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Question and Answer of reader questions
Blender, 2002-04-01
- Phil Sutcliffe


Dear Superstar: Elvis Costello (Blender, Apr/May 2002)

by Phil Sutcliffe

It's a typically wet Dublin afternoon, and out on the street a familiar set of frowning eyes peers through the rain behind equally familiar black-rimmed glasses. Elvis Costello, dressed in black, briefcase in hand, guitar slung over his shoulder, pokes newfangled Euro coins into a parking meter and beetles across the road to meet Blender.

Costello is trailing an entourage of precisely nobody, not even a PR flack, his every thread labeled OWN MAN. Now 47, he has lived near Dublin with his wife, Caitlin O'Riordan, the former Pogues bassist, for 12 years. But such stability and civil demeanor hardly correlate with the Elvis Costello who first raised British and American hackles in the late '70s. Then, he looked like a bad-tempered Buddy Holly, and his attitude was as snarly and punk as Johnny Rotten's. But safety pins never suited him, and his key songs ("Pump it Up," "Watching the Detectives," "Oliver's Army") delivered generational rage with scalpel subtlety rather than wrecking-ball clangor.

Now, having spent the past decade concentrating on what he dubs "art project collaborations" with the likes of Burt Bacharach, Brodsky String Quartet and opera singer Anne-Sofie von Otter, Costello has returned to angriest-nerd form with a tough-rocking new album, When I was Cruel, his twenty-sixth overall. Costello is a legend in his living-color prime, and after giving Blender a lift in his Mercedes two-seater, he happily fields your devilishly knowledgeable questions.

"Do you have any tattoos?" (Bobbylee, Mansfield, Ohio)

Certainly not -- Filthy habit!

"You were a computer operator and a roadie when you were young. Does that mean you're practical, good at putting up shelves and so on?" (Tallricka, Austin, Texas)

[Laughs] I was never a roadie. That's a myth. But I was a computer operator at Midland Bank and Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. In the 70s, operating a computer was the ultimate bluffer's job. You wore a white lab coat and people assumed you were some kind of scientist, because you had this giant machine with twinkling lights and tapes revolving. I'd sit there with my feet up, reading the paper, writing songs and booking gigs. But to answer your question, I come from a long line of completely impractical people. My grandfather used to scotch-tape carpet to the stairs.

"I know that your son Matthew, from your first marriage, is a musician. Did you ever dissuade him from pursuing such a dishonorable profession?" (Edholiman2, Edmond, Oklahoma)

No. Music's been the family vocation for four generations. My granddad played trumpet on ocean liners and in silent-movie cinema orchestras. My dad played trumpet in a dance band. Matthew's 27 now and he's doing grand, but he's quite private. I should respect that and say no more.

"Can you sing us a bit of your dad's favorite song?" (Koozie, Lawrence, Arkansas)

Probably not. It could be anything from a piece of the Latin Mass to an old standard like "All the Things You Are" or maybe "the Fields of Athenry." He has broad taste. He was a trumpet player, so maybe I should hum you a chorus of his favorite Clifford Brown solo.

"Does anyone call you by your given name, Declan MacManus?" (Snuffinroostr, Brooklyn, New York)

My wife. A few friends here in Ireland. I don't care for anyone I don't know to walk up to me and say "Hey, Declan!" That's overly familiar and likely to get them ignored.

"What do you consider to be the greatest era in rock and roll history?" (Jeff Jojen, Memphis)

Probably 1965-66. Bob Dylan was getting very expansive verbally with Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde. The Beatles had Rubber Soul, then Revolver. It was starting to go psychedelic at the edges, but you still had the tight song structure. As good as 1977 to 1979, when I first started.

"Your beard comes and goes. Does it have a rationale?" (Billsy, Bowling Green, Kentucky)

If you don't use a razor, it grows.

"How do you feel about musicians selling their songs for ads?" (Lewis22, Chapel Hill, North Carolina)

I've turned them all down, including Nike, which wanted to use "Pump It Up" about 10 years ago. That would probably have been a million quid. My tours have never been sponsored, either. I don't work for some corporation; I work for me. I'm not against the modern world. I just don't think everything's for sale.

"What's your favorite vice now, and what was it 25 years ago?" (Dkyschreiber, St. Paul, Minnesota)

I don't have vices; I have bad habits. But 25 years ago, it was gin.

"I'm thrilled to hear that ex-Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas are on your next album. Did you ask bassist Bruce Thomas too, or will that never happen because of that nasty "novel" he wrote about the band?" (Budinsbt, Chicago)

It's nothing to do with the book. We've worked together since then. I accepted it even though I thought it betrayed any sense of loyalty. He's not on When I Was Cruel because he's bad-tempered and miserable and he doesn't concentrate.

"You're often written about as if you're a difficult person, but how cranky can you be, considering all the collaborations you've been a part of?" (shawpi72, Marshall, Texas)

You'll notice all my collaborations have been with musicians, not with journalists [laughs]. The first big one was with Paul McCartney in the late 80s. We wrote 12 songs. That set a pretty high level. I can't think of an occasion when it didn't work out.

"It's unfair that wearing hats always makes people think you're going bald, isn't it?" (Lilchickn, Detroit)

Oh, I've always liked to wear hats. I remember a picture taken of me at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York in '77. I was affecting the young Sinatra look. Going bald is just life. Less hair, more face. I don't think anyone ever bought my records because of the way I look.

"I live in Los Angeles, where you're currently billed as an "artist in residence" at UCLA. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that you hated this town." (Pintobeen2, Los Angeles)

[Snorts] I did have an aversion to Los Angeles, but that was because I couldn't drive until I was 35. After that, I found the more interesting neighborhoods. The "Artist in residence" title is deceptive. I would have called it "Visiting artist". I've done precisely one appearance so far, and there are two or three more planned: a rock & roll concert in early summer and a performance of Il Sogno, the ballet score an Italian ballet company commissioned me to write.

"What do you and your wife do for fun?" (Schnapee1, Biloxi, Mississippi)

Travel. Caitlin's the adventurer in our house. She proposes these grand expeditions. I imagine reasons why it'll be a disaster. Last Easter, we went to Ethiopia. Most recently, it was South Georgia in the South Atlantic, four days from Tierra Del Fuego on a little ship. We sailed around the island, lived on the boat and went ashore in Zodiac boats. On the beach, we were surrounded by 70,000 king penguins.

"I've heard your songs in everything from The Sopranos to Notting Hill to ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. Do you enjoy hearing your music used this way?" (Ou8 17, Pomona, California)

Usually. The Sopranos used "High Fidelity" and "Complicated Shadows" as superb, intriguing dramatic extensions. I'm always impressed when someone looks deeper into the repertoire, beyond "Alison" or "Watching the Detectives". In fact, I missed a lot of opportunities early on by being too critical or ignorant. I talked myself out of providing songs for the Bob Hoskins film "The Long Good Friday" by being obnoxious and drunk.

"What's your impression of America's response to the events of last September 11?" (Skncori, Dayton, Ohio)

That's very difficult. On a personal level, I felt an abhorrence of what happened in New York. I have friends who live there; I know their children. In terms of musical response, there's been the great and the laughable. There was Neil Young's performance of "Imagine" on the [America: A tribute to heroes] telethon -- a song I can't stand made to mean something by his supernatural performance. Then you've got Alan Jackson at the Country Music Awards singing, "I'm not sure I could tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran." Well, there's the problem: America's separation from the rest of the world. A president who can't point on a map to most of the countries he's considering bombing. But I'm heartened by the number of Americans who are asking, "What's the matter with us? Where did this come from?" It's not individual Americans who have to answer; it's the corporations that tempt the governments of developing countries to buy weapons they don't need.

"Who truly understands you?" (Joenarthur, Elizabeth, New Jersey)

A handful of people, I'm sure, believe they know me. But truly? My wife. My family. A few close friends whom I would turn to for advice.

"Do you get "divine inspiration" when you're writing songs?" (r84lgs, Yuma, Arizona)

I was baptized a Catholic and I loved the Latin Mass when I was a kid, but I haven't been to church for a long time. There's some sort of order to life. And it's true I do not know where a handful of my tunes come from. Usually, I concentrate and rattle thoughts around for a long time. But sometimes the song, or part of it, will just pop out of your head in 30 seconds. I don't know if that approaches "Divinity". I suspect you can convince yourself you're "channeling" when in fact you're just ripping off someone else's style.

"Pardon my cynicism, but why are your records being reissued yet again? Is this just a ploy to get me to buy This Year's Model for the third time? (By the way, it worked.)" -prven7, Durango, Colorado

[Laughs] Well, first of all, thank you. But there are two CDs for the price of one on this edition, and we've found a lot of tracks that weren't available to us for the earlier reissues. I wanted to make a better story out of my old work. I'm offering good value, so I don't have any guilt about it.

"What's the story behind the new album's "Tear off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)"? I read it was written for a proposed WB television show about supermodel secret agents." (aswell, Mountain Home, Idaho)

Not quite. It was a record-industry satire in the guise of a spy fantasy which involved this Russian girl pop band that was trying to destabilize capitalism by spending all of the corporation's money. I was 'developing' it for nine months. Which meant taking meetings and people talking rubbish to one another until it fizzled out.

"Has your life gotten better as you've grown older?" (claysldys, Wilson, North Carolina)

I hope so! I'm not working in an office; I'm not working down a mine. I'm doing what I want to do.

"Do you wear contact lenses in real life?" (ak47, Portland, Oregon)

In real life? No. I can't bear anything touching my eyes. Horrifying. The good thing is I have an enormous nose, and glasses cut it in half.

"I opened my Rykodisc reissue of Goodbye Cruel World to find your sleeve notes telling me "congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album!" Please send me a copy of your best one to make up for it." (Thabod, Quantico, Virginia)

No. [Cackles] I was being facetious. There isn't one album I favor over all the rest. Well, I suppose sometimes it might be Imperial Bedroom. Or, in the last six weeks, King of America, because I've been performing those songs with Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.

"What do you think of pop music these days?" (Shandylike, Stamford, Connecticut)

If you concentrate on the manufactured stuff, you'll only end up depressed. I think pop is a broad church, and from the best of hip-hop to the best of rock and roll, pop music's doing fine.

"What would you like your tombstone to say?" (rbysbike, Troy, New York)

Glug Glug Glug? I'm not even bothered if it has my name on it. I have no interest in posterity whatsoever. After you're dead, who cares?


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