A RED SHIRT AND RED SHOES: is what Elvis Costello is wearing, as he and the Attractions perform in a barely full Providence Civic Center. Six years ago he appeared here at Brown University in those same red shoes; skinny and sinewy, he wore a button that obnoxiously proclaimed: "Don't Talk To Me." Now he says things like: "This song is for all the young ladies in the audience."
TRYING TO MAKE A LIVING: the Attractions play good-naturedly in front of Japanese screens that flash polka dot colors — blue, green, pink, and a black and white enlargement that looks like hair follicles. The four TKO Horns (ex-Dexy's Midnight Runners, circa Searching For the Young Soul Rebels) wear white linen jackets and blister loudly, drowning out everyone except the well lubricated "King of the Keyboard Jungle," Steve Nieve.
PUNCHING THE CLOCK: they race through their career (says Elvis in his autobiographical concert guide: "I was accused of attempting to play every number we knew at one sitting — this would in fact take several days.") They play the songs from the new album ("Let Them All Talk," "The Greatest Thing"); the hit songs ("What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?," "Accidents Will Happen," "Pump It Up"); the songs that don't work (the live version of "Shabby Doll" is the hum of a cheesy T.V. show soundtrack); and the songs that do (a punchy "King Horse," an explosive' "Man Out Of Time"). There are no country songs: Elvis cautioned the audience to leave their cowboy hats home in the chatty tour booklet ("I was condemning myself to years of being pursued through supermarkets by middle aged women clutching tear-stained copies of Almost Blue."). Elvis introduces "Everyday I Write The Book" by saying, "Let's get past the depression a little bit."
SOTTO VOCE: feet apart, he holds the microphone tenderly, clutching his guitar close to his chest ("Town Crier"). He is an R & B singer, his voice frittering on the notes while his feet tap out the rhythm ("Backstabbers"). He is a saloon singer, belting out the last line — "Kid About It" — eyes closed as the piano tinkles like ice cubes against a crystal glass. He is a world weary balladeer at the end of the incomparable "Shipbuilding": "We could be diving for pearls," he whispers gently. A wrenching a capella verse finishes "Clowntime Is Over," with Elvis waving his fists in the air.
SUNG IN DIFFERENT KEYS: after retiring in the middle of the show (while the Attractions dispose of older songs: "Watch Your Step," "Mystery Dance"), the TKO Horns return; they are dressed in loud paisley shirts: the design looks like the sperm cells kids draw in biology class. Steve Nieve is slightly looped — the roadies served him lots of drinks — and he knocks over the keyboards; undaunted, he continues to bounce his hands about as if he's still playing. A circus atmosphere prevails: through "Clubland," through "TKO" and "Alison," through the encores "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "I Can't Stand Up" and "Pump It Up."
AND THE CAMERA NOSES IN: an image of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, nervous and nervy, on Saturday Night Live many years ago. Elvis' face pressed up against your T.V. screen, snarling "Watching The Detectives." They play the song in Providence and the audience is visibly shaken up; heads bob and weave to the sinister music. From Elvis there was a lot of heart, but there was none of the menace that had once so forcibly carried the song. He told a writer in England recently that "You can only scream for so long; then you either lose your voice or people turn you off."
THE INVISIBLE MAN: is in a corner backstage, talking quietly with the very slight, very pale Peter Wolf, lead singer of the J. Geils Band. Elvis looks larger, and friendlier, up close; he is sweating profusely; he is wearing an Eraserhead button and a Rocky pin; he has changed his red shoes.
WITH ALL THE WILL IN THE WORLD: a pin-stripe suited Steve Nieve sips his drink and straightens himself up. His dark eyes peer through dark glasses and dark hair; a dark hat is pushed down low on his forehead. "Are you married?" he asks. Discouraged, he changes his tactic: "Are you from CBS?"
(I WISH I NEVER OPENED MY) MOUTH ALMIGHTY: Nieve is incensed. "I'm giving them 48 hours to notice there is a band." "Who?" "Why, CBS. Do you happen to know what that stands for? They never even ask us to go on a radio show," he whines. "What do they expect us to do all day? What do they think we want to do? Go shopping?" He shrugs, then leans over to confide a secret: "I read Goebbels."
PUT MY MARK ON ANOTHER MAN'S DREAMS: "We are a rockin' outfit; it's not just one guy you know." Nieve is silent for a moment, then blurts that "I never talked to Elvis about this; I don't know how he feels." A business type walks by and Nieve accosts him — "Are you from CBS?" The man looks afraid to admit or deny his affiliation; he walks away, but not before Nieve demands: "What have you done for the Attractions today?"
LET THEM ALL TALK: drummer Pete Thomas, a pleasant, sharp featured Englishman, is leaning against a mirror, thinking about the show. "I threw a bit of funk in during 'New Lace Sleeves'; I saw Bowie, and stole a few things from his drummer — what's his name, Tony Thompson? Anyway, I thought, 'Oh, that'll sound nice in the middle of `New Lace Sleeves.'" He is lightly tanned from a holiday in Maryland ("It just worked out that way."). He is good humored about the four horns that blast behind him: "How do you think it feels?!" he laughs. "Sometimes they are a bit off key, and I want to stop and say, 'Hey guys...'" Pete Thomas is also good humored about Steve Nieve, who is asking everyone if they "want to smoke some pot"; a refusal gets you accused of being a spy from CBS. Bruce Thomas, the Attractions bassist (no relation to Pete Thomas, the Attractions drummer) is a blond, conservative looking fellow who spends the evening talking to fans saying extraordinary things like: "Yes, trombonist Jim Patterson does the horn arrangements and then we fiddle with them."
ONE SHAMEFUL ACT: "If you want to talk," Steve Nieve says slyly, "we can go back to my hotel room." Asked about his new solo album Keyboard Jungle, he is mute: "Are you from RCA?"
CHARM SCHOOL: Elvis tugs at his baggy trousers, hikes up his belt, and signs a few autographs. His manner is shy and self-effacing. Last week he was in New York filming a television show called Swing It Again; he and Tony Bennett crooned "Lil Darling" and "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" barely accompanied by Count Basie's Big Band. Chuckles Elvis: "It was weird; I was nervous, and my voice sounded scratchy."
HUMAN SACRIFICE: Steve Nieve is reading something by a guy named Bob called The Book of the SubGenius. "Can you tell this to CBS? It is a quote from page 134 by Goebbels: 'My kind of execution is fun.'" In a last ditch effort, he asks "Do you want to come back to my hotel room and check it?"
THE GREATEST THING: a composed crowd files out of the arena, into the open air. There is muffled talk about a stabbing; no one knows the details. "Elvis Is King" someone yells; there is dispirited applause.