The King had just died.
I was flipping through the pages of Rolling Stone three years ago when I came across a picture of this funny-looking guy with Clark Kent glasses, short cropped hair and a very noticeable sneer.
The funny-looking guy was named Elvis Costello, and his picture graced an ad for his new album My Aim is True. Elvis Costello? What kind of idiot was this? He looked like Buddy Holly on shock treatment. I bought the album, and found to my surprise that this funny-looking guy had some decent music. Two months later I saw Elvis on Saturday Night Live. He was definitely memorable.
Costello sang a couple of songs, just like all the other assorted and sordid groups do on SNL. But he was a lot different than the Billy Joels, Jackson Brown. and Keith Jarretts I'd seen on the show. He looked so angry, so bitter as he stood completely motionless. The crowd clapped nervously as the bespectacled Englishman glared at them.
Listening to his song "True" had quickly revealed something to me: Costello was upset, mostly at women. I had figured he was kidding around, maybe half-serious at best. Seeing him on TV convinced me that this wasn't just any Elvis — this guy meant business.
What he had to say was said well. It was catchy and stuck with me. A few typical Costello lines:
"I love you more than anything in the world / I don't expect that to last. I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused."
The best song on his first album was a vicious attack at an old girlfriend titled "Allison." The song doesn't make it clear who dropped who, or who ran off with who. The only thing clear was that Costello regretted the whole mess. Women, love, life — you name it, everything was a pain in the neck to Elvis.
That was five albums ago. I picked up Elvis' new album Truth the other day and after a few listens found the same ol' Elvis. He's still bitter, still upset. The rock press still loves him, too. The reviews I've read go on and on about how profound, how full of insight Elvis is.
They've always said that. I guess the world loves a crybaby and a cynic.
Costello has consistently attacked about everything, but his main target is women. In his songs women are always bad, mean and basically awful. They cause pain, remorse and alimony, among other things.
That's not to say that Costello is the first "artist" to make attacking women the great concern of his work. Ernest Hemingway did a fairly good job of it. But the only writer I've run into who rivals Costello is a gent named W. Somerset Maugham.
Like Costello, Maugham was from England. And like Costello he had a formidable mean streak. Throughout a career that spanned 50 years Maugham went after women. In his books and short stories women caused men nothing but trouble.
In his day Maugham was a big deal. Nobody sold better. But for the most part Maugham's fame has faded as, I hope, will Costello's.
Elvis has been billed as a realist, a deep thinker who takes a hard look at the world. Nothing's wrong with a hard look at the world, but there's more out there than a horde of mean women ready to stomp hearts. A lot more.