"I'm sorry, but Elvis is not doing any interviews. He is not talking to anyone on this tour," said the voice at the other end of the line. Columbia records was making it plain that the Elvis Costello show in the Dallas Convention Center Theater would be a look-but-don't touch affair. Being more than just a fan of the Elvis in town, I was slightly disappointed.
Just who is Elvis Costello? He had been described by some accounts as an angry, young man. One who had had his woman tell him to drop dead, and then leave with another guy, one who watches the Detectives and who is waiting for the end of the world, but also one who plays some of the most exciting rock and roll to be found today.
Not much is known about Costello past his two records (My Aim is True, and This Year's Model) as he has only granted "interviews" to Crawdaddy, Time and Newsweek, but that was all before Delbert McClinton.
Jake Riviera is an important man in English music. As a co-founder of Stiff records he first gave Elvis and some other rockers their chance to be heard on wax. Jake Riviera is also an asshole. He is rude and obnoxious to just about everyone, but especially to the press. On my first meeting with the man he called me "tasteless and tacky" for taking pictures of Elvis and the band at the Old Warehouse. He then went on to say just exactly what he thought about Buddy in no few words, and this was just on my first meeting with him. But it wasn't too unsettling, because Riviera is an asshole to everyone. How does lake Riviera get way with being an asshole? He is Elvis Costello's manager.
Serving in that capacity, he has thrown up a wall of the unknown around Elvis, so that most of the people know nothing most of the time about the man. Under Riviera's tutelage Elvis has been unfairly labeled as a "New Wave" artist, which to radio programmers reads "punk", and creates a mental block against giving the artist any airplay. What I want to know is what happened to that favor* catch-phrase of every publicity agent in Burbank, "a promising new artist"?
It was a Thursday night as I sat in the Old Warehouse and listened to an inspired Delbert McClinton set when suddenly, in walked Elvis Costello, accompanying RCA's Judy Campbell. Hardly anyone in the club knew who he was, but they did notice that he was dressed differently and he was pale white — so much so that he seemed to glow in the dimly-lit nightclub. He sat next to me, this "unapproachable musician", so naturally my journalistic instincts made me talk to him (courage provided by Jose Cuervo).
After an introduction by Judy, and another drink we began to talk. He expressed his admiration of Delbert's music, and remarked that he had a cassette of McClinton's new LP (Second Wind) which he played on the bus. He seems normal enough, and is, in fact, quite friendly. We then moved on to the subject of interviews, and why he does so few of them.
"Journalists are always prodding and probing at you. They'll sit down with you and make you feel comfortable, then they let you have it with something that is really none of their business.
"That Crawdaddy interview really pissed me off. We had agreed on our last trip over here to only do an interview with Time, so I did it, but the man that did the Time interview went back and used some other material, rewrote his story, and sold it to Crawdaddy, too! He said some things about my mother and my father that made me very angry. My parents shouldn't even have to be mentioned at all, it's none of his business, so this time we've only the interview with Newsweek, and except for that we're not talking with the press because it always comes out all fucked up."
So here he is, this eccentric musician, sitting in a Texas bar, drinking beer from a bottle, and defending his parents ,and telling this journalist why he doesn't give interviews. If this is aberrant behavior, then how come I'm not making his kind of money?
Elvis comes across as an extremely talented young man whose career is being manipulated by a group of charlatans and carnival operators. His show at the Dallas Convention Center Theater was quick and to the point, throwing out song after song in rapid-fire progression but he did not do an encore, so many people left with the feeling of being cheated. For my money, I'll bet that Jake Riviera was backstage sneering, "Let 'em pay for an encore on our next tour.'
All of the people around Elvis seem overly concerned that someone will tear off a piece of him and take it home with them. I never saw a more skittish group of people backstage; they looked upon me with all of the affection of a fox in the henhouse. Cameras absolutely terrify them.
It is truly a shame, because if all of the bullshit and labeling were dropped, and Elvis were allowed to stand on the strength of his music alone we might be hearing more of "Pump It Up" or "Mystery Dance" on the radio. What really matters is that Elvis Costello is playing the best rock and roll around today.
Unlike many of today's artists (I use that word loosely, as most of them are "stars" and not artists) Elvis does not try to do a lot of overdubs on his recordings. His producer, Nick Lowe, encourages him to play guitar and sing at the same time in the studio, while the band backs him. In short, a "live" recording.
"We usually try and get the song on the first take and capture that energy," says Lowe. "You know, I could never understand how someone could spend five or six months making one album. You've got to capture that flash of inspiration at that moment, or otherwise it becomes stale."
I like Nick Lowe's attitude, because that is what good each and roll is about being able to do it anytime, anywhere, without the aid of 16 tracks and a huge bank of synthesizers and echo chambers. This, in fact, is what separates Elvis from the rest of the pretenders to rock and roll.
His music is a throwback to a time when rock was less complicated and much more innocent. Although several writers have tried to name his influences only Elvis himself knows, and he's not telling. He did say that Elvis Presley did not have much of an effect on him, as Costello admires Presley more for what he did than for his music. I find traces of several early 60's groups, like the Who, the Beatles, and ? and the Mysterians. The fact that he uses a four piece group, and relies heavily on the sound of the Farfisa organ is clearly indicative of the typical early 60's rock band, but the resemblance ends there.
While most British rockers sang love songs, Costello takes a hard look at modern urban life and its frustrations in songs like "Welcome to the Working Week" and "Watching the Detectives", a popular television show that featured Robert Taylor in the title role while played in (surprise!) the early 60's. For the life of me, I tend to think that Elvis even draws some from Buddy Holly, right down to his black glasses and the fact that he plays a Fender guitar.
As long as people are able to hear his records, Elvis Costello will succeed, in spite of his name, in spite of his lack of airplay (if he got as much as the Bee Gees he would already be playing Texas Stadium), and in spite of his ability to bite:the hand that feeds him in an absolutely hysterical song called "Radio, Radio". No, Elvis is not angry at the world, he is quite normal, but he will continue to look at the press in the manner that a barefoot man regards a cow pasture. If you try to walk through it, you will wind up getting some shit on you.