From: Kevin Miller
hi...this article appeared in Scotland on Sunday [13 Nov 94? -mjs]...
local sunday paper...thought you might be interested....excuse any
Twenty years on, with 300 songs and 18 albums yo his credit, Elvis Costello
is as busy as ever.
Craig McLean finds out what makes him run
In the smokey beery confines of the Metropole Hotel in Aberdeen, the Mean
Machine country and Western club is in session. The young bucks on stage
have already had their stab at tears in beer melancholy with a lurching
paddle through hank Cochrans 'He's got you'. Johny Cash'sCry Cry Cry swings
with the kind of honky tonk sass that only a bunch of skinny spivvy
pub-rock Londoners in their mid-twenties can muster. The Mean Machine
regulars, unreconstructed country crumblies, are unimpressed.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions plough on regardless. "I got loaded last
night on a bottle of gin", Costello sings. He knows they can cut it. Just
last month they were in Johnny Cash's lakeside house near Nashville, The
month before they were in Los Angeles recording a TV special with George
Jones and friends - friends like Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette and Waylon
Jennings,. Costello is only 27, but Jones has already recorded one of his
songs, written when Costello was barely into his twenties. It might not be
immediately apparent to the Mean Machine, but this gawky geek in front of
them wears his hard won country spurs with pride.
Thirteen years on from that heated night in July in Aberdeen - documented
on the recent re-release of a re-packaged album Almost Blue - the weavings
and veerings of Elvis Costello's muse are well documented. Still, he says,
after 18 albums in 17 years, its all about "finding new ways to talk to
He went to Nashville in 1981 to recover the covers collection Almost Blue
because he was attracted to the "universal stories" that country music
told. Having hit home with his first album, 1977's My Aim is True, he had
endured 3 and a half years of constant toil, including three American
tours. Now he was disillusioned with songwriting, his ambition, forged in
the red-hot foundry of youth and acclaim, to "just be the dominant thing",
frustratingly unrealised. hence the lure of other peoples songs, of
It seemed like vainglorious folly on the part of this twitchy New Wave
brat. But it worked, whatever the Mean Machine thought. As the sticker on
the album at the time warned:"may produce radical reactions in narrow
Not long after, with the success of Almost Blue, and its lead off single,
'A Good Year for the Roses', Costello rationalized his dilemma and pricked
his ballooning dreams of world domination, "I realises that that wasn't
going to happen with the kind of music I made, because there's too many
different angles. It's not easy for a lot of people to get hold of."
And so, onwards and sideways. Elvis Costello sits in the offices of his
record company in London. Forty now, he is wearing a suit of brown
corduroy, worsted wool waistcoat, cream shirt and socks, and brown slip-on
shoes. He has the garb and the girth of the landed gentry, a cheery country
squire, say, for whom gout will one day be a bally nuisance.
This is the Elvis who lives on the outskirts of Dublin, with a big garden -
"its not like and estate or anything" - where he can make as much noise as
he likes, and enjoy the peace and quiet that this songwriter's songwriter
The other Elvis is the wired performer, the punk veteran precariously
balancing dignity, energy and attitude. He was up there in July, playing
the Galsgow Barrowlands, reunited with his old sparring partners, The
Attractions, for the first time since 1986.
The suit was still black and the glasses still blacker. Elvis Costello and
the Attractions, having dabbled with beards, bimbos, and Brodskies - and
Jonathan Ross- were back doing what they did best.
Brutal Youth was hardly the return to the glory days of This Years Model and
Olivers army that it was proclaimed, But for Costello's disciples, smarting
from the birds nest tange of songs on Spike, Mighty like a Rose, and most
recently, his conceptual collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet, the
Juliet Letters, the new albums tub thumping simplicity was manna from
" I grew a beard and i grew my hair long and it freaked people out" shrugs
Costello. Ne can't understand the fuss. "They thought I had gone mad or I
was being tremendously self indulgent."
"Then the Juliet Letters was something that wasn't for everybody, and i
make no apologies for that. But the people that did come, people that had
never bought a record of mine because it was too loud, too shouty or too
twangy....then they hear the Juliet Letters, then the hear Londons
Brilliant Parade, and its not such a big difference"
"Its still composed music. One is using slightly harder sounds, but it is
still a song they can understand. So maybe they've eased into your music"
He is, he repeatedly insists, "not trying to sell a million records every
time". He has talked of writing songs as an apprenticeship, and is
constantly on the lookout for challenges. If this means shedding
recalcitrant fans, so be it. Others, usually, will take their places,
whether it is the millions of Americans who took Veronica from Spike into
the Top Ten, or the more urbane, mature music fans in this country who
defied the critical mauling and actually quite liked the Juliet letters.
Infamously, he replied to a request for material by Transition Vamps
singularly untalented singer, Wendy James, by writing her an entire album in
one weekend. This was not prostitution on Costello's part, merely another
way of developing his craft.
Early on, in 1983, this near academic approach to writing had happier
results with Every Day I Write the Book from Punch the Clock."We made a
very concious effort to re-engage to the pop audience of that time. The
whole reason that that album doesn't sound very good now is because it was
made with the pop manners of 1983. But its got good songs on it - its got
Shipbuilding on it which is a really good piece".
Through Shipbuilding, Costello Met chet baker, supplier of the song's world
weary trumpet solo. Costello gave him a tape of Almost blue, written with
the troubled genius in mind. Elvis heard nothing for 5 years, until baker's
"It was very sad - he'd just fallen out of a window in Amsterdam. Next
thing I know I'm doing this interview and this journalist says I've got
this tape, Chet Baker doing Almost Blue...."
These days Costello is as prolific as ever, steadily augmenting his
catalogue of 300 songs. Following on from his collaboration with friend
Alan Bleasdale on GBH, he is working on the music for the playwrights next
drama - "a multiparted thing, very long, very dense emotionally"
He is writing a musical for the theatre - and he's quick to preempt the
obvious "Its not Andrew Lloyd Webber" Recently he has written specifically
for The Dubliners Ronnie Drew and June Tabor.
"Her 'I want to vanish' is the best cover I have ever had; its the most
beautiful rendition of any song I 've ever written for anybody, and I feel
it really hits the mark of what I was trying to get in the song, and it
seems to suit her really well. I feel completely satisfied by that."
But its not always gratifying being a songwriter, even when you still enjoy
the rare luxury of escaping your garret and venting your spleen nightly to
(once again) adoring audiences.
For one, Linda Ronstadt sang Alison and four million americans loved it.
"It was a bloody awful version," says Costello. But the royalties were
For another, Elvis tells of how he wrote what he thought "was a great song"
for septaugenarian blues man Charlie Brown, in keeping with the pianists
preferred repertoire of elegant ballads from the forties, thick with rhymes:
'you find your tongue is tied, your words escape and hide, but she's so
patient and kind, she's prepared to read your mind, that's all very well,
till you find, because of the wine you drank, your mind is just a blank'
"I thought wow man, he's gonna love that, he can really be elegant with
that," Costello grins."but when i got the record he'd dispensed with all
the chords in the song and just done a blues based on the song. And he just
kept the hook line 'I wonder how she knows'. And he changed the words to 'I
find it hard to think when I drink'! I was overdoing it I guess"
The overhauled song was published as a co-credit with Brown. Costello
published the original. Mary Coughlan duly covered it "It worked out well,
I got two for one!" chuckles the punk poet turned songwriters songwriter
turned punk poet (revisited).
"You've got to be free with it" he shrugs again, a craftsman and a
pragmatist to the last
Kevin Miller....Edinburgh Scotland