He is suddenly much more than a cult figure, this awkward, half-hidden rocker who goes by the name of Elvis Costello. He's made a quick but effective tour from San Francisco to Asbury Park, and his album was selling at the healthy pace of 10,000 copies per week for the first six weeks it was in American stores.
Elvis has come a long way from the day, earlier this year, when he was arrested for performing an impromptu solo concert in the street. That performance, which came a few hours before his London stage debut, was a well orchestrated publicity stunt that may or may not have speeded his signing with Columbia Records (who were having a convention inside a hotel while Costello stopped traffic outside). But later at Dingwalls, a local pub, it all came down to Elvis and his group — Peter Thomas, drums, Bruce Thomas, bass, and Steven Young, keyboards — and they knocked back the audience with a fast-paced 21-song set.
For over 90 minutes the band covered rock & roll, reggae, pop and ballads with a spare but insistent sound that connected intimately with a crowd that stood shoulder to shoulder cheering him on. Elvis' singing was marked by a mix of ferocity and control as he ran through barely familiar future album tracks and such remarkable works-in-progress as "Lipstick Vogue," "Chelsea," and "Lip Service."
Despite all the ovations and shrieks of "Elvis is king," despite the knocked-kneed stance, pointed-guitar pose, and a passing resemblance to Buddy Holly, Elvis looks the antithesis of a rock star. Yet My Aim Is True has gone from being a curiosity item when it was released in the United Kingdom last June to being an FM radio staple here. Well before its US release, it became one of the most-played import records (Stiff) of the past five years.
Even without a US record company pushing him, Elvis made his presence felt over the summer as his music generated word-of-mouth buzz that eventually brought him to mass attention. His songs speak for themselves, recounting infidelities and difficult romantic relationships with a sometimes harsh honesty tempered by compassion and wit.
As if to underline his Fifties lyricism, his music is full of hooks and reference points to classic rock songs of the past two decades. Through all this he maintains his originality, avoiding the clichés and missed punches of comparable artists (from Elliot Murphy on down) in favor of the clarity and insight shown by rock's most gifted tunesmiths (Van Morrison, Graham Parker, Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen) with material like the tender "Alison," "Waiting for the End of the World," "I'm Not Angry," and "Miracle Man."
"There's nothing glamorous about the world right now," Elvis responds when asked about the dour tone of most of his songs. "There is no place for glamour or romance...I just don't care about a lot of things; making records, writing songs, and performing is about all. I'm totally serious about what I'm doing," he adds soberly, "But that doesn't mean there isn't an element of fun involved. I don't want to be so successful that I'll make a lot of money and retire...I'm just interested in playing."
Not much is known about Elvis Costello's past and he prefers to keep it that way. "I'm not particularly proud about what happened before," he admits, "It's not worth the trouble of going back to look at. I don't see any point in discussing the past. As far as I'm concerned, it's pointless. I'd just rather talk about the future."
A rumor persists that Elvis was a member of the pre-Johnny Rotten Sex Pistols for a brief time, but the only thing you'll get him to admit is that , as recently as last spring, he was a computer analyst in the town of Acton. He had been submitting demos to record companies for over a year before Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera had the foresight to sign him to Stiff Records for a tape recorder and an amplifier. Elvis was not after a big advance, just an opportunity. "I don't want to spend my time ligging [free-loading] around record company offices like a lot of other musicians," he says, "I don't want any charity. I just want to be out gigging and earning money."
My Aim Is True was recorded during his days off from work, with the assistance of his producer Nick Lowe, who shared similar visions and ideas for instrumentation. It comes as little surprise when Elvis admits the record was cut with radio in mind. "I love the sound of the album because I love things that sound great on the radio. The record isn't for people with expensive stereos," he says with concern, "I don't want my records to be used to demonstrate stereos, I just want people to listen to the music."