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"The Beast In Me," by Nick Lowe

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Nick Lowe is best associated with pure pop for now people.

But his most stunning composition is arguably "The Beast In Me," popularized as a desperate ballad on Johnny Cash's 1994 "American Recordings" record for Lost Highway. Producer Rick Rubin exorcised the burning quest for redemption of "The Beast In Me" from Cash's profound soul.

Between 1979 and 1990 Lowe was married to Cash's daughter Carlene Carter (the daughter of June Carter Cash and country singer Carl Smith) so he had in inside take on the Man in Black......

......."I actually thought of it for John Cash," Lowe said a couple weeks ago before kicking off the second leg of his tour as the opening act for Wilco. "I thought it was a great idea. It came right before he was playing a show in London and I stayed up the night before the show and with the help of one or two bottles of wine I wrote the song. But I wrote it too quickly. I had the first verse, but rushed through the rest. The next day Carlene called him and said, 'Nick's written this song'"

""

"The Beast In Me" begins with minimalist poetry. Every word counts:

"The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me
."

Cash, his wife June Carter Cash and their band visited Lowe and Carlene Carter the next day to hear the song.
"It seemed like their entire road crew showed up squeezed into our tiny sitting room " Lowe recalled. "I had to play this song in front of all these people. And I had the most vile hangover. As far as I was concerned I had been Johnny Cash the night before singing the song. Anyway I made a real hash of it. It was very embarrassing. I didn't remember how it went, it was awful.
"And he made me do it again, and it was even worse the second time. Both times when I finished there was silence in the room, except for the odd cough. I never wanted to hear this thing again. But John obviously saw something in it. He said, 'It's not quite finished is it?' He was quite cheerful."

Cash instructed Lowe to continue working on "The Beast In Me."

Every time Cash saw Lowe he would ask how the song was progressing. "I never could get it any further than this first verse, which was perfect," he said. "And that's the way it stayed for 12 years. Then he played the Albert Hall in London. I went to see him. He asked me again about it. On this occasion I went home and finished it just like that. It all joined up. It didn't seem like it was a 12 year gap."

Lowe recorded a demo with a couple overdubs. He sent it to Cash and never heard a word. "Then my stepdaughter Tiffany had been visiting him in Jamaica and said 'Grandpa is playing your song to everyone who comes to the house'," Lowe said with a chuckle. 'He gets his guitar out and plays it.' The next thing I knew, he recorded it."
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Did Lowe think of giving the song to someone else during the 12-year gap?

"A good song is a good song," he answered. "It was in this rather dodgy film called 'Hangover Part II.' I didn't see it, but a version was done by this fellow (the brooding Mark Lanegan) from the Screaming Trees. It was a fantastic version. If they're good songs they don't date."

And that's how Lowe got to Tom T. Hall's 1968 ballad "Shame on the Rain" which he covers on his latest "This Old Magic" record for Yep Roc. "It was straight country and I never really like to take Nashville on, if you know what I mean," he continued. "But I love that sort of music. I had to round the edges and make it sound more European somehow.

"When I find a cover, I try to work opposite of what I do when I write my own songs. With my own songs I work away and work away until I start to think that I'm singing a cover. That's when I think the thing is good: when I can't hear myself.
The opposite thing happens when I find a cover song. I work away at it until I start to think I wrote it. In a way I wind up at the same place."

As a hard core Lowe fan I shelled out $9.99 for his recent "Record Store Day' limited edition rockabilly '45 where the B side featured a live version of "(I've Changed My) Wild Mind."
"We did the live track at the Old Town School of Folk Music (in Chicago)," he said. "I see the interest in vinyl. (The '45 is already fetching $24.99 on eBay). It's not a rumor. I haven't got a turntable anymore. I think my hands are too shaky to put the needle down on the groove. But there is no doubt when you hear it. They've pressed my records in vinyl and they sound fantastic. I'm not surprised people figured out the great CD hoax. We were all suckered into that one."

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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