|The Elvis Costello
Interview about The Delivery Man and Il Sogno, plus many other things
WHILE MANY fortysomething artists are resting on their laurels or seeking a hip-hop transfusion from some young hotshot producer, Elvis is moving forward as he always has—boldly, with an air of unpredictability and little regard for current formats or trends. He embraces all kinds of music, and it shows. A recent three-night stand at Lincoln Center in New York was a virtuoso display of his tastes and talents. Each performance featured a completely different set list. Big band brass, orchestral avant-garde, hard-hitting rock ‘n’ roll—whatever the context, Elvis flexed his creative muscles and found fresh ways to present his songs. A New York Times review of the shows was a flood of appreciative adjectives: “rhapsodic” courtly ”sweeping” “visceral” and “shimmering?’
A little history: He was born Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus on August 25, 1954, in Paddington, England. He comes from a musical family: his grandfather a traveling musician, his dad a big band leader, and his mom a record store manager. At 18, Declan left school and started to write the songs that would introduce him to the world four years later. Renamed by his manager (Costello is his great-grandmother’s maiden name, Elvis is just pure punk audacity), he was tagged the angry young man of the British new wave movement. He went along with it, playing the part with bigmouthed bravado (which landed him in some infamous squabbles). But behind the sneer and the Buddy Holly glasses was one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation.
Like most of America, I first became aware of Elvis through an unforgettable appearance on Saturday Night Live. A few bars into “Less Than Zero’ Elvis stopped his band, The Attractions. He apologized to the audience. “There’s no reason to do this song.’ Then he tore into “Radio Radio.’ By the time he reached the first chorus, it felt like what I was hearing was indeed a “sound salvation.’ I went out and bought My Aim Is True that week. I was a fan on that night back in December 1977 and I’m a fan now. So it was with great anticipation that I traveled to New York City to meet the man on the eve of his album release blitzkreig.
In conversation, Elvis is articulate, humorous, opinionated and given to high enthusiasm for the music of others. I’m sure there has never been a single interview in this magazine that has included references to Cole Porter, the Sex Pistols, Dan Penn, the Escorts and Charles Mingus—but that’s exactly the kind of musical palette that colors Elvis’ songs.
In talking to some of my songwriter friends about you, one of things that comes up over and over is that we all admire how prolific you are, and how we would kill for your B-sides. Do you think of yourself as prolific?
I don’t really. I go for long periods where I don’t write anything. I love B-sides, I have to say. B-sides were a great thing for me, because they were a place you could put those songs that didn’t fit anywhere else. There was something about flipping over the heavily promoted track and finding some gem. I loved it when I was a kid, and I love it still. B-sides have pretty much disappeared now. I suppose what’s happened is that at the same time the single disappeared, the CD appeared, and all it did was encourage you to make it more like a compendium form to records. People are very critical of records being too long. I’m of the method that some records are anthologies, but they’re anthologies of new material, and they shouldn't be thought less of because they don’t have the thematic structure of a classic vinyl album. There are albums of mine that I wish would flip out of the tray halfway through and force you to turn it over in some way (laughs), because I think you would hear the shape and structure of the record better. But as you can’t do that, I don’t want to then necessarily say , ”Well, I’m just going to make the record much shorter because of some arcane idea about structure.” I want to take advantage of the compendium form.
Another admirable thing is your versatility. I think of a song like “Unwanted Number” that is so convincing in that ‘60s girl group vein, then “Almost Blue,” as a classic torch ballad. When you started writing, did you set out to be fluent in all styles?
No, I’ve always been curious about different forms of music and I think it comes from that. It was an exposure to music during childhood. There was no music that I heard that I didn’t feel potentially belonged to me. Like some people say classical music isn’t for them because it belongs to some other part of society or another generation —I never felt like that.
There are different times in your life when different things excite you. I never felt like it was anything to do with a self-conscious desire to learn or a self-conscious desire to improve yourself or to make yourself appear grander. Being taken seriously has never been a problem for me (laughs). I don’t need to do anything complicated in order to have that. That’s always been there, because of the density of the words and the amount of them in my songs. There’s just a huge amount of material, and that intimidates certain people. None of it has been conscious. It’s just that one thing leads to another. Simple as that. The opportunities to work with different people open doors to you, but they are a provocation to learn.
At the outset of making The Delivery Man, did you have a blueprint of what you wanted to create as a songwriter?
I had all the songs, and maybe had another five or six that could’ve been on this album. I also had one or two songs that weren’t actually related. It seems odd to say that you would call the album The Delivery Man and have these loosely connected narrative songs and then not include some of them. But that’s the case. The thinking behind that is that while preparing for it, I made the decision that I didn’t want to present the story in chronological order, and I didn’t necessarily want the success or failure of the album to be predicated upon the audience following that narrative. When you think of all the great songs that have come out of shows over the years, we don’t remember the original shows that they came from at all. They’re rarely revived. Yet the songs that come from them are timeless. So I’m skipping a whole page of the process (laughs).
What inspired the story of The Delivery Man?
I’ve had it rolling around my head for a long time. It’s sort of a 19th century idea, this idea of three women living in a community isolated enough that their options are limited by those who come into their life and to their world rather than them going out into the world. As you can probably take out of the song “The Delivery Man" they are Vivian, who is the kind of person who wants you to believe she’s having a wilder life than she actually is, and is kind of disappointed with life. And her best friend, who she tortures with all of these confidences—which are mostly invention— is Geraldine. Geraldine is a pious widow, whose husband has gone off to war and has been killed by his own side by accident. She’s trying to bring up her daughter not to be in the image of Vivian. And Ivy is the girl who hasn’t yet decided her path in life. Into their world, which is a self-contained, suspended world, comes Abel, the delivery man. He’s something different to each of them. An object of desire for one, an object of fear for another, an object of curiosity, perhaps, for the third.
Is the character related to the one in “Hidden Shame,” a song you wrote for Johnny Cash?
Yes. That song was based on a true story, so I can’t say I invented him completely. I sort of transplanted him out of this older song into this new narrative. “Hidden Shame” was about a man who was in prison for one crime, then 30 years after the event confessed to killing his childhood friend. So in the case of The Delivery Man, Abel is someone who committed murder as a child, was institutionalized and was released as an adult with a new identity. Which is why when he appears to the women, they can’t quite place him.
In your liner notes for the reissues of your back catalog, there are many references to songs by other artists being direct inspirations for your own. Is that a way you still like to write?
Oh yeah. There’s no point in pretending. None of them are actionable legal problems—they were just the guiding light. I don’t know whether he’ll be flattered or insulted by this, but there’s a thank you to Dan Penn on this record, just for existing (laughs). Because if he hadn’t written the songs that he’s written, I wouldn’t be there in Mississippi making this record. In some key way, he’s a leading light. I know whether any of my songs on this record are equal to his best songs, but I wouldn’t be trying to write some of these type of if he hadn’t existed. There’s a certain kind of country-soul collision that’s best embodied in him and his songwriting.
When you started in 1976, punk was happening in England. It was kind of anti-everything in terms of other musical styles. As someone who was obviously very open-minded, how did you deal with this?
Punk pretended that it was wiping everything away and starting fresh, like a Year Zero of music. That was bullshit. Punk was based on the Stooges and the New York Dolls. It just had a short memory. It didn’t invent it all again. It wasn’t atonalism. It wasn’t that radical. The radical aspect of it was to dispense with all the pomposity of stadium rock as it had become in the mid ‘70s. That was a radical and a welcome, refreshing change. But to pretend that it was radical musically, in the sense that it completely swept everything away, there were very few bands that attempted to do that. I would say that the Pistols were not musically radical at all. A group I would have more time for would be the Slits, who actually did sound like they’d never played instruments before and did something really vivid with it. That was brilliant. Or Pere Ubu, who were coming from a much deeper tradition of Dada and all these underground places. And then the Clash, when the sounds of their first record ran out of steam, mysteriously, out of nowhere, the Joe Strummer record collection comes into play (laughs), and suddenly they’re playing New Orleans songs. They’re coming off rock steady (style of music) , they’re coming off dub, then they’re into “The Magnificent Seven” and early hiphop. And that’s the way it should be. You should be looking to renew yourself from whatever source. So I never bought this idea that we had to blow away everything. It’s bullshit. You don’t have craven respect the past that is paralyzing. You just have a love of the past. You don’t want to recreate it and you don’t want to live in it, but it can be the foundation of something new. Pop music is just intelligent stealing.
Along with The Delivery Man, you’re also releasing an instrumental classical record, Ii Sogno. How did that come about?
My ability to write music down obviously has a lot to do with my ability to write something like (this album), and have real control over those characters. I did some TV soundtrack work in the early ‘90s. I worked with a film composer called Richard Harvey, who did the arrangements. I was trying to write with the idea of orchestral sounds, but all I could do was sketch them out on some sort of keyboard. And then somebody else would have to transcribe them, and they would be orchestrated by Richard. Inevitably, some of the intentions would be transformed or bent out of shape. But we got the job done. We wrote a lot of music and we won a British Academy Award. I thought this might lead to another career for me as a film composer. Then, around the same time, I started working with the Brodsky Quartet, and I had the same frustration of not being able to communicate with them accurately. That motivated me to learn to write music down. Then, opportunity after opportunity came my way. There’s a pleasure in exploring all these different shapes of song. Because I’ve listened a lot, it doesn’t mean I can write as well or be the equal of any of the people that trigger you to attempt another form. But what happens is that your sense of the mystery of music is enriched.
I was very impressed with the songs that you wrote with your wife (Diana Krall) for her latest record.
One of the things that I think is interesting about how people respond to her new songs is that some people can hear them and some people can’t hear them. I’m going to make a bold, provocative statement here: Ninety-nine point nine percent of all modern lyrics for jazz songs are complete bullshit. There are no good lyricists working in modern jazz composition, in my opinion. It’s all terrible new age poetry, or phony attempts to rewrite Cole Porter. We don’t need that. If Cole Porter had lived longer, don’t you think he would have taken advantage of the confidentiality and the invention that the ‘60s brought? Think about the ground that Gershwin covered in his life, between writing “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and writing Porgy and Bess. Don’t you think if these writers had lived into another era that they would’ve kept moving? Don’t you think Hank Williams would’ve kept moving? This is where the jazz police who defend what is and isn’t jazz defeat themselves. They want music to fail, because they can keep it decently obscure where they have power. They can bestow credibility on obscure artists, like a gift. I think it’s despicable to not consider the continuum of music. And a music like jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, which is founded on a principle of freedom, that’s the one where you should embrace innovation the most of all. Everything that’s ever been great about it has been from the next surprise. It doesn’t matter whether it’s happening in the most obscure underground indie record or the biggest-scale popular success. You can have innovation in both places. The sadness in my heart is that people who embrace the musical complexity of the form cannot see that Lorenz Hart wasn’t the definitive lyricist of all-time any more than Cole Porter was. He was just among the best in his time. They worked with the romantic conventions of the day. If they’d lived into a different time, where the confidentiality and the nakedness of a Joni Mitchell was possible and admissible, they would’ve moved forward. You have to continue to renew. You mustn’t ever stop. If you stop, you’re dead. There must be new ways to write and think. To say that a song form is clearly defined by one era’s version of it is so incredibly negative and lacking in joy. There are no rules about what can be in a pop song or a jazz song or any other kind of song. It is about freedom.
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Side columns where Elvis talks about his songs and his current listening.
Watching The Detectives
I wrote it when I heard the first Clash record. I sort of locked myself in the flat that we were living in and listened to their record over and over again through headphones. It was the new thing and I wanted to know what this thing was about. Reggae was part of my teenage years as party music. But this was the more radical political reggae. By the end of it I thought with the arrogance of youth Well I can do better than this. So I just wrote the whole song. There was that reggae part of it going on and also I had grown up on all the American detective shows. All that music some of it by Bernard Herrman some of it by Neil Hefti. In the piano part I had the idea of having these parts [sings jittery counterpoint lines]. That's kind of like Herrman. We were trying to do these orchestral things but all we could afford was a piano. That's the charm of the record is that it has this incredibly tough rhythm section and then its got these things that came from other places. There's a noir thing going through a lot of the songs in my catalog. This is just the first one.
Man Out Of Time
Originally it was a very uptempo aggressive song. I had made this mistake several times. At the time of Imperial Bedroom I came to terms with the fact that I was sacrificing the power of certain songs to this mad pursuit of tempo. Everything had to be delivered forcefully. I don't know whether it was just a natural process or literally cumulative exhaustion of what were very intense years. Man Out of Time is the one time I said no stop lets play this at the right tempo. And we went for this bigger more open sound. I think its a really good record. A lot of songs are about the sort of disgust with your own self. There were a lot of things that I wasn't very happy with during that time. I wanted songs to blow up the world. I had mad ambitions. Not mad as in ambition to be famous - I never wanted that. That just came as an accident of it all. But somehow you look at yourself and you're not happy with what you see. I didn't want to write a self regarding song so I cast it in the clothes of political intrigue and what was going on in the world at that time. There was a famous political scandal in England going on then. It all sort of got wrapped up in the song. Sometimes a song will have a personal meaning and a public meaning. Man Out of Time is one of those.
Everyday I Write The Book
I wrote it just for a joke. But that's often the way to write a hit record (laughs). We had a group on the road with us that was trying to write these very self conscious pop jangly kind of songs and that was their trip. So I thought I'd tease them by writing something that was like what they did only sort of better than them. I wrote it in 10 minutes. It's [producer] Clive Langer that took it more seriously and heard that it could be a contemporary pop record. We did this whole kind of modern R&B arrange ment. That little interlocking guitar pattern and stop time thing had a vague relationship to Sexual Healing which was popular at the time. We were just copying that kind of feel. Ours doesn't groove as hard. But it wasn t written to be played like that. It was written to be played like From Head to Toe by the Escorts. I was always attracted to that sort of innocent Merseybeat sound. Songs like “Away From You" by Gerry & The Pacemakers. There's a harmonic disposition in Liverpool I don't know where it comes from but its definitely there. It's not just the Beatles. It's everybody else. There's a sudden shift to the minor that's unexpected. It's like sped up doo wop or something. It's something to do with being a port town.
So Like Candy
I wrote that one with Paul [McCartney]. We wrote sitting across the table from each other with two guitars. I think when I worked with him I wanted to persuade him that as everybody else was stealing from the Beatles he shouldn't be afraid of referring to his own harmonic language. He did it with more authority than anybody else. That isn't to say that we wrote in imitation with the tight pop ruthlessness of the old Lennon & McCartney songs. But I didn't really see why he should be so resistant to the cadences that seem to be natural to him. You hear them a lot in some of the songs we wrote together. Linda would tease us and call us The Plastic Macs or The Hogshead Beatles (laughs). We would do these two part harmony versions of our songs and it would sound like Girl or something. You hear it in You Want Her Too and My Brave Face. Those two and So Like Candy Paul would make fun of me and say C'mon now this is not fair. You're getting to sing all the tough lines (laughs) I want to sing the tough lines. I also thought Paul had written some great songs both in the Beatles and in his solo career where he'd be writinq characters Eleanor Rigby being the most famous but Another Day it a great song. It’s just like a little sketch of somebody. So I thought let's do that with So Like Candy. Let's write about this girl who's disappeared out of this guys life.
Mistress And Maid
Another song with Paul. He just came in with a postcard of the Vermeer painting. It’s called Mistress and Maid and it's of a noblewoman and her maid giving her a letter. And Paul said What's that mean? And we thought it was probably supposed to mean that the maid is bringing a letter from her lover or taking a letter to her lover. That's usually the story in those pictures .We didn't end up writing that story but we wrote another story and got back into that character song thing. One day I hope the demo versions of the songs we wrote will come out. They are the best versions by far because they have the charm and immediacy. There's a raw unadorned version of The Lovers That Never Were that is one of the great vocal performances of Paul's entire career. And that's really saying something. It's completely unbelievable. When he did it I was standing next to him and I thought Jesus Christ he’s singing this so great.
I Want To Vanish
It's a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song. But in reality it was a literal song. And if you take it as literal song its very dark indeed. That’s where l was at in 95.
It's a tip of the hat to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. Heart Shaped Bruise from the new album is also. So in referring to songs by other writers I'm doing the same thing now. It's not just something I did when I was 25. I still do it. I'll say I m going to write a song in that style. I remember playing Indoor Fireworks to Ricky Skaggs backstage when I played a show with him in the mid 80s thinking I'd get him maybe to cover it. I think it was a couple of the chords—and the mention of the martinis — and you could see his face just kind of glaze over (laughs). What - You can't have martinis in a country song. But that's the thing you should be able to admit other things into the tradition because the tradition isn't mine. The point of the song is that you have a model and then you don't want to make it a slavish copy. The thing you learn from listening to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant songs is that they weren't afraid of putting unusual harmonies into songs in the country idiom.
Elvis's EssentiaI Listening
Right now, in relation to The Delivery Man, I’d have to say the most important album is I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You by Aretha Franklin. On that, you have two Dan Penn songs and some of her songs. I think that if you look at my catalog, I’ve probably written more songs in 3/4 and 6/8 than anybody of my generation, and that comes straight out of this Aretha record. The whole record is nearly all in 6/8 or 3/4. Waltzes don’t just have to be country waltzes—they can be jazz waltzes, they can be those kind of R&B waltzes. There’s some pretty hip music on that record. I was given that record by my father. The second pile of records he gave me had Oh Yeah by Charles Mingus in it. That says something, doesn’t it? That gospel music that’s in Oh Yeah is also in the Aretha record. It all goes in your head and takes a while for it to come out (laughs).