Although he almost certainly doesn’t know it, Lloyd Cole and I have been shackled together for almost twenty years. A school friend did me a tape of the Lloyd Cole and the Commotions compilation 1984-1989 when it came out and it was enough get me hooked on black turtle neck jumpers for life.
Before you get ideas otherwise, I’m not making spurious claims to teenage hipness or music credibility. Kylie was very much on my walls and walkman at that time, and I don’t think baggy XXL James t-shirts were ever cutting edge fashion. It’s just that whenever my teenage brain needed a dose of ‘grown up’ Lloyd Cole seemed like the most grown up and - more importantly - the coolest grown up around.
When I eventually got around to growing up a bit myself, Lloyd remained several paces ahead. By the time I was experiencing the academia blues and government grants he sang about in 1984, he had already given up his search for ‘a religious girl with child-baring hips and a wedding veil’ and was imploring his latest lost love to ‘take a half of everything and please go.’ To me these were the rites of passage chopped into bite-sized pieces, ready to be washed down with glugs of red wine, whiskey and cigarettes – a more interesting mix than the cheap bitter and triples-for-a-pound I was living off.
Fifteen years on I’ve caught up some more. Sadly, whilst I might have learnt how fall in and out of love, drink for pleasure more than paralysis and wear a suit without looking like a complete dick, I still don’t look as cool or brooding as Lloyd on the cover on 1993’s Bad Vibes. And yet – somewhat reassuringly - neither does he.
Not to suggest that he has done a Boy George. The Lloyd Cole who toured Australia last week was still Hollywood handsome and - despite self-depreciatingly suggesting otherwise – trim. What was missing was the attitude. For me the loveliness of songs like Let’s Get Lost and Undressed were evidence enough at the time that his Mr Grumpy act was just that, but Cole’s moody, gentle arrogance and unapologetic seriousness were very much part of his post-Commotions shtick. Album covers and tour posters determinedly keep up the charade, but these days Lloyd in the flesh is humble, personable and a tad less serious than he used to be.
His show at the Thornbury Theatre reminded me of his initials-sake Leonard Cohen’s breezy live performances earlier this year (indeed Cohen's Tower of Song makes an early appearance). Cole’s more relaxed approach is inclusive but takes nothing away from the music itself which, if anything, is more potent for the clarity with which the words can be heard over his lone acoustic guitar.
Reinvented over the past few years as a self-styled folk singer, Cole has become adept at mining and recasting gems from his 25-year catalogue. The concert’s two-part set offered acoustic takes from just about every album from Rattlesnakes to his recent rarities box set, Cleaning Out The Ashtrays with some songs radically reinvented, others trimmed down to their bare bones.
Amongst such diversity, it was noteworthy how often the word young seemed to crop up. The sublime Don’t Look Back (‘life seems never ending, when you’re young’), Music in a Foreign Language ('forgive me if I'm less than awed, by your world-weary twenty-six year old') and Woman in a Bar (in which Cole declares himself 'no longer angry, no longer young, no longer driven to distraction not even by Scarlett Johansson’) share a ruefulness that camouflages the sixteen years that elapsed between their creation.
Such sage self-reflection is nothing new (as if to prove it, the evening starts with 29’s memorable couplet ‘life begins at 30 so I have been told, I can easily believe it the way I’m getting on’) but the idea that youth always feel like it’s slowly slipping away – even when you’re approaching 50 and should probably have gotten over it – is an interesting one; doubly so for someone who has spent time wishing away his youth and looking at people like Cole for inspiration on how to age.
Still I came away from the show with a sense that Cole is reasonably content with his lot. Relaxed and jovial, he seems keenly aware of his position somewhere between ex-pop star and travelling salesman hawking his wares. It’s some way from Top of the Pops and next-big-thing status in the NME, but though his younger self might have baulked at the idea it’s clear he understands the privilege of being a musician and the continued opportunity to make a living from it. Not a bad place to be, babe.
Musically I would be remiss not to admit that after three perfect rounds down under of Cole solo and acoustic, it would be lovely to see him pull an electric guitar out of his kitbag. His folksinger period has been wonderful and I’m sure it’s nice to travel the world without having to worry about others people's egos, but it’s been a while since we saw him with even the smallest of touring groups. Perhaps next time?
As for me, well, as long as Cole continues to document his times with style, there is no chance of me ever closing the age gap. Maybe my lesson is to enjoy being where I am too.