Washington — Unless you have been paying close attention to rock music lately, this might be a bit confusing at first. Stay with it. It's worth it.
This is about Elvis Costello. He makes some of the best rock music you can hear these days and he made about 70 minutes worth in person at Georgetown University last Friday.
It's his name that's confusing. As you noticed, it is remarkably similar to the name of another performer who moved into rock and roll heaven recently, leaving behind a vast host of admirers.
To supply that host with memory fuel, a small squadron of entertainers has taken to wearing greased hair, tight pants and artificial noses.
Elvis Costello is not doing Presley impersonations. True, Elvis is not his given name. Time magazine says he was originally labeled Declan Patrick McManus at his birth in Britain. Obviously, there was some design to his choice of a new handle (which was made, incidentally, before Presley died).
To further confuse things, the cover of the first Costello album, a truly satisfying effort called, My Aim Is True, sports a black and white checkerboard design with lettering in the black squares. "ELVIS IS KING," the letters say.
An acknowledgement or a prediction? Maybe both, who knows?
Elvis II followed that arresting debut album with two more and has carved out a secure base camp from which to expand into the rock wilderness. The expeditionary metaphor is especially appropriate considering the title of his latest LP — Armed Forces.
Part of his mission seems to be conquest of America, the native land of rock and roll. His arsenal contains a powerful array of pop zingers: short songs with hummable melodies and lyrics that repay careful listening, "Many of my songs," he told Time in 1977, "involve revenge and guilt. The stronger feelings, the ones you are left with at night."
The reliance on old interviews is required because, according to tour publicist Jane Berk from Columbia Records, Elvis is granting NO interviews on this tour. None. Zilch. Not even Rolling Stone.
That of itself is newsworthy. In fact, the more you hang around Elvis, the more you sense his knack for creating an interest in his work.
Besides the matter of his assumed name, there is the interesting ploy of declining to follow the standard practice of listing the names and instruments of the musicians who play on his albums. His band, called the Attractions, is identified merely as Steve, Bruce and Pete.
Elvis's anti-hype attitude creates a publicity vacuum which can suck people into his sphere and focus their attention on his music.
It's working. Although he has yet to crack AM radio playlists himself, Linda Ronstadt had a fair-sized hit with a Costello song, "Alison." In addition, his April 6 D.C. concert sold out months in advance.
The event was held in McDonough Arena, where Georgetown University's Hoyas play basketball. Traffic was backed up onto Key Bridge and all through the narrow Georgetown streets as show time approached.
After an energetic opening set by California's Rubinoos — which featured old pop hits like "Please Please Me," "Walk Don't Run," and "Pushin' Too Hard" — Elvis and his three Attractions materialized onstage.
The packed house of about 4,000 jumped up onto their chairs and, without introduction or fanfare, Elvis reeled off the first 18 songs he would play that night.
Three of the four musicians wore neckties, pulled up tight against their necks. Elvis himself had on a dark suit, with the jacket buttoned, and a Fender Jazzmaster guitar. The auditorium got hot as he steamed through his set, but he never loosened his tie and never seemed to sweat. Even his short, brushed-back haircut remained unperturbed.
The show moved quickly. Most of the songs lasted less than three minutes and there was little patter between them. The selections came mainly from Armed Forces, and the second album, This Years Model, with a smattering of new material.
Elvis's songs are not fancy. They were delivered in concert against a background of drums, bass organ and guitar, They rely on simple chord progressions that most any novice rock guitar player could figure out.
Two things distinguish them. Lyrically, they are way beyond the usual preoccupation with boy-girl, shake your booty romance. They have substance: the listener can get engaged with them.
The second thing is Elvis himself. He delivers the songs, both on record and in person, with a passion and intensity that almost grabs you by the lapels.
He did not smile and he punctuated the songs with staccato movements of his guitar neck and his body. His set moved through "Oliver's Army," "Two Little Hitlers," "Green Shirt," "Lipstick Vogue," and the classic "Watching the Detectives," with force derived, not from flash pots, laser beams or echo delays, but from Elvis Costello's dedication to his craft.
And the audience had a good time. They stood and cheered throughout, even after the lights went up at the end of the show. This earned a rare Costello encore — "Radio, Radio," "Pump It Up," and "You Belong to Me."
I like Elvis Costello. A lot. I think he is among the brightest talents to emerge from the latest wave of British and American rockers. All three of his albums, and especially the first, have given me hours of pleasure.
That's really all I can say. If you like rock, I think you'll like Elvis Costello.