|The Elvis Costello
Interview with Elvis Costello
At last a hero for all you weeds with glasses
A far from short-sighted ELVIS COSTELLO talks to definitely weedy TIM LOTT
ELVIS COSTELLO looks like a creep, a weed. The paste-on glasses, the skinny face, the pinstripe suits and executive tie. The sort of face that begs to have sand kicked into it.
Elvis Costello, do you know, is a pop star. Last month he was a computer operator.
The word 'star' deserves emphasis. Here it is in italics to make you realise how important it is. Star. And here it is in capitals. STAR.
He gets that status because of his gall, and because of his sass, and because of the gig he played at Dingwalls, the first London date with his new band, was the most incredible, inspired flash of genius of 1977. A now person for now people.
And although his first single disappeared without a trace, and despite the fact that his 'My Aim Is True' album is not moving commercial mountains, he takes that status for granted.
What other new, obscure artist could afford to spurn three-quarters of the music press for what some might call footling reasons? And I only got to talk to him at a fourth attempt. The temptation was to tell the man to ram it up his arse, but he knew that however insignificant he was, however few records he sold, he was simply too good to be ignored and could act any way he pleased.
Why go to the trouble? Listen, at Dingwalls ...
That gig, says Elvis, is the worst he's played on the tour, and he seemed to believe it. Whatever, the audience were stunned, ecstatic, and after they mumbled words like "phenomenal" and "brilliant". These are maybe understatements.
Elvis played for more than an hour. The place was packed. Hundreds were turned away at the door. He did twenty-one songs and they were all every single one, quite different and perfectly unique and massively instant and laughably enjoyable and obviously inspired.
Reggae was there, and rock 'n' roll, and pop music all struck through with the peculiar Costello genius. The Elvis vocals twisted through rough wire to romance and back again. He sounded like everyone who ever made a pop record only twice as good.
Lyric lines, simple and bizarre, drift through the force of the back up band - this man is not a singer/songwriter in the classic soporific sense - ". . . but I heard you let that little friend of mine/take off your party dress" . . . 'Everything means less than zero" . . . "I got this camera click-click-clicking in my head". . ."There's no such thing as original sin". . . '"veryone loves you so much I don't know how you stand the strain".
It was a revelation. Elvis didn't enjoy it. He said he was never going to play Dingwalls again because people were eating while he was performing. He was in a bad mood.
Earlier that day he had been arrested on some dumb charge outside a hotel in London and had to appear at magistrates court early the next morning. And, he said, he had to get up early to play with his kid before he went, and his kid was more important than an interview. He disappeared in a red saloon.
THE INTERVIEW was set for the next morning at Stiff Records after the court case. Fourth time lucky, maybe. Heroes, we all know, are hard to find.
This one looked like he wanted to hide in a closet.
"I suppose I ought to apologise to you", says Elvis, looking accusing rather than sorry.
Dressed in the suit he got married in, this ... singing computer operator, as he's bound to get labelled sooner or later ... looks sullen. He doesn't like doing interviews. He'd get on with Steve Harley like a house on fire, so jaded is his view of the music press.
He didn't particularly, enjoy his court appearance. The fine was £5 and the charge, apparently, was something ridiculous about unauthorised record selling. It seemed wise not to press for details.
The funny side of it is, Elvis didn't have a fiver on him, so he had to apply for time to pay (never having been to court before he was a bit uncertain of procedure).
A pop star asking for a time to pay £5? What a blow to the image.
Condolences. How about a drink Elvis? And a cheese roll? And an interview, even.
You're not keen ...
"Not really, no. You do shorthand, do you? Doesn't make any difference, it'll be just as inaccurate as any other way---."
This gambit isn't entirely unpredictable. A couple of people had proffered the warning that the man was, well, intense, and that was as good a euphemism for hostile, as any.
Maybe hostile isn't the right word. Critical, is nearer the truth. Elvis doesn't like London. He doesn't like Dingwalls. He doesn't like being photographed. He doesn't like The Biz. And on top of that ...
"I don't care about a lot of things. Making records, writing songs, performing is about all."
His general demeanor is in fact, is of a man thrown in a pool full of sharks.
"I can't think of any better way to describe it. Some people ... they're not worth the trouble."
Elvis has a deep resentment of people who do things for the wrong reasons. He hates trendies, hates people wanting to listen to him for any other reason except that they like him.
"The idea of having a cult status doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. We're interested in the charts, and cult heroes aren't interested in the charts.
"I want to be on Top Of The Pops, I have no hip ideals about that programme and singles. I want people to buy my stuff because they like it, I'm not affecting any attitudes.
"Here is my name, this is my record."
Despite his dislike of the cult label, it seems all too believable that he has been tailored for that slot - the coolest label, the so-basic-it's-bizarre image, Keepitasahobby productions productions ...
Methinks he doth protest too much.
"One look is always being subverted with another. That's a game. It's when people make it their way of life that it gets stupid. I could have gone home and changed out of this suit for this interview, but I don't care. It's camouflage, everything is just camouflage.
"People want to see you look a certain way. I don't sit at home and think of what I'm going to wear, I wear whatever I feel like, rhinestone suit if I feel like it. I got this haircut after seeing one of The Boys."
Among the long string of things Elvis feels unhappy about is the jokey attitude some people take to him and his record label. Jake Riviera's Stiff label has a sense of humour and shamelessly exploits gimmickry - an attitude that has won it a lot of affection. But Elvis wants respect.
"People don't take Stiff Records seriously. If it's CBS or some big company, it's a great sales campaign, with Stiff they call it gimmicks. People just treat you like a joke. People don't think I exist, they think I'm Nick Lowe.
"It's what happens when you try to do something that isn't like, a beautiful, sensitive singer /songwriter.
"I don't care whether people take me seriously or not now, because they must have something wrong with their cars.
"I'm totally serious about what I'm doing, but that doesn't mean there isn't an element of fun. And it doesn't mean I need to be boring about it.
"I want people to buy the album. But buy it because they enjoy it. I'm sick of people not thinking for themselves, being told what is wonderful."
Opinions, opinions - what about the facts. Who is Elvis Costello?
He's not telling.
"I haven't got anything to hide. I'm not going to bore people with things that I don't consider significant. As far as the public are concerned, the first thing I ever did was 'Less Than Zero'.
"I'm not particularly proud of what happened before, it's not worth the trouble of going back to look at it. People who want to know that should be doing something more interesting. I couldn't care less.
"There are certain things I don't want to discuss. Nobody likes to worry about the mundane things, you wouldn't get anything done. I don't worry whether I'm going to be a success . . ."
"I don't want to make a lot of money. All I want to do is be able to pay the next bill. Wanting a lot of money is a sickness."
If having it is a sickness too, then Elvis looks like getting ill real soon. He wants success, he gets what he wants. If he's a star now, in six months he's going to start looking like a supernova.
His aim, it's said, is true. Believe it.
'People don't take Stfif Records seriously. If it's CBS or some big company, it's a great sales campaign, with Stiff they call it gimmicks. People just treat you like a joke. People don't think I exist, they think I'm Nick Lowe'