Elvis Costello: "I don't think anyone has bought a record of mine just because of the way I look."
WHO DOES ELVIS THINK HE IS?
Having borrowed the looks of one rock' n' roll icon and the name of another, Elvis Costello now complains he is misunderstood. But he doesn't care if you don't like him, as long as you enjoy his music. By Sarah Harris.
Elvis Costello was feeling somewhat rattled. He had just had an unpleasant encounter with a telegraph pole along one of the narrow country lanes leading from his eyrie nestled in the green hilltops outside Dublin. But then, according to one of the women from his management company, Elvis Costello is "always having car accidents". A relative newcomer to driving, it seems he disregards the rules of the road in much the same way he breaks the unwritten conventions of the music industry.
Indeed, in many ways, Costello's career can itself be regarded as an accident -- a spontaneous triumph of artistic merit over the careful formulations of a business more suited to Stock, Aitken and Waterman than, well... Costello.
He baffled the critics from the outset. Anyone who went to see him as he played the London pub circuit in the mid-seventies could only have concluded that the outward package was not promising. He looked like a slightly nerdy reincarnation of one dead American rock and roll star, Buddy Holly, and had borrowed the name of another, soon-to-be-dead idol. However, unlike the other Elvis, he didn't sneer so much as snarl.
Since then, Costello's appearance has undergone almost as many changes as his music. The current look is that of an aged beatnik complete with a big beard grown "just to horrify my record company". Both the beard and the resumption of his real name for writing credits are "no big psychological thing", although, he adds, some people do "like to see it as some kind of signpost of moral sickness".
"I don't honestly think anyone has ever bought a record of mine just because of the way I look. I'm not George Michael," he adds unnecessarily. "The people who idealise the image and have a fixed and unswerving version of how you should be have very short memories. I've done shows that have really been ragged for one reason or another and they remember them as glorious good times because that's the kind of business they are in -- nostalgia. I, on the other hand, am still here, still trying to go forward and do different things. If I don't look like a cherished memory of myself, then it's just too bad."
He does not play the PR game and seldom talks to the press because, he claims, journalists misconstrue most of what he says and "make up" the rest. The only reason he has agreed to this interview is because "it's been a while since I've been to Australia and I want to make sure people know I'm coming." (He performs this month.)
He claims to be similarly uninterested in commercial success. "I'm not in this to be famous, I'm in this to write the best music I can," he says. "I think it's a lot to expect that I am going to hold people's attention like [white rap singer] Vanilla Ice, but then my songs will last a lot longer than his. For the moment that he's been famous, he's been more famous than I'll ever be, but he'll never write a song of any consequence. We are not in the same business.
"It's facile when people ask if I worry about whether I'm having less or more success. It's kind of irrelevant and slightly demeaning to the people who buy my records. The fact they are in smaller numbers than Madonna's following doesn't make them lesser people. In my opinion it makes them better people, because it makes them more discerning."
It is this disregard for convention which makes Costello the fine musician he is. With no fear of failure or the unknown, his work cuts from haunting romantic ballads and complicated instrumentals to harsh, anarchic protests.
'I just make music and try and make the best records I can. All of this analysis and psychoanalysis stuff is a lot of bunk.'
Born Declan Patrick McManus in 1954, the son of big band trumpeter and singer Ross McManus, he took the name ofAmerica's favourite son on the advice of Jake Riviera (Andrew Jakeman), one of the founders of Stiff Records, who had also done away with a perfectly servicable moniker.
Costello's critically acclaimed first album, My Aim Is True (1977), appeared on the shelves bearing the slogan "Elvis is King" all over the cover. It caused Costello's publicists apoplexy when Presley died shortly after its release.
"I put my head in my hands and cried," his then PR woman says. "I thought 'that's it -- we might as well wind everything up. People are going to think it's just a sick joke'." The album, which featured the songs Alison, Less Than Zero, Watching The Detectives and Red Shoes, was to remain in the charts for 14 weeks and won the Rolling Stone critics' award as album of the year.
Costello has enjoyed glowing critical acclaim for all but two of his albums. The first to miss the mark was his excursion into the sounds of Nashville, Almost Blue. The second to which critics have reacted negatively is the latest. Mighty Like A Rose, his 13th studio album, has, to some, lived up to the superstition surrounding the number. It features two songs co-written with Paul McCartney and another contributed by his second wife, Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan.
"I'm slightly disappointed that some critics have found fault with this. It's like it's my turn," Costello says. "1 think it's a consequence of having stuck around for 13, 14 years and not ever doing what they want me to do."
Of the earlier Almost Blue, Costello says: "It was obvious that there was no way 1 could sustain the same kind of surprise that you have over your first few records. So it seemed like a very viable experiment to go and do something in which them was no risk, no personal testimony or your own words. A lot of the songs were about country and western topics: love gone wrong, drinking and misery and all that sort of stuff.”
The plaintive quality of the lyrics may have been a means of exorcising some of his own feelings. But as Costcllo warns: "I just make music and try and make the best records I can. All of this analysis and psychoanalysis stuff is a lot of bunk."
Nonetheless, the late seventies represented a bruising time for Costello. He
The former computer operator has taken his revenge on people through his song-writing - preserving their shortcomings in vinyl.
left his wife and their young child, his records were banned from American playlists, and he received more than 100 death threats after it was reported that, in a drunken and "stupid" attempt to goad some other musicians, he called Ray Charles "a blind, ignorant nigger".
"It wasn't done to slander anybody," he says angrily. "It was to start a fight with people that I had contempt for at the moment. It might have been misplaced contempt, but that's the problem with drunken arguments."
Costello’s sensitivity on the subject, understandable, is perhaps a little unreasonable. The singer has never displayed much tolerance of other people's mistakes. Those who misinterpret what he's doing are variously described as "dim", "inept" or just plain "stupid". The former computer operator has been known to take his revenge on people through his song-writing -- preserving their shortcomings in vinyl like meat in aspic.
He also uses his music as a vehicle to make astringent observations on political issues, of which Shipbuilding -- a powerful lament on the Falklands War -- is perhaps the best known and most celebrated.
He wasn't too sold on the Gulf War either, and holds strong views on South Africa. Despite the recent political changes. Costello has refused to lift a ban on distribution of his records in that country. He was recently outraged to receive a communique from distributors in South Africa asking him to lift the ban.
"I was really astounded by the arrogance of the communication. It actually said something along the lines of, 'South Africa in the last 48 hours', and listed George Bush's remarks, the Olympic body's decision, the cricket body's decision and something else which I can't remember as a sign post to the new democratic South Africa.
"Do they seriously think we're that naive? You can't have a little bit of democracy. You've either got democracy or you haven't. It's just mealy-mouthed nonsense to say, 'Oh, we've got to encourage them.' Why?
"It's just stupid. When there's majority rule is when I'll let my records be sold in South Africa."
And of Margaret Thatcher?
"I was glad to see the back of the old bag but it doesn't really change much."
Elvis Costello doesn't really like talking about the past and is not mad about discussing the future. But, as he says, it's not important to like him any more than he likes you, just as long as you enjoy the music.