Costello's road traveled only by himself
He often slows down to listen to what each stop has to say
By DAVE TIANEN
Posted: April 13, 2005
He is - in a sense - a musical tourist.
For Elvis Costello, the road is not just a chance to bring new music to his fans. It's a chance to reimmerse himself in the music that inspired him in the first place. The Monkey Speaks His Mind Tour, which will bring Elvis to the Riverside Theater on Saturday, is no exception.
"I went to the Hank Williams museum in Montgomery, Alabama, recently," Costello said. "I was passing through. It's a great little family-run place. There are a lot of very moving artifacts in there. It has a copy of his death certificate, and it says 'Hank Williams radio singer.' He doesn't go as 'country singer.' It's 'radio singer.' You know, Bing Crosby was a radio singer."
That same sense of discovery seemed very much in play during his swing through Texas, when Costello got to play with two legends - one from the blues and another from rockabilly.
"We played South by Southwest," he said. "I was on stage at Antone's with (Howlin' Wolf guitarist and Milwaukee native) Hubert Sumlin. He has, as you know, not been in great health, but he's doin' great. He was playing up a storm. He introduced Pinetop Perkins, who is still smoking and everything at 91. He was up there playing. He seemed to be in very good form, playing and singing great, and Hubert was tearing it up on the guitar. That was a lot of fun.
"The very next night we drove up to Tulsa, and Wanda Jackson got up and sang 'Crying Time' with us. It's an extraordinary situation that she is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If it's going to have any meaning, that thing, it's got to have Wanda in it."
Don't be shocked if Elvis digs into the roots of polka when he gets to Milwaukee, or ends up jamming with the Violent Femmes.
"Every town has some sort of story attached to it to do with music," Costello said. "There was a musician that came out of that town or a great record that was made there or somebody that passed on there. Whatever story it is, wherever you go, we're visiting these things. It's part of the great mysterious power of records and radio in its better days."
Based on a true story
There seems to be something in particular about the American South that has always fascinated and stirred Costello.
The Monkey Speaks tour is built loosely around Costello's newest album, "The Delivery Man," which he based on a true story from the South.
Able, the main character, has committed a murder in childhood, and the act in many ways defines the rest of his life. Elvis has been playing with the idea for many years.
"It was a story I read in the newspaper, and I based a song on a slightly fictionalized version of this tale I read in the newspaper," Costello said. "I wrote a song ('The Big Light') for Johnny Cash, and he recorded it on an album called 'Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town.' It was one of the records he made just before he signed to American. He did a great version of it. It was sort of about a man who spent his life in prison for accumulated minor crimes, only to admit murder late into his prison life.
"I just thought about people who carry secrets, and I transferred the idea into the character of Able and based "The Delivery Man" song around Able and his relationship to three women - Vivian, Jody and Jody's daughter, Ivy. There are threads left dangling from the story from which people can make their own tale."
Making some connections
"The Delivery Man" is much more straight-ahead rock 'n' roll than much of Costello's recent work, and it seems to be translating to live performance smoothly.
"We try to put together a show that's different every night," he said. "We change a fair degree of numbers, sometimes as many as 10 or 12 of the numbers in the program. We have a lot of tunes. We have a repertoire of about a hundred tunes. We haven't worked consistently over the last four years or so, but since I made 'When I Was Cruel,' this band has existed - The Imposters.
"We tend to introduce ourselves on stage with something we think will be a good start. That might contain a well-known tune or two, or it might just contain some songs we feel like playing. Then we might focus on some songs from the new record."
As a result, each Costello show is a different blend of old and new.
"What is always interesting when you have any group of new songs is you find the songs which are most compatible with the new material," he said. "There are songs which kind of seem to have connections whether musical or lyrical. I've found that songs ranging from 1977 to 1985 have really sat well. 'Blame It on Cain' seems to have something in common with 'The Delivery Man.' Obviously, so do the songs from (Costello's 1985 album) 'King of America.' "
Costello believes that the rigidity of modern radio has done much to undermine and discourage the cross-pollination and experimentation that produced his namesake.
"What a desperate waste the way radio has gone since the day when the management of these different crooners were making recordings off the radio of the shows," he said. "It was so revolutionary what they were doing. . . . When all of this music was close together, the great strengths emerge. That's how you get Elvis Presley. That's how you get rock 'n' roll.
"By putting things in boxes and competing them against each other, you kill the music's ability to become like a chemistry set. You can write reams and reams of musicological analysis of Elvis Presley, but all he did was combine things he loved. He grew up with gospel and the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers and Bill Monroe and Big Maybelle, and all these things get mixed up."
Having said that, Costello added that he believes we are entering a period of upheaval when we may be witnessing the end of CDs, broadcast radio and even record companies.
"I think people are catching on to a different way of listening," he said. "I'm not going to get into the basic morality of illegal downloading. It's a tedious kind of debate that you can never win with the self-righteous people who are convinced that music should be free and who don't respect copyright or anything like that. I can't be talking to people like that anymore.
"The point of it is that the cat is out of the bag now. That technology exists. The legal application of it has the same kind of revolutionizing effect as satellite radio does. Satellite radio is completely killing broadcast radio, because broadcast radio is so governed by the focus group mentality of the advertiser and the narrow, dim-witted, patronizing attitude they have to their audience.
"Satellite radio credits the audience with some discretion about what they would listen to," Costello said. "I would say if you wanted to make a really great addition to satellite radio broadcast technology, it would be some sort of program that calculated at a mainframe computer which channel is going to a new track beginning 30 seconds from the end of the one that was presently playing and automatically switch your radio to it. So you would have a constantly random play. A lot of people listen to things like iPod on shuffle."