“Heart” / Nick Lowe
NICK LOWE WEEK
In 1979, I knew Nick Lowe only as the producer of Elvis Costello albums; I saw Rockpile open for Elvis that year, but they were so sloppy on stage, I totally wrote off Nick Lowe. Later that spring I must have heard “Cruel To Be Kind” on the radio – Nick’s only certifiable hit single – but that vintage pop sound tricked me into thinking it was a golden oldie. (Ditto for the Knack’s “My Sharona.”) And so I remained in the dark about Nick Lowe. This is one of the great regrets of my life.
So I never heard Rockpile’s 1980 version of “Heart” (on their only official album, Seconds of Pleasure), a rockabilly rendition with, I believe, Dave Edmunds channeling the Everly Brothers on the lead vocal. Nor did I hear it when Nick resurrected it on his now-disgracefully-out-of-print 1982 album Nick the Knife. Since this was Nick’s first outing after his blow-up with Dave Edmunds, I’ll bet he recorded it to reclaim the song for himself, and hopefully to score a follow-up hit to “Cruel to Be Kind.” That, of course, never happened. More years of My Nick Oblivion ensued.
I won’t tell how I finally discovered Nick – I’m saving that for my novel – but the Nick The Knife “Heart” was one of the first songs that sealed the deal for me. Slowed way down (this version runs almost a full minute longer than Rockpile’s), shifted to a lilting reggae beat, Nick delivers it in a shimmering, breathless vocal, punctuated with eager moans and gasps and grunts. With that stuttering rhythm and a melodic line that slides deliriously all over the place, it sounds diffident, fragile, vulnerable – in other words, just how adolescent males feel when falling in love.
Yes, teenage romantic love – the great classic pop theme. “Heart” has nothing to do with getting married and settling down, or promising eternal fidelity; it’s about how I feel RIGHT NOW when I’m with you. “Heart, why are you pounding like a hammer / Heart, why are you beating like a drum / Heart, why do you make such a commotion / When I’m waiting for my baby to come?” Does it feel good? Kinda yes, kinda no. But it’s not like there’s anything you can do -- this physical reaction is just a fact of life. And it doesn’t matter how many others have felt this way before; when it happens to you for the first time it’s bewildering. “Oh heart, don’t do it if it’s not the real thing,” he pleads, a little freaked out, “Heart, I am so easily deceived / Heart, there is no other I can turn to / If not you, heart, then who can I believe?”
MY NICK LOWE THEORY #3: Nick loves the discipline of writing a pop song, the sheer craft of it. Notice how this entire song sticks to its premise -- the dialogue between the singer and his own heart, or as he calls it, "you motor of emotion" (love the vowel play there). “Make certain now, or else you’re gonna break,” he nervously warns his runaway heart, as if that’ll do any good. He never addresses the girl in question, not once. It's a little schizo, maybe, a little self-involved, but that's adolescence for you too. And the teenage girl in me completely melts, aching to be with someone this earnest and vulnerable. Every one of his yearning groans sends a shiver up my spine.
That wonderful calliope-like organ solo in the middle -- was it Elvis’s keyboardist Steve Nieve, or Paul Carrack? Whoever the musicians were, Nick’s exquisite pop instincts made him keep the whole track light and uncluttered, a pure pop confection. It deserved to be a hit. Maybe if it had been, I wouldn't have wasted so many Nickless years.
All I know is that now my heart starts pounding like a hammer every time I hear this song – or, frankly, anytime I hear any of Nick Lowe’s songs. Nothing I can do about it . . . it must be love.