In this day and age, you don’t need to go far to find cruelty. Kindness is in much shorter supply.
And someone who can pull off the trick of being cruel to be kind is rarer still.
This is a difficult area, but Nick Lowe isn’t singing about a slight misjudgement or an unfortunate misinterpretation of someone else’s words. Somehow, he’s ended up in a relationship with an overly critical partner who claims she’s only hurting him to be kind in the long run.
That approach might be fair enough when you’re trying to persuade a teenager to switch off their video game so they can do their homework instead. Your teenager might think that’s cruel, but you can be pretty sure you’re being kind really.
But when an adult constantly undermines another adult, you need to question who really has whose best interests at heart.
In “Cruel To Be Kind”, we’re never told what their conversation is about, but we learn a lot about the way Nick Lowe feels about it…
Oh, I can’t take another heartache
Though you say you’re my friend, I’m at my wit’s end
You say your love is bona fide, but that don’t coincide
With the things that you to do
When I ask you to be nice, you say
You gotta be cruel to be kind in the right measure
Cruel to be kind, that’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind means that I love you
One of the main reasons I love “Cruel To Be Kind” is the way Nick Lowe rhymes “bona fide” with “coincide”. I’ve always been jealous of songwriters who can bring unusual words into a song and somehow make them fit. This is a great example.
The other great thing Nick Lowe does in the opening verse of “Cruel To Be Kind” is let us into a secret that probably took me 30 years to work out for myself.
It’s this — if there is any disparity between what people say and what they do, their real feelings are…without exception…betrayed by what they do, not by what they say.
Think of all the organisations who claim to value their customers and their people beyond measure in a glossy annual report but whose behaviour on the ground demonstrates little but contempt for their customers and the people who toil away inside the business to make the company, and its senior people, look good.
Ask yourself… is the fairest measure of that business what they say or what they do?
I’ve learned never to listen to someone who claims to be acting “bone fide”…a Latin expression meaning literally “in good faith” or “with your best interests at heart”. That’s rarely what’s going on…
Well I do my best to understand, dear
But you still mystify and I want to know why
I pick myself up off the ground
To have you knock me back down, again and again
And when I ask you to explain, you say
You gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure
People put up with a lot. Especially when it’s someone you care for, your instinct is to forgive them, to put the burden on yourself for not being good enough, to excuse their behaviour…however outrageous…because they tell you they only behaved that way because of something you did.
That’s how every abusive relationship works, whether physical or emotional abuse lies at its heart.
Start swallowing that message too often and they really do have you trussed up like a turkey. From someone who’s been there, let me tell you if you’re getting knocked down again and again by the same person, it’s time to get out.
The older I get the more I realise there is no such thing as being cruel to be kind.
If you want to be kind, be kind.
If you want someone to do something differently, be kind.
If someone does something you don’t like, be kind.
If your needs aren’t being met, be kind.
If you want to be close to someone, be kind.
There is such a thing as being cruel to be kind. There’s cruelty and there’s kindness. It’s impossible to have both elements together at the same time.
In the end, I suspect that’s pretty much the conclusion Nick Lowe came to.
One time, after being knocked down for the umpteenth time and dragging himself back to his feet again, he probably walked out for good.
You might think that’s not a great answer, but it’s better than being trapped in a relationship where your very sense of self-identity is being constantly undermined.
I’ve often wondered how this sentiment played out in his career. As the 70s gave way to the 80s, Nick Lowe made the journey from performer to producer.
One of the first acts to sign for iconic British label Stiff Records, Nick Lowe went on to produce bands like Elvis Costello and The Attractions, The Pretenders and The Damned.
Being a record producer isn’t easy. Not every act is 100% on form every day. There are times you have to give an act “the hard word” when they’re not delivering at the standard you require.
I hope he remembered his own words about the importance of just being kind, and left the cruelty out of it.
In the long run, that’s better for everyone…
If you’ve got this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s song here…