Nick Lowe just this past summer released an excellent cover version of the Bee Gees-penned “Heartbreaker,” which was a hit in 1982 for Dionne Warwick. Lowe has been on the other side of that equation in his career. Elvis Costello famously turned his “(What’s So Funny) ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding” into a signature anthem. And Lowe also penned a song for his one-time father-in-law Johnny Cash that eventually was recorded by The Man In Black on his acclaimed comeback album with Rick Rubin, 1994’s American Recordings. As it turned out, Lowe’s own version of the song gained its own wide audience thanks to its inclusion in the pilot episode of a television series that turned out to do all right. But more on that in a moment.
Lowe’s original intent was to write a song that would prop Cash up at a career ebb, as he told Sodajerker in a 2014 interview. “It was during that period from the mid-70s up until he started working with Rick Rubin, which was probably the lowest part of his career,” Lowe said. “He was doing this show at Wembley, which was a big family affair … he wasn’t a well man and he was working his arse off to keep this thing afloat. And I had this idea for a song and Carlene (Carter, Cash’s daughter and Lowe’s ex-wife) told him about it, and he said, ‘I’ll come ‘round and hear it on the way to Wembley,’ and he turned up with his whole entourage at our house. And I played him the song, which was incredibly embarrassing because it wasn’t really ready yet. And he said to me, it’s not right but it’s a really good idea … and every time I’d see him after that he’d always ask me, ‘How’s ‘The Beast In Me’ coming on?’ And every time he asked, I’d kind of mentally take it out of the box and look at it again.”
“And finally, after he did a show at the Royal Albert Hall and asked me about it again, I went home and finished it! And then I sent it to him, and I didn’t hear anything, and then my stepdaughter went to stay at his house in Jamaica and she told me, Grampa’s singing your song to everybody … and the next thing I knew, it came out on the American Recordings. I was really thrilled, because it is a good song and he was a brilliant bloke. I really loved him.”
“The Beast In Me” was a perfect fit for Cash, whose impossibly deep voice had the ability to project the song’s complex mixture of menace and vulnerability. What makes the song so clever is how the narrator complains about this alter ego as if it is an entity of malice and destruction completely separate from him. And, as the first verse makes clear, it is hardly containable: “The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars/ Restless by day, and by night/ Rants and rages at the stars.”
The second verse brings some subtle motivation into the picture, with Lowe hinting at some past pain that has caused this Mr. Hyde to emerge from Dr. Jekyll. “And in the twinkling of an eye/ Might have to be restrained,” he mentions about this monster, suggesting that it can go from charming to unhinged without any warning. In the bridge, the tug of war continues, as the narrator explains just how persuasive and deceptive his other self can be. “That is when I must beware,” he sings, the melody line deepening as if to warn the listener of the other shoe about to drop.
In the final verse, Lowe implies that the beast is more popular than the restrained part of himself. And his need to rage is unfettered by occasion or location: “They’ve seen him out late in my clothes/ Patently unclear/ If it’s New York of New Year.” The refrain is a cry for mercy: “God help the beast in me.”
Cash got the jump by a few months on Lowe in terms of recording the song, as the songwriter’s own take came out a few months later in 1994 on the album The Impossible Bird. But it was Lowe’s version of “The Beast In Me” which David Chase chose to close out the opening episode of The Sopranos. Those lyrics gave anti-hero Tony Soprano a theme that would characterize him for the remainder of that groundbreaking show, a prime example of a song belatedly finding the ideal setting to showcase its brilliance.