Untroubled by the grandeur of her surroundings — the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, where the prevailing atmosphere is one of hushed respect — a middle-aged woman stumbles to the front row of the side balcony, which overlooks the stage. Her face is contorted with rage. Her muscular arms are heavily tattooed. Below her, Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet have just begun their next number. I'm sitting a few rows away from the newcomer and it's clear that this woman's pre-concert refreshments have not been confined to a flute of the vintage champagne dispensed by the waiters in the foyer.
She halts the performance, howling in Doric, the dialect from north Aberdeenshire. It's a diatribe that appears incomprehensible even to her fellow Scots. One or two identifiable phrases surface from the slurred invective. They include "Red Shoes" and "Money back". Costello motions to his musicians, who stop playing.
"Excuse me;' he says to the disillusioned fan. ”That's Norwegian, isn't it? This precipitates a fresh tirade, from which I can only distinguish "Pump It Up". "When you saw the words string quartet on those posters outside, Costello asks her, what did that suggest to you?” Death metal?"
"Money back," she bellows. "Come down here," Costello tells her. "Come down here and I'll give you your money back."
The unusual position in which Elvis Costello now finds himself can be illustrated — not for the first time in his life — by reference to two headstrong women. That first one — the deranged Scot who was eventually helped from the auditorium, to angry jeers from the more respectful majority — reared her head in April this year, when he played a handful of concerts on a UK tour.
The second made her brief but memorable appearance a couple of months later in Cary, North Carolina, during a period I spent accompanying Costello on tour in America. An audience of 3,000, at an outdoor venue, gave an ecstatic reception to what was, again, an acoustic set. As the crowd was baying for an encore, I watched from backstage as the striking, black-haired woman of about 25, wearing a full-length scarlet gown, lingered by the security gate that led to the artists' entrance. Without warning, she kicked off her heels, dipped a shoulder and, showing a remarkable turn of speed, eluded security staff and sprinted towards Costello's dressing room, where his crew managed to restrain her.
Once she'd been reunited with her footwear on the public side of the barrier, I spoke to her as she queued for an autograph.
"Look at them," she said, pointing across at the cars heading down Highway 1, southwest, towards Georgia. "I can't believe there are so many people on the road"
"Because," she said, "every one of them missed this night"
It would be difficult to overstate the gulf between Elvis Costello's reputation in Britain and America. Walking down the street with him in Nashville, say, he's stopped every few yards. At one point I was reminded of another constantly interrupted walk I once took with George Best in central London. There was a moment at one show, while we were standing in the wings watching Emmylou Harris perform, when Costello showed me a text on his BlackBerry. It was from his wife, Diana Kraal, who had just emerged from a one-to-one at a Democratic convention. It read: "Just been kissed on both cheeks by the president. He said: 'Hello...How's Elvis?"
In America, Costello's audience has remained open to the ambitious musical range of his recent records, like his magnificent new album, Secret, Profane And Sugarcane, on which he's accompanied by the cream of the nation's bluegrass musicians. His face is familiar to Americans of all ages, if only as a result of his appearances in shows such as Frasier, 30-Rock and his frequent contributions to Late Show With David Letterman, which he hosted when Letterman was ill. His own, highly acclaimed programme, Spectacle, produced by Sir Elton John, in which Costello interviewed figures such as Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett and James Taylor, has been commissioned for a second series. Costello has a role in the pilot for Treme, David Simon's follow-up to The Wire, and both he and regular collaborator Allen Toussaint are likely to be referenced in one of the threads of the narrative of the final project, which is set in Toussaint's home town of New Orleans. For Costello, who was recently described by Time magazine as the greatest songwriter in the language, that ironic album title King Of America is becoming less of a joke by the week.
I have to declare an interest at this point. I've known Costello for almost 20 years; he sang at my son's birthday party, has tirelessly encouraged me in my writing, and once connived in organising a surprise birthday party for my girlfriend. He is unusual in many ways; not least in that, when you meet many songwriters — even very good ones — their company tends to be less entertaining than their work. In his wit, enthusiasm and curiosity, Elvis Costello is a force of nature, a genuinely extraordinary human being.
"If my back was against the wall," says playwright Alan Bleasdale, who first introduced us, "and I could call upon one man to stand alongside me, it would always be Declan MacManus. He is a wonderful friend, a remarkably generous person; a passionately caring and loving son, father and partner."
"And then there's the work."
"Where do you start?" asks Bleasdale. "His music, his lyrics, his diversity, his stage presence, that unique voice that brings love and rage, pain and joyfulness, politics and passion, the complex truthful voice of humanity. Few people in the world have brought what he brings to both his public and private Iife, and this is the greatest of attributes — when a man's great qualities remain the same when the door is closed upon the world" (This idea of the man or woman "in the next room" has become a recurring motif in Costello's work.)
In my life he has been a loyal and — I make no apology for using that adjective again — generous confidant, but always on the understanding that I would never write about him. Consequently — as I explain, when we sit down in his suite one evening, shortly after I arrive at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville — talking to him for publication feels a bit like trying to snag your grandmother. (What an afternoon that was: the shattered teacups; the horrified relatives; the startled cat.)
"As a child," I tell him, "I remember constant talk about British performers trying to 'break' America. Why is it now, when you're 55, that something so special is happening for you here?"
Costello, who hasn't drunk alcohol since 1996, sips a glass of herbal tea. and toys with a dish of blueberries. The father of two young twins, Dexter Henry Lorcan and Frank Harlan James, whose mother, Diana Krall, married him in an unforgettable evening hosted by Sir Elton John in December 2003, he looks fit and relaxed. He works out every morning, and looks as if he's lost 20 lb since we last met.
"I think various things have gradually converged," he says, "to bring attention to almost anything I do now."
"Spectacle didn't attract a huge audience, but it was presented here as if it was a consequential programme." (In Britain, Channel 4 consigned the show to a midnight slot.)
"And Frasier, Third Rock From The Sun..." "I didn't do those things in a calculating way. I did them for fun. But people do come up and say: 'I liked you in The Simpsons, or Austin Powers. They're different constituencies, but they add up."
The curiosity of television viewers would mean nothing were it not for his extraordinary achievement, over more than three decades, of making bold and inspirational music in a more diverse range of styles than any performer I can think of. His American audiences are still overwhelmingly drawn in by his talent for rock 'n' roll, but have also responded to the quality of his later writing — from the arch wit and haunting melodies of The Juliet Letters (1993) to the captivating lyricism of Secret, Profane And Sugarcane.
A typical American crowd includes kids young enough to be his grandchildren. And yet, in a few days time, at the Ryman Auditorium, just down the road from this hotel, I will see an elderly white man reduced to tears by the final couplet of "Red Cotton", Costello's stunning new song about the slave trade between West Africa, Liverpool and the Southern states. If this was all he had ever written, he would be remembered forever. ("There is no man," the song ends, "who should own another / When he can't even recognise his sister and his brother.")
Costello has been a writer from the very beginning, and his lyrics sit more comfortably on the page than those of any popular musician I can think of, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and John Lennon included. Contrary to some reports, he doesn't spend his days lamenting his modest profile in Britain. In all the time I'm with him, he addresses the subject only once — when I raise it.
"What's the difference between audiences here and in the UK?"
"The key difference is the suspicion that colours almost everything that's written about what I do, in Britain. The idea that I've done nothing of consequence after... well, the date varies. Some people have the ears to listen past those prejudices. But because of the self-satisfied fantasy that passes for rock writing in England, there isn't much room for another view."
"I think it's a London thing"
"It is absolutely a London thing. That's why I left London 20 years ago"
Fans' exasperation at changes in style is something many artists have had to endure — Dylan and David Bowie among them — but none more so than Elvis Costello.
"People become so deeply attached to the sound of one period," I suggest, 'that they blow a fuse when you move on. I've heard people complain bitterly about recordings they haven't even heard."
I'm thinking of Il Sogno, Costello's ballet score inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream. I sent a CD of this to the writer and critic Michael Rose, a leading authority on Verdi and Berlioz. ("An exceptional, highly inventive work," Rose's note read. "The orchestrations are just gorgeous; the whole thing is so fluent and beautifully written.")
"Muriel Teodori [French partner of Costello's pianist Steve Nieve] once asked how you'd encapsulate English philosophy in a sentence. I said it would be: 'Who Does He Think He Is?' This idea that, if you explore diverse ideas, you're getting out of your little box. Whether I've been working with the Brodskys, Burt Bacharach or Allen Toussaint. How many reviews have you seen that say: 'He thinks he is doing such and such: No. I don't 'think' I'm doing it, I am actually fucking doing it, you know? And that's a damn sight more difficult than writing about it and misunderstanding it"
I once saw a prominent British rock writer practically foaming at the mouth over The Juliet Letters, which remains one of the most inspired recordings Costello has made: "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" is one of the most eloquent and haunting eulogies ever written. Paradoxically, in the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, angry preconceptions have never got in the way. On some level, the Americans, to borrow a cliche, just get it.
The following afternoon, we drive down to the Bonnaroo Festival at Manchester, just outside Nashville. Costello's first appearance is as a guest for the gifted singer Jenny Lewis, 22 years his junior. Towards the end of her already explosive set, Costello's arrival, on "Carpetbaggers" from her Acid Tongue album, precipitates something akin to pandemonium.
Afterwards in the dressing room, before he takes the stage for his own set, his conversation is typically vigorous and eclectic: the challenge facing Barack Ohama; the relationship between Hans Christian Andersen and soprano Jenny Lind (which inspired several songs on Secret, Profane And Sugarcane); the brilliance of his friend Roberto Benigni. He's interrupted by a text message.
"Manchester United," reads Costello, who has a Liverpool allegiance and knows of my attachment to Sir Alex Ferguson's side, "to sign no players over 26"
"26 what?" I ask him. "Million?"
"IQ," he replies.
It's noticeable, before he goes on stage, that nerves have not entirely deserted him. Musicians, I'd suggest, share one quality with other artists: put bluntly, when they stop worrying, they stop being good. He adjusts his scarf, checks he has enough picks ("I'm superstitious, I need four") and accidentally drops $200 down a portable toilet so unforgettably repulsive that even the most destitute felon wouldn't consider retrieving it.
"What's the worst thing that has ever happened to you on the road?"
Costello pauses for a moment.
"One time in a sauna in Amsterdam," he says, "I saw Douglas Hurd naked.'
Playing a solo set, with a reciprocal guest appearance by Jenny Lewis, he holds a crowd of 8,000 spellbound.He ends with a storming version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?" When he doesn't return for a second encore, there are people clawing at the fence by the stage.
As he's preparing to leave, other bands are succumbing to the temptations that made Costello notorious in the Seventies. We get straight on the tour bus, for a 500-mile overnight drive to Cary, North Carolina.
It's a luxury coach with beds, couches, satellite TV and only three passengers: Costello, myself and his tour manager, Robbie McLeod, whose gentle humour and laid-back attitude belies a rigorous professionalism born of three decades' experience. In the Seventies, he says, a major part of his job was dragging Costello and his damaged musicians out of bed in the morning. Tonight, the most mood-altering substance on hoard is Robbie's bag of popcorn. John, the driver, pulls on to Highway 40 and heads west for Nashville.
"Your enemies," I suggest to Costello, "call you a musical tourist: you do an R&B album (Get Happy!!, 1980); a country project (Almost Blue, recorded in Nashville in 1981), a New Orleans record (The River In Reverse, 2006)..."
"That;" Costello replies, "demonstrates a complete failure to grasp what I've been doing all along"
"Following my curiosity through a series of wonderful opportunities and encounters. I've done my best to make the most of them"
Whereas many artists treat other performers, especially younger ones, as rivals, Costello has constantly encouraged other musicians, including Ron Sexsmith, Georgia-based group the Lovell Sisters, and Jenny Lewis.
"Being on stage with him," Lewis told me, when she came off stage at Bonnaroo, "is totally unhinged; he's like this tornado of energy. And that is what we are supposed to be doing up there. He has taught me to value my own convictions. His incredible career is the result of relentless dedication to what he believes is right. There are so many forces at work that pressure an artist to be mediocre. Elvis Costello has never backed down, and that encourages me to do the same."
Before Bob Geldof's Live 8 event on 2 July 2005, when most black musicians were dispatched to the West Country while Geldof played Hyde Park with his white friends, I wrote to him suggesting he might recruit the great Zimbabwean guitarist Rise Kagona, one of the few surviving members of the Bhundu Boys, then living close to destitution outside Edinburgh. Geldof was too busy to reply.
Costello, who was playing the same night at a venue in Hampstead, fetched Kagona down to London; they performed a moving version of Costello's anthem, "The Scarlet Tide". ("I figured," Elvis announced, "this man should be playing somewhere tonight.")
"When you said that you tried to 'make the most' of your opportunities, how would you define that?"
"Not in terms of money."
"I think I know you well enough to say you're not a man consumed by a lust for fame."
"It's the music that's driven you, isn't it? Right from the start."
"The music and the ideas that can be carried by the music. I do have to say that at a certain age you are conducting experiments on yourself, to generate material. I've had..." Costello pauses, "...an unusual life. A life far removed from most people's experience"
He was born Declan Patrick MacManus at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington on 25 August 1954, only child of Ross (for many years vocalist with the Joe Loss Band) and Lillian, who worked in the record department at Selfridges on London's Oxford Street.
"Whenever people get nostalgic about the eleven-plus," I tell Costello, "I mention your name. How on earth did you fail it? In early interviews, you used to say you were lazy."
"No. I was good at my lessons. I missed a long portion of one year at school. I had very serious pneumonia. I nearly died."
"How old were you?"
"Were you aware that you might die?"
"I think I was too ill. I was fortunate in that I was taught by nuns. They were very kind."
Ross lives in west London; Lillian has retired to the Wirral.
"Your parents have always struck me as highly intelligent people who could have achieved in a variety of arenas,if they'd had the chance"
"My mother's education ended at 13: she nursed her own mother and effectively raised her younger brother. My father went to a good school; he studied Latin. He wanted to be a jazz trumpet player, but when he was offered work as a singer, he sacrificed his creativity to give us a better life."
"How old were you when your parents separated?"
"I don't know. Seven? Ten? They were there, then they weren't. I didn't properly understand."
He remembers bringing back a guitar from a childhood holiday, but didn't play seriously until he was 13, living in west London.
"The first song I learnt was Fleetwood Mac's 'Man Of The World'. It appealed to my teenage melancholy."
"When was it," I asked Lillian, "that you realised you had something truly
special on your hands?"
"I know this sounds wild," she replied, "but I knew before Declan was born. He's the third generation of a family of musicians. Before he could talk properly, he would ask for 'Skin, mam, Skin': that was Frank Sinatra's 'I've Got You Under My Skin'. When he was eleven, his English teacher called to ask me if he could enter one of Declan's stories in a Times competition; he said he had to ask because the category was for 16- to 25-year-olds. Declan won a commendation and a cash prize. Even divorcing myself from the fact that I am his mother — and I can manage that — I am astonished by his talent."
He moved to Liverpool when he was 16, living with his mother. Already consumed by his passion for music, he took mundane day jobs, including one as a computer operator with the Midland Bank.
"Then they gave me a desk job. This assistant manager accused me of stealing. When he did that, I just..."
"You just what?"
"I had my hands round his throat," he says, very quietly "I think I was trying to kill him."
He married young: Mary Burgoyne had been his teenage girlfriend; their son Matthew was born when Declan was only 20. Costello's first stab at domesticity coincided with his rapid rise to prominence, helped by Nick Lowe, his producer at Stiff Records, and his manager, Andrew Jakeman. A grammar school boy from Pinner who adopted the name of Jake Riviera, Jakeman had an extraordinary gift for developing talent, but tended to inspire grudging respect rather than affection. The pair ceased doing business in 1993. MacManus had already adopted the stage name of Costello.
"I told him," Ross recalls, "Never say your dad's a band singer. They'll think you share my philosophy that we should all be at home, eating and washing. So he used my granny's name."
It was Jake Riviera who suggested that Costello adopt the nom de guerre that commanded instant attention, but sits a little awkwardly with his more substantial later work.
"Riviera liked grabbing people by the nose, didn't he?"
"Yes. He never did it to me, though" "He must have got punched a lot."
"Oh, he got knocked out once or twice."
"In 1977, when you released My Aim Is True, I remember seeing you in Manchester. You seemed to have arrived fully formed." "It never felt like that to me. There was a long apprenticeship."
If there's been one constant element in Costello's life, it's his profound dislike of having to explain himself or his work. Talking about a song, he once remarked, is like being asked to have the same headache twice.
"My father worked as a musician every day. Nobody ever expected to have music explained. You didn't need an intermediary. That's why I was so intolerant of being interviewed when I started. I thought: 'Why do I need to be explained?"
He might legitimately question the point of grilling a big-band singer about his rendition of "Come Fly With Me". But there's something a bit more intimate going on when you see Costello perform his own compositions such as, say, "I Want You". That tune has the same resonance, for those with memories of being at the sharp end of a romantic triangle, as "The Internationale" does for veterans of the Spanish Civil War.
He may once have been regarded as a blokish songwriter, and yet — mingling with the audience during the outdoor concert in Cary — I can see something unexpected going on, and not only in the mind of the woman in the red ball gown. After he comes off stage to what is becoming a familiar ovation, we board the bus for another overnight trip back to Nashville.
"You've been called a misogynist,"I remind him. "But tonight, I could tell you were connecting emotionally much more closely with the women"
"That," Costello says, "is something I've noticed latterly. Perhaps because my songs are less neurotic. There are still men waiting to hear cruel words about their ex-girifriend. But I'm not their patron saint, you know? I never was"
"Well, maybe up to a point. Until about 1978 I could play that game "
"And yet, from the beginning, your songs have been opaque, some would say almost coded. Even something such as 'Red Shoes'."
"Well, 'Red Shoes' is a curious song. When I wrote it, I was 22. It's not simply about romantic rejection. It's about not wanting to be wrapped up in adult concerns and responsibilities. A lot of my early songs are about that"
There are some things, I tell Costello, that I feel queasy about broaching. "You said that at one stage you were conducting experiments on yourself to generate material. What did you mean by that — drink?"
"Relationships, I suppose. Drink facilitated the relationships"
"I haven't mentioned cocaine"
"Everybody knows that was something we did in the late Seventies. I haven't taken drugs since 1981 or 1982. The defining motor of my work is not drink or drugs. It is emotional and sexual turmoil. It's very difficult for me, this part of the conversation, because I don't want to bring Mary and Matthew into it, or Cait." (He was with Cait O'Riordan, once of the Pogues, from 1985 to 2002.)
"Then, in the late Seventies, you had a much-publicised fling with [LA scene maker] Bebe Buell."
"That was a relatively brief thing," Costello says. "And of far less importance then people have tried to suggest". With his voice lowered, and speaking off the record, he very candidly unpicks the tangle of alliances that precipitated the collapse of his first marriage.
"What I can say for publication is that, at one point, my life was much more complicated even than the inaccurate and sensationalised versions that have been printed. That's the truth of it. But in the case of each of these affairs, two out of the three of us will have to be dead before any of this is printed" He pauses. "Any two will do.'
'And yet it's all there, in the songs"
"It is in the songs, except that..."
"The listener doesn't know who the lyric refers to?"
"Right. People think they know. There are whole books that purport to tell you. But they get it so wrong."
"One song that people have speculated about is 'Party Girl' [from the 1979 classic, Armed Forces]. I actually wrote that about an art student in Minneapolis I spent a relatively innocent romantic evening with. It got written up in the paper; they libelled this young woman as a typical 'party girl'. I wrote that song about this sad little moment we'd eked out for ourselves. I always thought that the songs that were so true - on Blonde On Blonde, say - were things like 'Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine'. They are about that kind of little tragedy. But most of these songs are not autobiography so much as composites"
"Like writing fiction?"
"Yes. The simplest way I can put it is that if you take your childhood sweetheart, marry her, then break her heart, the consequence is that you spend the rest of your young adult life trying to make yourself as hateful as possible to yourself. In my case, it was a question of marrying young, discovering the things I might have done when I was even younger and then making all those blunders. The songs that came out of that early period were the result of a desire to return to a romantic idyll that I had destroyed by myself, through my own selfishness."
The nadir of Costello's hedonistic behaviour came here in America in May 1979. At a bar in Columbus, Ohio, on the Armed Forces tour, during a drunken argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, Costello made a racially insulting remark about Ray Charles, on the grounds that it was the thing most guaranteed to render his companions apoplectic. Anyone familiar with Elvis Costello knows that, if you'll pardon a dead metaphor, he doesn't have a racist bone in his body Despite Ray Charles publicly defending Costello, that one moment of suicidal provocation, which ran counter to his every instinct, has taken decades to recover from.
"Even now, I suppose it's always in my mind," he says. "You don't know which African-American musician has read some account of that. Nothing else about me: my beliefs, my way of working, or the friends I have got, suggests that I have a white hood in my closet."
"You did once tell me that the Columbus episode may have saved your life, in that it forced you to confront the more reckless aspects of your lifestyle"
"Even before Columbus, I'd had this feeling that I had to blow it all up. I felt that — by doing things that went totally against type — I could appear to go mad. And in about 1978 I decided that I would go mad. I decided to do everything that most horrified people. The problem was that I didn't know which way was up, after a while. I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. I couldn't control the free fall."
"Do you think you sent yourself into terrible places because it brought an edge to the work?"
"The honest answer is that I don't know"
"When you say that you decided to push your behaviour to the extreme — was that because you knew that then you would have to reform?"
"Oh, I wasn't trying to reform."
In his second wife, Cait O'Riordan, Costello found a partner who was highly intelligent and articulate, but temperamentally unsuited to calming an already turbulent scenario.
"I met Cait while we were touring in 1984. I was way out of control at that time. I'd been considering moving to Minnesota, Barcelona or Helsinki. Cait... you know, I don't think it's fair to talk about that at all."
I first met Elvis Costello in June 1991, at a studio in Wembley where he was completing the soundtrack for Alan Bleasdale's classic drama G.B.H. Two weeks later, we met Bleasdale again, at a pub in Kensington. At one point, I made a speech about how life can throw up events stranger than fiction. Shortly afterwards, a man entered the bar with a bunch of daffodils, uprooted from a hanging basket, clenched between his teeth. He sat down at our table.
"I won't beat about the bush, pal," Bleasdale told him. "How much do you want to go away?"
"Oh, come on," Costello told him, with a look that did not invite further discussion. "You're worth more than that.' The stranger didn't linger. It was a glimpse of the old Costello: the man who prompted Nick Lowe to say: "Elvis has never suffered fools gladly. Unfortunately, he happens to work in an industry made up almost exclusively of fools"
"Back then you had the beard and the shoulder-length hair. It was quite an unnerving look"
"The more it freaked people out, the more I liked it. I had to kill off the other guy."
"The clean-shaven geek?"
"Well, that worked."
"It did. There is a particular stripe of follower — you mentioned one of them earlier — that I'd been trying to shake off since the start."
It doesn't take long on the road — smart hotels notwithstanding — before you realise just how exhausting the process of touring can be. (At the very end of this trip, collapsing into a seat on BA 218 from Denver to Heathrow felt very like boarding a shuttle to heaven.) During the long drive from Cary to Nashville, Costello studies vintage footage of country stars, including Merle Haggard, who wrote the immortal line, "Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear."
We arrive in Nashville at six o'clock in the morning for what is nominally called a rest day By early afternoon, though, we are at a surprise party for country star Hank Cochran, whose song "He's Got You' was largely responsible for inspiring Costello to record Almost Blue in Nashville in 1981. I find myself shaking hands with the real Merle Haggard (who, in his bizarrely perforated beige slip-ons, seems to have betrayed his own philosophy).
The following day, Costello is playing the historic Ryman Auditorium in the evening.Mid-afternoon, we go to Gruhn's legendary guitar shop. In a private gallery, George Gruhn keeps his African grey parrot, eleven snakes, three Indonesian skink lizards and several million dollars' worth of guitars, mainly Martins and Gibsons priced at around $80,000.
Costello is shown an 1896 Martin acoustic, perfectly preserved, in its original wooden case. From the moment he sits down and starts picking a tune, he seems in touch with some other reality — oblivious to everything around him: the reptiles, the staff and the tornado warning siren. Other people are sheltering in the basement. Costello carries on caressing the guitar. Its price tag is in six figures.
Elvis Costello is not hugely wealthy by Sting standards, but I don't think Mr Gruhn doubts for a second that he has made a sale. The musician asks them to ship the instrument to LA. George kisses his African grey on the beak.
The car that's supposed to take us from the Hermitage to the Ryman doesn't arrive, and we have to walk to the theatre. Costello is about to free himself from a group of autograph hunters outside the hotel;a young girl of about nine, who has been too shy to hold out her book and pen, is on the edge of the crowd. She's on the edge of tears. The singer, already very late, turns back. He has his picture taken with her and signs a dedication.
This evening, Costello seems unusually relaxed before he goes on stage. The venue, which holds 2,300, is packed; from the moment he takes the stage, the atmosphere is euphoric. I've watched him many times over the years, but this is one of the greatest concerts I have ever seen Costello — or anybody else — give. There are moments when time seems to stand still.
The Sugarcanes — an acoustic band, including double bass, dobro guitar, fiddle and mandolin — have adapted songs from his entire repertoire with humour, poignancy, and tremendous energy. You may not know the names of Dennis Crouch, or Jim Lauderdale, but their work leaves you in no doubt that bluegrass musicians, at their best, are virtuosos to compare with specialists in any discipline. A watching producer tells me that he can't think of anyone else who could have put this band together, except for Bob Dylan or T-Bone Burnett, the guitarist and producer Costello refers to as "my brother".
His musicians have the unmistakable exuberance of artists working with really exceptional new material; the audience is receptive, even to the slow paced eloquence of a song like "She Handed Me A Mirror". Costello wrote this about Jenny Lind and the unrequited love of Hans Christian Andersen, who was, by all accounts, no oil painting. "He asked why she couldn't return his love," Costello explains. "She if handed him a looking glass."
The audience, accustomed to performers if of the calibre of George Jones, won't let him off stage. Costello plays 20 minutes past curfew and leaves to a standing ovation. "I almost never," says an employee, standing by the stage door, "saw anything like this."
We get to bed around 1am, and have to be up at five o'clock to catch a flight to his next booking, a festival in Telluride, Colorado.
In the car on the 90-minute drive from Montrose airport to Telluride, Costello is unusually withdrawn. He looks weary; as we climb into the mountains, the altitude [Telluride is at 10,500 feet] is starting to get to him. We check into the Capella, the most stunningly lavish hotel I've ever been in. Elvis, Robbie and I have adjacent suites.
Each one is the size of Liechtenstein.
I take my voice recorder across the hall to Costello's principality.
The air is thin. His room is shadowed if in a kind of half-light. He's whispering, to save his voice.
"That was a special night at the Ryman, wasn't it?"
"Very. I've never seen it so vociferous." What was especially satisfying, he
says, is that the audience embraced his whole repertoire.
"I could have just done songs from Secret, Profane And Sugarcane. But 'The Delivery Man' [from the 2004 album of the same name] was a peak. So was 'American Without Tears'. And 'Red Shoes'. It was so rewarding to take those songs and turn them into something that left that audience visibly thrilled."
"There have been moments when we've been discussing your life and work, when I couldn't help but remember those lines you wrote: 'You may think you're a guest, but you're a stranger at best/Peering into the corners of my dark life."
"That song wasn't about me," Costello says. "I went to see this Red Army-plundered collection of paintings, in St Petersburg. I wrote it about people involved in that."
"Still, when you stand on a stage and sing those words, the impression is.."
"The key song," Costello interrupts, "when it comes to... my own sensibilities... is not 'My Dark Life'. It's 'When I Was Cruel #1'."
"Why,' Costello continues, quoting his own lyric, 'did you leave your happy home / So you could travel far abroad / So you could sleep with strangers."
("Oh, when I was cruel and I could make you so unhappy," the song continues, "Lonely cowards followed me like ghouls / And you liked me too... when I was cruel...")
"Some people accuse you of having lost your political edge. That said, I remember you doing an interview with Jeremy Vine, in which he invited you to retract 'Tramp The Dirt Down' and you said, 'The difference now is, I wouldn't waste the shoe leather.' (In this song, from the 1989 album Spike, the singer pleads to be allowed to live long enough to stamp on the grave of Margaret Thatcher. Together with Alan Bleasdale's Boys From The Blackstuff, it's the most enduring artistic response to that period of government.)
"Tramp The Dirt Down' wasn't a political song. It was an emotional song"
"And a moral declaration?"
"Yes. But it was an emotional reaction to world events, just like 'Shipbuilding' was [to the Falklands] just like The River In Reverse [his collaboration with Allen Toussaint, dealing with the fate of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina]"
It's probably true that there's nobody alive who would profess equal love for every Costello album — not even the artist.
"A lot of people were even hostile about your collaboration with Paul McCartney in the late Eighties — especially towards McCartney, whom they automatically demean as the minor talent in the Beatles' songwriting partnership."
"I don't understand that view. Lennon was highly talented, but he also had a brutal streak. What's so admirable about that? John Lennon is dead, but it's not the same as being beyond reproach. He isn't around to change the perception of the legacy. Paul is still out there, doing remarkable work."
"Do you remember that e-mail I sent after you gave me North?" (I had trouble getting on with the 2003 album, written in the period that coincided with his break-up with O'Riordan and the beginning of his relationship with Krall)
"I understand, now, that, in terms of its intensity, North was sort of your Blood On The Tracks. At the time, I couldn't get past those lush arrangements"
"There's another version of North. One that I recorded when I was, if you like, at my wits' end. I went into the studio above Steinway Hall on 57th Street [in New York]. I played the piano myself. It was Errol Garner's piano, and it was practically impossible to play I stumbled through the songs. The result actually does sound like a man on the edge. I'm not calling you an idiot..."
"But if I'd put that out, I think the idiots who wrote those 'it's a Dean Martin record' reviews would have seen the common ground with the raw songs in my catalogue."
"Why didn't you release that version?"
"Because North wasn't all about desolation. It was also about renewal. I know that album is a very difficult listen. But North is exactly what it is supposed to be."
There is a song, he continues, unprompted, "from what was released as The Clarksdale Sessions. They were basically demos for The Delivery Man. It's called 'In Another Room'. Now that is a song straight from life. It says: 'In another room, just out of my sight / Words we used to say now become so slight / Till they disappoint.' It's that idea of, you know, how was it that I became a man you can barely tolerate? That is true to life. And when I finished it, I thought, 'Well, I'm not putting that out."
"Because, put centre stage, it would sound self-pitying. So you bury it"
On the finished version of The Delivery Man, he adds, in the song 'Monkey To Man', "there's a line about man constantly seeking to dress up his vile instincts.I think that defines all of art. It's either in the service of God, or ego, or desire."
"We've talked quite a bit about madness. Was there a time when you were actually honkers, as your doctor would put it?"
"I think I was reaching for it. Around the time of Armed Forces"
Thirty years on, Costello and Diana Krall now divide their time between a house in Krall's home state of British Columbia and an apartment in New York.
"This relationship seems to have brought a considerable degree of joy and tranquility into your life."
"Whatever happened in those other years," Costello says, "which, as you have noticed, I am not that comfortable talking about, except through the work, there is no question of who I am now."
"Where did you meet Diana?"
"At the Grammys. We were co-presenting. And I saw somebody similar to myself."
"Someone who wasn't comfortable in those show biz situations. Then there's this curiously compatible relationship to music that Diana and I have. We both grew up in houses full of music that you wouldn't expect us to know, because of our age. I knew the previous generation's music, because of my parents' interest. Diana is ten years younger than me, but the music she grew up with [in her father, Jim's, record collection] is 20 years older than the music I knew; it came from the Twenties and Thirties."
On stage at Telluride, he delivers another bravura performance, to an audience of 10,000 or so. Emmylou Harris, who presented Costello to the crowd as "one of the greatest artists of our time", is waiting in the dressing room afterwards. "I forgot something,' she says.”I should also have mentioned you're the hardest-working man in show business"
She says this with no hint of irony. Costello has to be up early the next day to catch a plane to LA, where he'll record a session with T-Bone Burnett; the following day he will give two performances: the first in San Francisco, the second back in LA.
Back at the hotel, we shake hands and he disappears behind the closed door of his room: the same man, to paraphrase Bleasdale, as when it was open.
In all the time I spent with Elvis Costello, I can't remember him expressing any uncertainty or self-doubt in relation to his work. Walking away; I do find myself wondering whether there are certain thoughts that might be occupying the mind of the man in the other room. Such as: in terms of a studio album, what comes next? Could he possibly bring this explosive live show to Europe? And, in relation to the country of his birth — perhaps the hardest question of all — what on earth will it take to bring an end to this triumphant exile?