TWO THINGS singer Lloyd Cole doesn't want to be when he gets old are 1) longhaired, and 2) a smoker.
"Right now I'm not drinking and I'm not smoking. I was joking with my wife that I should not be allowed to make music," says Cole, laughing over the phone from his office in western Massachusetts. He goes on to tell me about his diet and his hair. "I'm working toward that Leonard Cohen, old-man look." Cultivating it, maybe? "Basically trying to get used to it," he asserts, his quiet and easy voice charmingly lilted by his British upbringing.
Crocodile Cafe, Thursday, July 6
Nearly a year ago, Cole and his family moved out of New York City and set up camp in Northampton. The Coles left New York for the same reasons most people do: Because there's no damn space and everything is really expensive. Besides, Cole, who mentions twice that he's going to be 40 next year, is now a father of two and doesn't want to be bothered with the fuss.
"I'm 15 years after my prime in terms of being attractive to college kids. Ninety-nine percent of the kids around here haven't got a clue who I am—which is great!" He laughs again, because his songs, though intensely affecting and familiar, have always included a careful measure of privacy.
It's hard to imagine college kids not knowing Cole's strong, placid voice or his rambling, Dylanesque stories. Many of my friends whiled away endless dorm room hours with "Lost Weekend" and "Jennifer She Said" as their only solace. The distance between those dorm rooms and Cole's vast catalog of literary and cerebral pop songs appears to be growing. And it's even more disheartening to realize that while today's aspiring songwriters might cut their teeth on Nick Drake (with a nod to the "Pink Moon" Volkswagen commercial), they know little of Cole, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave. Cole says he wonders if kids these days can tell the difference between Lou Reed and Perry Como. But then again, he doesn't seem to mind.
"I used to say I'd be happy if I had the same amount of lines in the rock 'n' roll encyclopedia as Elvis Costello. I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I'm not going to. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm one step behind him. I'm pretty pleased with the things we did, I think we made good records." In a slightly condescending tone that befits his off-the-cuff British wit, he adds, "I don't want to be like Ray Davies, going on and on making substandard records."
COLE IS, IN FACT, quite comfortable with his distance from the spotlight. Of MTV's de facto pop heroes, he says, "The fact that rock and funk have had to amalgamate with hip-hop is understandable, but if Rage Against the Machine and Kid Rock are what we get, then I can leave it." He's decidedly not fighting the Napster fight, he's never owned a cell phone, and he once spearheaded a campaign to use the words "palm pilot" as slang for masturbation. Having recently conceived, designed, and built his own Web site, the functional and aesthetic www.lloydcole.com, he's got what he needs of modern devices and popular culture, and hasn't bothered with the rest.
But don't take this to mean that Lloyd Cole is staring down the end of his career. Rather than feeling the pressure of having to constantly carve out a product in order to please his record label, Cole is enjoying a relaxed state of commercial ambivalence.
"My ambition is definitely outweighed by me enjoying my own independence," he says. "My major concern is that, over the next few years, everyone who wants to know about lloydcole.com gets to know about it. And as soon as they know about it, I can basically tell everyone else to kiss my ass."
Having adopted the acoustic, folk-singer-style show years ago when he was too broke to afford a band, he has continued to play his sold-out, one-man shows because his fans respond to the intimacy and closeness that the format allows. Cole seems to like it, too. Aside from it being a great way to make a living, he actually favors the easy, spontaneous approach to letting each night's show naturally take form without a preordained set list and a road-weary crew. He can throw in a Shane MacGowan cover, close with a brand new song, or play a set of old favorites. Lloyd Cole is truly his own boss.
"I'm actually not frantic," he confides happily, and I can't imagine why he would be. "It's been good to find out that a bunch of the songs are strong enough with just me and my lame guitar-playing to actually get away with making people clap afterward."
And it occurs to me that two things Lloyd Cole is as he prepares to round forty's corner are 1) very fortunate, and 2) remarkably aware.