Thirty-six years ago, Elvis Costello uttered two racial slurs that nearly destroyed his career. In his new memoir, the singer writes about what happened in a Columbus hotel bar—and how it may have saved his life.
Elvis Costello is very touchy about Columbus—it looms large in his legend. In his new memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, he devotes a full chapter to the night he spent here during a cross-country tour 36 years ago, when his career almost crashed just as it was taking off.
March 15, 1979: Costello and his Attractions were riding high. His third album, Armed Forces, had just hit No. 10 on the charts, the best he'd ever done in America. His record company was hyping the tour, trying to push Costello across the line to superstardom. And Costello was doing his best to sabotage the whole thing. "I was looking to discourage admiration," he said later. He also was drinking and drugging his brains out.
Costello was cocky and prickly in those days. Most shows on the tour were lackluster, and Costello snarled at the press. The set that night at the Agora (as the Newport was called then) was more of the same.
After the show, things got interesting. At the Holiday Inn on Town Street, Costello and his band ran into members of Stephen Stills' band. The two groups headed for the bar. Rock's Old Guard met the New Wave.
Stills' band tried to make nice, but Costello wasn't having any of it, insulting America, Americans, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley. Backup singer Bonnie Bramlett persisted. How about James Brown? Ray Charles? Costello dismissed both with the same vile insult.
"The petty sniping over a few cocktails soon escalated from snide remarks to unspeakable slanders," he writes. "I'll have to take the word of witnesses that I really used such despicable racial slurs (about) two of the greatest musicians who ever lived. … It took just five minutes to detach my tongue from my mind and my life from the rail it was on."
They were fighting words. Bramlett ("a tough chick," said one witness) let Costello have it, knocking him off his bar stool, separating his shoulder, starting a melee that ended only when the bartender brought out a baseball bat. Costello was spotted the next day with his arm in a sling. Bramlett leaked word, and the press went crazy. There were death threats, pickets at shows, his sales tanked, his label almost dropped him and Costello had to face an angry press conference.
In his new book, Costello opens his chapter on the Bramlett affair by naming Columbus' James Thurber as his favorite author and cartoonist. He also says, "You could say I had it coming. There was some beauty to the fact that it took a woman to knock me down."
"One thing became clear to me in time," Costello writes. "That Ohio evening may very well have saved my sorry life. So what if my career was rolled back off the launching pad? Life eventually became a lot more interesting due to this failure to get into some undeserved and potentially fatal orbit."