PART TWO: Elvis Costello Interview - Rolling Stone 9/82
GM: Do you really think that this incident is what you're best known for?
EC: Yes. The first thing that a lot of people heard about me was that incident. I think it outweighs my entire career - which is a pretty depressing prospect. I'm absolutely convinced.
Fred Schruers wrote a piece about it - a sort of "tenor of the tour" ["What'd I Say?" RS291, May 17th, 1979]. About the fact that we went around with CAMP LEJEUNE on the front of our bus - Camp Lejeune, where they train the Marines. He said it was like an excersise in paranoia. To an extent, it was. The antijournalist thing we were doing, the antiphotographer thing, had reached an almost excessive level by that point. Schruers said that the press were looking for something to crucify me with, and I fed myself to the lions. There were words to that effect. I remember them distinctly. And I couldn't help but agree, to a certain extent, looking - aside from the incident itself - dispassionately at the effect of what happened.
What actually happened was this: We were in a bar - Bruce Thomas and I were in the bar after the show in Columbus, Ohio. And we were _very_ drunk. Well, we weren't drunk to begin with - we were reasonably drunk. And we started into what you'd probably call joshing. Gentle gibes between the two camps of the Stills band and us. It developed as it got drunker and drunker into a nastier and nastier argument. And I suppose that in the drunkenness, my contempt for them was probably exaggerated beyond my real contempt for them. I don't think I had a real opinion. But they seemed in a way to typify a lot of things that I thought were wrong with American music. And probably that's quite unfair. But at the exact moment - they did.
GM: Things such as what?
EC: Incinserity, dishonesty - musical dishonesty.
GM: How so?
EC: I just think they're... This is difficult, because this is getting right off the point. Because now I'm getting into mudslinging.
GM: But now we're trying to talk about what it was really about.
EC: What it was about was that I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say to them - that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them more than anything else. That's why I don't want to get into why I felt so effronted by them, because that's not important. It's not important because - they don't mean _anything_ to me. They don't even mean anything now - I don't feel any malice in the way I feel that they probably exploited the incident to get some free publicity.
My initial reaction - I can tell you now - to seeing Bonnie Bramlett get free publicity out of my name was that, "Well, she rode to fame on the back of one E.C., she's not gonna do it on the back of another." But that was before the consequences of what had happened had sunk in - that was a flip way of dismissing it.
GM: Did you have any idea of how dangerous, or how exploitable, or how plainly offensive, what you said would be in the public context?
EC: No, because it was never intended - if I hadn't been drunk I would never had said those things. If it had been a considered argument, I probably would have either not pursues the argument to such extreme length, or I would have thought of something a little bit more coherent, as another form of attack, rather than just an outrage. Outrage is fairly easy. Not in terms of dealing with the consequences, but in terms of employing it as a tactic in an argument.
GM: With the press conference in New York a few days later, the situation reminded me of nothing so much as the "we're more popular than Jesus" blowup with the Beatles.
EC: It had approximately the same effect on my career. The minute the story was published nationally, records were taken off playlists. About 120 death threats - or threats of violence of some kind. I had armed bodyguards for the last part of that tour.
GM: And not since?
EC: For one tour since. Not armed, but...
GM: But not now?
EC: We take more care with security than we did before.
GM: Were records taken out of stores?
EC: I don't know - there may have been. Just like people won't sell South African goods. I mean - quite rightly so! Until there was an explanation.
The press conference was unsuccessful because because I was _fried_ on that tour. This is aside from the incident; now I'm taking a personal point of view.
It was at that point that everything - whether it be my self-perpetuated _venom_ - was about to engulf me. I was, I thgink, rapidly becoming a not very nice person. I was losing track of what I was doing, why I was doing it, and my own control.
GM: In your first interview, in 1977 with Nick Kent of "NME" you made a famous statement: words to the effect that all you knew of human emotions were revenge and guilt. Those words have been endlessly quoted - I've quoted them, they're irresistable. Now you're describing that as venom - as if your artistic venom, what you put into your music, had engulfed your own life.
EC: I think it did. I think it started to take over. You see, I think that after awhile - apart from everything else, looking from a purely artistic point of view - it started to become a problem for me to incorporate the wider, more compassionate point of view that I felt; I was trying to put that forward in some of the songs, and it was so much at odds with the preconception of the image.
When we were playing, the frustration of that just ate me up. And with the lack of personal control in my life, and my supposed emotions, and drinking too much, and being on the road too much-
I'm not saying I wasn't responsible for my actions; that sounds like I'm trying to excuse myself. But I was not very responsible. There's a distinct difference. I was completely irresponsible, in fact. And far from carefree - careless with everything. With everything that I really care about. And I think that inasmuch as it was said that we fed ourselves to the lions, you could say that whatever the incident was, it was symptomatic of the condition I was in, and that I deserved what happened regardless of the intentions of the remarks.
But it was only quite recently that I realized that it's not only the man on the street, as it were, who's never heard of me otherwise, who's only read People - that it's not only people like that who know only this about me. When we were recording Imperial Bedroom, Bruce Thomas was in the next studio while I was doing a vocal. Paul McCartney was there, and Michael jackson came in to do a vocal - everything was nice until somebody introduced Bruce as my bass player. And suddenly - there was a freeze-out. Michael Jackson was - "Oh, God, I don't dig that guy... I don't dig that guy."
He had heard about it third hand, from Quincy Jones. Two guys I have a tremendous amount of admiration for. It depressed me that I wouldn't be able to go up to him - I wouldn't be able to go up and shake his hand, because he wouldn't want to shake my hand. Or James Brown, for that matter. But what could I say? What could I say? How could you explain such a thing? But there is nothing I'd like more.
GM: Costello and the Attractions returned to England, wondering if they could ever return to America, and made "Get Happy!!": "Our version of a Motown album," Costello says. "I had the feeling people were reading my mind - but what could I do, hold up a sign that read, I REALLY LIKE BLACK PEOPLE? Like Tom Robinson or Joan Baez? Turn myself into Steve Marriot: My skin is white but my soul is black?"
The band almost broke up; Steve Nieve quit, Costello finished up a European tour with Martin Belmont of the Rumour, and then Costello quit - briefly.
The band put itself back together, and produced "Trust", a singer's showcase, and "Almost Blue", a less-than-convincing country music tribute recorded in Nashville and produced by Billy Sherrill. One sweltering night in 1981 in Los Angeles, Costello - with two of the Attractions and Nick Lowe - took part in the taping of a George Jones HBO special; puffed up with the mumps and swaddled in heavy clothes, he proved himself more of a professional and more of an artist than the country superstars who clowned and fussed their way through their numbers. On record, he has again found all of his voice. "Imperial Bedroom" is his most adventurous, and successful recording since "Armed Forces" - or "This Year's Model." Costello's thoughts on quitting the game, his state of mind after "Get Happy!!" remain worth considering.
EC: I didn't want to do it anymore. I didn't see any point. It was a question of deciding whether we were going to be a cult act.
We were operating on such a low level. I was aware of the fact that there was no way that "Get Happy!!" was going to be a Number One record - or in a different sense, any record at all. That record was called another "Angry Young Man" record! We were a little, pigeoned cult - "Oh yeah, they've got the Angry Young Man act. We've got them numbered."
We weren't actually achieving any change if we weren't selling more records than REO Speedwagon. So as long as we were only as commercially effective as Randy Newman -
Randy Newman doesn't really play for the people whoshould hear his songs. He plays to polite, amused - I sat sickened through the best concert I think he's done in London, at Drury Lane just after "Good Old Boys" came out; people were guffawing through "Davy, the Fat Boy." I couldn't watch him for the audience.
That was the way I felt; that we were comfortably contained within the business, insteda of having some dramatic effect on the structure of the business. You'd just be another pawn. The people that formed United Artists - they had control over their own artistic destiny by forming the company. Barring being able to change the structure of the scene that you're working within by being the biggest thing in it.
GM: There's also the possibility of affecting the way people actually respond to the world.
EC: Well, that's the initial intention of writing the songs to begin with, isn't it.
That's the view that you put in to that _one_song_ - whether it be about something extremely large, or not at all. I wrote a song called "Hoover Factory" - about a lovely deco building that was going to be torn down. I said, "It's not a matter of life or death - but what is?"
There's a song on Imperial Bedroom, "The Loved Ones," that is the hardest song to get over. Considering it's got such a light pop tune, it's like saying, "Fuck posterity; it's better to live." It's the opposite of "Rust Never Sleeps." It's about fuck being a junkie and dying in some phony romantic way like Brendan Behan or Dylan Thomas. Somebody in your family's got to bury you, you know?
That's a complicated idea to put in a pop song. I didn't want to write a story around it - I wanted to just throw all of those ideas into a song. Around a good pop hook.