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"Dear Elvis, You are a bloody genius"
ABCNet, 2002-07-12
- Jane Clifton


Sneaky Feelings For My Miracle Man

by Jane Clifton 12/7/2002

'Dear Elvis,

You are a bloody genius. I've wanted to write and tell you this so many times. The last time was for ‘After The Fall’ on ‘Mighty Like A Rose’ - but then, the moment passed. This time it's for the title track off ‘When I was Cruel’. It is THE BEST. You are SENSATIONAL. I love your voice and the way you write.

Love from

Yeah, right. As if.

The impulse to write something like that happens with every new release. But in my heart of hearts I know that Elvis Costello is not the fan-mail type. It would be like sitting around with James Hird after a match and explaining why I think he is the Einstein of the game.

I've been a diehard Elvis fan for almost a quarter of a century. From ‘Watching The Detectives’ and ‘Radio Radio’, through the good, the middling and the country, right up to now, on the eve of one of his rare Australian tours.

There have been so many highlights I could compose an entire Desert Island
Discs selection based solely on the oeuvre:

1. Shipbuilding
2. Pump It Up
3. The Long Honeymoon
4. God Give Me Strength
5. After The Fall
6. Everyday I Write The Book
7. She (from Notting Hill)
8. So Like Candy
9. Weird Nightmare
10. Strange

It was my younger sister who first introduced me to the concept of '”inches of bookshelf” as a barometer of a writer's worth - a concept forever skewed for me by visions of the collected works of Barbara Cartland, but worth considering when applied to the record rack. The Elvis Costello section, at my house, is thick and fat: 10 vinyls and seven discs. The only notable exception being ‘Almost Blue’ which, for some reason never grabbed me at the time.

Throughout the ages the popular music scene is always littered with one-off, maybe two-times-lucky, hit wonders. Elvis Costello not only keeps on keeping on, he just gets better. Graham Parker and Joe Jackson, from the same era, were pretty good at the time but eventually ran out of puff. Elvis, meanwhile, continues to delight, to push the boundaries, to explore new territory, to not just sit around on his haunches and remember how smart he was back in the '80's. He is a phenomenal songwriter. In syllables per bar alone he is an Olympian: Dylanesque - both of them. In content he is brooding and romantic, witty and visceral, spooky and acerbic; basically, smart as a whip.

“Those in the know, don’t even flatter her,
They go one better
She was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her."
‘When I was Cruel No.2’

“White knuckles on black and blue skin
He didn't mean to hit her but she kept laughing”
‘White Knuckles’

“It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.”

True pearls. Achy breaky genius. And the voice. With its crack in the range where it parts company from the chest to the head at the perfect, dramatic moment. With its stretch and vibrato and its muscular modulation: I'd know it anywhere. Someone recently gave me a tape dub of the latest, and long overdue, CD from Dan Hicks - another old favourite, but with a less impressive shelf-inch quota - on which the El duets on a track I don't even know the name of, due to a lack of liner notes. His voice, immediately recognisable, rocks out and blends perfectly with Hicks to a guitar-basted rockabilly shuffle from hell.

Look, I could go on…And the thing is, you want to tell the guy, after all these years of inordinate listening pleasure, how much you appreciate his talent, but, again, you get the feeling he wouldn't care. He just does his thing whether we like it or not. And we traipse around behind him, like the audience at some piece of theatre in situ: here's Elvis vocalising a piece of literature with The Brodsky Quartet; now here he is at the piano with Burt Bacharach; oh look! there he is again on location with Mike Myers; or trading licks with Elvis Number One's Jordinaires or with Sofie, the Swedish opera singer. He's not checking the demographic or tailoring the tunes, he's just doing what he likes - and that's what makes it so-o good.

In the late 70s I was in a band called Stiletto, which played support to Elvis Costello at Melbourne's Palais Theatre. Not at the concert where he only played for twenty minutes and the outraged fans ripped up the seating in disgust. Nor at the concert where he, allegedly, punched the promoter for taking one backstage photo too many. The other one. Sharing the bill meant also sharing the backstage “hospitality” with the grumpy, scary, putative Attractions and their sleazy manager, the infamous Jake Riviera. Elvis, nowhere to be seen, was apparently holed up in another dressing room with Melbourne relations, while the rest of us made miniscule talk over curly salad sandwiches. But later, as I stood on stage, singing, in my mini-dress made out of an old curtain, I caught sight of Ol' Four Eyes glowering at us from the wings for a brief moment. Even then, he didn't look like the fan-mail type. But this is why the good Lord invented the live concert, and why I'll be going along to his forthcoming gig to clap my arms off and squawk appreciation and yell for more in blissful anonymity - hoping he'll get the message. Hoping he'll get to know how much we've loved his work over the years: looking forward to more new stuff as well as dusting off the old stuff as regular as punching the clock.

“Pee Pee Ess I Ell Oh Vee Ee Why Oh You.”
‘Everyday I Write The Book’

© ABC 2002


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