|The Elvis Costello
One man's attempt to explain the fascination with one of rock's
The Elvis attraction
By John Dolen
The musical corner of my life changed the first time I heard an urgent, angst-infused voice on a rock song that goes something like this: "Don't start that talking, I could talk all night, my mind is sleepwalking, puttin' the world to right ."
And then, riding out on a galloping piano riff: "Oliver's Army is here to staa-aay, Oliver's Army is on their waa-aay. And I would rather be anywhere else but here to-daa-aaay oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh."
Life had me hemmed in then, but after a hundred or so plays of this feverish anthem -- ostensibly about being recruited and stranded in history's war zones -- I broke free.
So for me, Elvis Costello was here to staa-aay. Oh, oh, oh, oh oh .
After Oliver's Army, I went on to savor each of the other tunes on Elvis Costello and The Attractions Armed Forces album as if I were listening to Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde for the first time.
Party Girl ("They say you're nothing but a party girl, just like a million more all over the world.") Goon Squad ("I never thought they'd put me on the GOOOOOON SQUAD!!!"), which I sometimes blasted out the window for the benefit of some nasty neighbors. And, of course, Accidents Will Happen and What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding.
Then I backtracked through the comin'-at-ya, brave new-wave world of their other albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model. Next came Get Happy and Taking Liberties.
The singer-songwriter from London, Liverpool and now Dublin -- "Part of me is Irish, but I won't say which part," he quips on a radio show -- comes to Miami Beach on Saturday night. He'll be singing and playing guitar with the Imposters, his current band, which includes longtime Attractions Steve Nieve (keys) and Pete Thomas (drums), as well as Davey Faragher on bass.
Costello never rode the big record charts and still doesn't, but that doesn't bother me. Anchor Steam Ale will never outsell Bud, either.
It's been more than two decades since my introduction to the collaboration that gave a new infusion of passion to late '70s and early '80s rock 'n' roll. Now, as then, Costello, born Declan MacManus, always seems to mingle in special musical company: the stalwarts of the original Attractions, Nick Lowe; Chet Baker (that's his haunting solo trumpet solo on Shipbuilding); Burt Bacharach; and Lucinda Williams (he shared a Country Music TV stage with her this year).
You never really know where and with whom he'll turn up next. For instance, he is working on a musical with Neil LaBute, the writer-director for the films In the Company of Me and Possession.
How does such an artist affect a life? Each generation has a soundtrack and some have more than one. Before contemplating marriage in 1989, I had to make sure of a few things. My then-girlfriend, an ex-rock critic who had once interviewed Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder among many others, had a casual acquaintance with Elvis' music. She calmly endured session after session as I plied her with this Elvis disc, then that disc, then the next . "Oh, but you've got to hear this "
She didn't flinch when I played Dr. Luther's Assistant ("He's Doctor Luther's assistant/He'll get on top of you when you lower your resistance"). She marveled at Motel Matches ("I struck it lucky with motel matches/Falling for you without a second look/ Falling out of your open pocketbook/Giving you away like motel matches"). I thought I saw a grin with I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea ("She's last year's model/They call her Natasha but she looks like Elsie/I don't want to go to Chelsea.")
We went through album after album. "Isn't that incredible? Do you realize there's nobody writing like that? No, it can't be turned down, it must be played at a certain volume "
After thirteen years of marriage, we're still together. And I've remained with Elvis through it all, too.
I never had a problem with "The Country Album," as some did. Yes, it did take me a while to appreciate King of America. And, as a classical listener, I even kind of got to enjoy his forays with the Brodsky Quartet. (I have a Quartet album with separate cuts from Björk and Elvis on it. Hmm.)
And most recently, I came to appreciate Burt Bacharach through Costello. The numbers that really did it for me are on their collaboration, Painted From Memory. There's God Give Me Strength, and, well, how does one describe Toledo? Let's just say it's kind of an impressionistic work in sonic form, blending a story of infidelity and a Euro-centered reflection on people in Toledo, Ohio vs. Toledo, Spain.
Now come on, who does that?
Yes, Elvis will be here Saturday night. I will be there, too, as I have been for all of his South Florida concerts since I moved here, and a few in other places.
I say this even after my vow following his last performance here, at the end of 1999 at the Sunrise Musical Theatre. It was an evening so perfect musically, a three-hour serenade by Nieve and Costello so supremely wonderful, that I swore I would never see another rock concert. (I held fast until Jethro Tull came to town last year.)
Not everyone understands the fascination with this heady songwriter, and frankly, most do not. Yet it is Costello who is called upon by Vanity Fair in this month's music issue to answer the proposition: "If a day had a soundtrack, what would be the playlist?"
Costello responded with an encyclopedic eclecticism, a mesmerizing hour-by-hour essay that includes dozens and dozens of selections from the world of pop, rock, soul, country, classical, jazz, and world music. Some of the pop songs are familiar, but most are less-heard tunes from folks such as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Mary K Blige, John Prine, The Temptations. Other selections are certainly not on everybody's shelf. A tiny sampling of those would include: Monteverdi's Lamento d' Arianna, Charles Mingus' Jump Monk, Joáo Gilberto's Aguas de Marco. It's pretty amazing.
Oh, did I mention Elvis released a new CD earlier this year?
He shed light on the much-praised effort in press interviews at the time. In an answer to a question related to the title, When I Was Cruel, Costello spoke to The New York Times about anger and age: "You don't become more reasonable, you become less reasonable. But it's expressed more as absurdity. It doesn't have to be just fury and mindless insult. And on [When I Was Cruel] most of the negative things are intended for myself."
He told the Chicago Tribune that he enlisted three young co-producers (Ciaran Cahill, Leo Person and Kieran Lynch) for the album, to help him break new ground: "They were young enough that they didn't have a preconceived idea about how I should sound."
Costello also mentioned being inspired by what he heard on the radio, "all this good stuff happening in hip-hop and r&b at the moment."
"We know all these songs are about the same thing, now: `Give me your cell phone number, you've got my credit card, I want my Mercedes'," he told the Tribune. "But the production is absolutely mind-bending. All the sonic geniuses are working in hip-hop and r&b, some in the commercial end, like Timbaland, and some in the more sound-collage kind of thing, like that guy El-P on the Cannibal Ox album [The Cold Vein]. That's the kind of boldness that I wanted to work with."
There is high fidelity and there is fidelity. To show how far the latter goes for me, when I interviewed Bob Dylan a few years back, I asked him about Costello.
"It's funny you should mention that," Dylan said. "He just played four or five shows with me in London and Paris. He was doing a lot of new songs, playing them by himself. He was doing his thing. You sorta had to be there."
Like I sorta have to be there on Saturday.
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