City Limits, October 30, 1981

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City Limits

UK & Ireland magazines

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Costello's tumbleweed apocalypse


Nick Kent

Elvis Costello, the most reluctant of superstars, goes in for some rare self-revelation in a new TV documentary. Or does he? Nick Kent argues that the veil over Costello is as mystifying as ever.

In the early summer months of 1977, one Andrew Jakeman, a failed rhythm guitarist for a '60s mod group (named — according to Nick Lowe — Chocolate Shoppe) and subsequent maverick entrepreneur who'd dished his job as road manager for Dr Feelgood the previous year, approached BBC2's Arena with a proposition for a half-hour documentary on one of his more idiosyncratic discoveries.

Jakeman had recently adopted the more familiar nom-de-guerre Jake Riviera in the summer of '76 to coincide with the modest launch of his brainchild, Stiff Records — an independent not unlike Beserkley — and had advertised through small ads and via a paltry modicum of publicity granted by the music press, exhorting anyone who fancied themselves to be burgeoning musical talents of a nature considered too "left-field" for major label interest, to submit demo tapes.

The very first of a what turned into a subsequent deluge of cassettes had a Middlesex postmark and contained six self-penned efforts performed by one D P Costello — simple acoustic guitar and terse vocals. Costello — real name, Declan Patrick MacManus (Costello being his mother's maiden name) had been lurking feistily around the tradesman's entrance of the music business for quite a while before his fateful sighting of Jakeman's Stiff proclamation. As "D P" he'd played the folk clubs circuit — mixing his own material with evergreens like "Greenback Dollar" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" — and in 1974, he'd briefly fronted the group Flip City (a somewhat incongruous r&b country swing sextet) togged out in denim overalls. When he posted the demo, MacManus could boast the dubious accomplishment that every record label in the country had turned him down.

As it was the first response to Jakeman/Riviera's zealous call for tapes, the latter, along with his client/partner/flatmate Nick Lowe, dutifully scrutinised the six songs showcased on the cassette. The first — "Mystery Dance" — Lowe opined to be a more than suitable vehicle for Dave Edmunds to cover, the second track Lowe again impressively considered to be an ideal song for another more established crony. By the conclusion of the tape, however, both Lowe and Jakeman were adamantly in accord; nobody could sing Costello like Costello.

And so it came to pass that a week later Declan Patrick MacManus turned up at Stiff's premises (rent accrued partially by Jakeman's temporary employment in the first half of '76 delivering Time Out by van around outer London) to meet Andrew Jakeman. The latter offered the former studio-time, an outlet for the results and possible management, commencing with Stiff's second signing receiving a fresh identity. Costello would remain as the surname but Jakeman/Riviera chose to re-christen his new client Elvis.

After a well-received debut single release ("Less Than Zero") Riviera became more and more obsessed with framing the size and scope of this already unique artiste's up and coming campaign, more than he was for any other Stiff act.

An album had already been pressed — myriad boxes of the finished package stacking up the Bayswater office — whilst Riviera testily negotiated a distribution deal with Island Records. A band had been shaped up from innumerable auditions and a huge ad campaign set up in readiness for a mid-July release date. It was at this juncture that Riviera approached the Arena consultants. He informed the company of his protégé's actual situation: Declan MacManus, married with an 18-month-old son, had handed in his resignation as computer operator for the Elizabeth Arden beauty consultancy firm, leaving the numbing security of this latter post in late May immediately to commence a new career as Elvis Costello, singer/songwriter and bandleader for a three-piece outfit, the Attractions. Riviera envisaged a day-by-day account of this transformation involving filming over some two or three weeks beginning with the last days of nine-to-five drudgery and concluding with Costello, his debut album in the shops, playing his first fully pro gigs.

Riviera's idea was roundly dumped by the programme's powers-that-be with scarcely an apology.

On November 8, 1981, some four-and-a-half years after that rebuttal, London Weekend will be screening the documentary Elvis Costello in Nashville as the second in a new season of South Bank Shows. Costello and Riviera have resolutely fought shy of any documentary since the BBC2 snafu presaged Costello's extraordinary career lift-off. Openly hostile towards all the media scrutiny ("he did a few interviews, found he didn't like doing them so he stopped" reasoned Riviera some 18 months ago before denoting the crucial line from Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" — "say something once, why say it again" — as being one of his artiste's quintessential credos) Costello has consistently remained zealously guarded against any probing of his private life ("I'm very, very 'country music' in my attitude to talking about my marriage and my family" he informed me as early as 1977) and also, excepting two lengthy dialogues officially ordained for public scrutiny in which he described to me in lucid and impressively minute detail the various motivating forces behind his songwriting and the reasons for his particular "crusade" through a business "that as a whole — the crassness of it all — still actively disgusts me... even if I got as big as Fleetwood Mac, I still wouldn't feel any different" no factor — however crucial to career advancement — has caused him to retract.

Only utter perversity has usually drawn him to talk to the press (on Costello's 1978 US tour, Riviera informed Columbia's PR department that his ward would only consent to be interviewed by either Newsweek or 16 Magazine, provided they got the cover story, whilst last year the only official interview he arranged was for the Observer's "A Room Of My Own" series).

All that remains on celluloid is a brief series of totally inconsequential appearances on '77's Live Stiffs film plus a number of promo shorts.

Costello also has one film performance to his credit: he played "English superstar Earl Manchester" in a brief segment of Americathon, a disastrous future-shock Mad, Mad World update that has so far failed to receive any British showing. Made in early 1979, Riviera had talked excitedly about the project, at the time stating adamantly that Costello & Co were up for a "real rock film like Hard Day's Night or Help ... I mean, we want to make the film to follow up The Girl Can't Help It."

When, on May 13, Riviera gave the programme's investigator/ researcher Hinton the thumbs-up, it was stipulated that Peter Carr direct. Carr was then briefed on what Costello wanted for the programme's slant, while Riviera, an acquaintance of Carr's for three years (Carr had made the excellent Lowe-Edmunds documentary Born Fighters for Granada) kept stressing that the film take its cue from D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back celluloid diary of Bob Dylan's 1965 English tour.

What the viewer actually gets to witness is a well-paced, sometimes indecisive series of incidents specifically fixated around Elvis Costello alongside his Attractions earnestly — and a little nervously — attempting to prove to Nashville's great hulking behemoth of a culture that he's proficient enough as a vocal interpreter to successfully perform authentically "sound" yet enlighteningly personalised renditions of the acorn gospel.

A good three-quarters of the final footage is taken from one week's worth of the "complete access" Carr and Co were granted during May of this year in order to capture Costello and his motley group in a local studio contending with the feisty indifference of top-notch country producer Billy Sherrill whose general demeanour — the very essence of well-fed, mean spirited diffidence often fronting thin-veiled contempt — captures Nashville's cagey rubber-necked hostility to outsiders far more caustically than an almost token series of glimpses of our boys from Blighty self-consciously co-mingling with the granite-faced habituées of the "Broadway" bar. Meanwhile Costello himself opts for the role of helpful narrator, plying forth an earnest commentary on Nashville history waxing instructive about Hank Williams ("country music's first sex symbol... the greatest country singer next to George Jones and certainly the best country music songwriter ever") and Gram Parsons, not to mention the dourly undemonstrative Billy Sherrill, whose former achievements as engineer at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios recording the seminal works of Mssrs Presley, Orbison, Cash and Lewis through to his spuriously innovative use of syrupy strings to create the "country-politan" genre he remarks comprehensively if not exactly adroitly upon.

So accommodating is the Elvis Costello of Peter Carr's documentary. Modest, agreeable, mature, diplomatic, he is all-too-abundantly "sincere" in his motives to achieve the intended coup of inspired craftsmanship that can achieve "a sound more dependent on my singing voice as opposed to lyrics... I want to be more 'direct'... I feel it's time to say something in a sound. We have an established audience and... if I can just get them to sit and listen to country music for an hour I think I can get the point across."

In that last quote hangs the true crux of Costello's Nashville sojourn, the reasons for both the success of Almost Blue as a work of quiet dignity (although producer Sherrill's mixes tend to sound — particularly on "Too Far Gone" and "Sweet Dreams" like Costello courageously swimming through a sea of molasses) and the success of In Nashville as Carr's cameras deftly capture the quiet tension "twixt" Costello's attempts to streamline his formidable talents into interpretative coups and Billy Sherrill's "my silence is congratulation" condescension.

Yet, barring two or three key quotes from the segments virtually book-ending the programme, where he is being interviewed after the Nashville sojourn at his home in Middlesex, Elvis Costello leaves that portion of the four million or so who tune in for their weekly dose of "the arts under scrutiny" — and who also happen to be members of his "established audience" — possibly even more bemused than ever regarding the mental processes that have thus far conspired to produce arguably the most radically accomplished collection of songs in the last 15 years of popular music.

When queried as to why the documentary grants only lip service to Costello's extraordinary legacy as songwriter, ingenious "pop" subversive bar none, lyricist of often stunning succinctness and sophistication, arguably rock's most multi-faceted social commentator (two pedestrian clips of '77 Costello and the Attractions playing — by their standards — quite wretched snatches of "Detectives" and "Lip Service" at Eric's plus Melody Maker's Allan Jones' nervy summary of the Costello phenomenon are insultingly paltry) director Carr states that Costello simply refused to deal with the concept of a retrospective:

"He claimed that with the albums culminating in Trust he'd reached a point where he could simply go no further. He talked about this fear he's always had of reaching a point where all you can do is to repeat yourself over and over ad infinitum without even being aware. He felt that the lyrical content to his songs had reached the point where very simply they'd become far too complex to effectively be put over in the three minutes available. As far as I could gather, the music he was composing certainly from Armed Forces through to Trust was never bound by any commercial considerations.

"He saw the Nashville sessions as simply an event that would be more interesting to document than some weighty verbal dialogue dealing with a body of work he perhaps has yet to get into a suitably balanced perspective." Costello, Carr noted, was "perfectly reasonable" throughout the shooting, though after-hours his moods could change from "intense melancholia — he could be very withdrawn" to "bouts of conversation so compulsive that he claimed that only June Carter could talk more."

In 1977, the very week that Elvis Costello's first album My Aim is True finally got released, in a mood of mild insobriety he'd told me highly assertively:

"Gram Parsons had it all sussed out. He didn't stick around — he made his best work and died. That's what I want to do. You think I'm joking, right — but I'm deadly serious about this. I'm not going to be around to witness my artistic decline."

Some two years later, I reminded him of the aforementioned quote. He was more pensive than belligerent, but had that smarting sense of ever pushing forward, of a burning confidence in change and improvement.

"Sometimes even now I can feel absolutely washed up. If two days go by without getting an idea for a song I become obsessive about writing. It's not the thought of me drying up that scares me so much as the concept of repeating myself in a series of ever-diminishing echoes."

"A series of ever-diminishing echoes, yes, that was the phrase he used" states Peter Carr, referring to Costello's compulsive melancholia. "Plus this frankly blatant preoccupation with the likes of Hank Williams and Gram Parsons and the way their lifestyle and music seemed so intertwined that their deaths before reaching the age of 30 seemed very natural."

In the final scene of Carr's programme, Costello, looking uncannily like the image of himself on the Trust cover, once again addresses the spectre of a fate that evidently refuses to exorcise itself.

"There's this element of self-destruction I can still denote in my voice. You see, this business as far as I can tell just sucks you in and I've reached a point where I feel that what I'm doing is not so much about truth but in fact, a perversion of truth.

"There's this contradiction, see, in dying young, because it's not romantic or attractive whatsoever. I don't believe in it but at the same time I find myself inextricably drawn to that. I can't decide whether I'm flirting with it or whether these feelings are actual premonitions of fate."

Peter Carr's film affords Costello the chance to at least state those things. What it doesn't grant one is the kind of yardstick — only measurable in the character of his own songs, I fear — of exactly how far he is toying with those obsessions.

"Actually I think I'm more devious than obsessive" — Elvis Costello, March 1978.


Tags: Jake RivieraNick LoweAlmost BlueBilly SherrillThe South Bank ShowLondon Weekend TelevisionDeclan MacManusNashvilleBBC2Stiff RecordsBeserkleyKnockin' On Heaven's DoorFlip CityMystery DanceDave EdmundsTime OutLess Than ZeroElizabeth ArdenIsland RecordsThe AttractionsTalking HeadsFleetwood MacNewsweekLondon ObserverA Room Of My OwnAmericathonLive StiffsHard Day's NightBob DylanGeorge JonesGram ParsonsSam PhillipsElvis PresleyRoy OrbisonJohnny CashJerry Lee LewisPeter CarrToo Far GoneSweet DreamsWatching The DetectivesLip ServiceEric'sMelody MakerAllan JonesTrustJune Carter CashMy Aim Is TrueHank Williams

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City Limits, No. 4, October 30 - November 5, 1981


Nick Kent profiles Elvis Costello.

Images

1981-10-30 City Limits page 46.jpg1981-10-30 City Limits page 47.jpg
Page scans.

Cover and contents page.
1981-10-30 City Limits cover.jpg 1981-10-30 City Limits contents page.jpg



1980 photo by Anton Corbijn.
1981-10-30 City Limits photo 01 ac.jpg

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