From the Irish Times, 6 June 1994.


Michael Cunningham reports on the perils of joining an e-mail fanclub -- 500 messages a week and nothing on.

If you're not an Elvis Costello fan, skip this story now. After all, I'm talking to/with/about The Converted. And if you're Elvis himself, well, just jump to the final paragraph.

Last April, browsing through UCD's huge compendium of Internet user-groups, I spied the Elvis Costello Mailing List. It's a free daily service (run from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of all places) which collects e-mail from EC fans and automatically sends it to other subscribers around the world. So I signed up, not knowing what to expect. What, after all, could a few scraps of info on an electronic chain-letter do to satisfy your average EC obsessive (not a fan -- a bloody fanatic)?

The came the flood. Seventy or 80 mail messages. Every 24 hours. Day in, day out. Turn your back for one moment and your hard disk is clogged up. Besides the scale of it, it's impossible not to be impressed by the sheer speed and the rich babble of dozens upon dozens of voices. Mostly North American ones (such is the bias of the Internet), a surprisingly high proportion of females (given the almost male-only character of most Irish bulletin boards), in a lot of straightforward conversations.

Naturally enough, these are sprinkled with what are called FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) such as where EC got his stagename -- and sheer trivia. Like the shopper from Villanova University in Pennsylvania: "Yesterday when I was doing my daily-because-I-didn't-do-it-on-the-weekend shopping in the supermarket, the store's loudspeakers suddenly cranked out the muzak version of _Veronica_. At first I was appalled, but after a few moments I thought it was kinda cool. I found myself boppin' down the aisles."

Even so, it's like entering a transglobal fanclub. One where members offer each other lifts to the next gig, or give alerts of his upcoming TV appear- ances (yes, after RTE's premiere of Roddy Doyle's _Family_ I tipped them off about EC's soundtrack), or respond instantly to reviews in the music press. One user even typed up all 964 words of legendary rock writer Greil Marcus's controversial, unfavorable review of the new album.

Others write mini-reviews of the concert in the their town the night before. For example, by 10 a.m. out time on May 8th, I'd received the entire setlist for the previous night's gig in Mountain View, California: 21 numbers, plus another eight songs in three encores. It's a thrill to discover that in among the new numbers, EC has resurrected one of your favourite oldies such as _High Fidelity_. Meanwhile Pam gave her no-nonsense, instant observations about the same gig, far more sensible than many a rock scribe or fawning fanzine.

Lyrics are another online issue -- sleeve notes rarely get them 100 per cent right anyway, and EC latest album avoids them altogether, giving listeners plenty to work out. There are even detailed discussions of chords, often confused because there's no standard international ASCII shorthand for any- thing which deviates from bog-standard chord shapes.

Frequent contributor Melinda offers her version of Sleep of the Just, pleading "I really need some help in the bridge!!!" Within 24 hours Mark has uploaded a modified (and more accurate) rendition (adding a "Desperately seeking tickets" plea for the Atlanta show). It's a rolling thread: Melinda replies, interspersing her comments ("yeah, okay, this is good") between the actual lines. "Ah, much easier to do the walk-up from G7 to C -- hey, I know the walk-up is cheesy, but I like it!"

And then there are the magnificent spoofs. A guy called Rich says there's a new interactive CD-Rom calling _Talking Liberties_ -- EC's "complete oeuvre to date" including interviews, still pictures, video clips, "even choreographies of some of his dance numbers". Two days later, Michele takes the bait: "Is this for real? My husband and I purchased a CD-Rom drive this weekend, and this type of thing would be the most wonderful addition to our fledgling library of discs."

Rich comes clean: it's part of a running gag about imaginary album titles such as _My Yam Is, Too_ ("Vegetarian songs"), _Grit Happy!_ ("Highway de-icing technology") and _Bootle Youth_ ("Memoirs of growing up in Lanc- ashire").

And where are EC and the Attractions in all of this? (Ironically, one of his first jobs was a computer operator at Elizabeth Arden in Acton -- the "vanity factory" of a song or two). Well, Marsh Gooch from Seattle tells us how he and his wife bumped into bass player Bruce Thomas when the band hit town. "I took him to our favourite restaurant, Rattlers." They talk about the Internet mailing list, and its debates over Bruce's book (his reply to those who don't like/get his account: "Tell them to look up 'irony' in the dictionary.") As for the fanclub in cyberspace, Bruce reckons "there are probably a few people who need to get a life." Even so, he agrees to go online live to answer our questions straight after the tour.

Elvis's own views about fandom are fairly scathing. As he put it in a recent interview for Q magazine: "There's a part of me which is flattered that people should get so hot under the collar but there's another part of me which thinks, "I hope I never get trapped in a lift with these nasty little trainspotters."

Yet even though EC is an incredibly down-to-earth block, I hardly feel guilty about my brief time trapped in his online user group. With all its trivia, spoofs, reviews, newsflashes, personal reactions and inter- pretations, it's a fairly mature mini-community, with a breadth and dynamic to which print doesn't do much justice. This wasn't a mere fanclub newsletter (boring, one-way, sporadic and out of date) but sophis- ticated and -- that much abused word nowadays -- highly _interactive_.

After a month, though, I had to give up. No, not because these were nasty little trainspotters, but because the hard drive and my own fragile read-only memory couldn't take it any more. There's no way I'm going to spend over an hour a day reading and answering mail about even the greatest guitarist, writer and singer in the world. Finally, reluctantly, I "unsubscribe". But not before Paolo (from Staffs University in England) pops in: "Hi! Does anyone out there know of any McCartney or Beatles fanclubs on the Internet?" No way, Jose.

[There is some closing information, now hopelessly outdated, on how to subscribe to the EC list, and some music-related mailing list addresses.]