looked at a sculpture, would you ask, “What’s it about?” Wilde actually has the best quote: “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Which is to say, if there’s only one way to understand, or only one way to enjoy a work of art, then why would you be interested in that work at all? Once you’ve enjoyed it, there’s nothing left in there for you.
There’s that old line often attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, or one of those old cigar-chomping Hollywood moguls, about message films: if you want to send a message, call Western Union.
Exactly. And the other point is that if someone wants to make art with a message, and if there’s only one way to understand it, then they’d better get it right. Because if you go see their movie and you don’t get the message, then they’re a bad writer.
And if you want to go for immediate satisfaction, it’s kitsch. Kitsch doesn’t take any work. Clement Greenberg, in the essays he wrote in the 1930s, said that basically all art is reflexive. You get out of it what you put into it. And that is why no two people will interpret a work or art in the same way.
And it’s why it’s so exciting to be an artist — to know that different people will find different things in your songs or in your work. The number of times people write to me and say, “That song, where you’re talking about this…” And I say, “Oh, I wasn’t talking about that at all. Cool.”
Your first record came out in ’84 — 33 years ago — and you’ve been in the States for most of that time. As you’ve moved around, worked as a musician, had all kinds of good and bad happen to you, have you found your tastes changing much?
I think the only things that have not stayed with me were what I encountered in my late 20s and early 30s, when I was looking for something different and experimenting. But Joan Didion was my favorite writer, and she probably still is my favorite writer. T. Rex were my first favorite band and they probably still are my favorite band.
So I think this is key: it is true that when people talk about formative years, we are very much like empty shells filling up. But we do feel we’re full, at times. I felt that way when I wrote “Music in a Foreign Language” — I had no room left in my heart to love new things. And sometimes a band would come along in the ’90, like Elastica, and I’d say, “Yeah, that’s really cute, but I already have my Wire records.” And that will happen with literature.
You know who we haven’t mentioned that I also loved in the ’90s? George Saunders … CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is still an amazing piece of work. I contacted him after that, to see if he would be interested in writing songs with me … My wife and I were huge fans, and he does seem to be a great guy as well.
I think if we looked at a lyric sheet from, say, Rattlesnakes, almost every song would be long, with character names and lots of language. Then if we looked at something like Love Story, another favorite of mine, the songs are shorter — verse, chorus, verse, chorus, out. Are you conscious of that?
Not really. I started out naturally flamboyant. Where do you go from there? And I strove — is that the word? People who think of me as literate or whatever would be surprised by how terrible my grammar is. Anyway I tried to hone things down, in the way I tried to remove the vibrato from my voice; once I recognized it was there, I was like, “Oh fuck, I don’t want that.” Yeah, I tried to write more concise songs. And I probably thought that way for the longest time, until I found myself writing Standards in a flamboyant manner and thought, I don’t really know why, but it feels okay.
I don’t know what I’m gonna do with the next one; I don’t have rules, in that respect. I write until it’s good enough to let other people hear it.