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Article about Elvis Costello and lyrics
USA Weekend, 2002-03-24
- Steven Chean


Bonus: Elvis Costello picks the song lyrics that inspire him

Transport the imagination

That's what all great songs do, says Elvis Costello. Arguably the best lyricist of the past quarter-century, he's back with a new album, his first solo effort in years. Here's how an Angry Young Man evolved into a Destiny's Child fan.

By Steven Chean

Elvis Costello has just mentioned Ira Gershwin and Destiny's Child in the same breath. The free association of an unstable man? No. It's the calculus of a pop music aficionado who has traveled time, space and taste to unlock the mystery of the Great Song Lyric. "There's no one thing they all share, except the ability to transport the imagination," he muses. "Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" is as good as anything [Motown's] Holland-Dozier-Holland ever wrote. It's a simple story anybody can recognize, done with tremendous panache."

If Costello, 47, knows his way around timeless lyrics, it's because he's been penning them for a quarter-century, ever since the fiercely intelligent wordplay of 1977's "My Aim Is True" introduced the masses to the knock-kneed punk in Buddy Holly glasses. And although he's long since outgrown his Angry Young Man persona, his wordplay remains, giving coherence to his schizophrenic output: the blue-eyed soul on "Get Happy!!", the orchestral pop on "Imperial Bedroom", the classical sequences on "The Juliet Letters".

"His lyrics can be savagely funny or just plain savage," says "Rolling Stone" contributing editor David Wild. "He's not so much setting a standard for singer-songwriters -- Bob Dylan already did that -- but rather living up to that standard when painfully few even come close."

Then again, painfully few were home-schooled in the sound of music. Long before pairing The King's first name with his mother's maiden name, London-born Declan Patrick MacManus was doing what the son of a big-band crooner and a record-store clerk does well: listening. "One time, my dad gave me a stack of albums he'd been listening to: Jefferson Airplane's "Surrealistic Pillow", Charles Mingus' "Oh Yeah", a Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell record and the first Butterfield Blues Band album. In one go. I was exposed to more records than any one boy deserves."

"Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat/Every breath that I bless/I'd be lost, I confess". So goes "45", Costello's love letter to music and the opening track on his new CD, "When I Was Cruel". He describes the April release as "a rowdy rhythm record," a return to form following his recent collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the Mingus Orchestra. "Words used to drive my songs, but writing with Burt -- that was the most exacting job I've ever had, and I felt I'd come to a sort of conclusion with lyrics. But I can't seem to pack them away properly."

"That's part of the package," says David Sefton, director of UCLA's performing arts program, where Costello is its first Artist in Residence. "We chose Elvis because you can strip away the music entirely and have this incredibly dense, intense volume of poetry. He's an artist on every level, and he takes risks every chance he gets."

Ever since a teenage Costello informed his school's career counselors of his musical ambitions, he has faced the arduous task of explaining himself. "They assumed I wanted to be on 'Top of the Pops'" -- the music showcase on British TV -- "and have a Rolls-Royce," he says, laughing. "I didn't give a damn about that. The only thing that's ever interested me is putting words and music together in the most challenging ways. I've no doubt paid handsomely for that attitude."

Unlike many of his peers, Costello doesn't have estates on five continents. He owns an apartment in London, which he rents out, and a modest house in Dublin, which he shares with his wife, former "Pogues" bassist Cait O'Riordan. "We spend a lot of time together. She's 10 years younger than me, and she likes different things. Her favorite group growing up was U2, which I didn't register because I was too busy with my own career. But seeing the group through her eyes, I've grown to have a great appreciation of them."

And although the couple is fond of traveling -- rigorously avoiding the "sit-on-the-beach holiday" in favor of the "stimulating, activity-filled holiday" -- there's no place like home. And where there's home, there's music. Shelves upon shelves of albums line the corridor of Costello's music room. In his car: an Ethiopian compilation, a blues-and-hillbilly mix tape and the first Dr. John album. "There have been four generations of musicians in my family," Costello says, "so I'm no stranger to this obsession. But I long ago cut out meat from my diet, and the drink went six years ago. The records stay."

"I was only interested in putting words and music together in the most challenging ways I could imagine."

Copyright 2002 USA WEEKEND. All rights reserved.
USA WEEKEND is a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

Elvis Costello picks the song lyrics that inspire him

1. "Dressed in stolen clothes she stands, cast iron and frail
With her impossibly gentle hands and blood-red fingernails"
Shades Of Scarlet Conquering, Joni Mitchell
-- The precision of a novelist and the eye of a painter create this portrait of an overwrought and needy woman. There is also a beautiful reference to "magnolias hopeful in her auburn hair."

2. "Use your mentality
Wake up to reality"
I've Got You Under My Skin, Cole Porter
-- Henry Rollins might have said it, but he didn't. Sonny Rollins has probably played it. More apt with the passing of each year, Professor Porter's wise words of philosophy.

3. "Heavy blankets . . . sweet, sad songs . . . pretty hairdos . . . sparkily rhinestones . . . I ought to know about lonely girls"
Lonely Girls, Lucinda Williams
-- Lucinda has the economy of Hank Williams (I could quote "You Win Again," but it is better just to listen to it). The lyric begins with just the expression "lonely girls" and adds one attribute per verse, until the final revelation: "I ought to know about lonely girls."

4. "She dances overhead on the ceiling near my head,
In my sight, all through the night
I try to hide in vain underneath my counterpane
But there's my love
Up there above . . ."
Dancing On The Ceiling, Lorenz Hart
-- Psychedelic, erotic, romantic, and deserving of special commendation for the use of the word counterpane.

5. ". . . With charcoal eyes and Monroe hips
She wouldn't take that California trip . . ."
Hold On, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
-- An accumulation of vivid details in a tale of bruised love. Later on, there is an extraordinary passage where the obvious, final word in the third line, playing, is left out, and you hear it anyway:
". . . She closed her eyes and started swaying
But it's so hard to dance that way
When it's cold and there's no music . . ."

6. "On Raglan, on an autumn day, I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue"
Raglan Road (poem, recorded by The Dubliners and also by Van Morrison), Patrick Kavanagh
-- Words that do not necessarily require the beautiful air to which they are sung in order to create music.

7. "Jump into the wagon, love
Throw your panties overboard!
I can write you poems
Make a strong man lose his mind
I'm no pig without a wig
I hope you treat me kind
Things are breaking up out there
High Water Everywhere"
High Water (For Charley Patton), Bob Dylan
-- There are scores of Dylan songs that could be quoted in their entirety and praised for making bolder language admissible in popular music. But for the ability to surprise, the absurd humor in the face of dread, and for making the arcane come alive in the present moment, this is my choice: "Throw your panties overboard!"

--Elvis Costello



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