Winchester — This year's Elvis, though sporting long sideburns, looks much the same as ever, sitting in an office at the local branch of his record company, Warner Bros., with his wife, Caitlin O'Riordan, at his side. He is, though, loquacious and charming, generous with wit and anecdotes. This is not to say the British singer-songwriter has relinquished his much-vaunted edge. Hardly. The edge is just more selectively applied, reserved mostly for those who he feels over-analyze his work — or, conversely, judge it simplistically — or those who misinterpret his motives. But this is a mature artist who can co-write songs with Paul McCartney, the sort of fellow who can put the phrase "The Beloved Entertainer" on the cover of his latest album, Spike, and have it seem only half-ironic.
The beloved entertainer kicks off a low-profile college tour tonight at Boston College's Conte Forum. The show is sold out.
The early Elvis — the angry young man of 1977's My Aim Is True and 1978's This Year's Model — was well known for his
literate, terse, punchy rock 'n' roll, and for his acerbic attitude and explosive temper. For instance, in '78, he treated an adoring Orpheum audience to high-volume feedback after closing his terrific, but short, set. The clear message: You've spent your money, enjoyed your catharsis — now, go. In those days, in a rare interview, he said his music was inspired by "revenge and guilt." There were other incidents here and elsewhere — fisticuffs, camera smashings, general bad blood. There was the notorious drunken incident in a bar with Bonnie Bramlett when he cast a racial slur Ray Charles' way.
"What I did when I first started out," Costello says now, "was do a few interviews and, with a couple of exceptions, they were mostly unsatisfactory." So, right away, he stopped talking. "It made better copy than anything I might have said. Then, I said, 'I'll show you — you want punk, this is expletive punk.' " Costello sweeps the air with his right hand, an air punch.
"You start playing up to it; it's good fun," he says. With a laugh: "I think Sean Penn learned everything he did from me."
However, he adds, "you overlook the fact that it's only writers that sit at home and go, 'What did he mean by all that stuff?' and we're going, 'Ha, they bought that one again! Let's kick down another door!' After about five years, you start to realize it's a bit childish. And there were some unworthy targets, people who get it in the neck if they just happen to be in your way, people who might be good people but you don't give them the chance to explain themselves."
Costello's present munificence is not a complete surprise. This Elvis has been ascendant since 1983, after an ugly — possibly overblown — drunken incident in which Costello cast a few untoward racial slurs and punches. (The subsequent Rolling Stone cover was titled "Elvis Costello Repents"; on the afternoon of our interview, at an autograph session, Costello signed a mockup poster of that cover and annotated it by crossing the "s" off "repents" and adding "still doesn't.")
Costello's change of heart was especially clear in late 1986 during a carnival-like tour in which he used a "spectacular spinning songbook" — a giant wheel with song selections marked out, and spun by members of the audience, with the choices played by Costello and his band the Attractions. And his spirit was very much in evidence earlier this month on Late Night With David Letterman, where Costello did some deft verbal boxing and spun an amusing tall tale about his vision of God and the root of his song "God's Comic."
During this interview, Costello drinks coffee (with a side of water) as O'Riordan immerses herself in a book, speaking only when Costello gets stuck on the word "honorary." She helps him out, and he laughs at himself — "up too early this morning, must have left my brain in bed."
He was up at 5 a.m., and now he's in the midst of a long day of promotion — Spike is his first LP for his new label and Costello wants to give it a good boost. Still, he says, "If it's not a raging success and I made the record I set out to make, if it goes in the cutout bins tomorrow, OK, it's a commercial failure, but a musical success." And Costello's no strict company man. Asked about any current favorite artists, he scans the Warner Bros. CDs stacked about the office and names a couple of acts, especially dwelling on Peter Cetera, whom he clearly finds odious. Cher comes up, and Costello, tongue-assumedly-in-cheek, says, "I like Cher."
Perhaps he'll soon perform a duet with her.
"Everybody does eventually."
Early indications are that, with Spike, Costello might have a hit on his hands. It's currently at No. 33 on Billboard's chart, and "Veronica," one of the songs co-written with McCartney, is all over the FM rock airwaves. Costello and his diverse crew of musicians — McCartney, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Frankie Gavin, Benmont Tench, Steve Wickham, Christy Moore, Chrissie Hynde and more — play in a number of fields. Those include: soaring pop-rock, Irish-tinged balladry, odd-metered progressive rock, and even a jazz-tinged instrumental. Moods and themes constantly crisscross — grim, comic, tragic, tragicomic, angry, escapist, cautionary. The album, as are most of his, has been highly acclaimed. Still, Costello bristles at two frequent descriptions of this work: eclectic and political.
"Bland praise on eclecticism," he scoffs. "That's not thinking through why those very wide-ranging elements are there. To say it's eclectic — a chimpanzee could notice that. Pardon me: If six months' work is neatly pigeonholed under the word 'eclectic,' then I slightly resent it."
As for political, Costello doesn't deny the thrust of anti-Thatcher songs such as "Tramp the Dirt Down" and "Any King's Shilling," but he doesn't want to be viewed as someone on a soapbox. "It's a limiting definition," he argues. "Politics are things that are done to us that we can't control. 'Tramp the Dirt Down' is a reaction against those kind of things."
Last year, McCartney got in touch with Costello to see if he might be interested in collaboration. Costello went for it. The two songs on Spike — "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws" — are, says Costello, "the tip of the iceberg," and, essentially, Costello-written songs at that. More "true" collaborations will surface on McCartney's upcoming album and, no doubt, on future Costello projects.
A common line on the Costello-McCartney partnership is that Costello provides the counterweight John Lennon once did — complexity, leanness, toughness and insight McCartney lacks. Costello rejects the notion: "That's just nonsense, a load of rubbish. Again, it's an easy option; it makes good copy."
Costello has, though, clearly enjoyed the partnership, and suggests it has been one of creative tension, of give-and-take. He quickly counters any suggestion that McCartney has slipped into a middle-age stupor: "He can rock, he knows how to do it."
Throughout his 12-year career, Costello's music has taken a number of zigs and zags. He's done the Stax/Volt soul sound with Get Happy!! and sunk deep into weepy Nashville country with Almost Blue. He's bent the pop parameters continually. On each album, he's most always presented a variation on his previous self. Has he consciously reinvented his persona at every turn?
Costello says no, and compares his stylistic shifts with those of an actor. "People read too much into it," he says. "Actors take on the role in order to say the lines of the film; they don't take on the role to be different people themselves when they're in front of the camera.
"I don't like the word 'theatrical' because it conjures up a contrived, distanced work, which I don't think is what I do. But it is a theatrical presentation, whether you like it or not; music has a dramatic element."
A couple of years ago, Costello changed his legal name back to its original form — Declan Mac Manus — for passport and songwriting credit purposes. He says too many music critics/amateur psychologists saw that as a shedding of skin, as reverting to his "real" self. "My real self has been there all along," he insists. "I won't always say he was a sane, sensible person, but I was always there one way or another, and if I wasn't there it wasn't because I was somebody else; it was because I was drunk or something — things that normal people are." Cheerfully, he says he looks at Elvis Costello as a brand name.
Costello and his wife have relocated from London to Dublin, prompting some folks to view the move as a return to his spiritual homeland. No, says Costello, the setting just works right now. His great-grandfather was Irish, though Costello has no idea what county he came from. Costello is English, though he bears no particular allegiance to either England or Ireland. "Ireland," he says succinctly, "is not without its faults." He had no desire to spend St. Patrick's Day in Boston and calls it "smothering sentimentality for something Irish-Americans don't understand."
Following tonight's concert, Costello plays tomorrow at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston; April 8 at Colby College in Waterville, Maine; April 13 at Brandeis University in Waltham; April 14 at the University of Vermont in Burlington and April 15 at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
To add to the on-stage spontaneity, Costello is planning to use a large satin heart, partitioned into 13½ (yes, 13½) deadly sins. Lucky audience members will get to play a version of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey," by planting a spike (get it?) through one of the sections. Then, he or she can choose to act out the "sin," or request a Costello song that pertains to it. "It's a little bit malevolent," says Costello. "All those deadly sins bring a bit more melodrama."
Costello is booked through June — a UK tour follows the brief US college tour — and he may be back this way for more "proper" dates this summer. "That's not confirmed," Costello says. "It's still up in the air, really. I don't really tend to look that far ahead."