Today's song comes from what, in a manner of speaking, was my first Elvis Costello LP. Leastways, Trust is the first Elvis Costello LP I bought upon its release. Immediately upon its release. It was winter, 1981, and I was living in Philly. I'd become a serious EC fan with a year of listening to the previous LP Get Happy! Trust suited me fine as a follow up. It was harder edged at times, the songs were longer, and there was a development to Steve Nieve's piano playing that took it toward jazz, or at least lounge music of the post-punk era. These are insolent tunes, sneering, caustic, delicious.
"Shot With His Own Gun" is just EC with Nieve's angular piano. Each verse is a concise example of EC's incisive wit. The part that always floored me was "The little corporal got in the way / And he got hit with an emotional ricochet / It's a bit more now than dressing up dolly / Playing house seems so melancholy." As a verse about the dissolution of a family, the lines take both the child's and the parents' (or at least one parent's) point of view. The "little corporal" gets hit by the ricochet of his parents' fights; care for the child has hit the point where it's more than dressing up dolls and playing house — which is a rather clever way of saying that not only is "the honeymoon over" but so is the family romance. It's biting but also amusing. As is, with the figure of the gun that runs through the song, "On your marks, man, ready, set / Let's get loaded and forget." A loaded gun, a drunken binge — on your marks, ready, set (a race), "marksman" — an excellent shot. Everything in this song is a bull's eye.
Then there's: "What's on his mind now is anyone's guess / Losing his touch with each caress." Not quite the wordplay — but "losing one's touch" extends to not having the effect one desires, but losing it "with each caress" means losing the desire as well. Bang. But then: "Spend ev'ry evening looking so appealing / He comes without warning, leaves without feeling." Premature ejaculation and indifferent departure. So then "his own gun" is not simply the weapon (of his wit) that aims at the bearer, or the actual gun that threatens the wife and is turned on the husband, but "the gun" of sex that shoots out of turn.
"Now dad is keeping mum," the refrain, might make us think — at least from the kid's point of view — that dad and mum are staying together, but it can also be heard as "dad is keeping mum / Shot with his own gun." The implications of this suggest the sexual connection keeps them together but with the threat that one gun — the biological one, let's say — could be exchanged for a more lethal one.
The song flirts with domestic violence, "blue murder," and even suicide.
When I first heard the song someone close to me was involved in a fairly unpleasant divorce. Not the kind that involves violence or even its threat, but certainly the kind with lots of emotional ricochets. The son of the divorcing couple — about ten — really liked this song. I wondered if the "dad is keeping mum" part struck some chord with him. I asked him why he liked this song and he said "I really like the words and the melody." Well, who can argue with that? The way EC's voice dialogues with the piano makes it feel a bit like a tightrope walk.
I saw Elvis Costello and The Attractions perform this song at the Tower in Philly on the Trust tour. It was quite striking and felt much more mournful than on the album. I've always remembered it. "Oh, it's too sad to be true."