PHILADELPHIA — It was a bitterly cold evening, "less than zero," as the song says. Outside The Hot Club, New Wave forum in the center of the city, fans had started lining up at 6 o'clock for the show at nine, turning blue as they hugged the side of the building to hide from a howlin' wind. The man they waited for walked toward the club with his shoulders hunched against the cold, looking like Mr. Peepers gone berserk, plus pimples. An absurdist portrait of a Chaplinesque tough guy: clunky shoes, rolled-up dungarees, horse-blanket overcoat snatched from a thrift shop bin, rumpled trilby hat over horn-rimmed glasses. "I'm not an artist," he was saying in his jerky, rapid-fire voice. "Even the word musician I kind of balk at. I'm a songwriter, and I'm a singer. But no hyphen, see? Don't make that mistake. Even a simple mistake like that can be costly in terms of misinformation."
It is hard to understand what makes Elvis Costello, all of 23 years old, so intense. He's scuffled around the British pop scene and taken his knocks for a while, but not that long. He has endured the pain of sending his tapes to the major record companies and getting yawns, but so has everyone else. He grew up in a working class household split by divorce, but he wasn't poor, or hungry. So what is he angry about — his looks?
Actually, it is something more akin to a temperamental version of the Kosmic Blues. Life is deadly, Elvis has concluded: dangerously gray, suffocating, getting worse. His rage to stay alive comes out of that rasping, angry mouth in rock rhythms and surreal lyrics so strong that they might easily melt the wax wings of those angels who wanna wear his red shoes. Like so many artists of our time — whatever his time in the spotlight might be — Costello has transformed a complex inner pain into something that has reached the nerve endings of a larger audience. "What I do is a matter of life and death to me," he says. "I don't choose to explain it, of course. I'm doing it, and I'll keep doing it until somebody stops me forcibly."
By now, Costello, his three-man band, a roadie or two and his manager Jake Riviera — a rude, argumentative Cockney type likely to win this year's cup for Most Obnoxious Rock Manager — are knocking in vain at the club's front door. The line of fans is growing, and more than 100 late-comers will astonishingly choose to wait in the bone-chilling winter wind until the 11 o'clock show, also SRO. "You can't call it punk or New Wave," says Carlin Dalessandro, 19, a bundled-up Temple University student in the front of the line. "He has a sound all of his own. I don't know what to call it." A door at the back of the line opens and everybody shuffles over to get out of the winter, leaving the fans behind. Once inside, Costello stands with his arms folded tightly over his chest and moves around the room like a robot in need of oil. Driving in from the airport, he'd poked a station-changing button and found "Lady Madonna." "It's a bit sad when you have to wait for a ten-year-old record to come on the radio to turn it up," he grumped in his hoarse, grating voice. "You can twiddle your dial up and down — they're the same songs. If I have to listen to another Fleetwood Mac track, I'll probably kill somebody."
The radio is one of Costello's obsessions. False values, betrayal, the life-sapping drudgery of working-class labor are others. As a kid in the West London district of Twickenham, Costello found that most of his schoolmates were into "Paki-bashing"; but he hung out with the Pakistanis, also the Irish and Jordanians. His father, Ross McManus, a jazz trumpeter and cabaret singer, left home, but not before young Elvis — his real name is Declan Patrick McManus — tagged along to some live radio shows and started fooling around with a guitar. Still, after graduating high school at 18, he wound up working as a computer technician and living in a dreary flat in Acton with his wife and child, playing gigs on the side, hating his life, biding his time. The radio, a lifeline for so many people, began to annoy him mightily with its rigid programming, an anger reflected in the as yet unrecorded song "Radio, Radio" ("I want to bite the hand that feeds me"). Already, he was writing, sometimes to rhythms of the computer terminals.
"It was like a drone," he remembers. "The trains to and from work would play a part. Rhythms that go through your working day affect you, right? They had sort of a clattery sound — tk, tk, tk, tk...." Words by day, arrangements late at night. "Sometimes four o'clock in the morning is the only time you can get away." Talking about his work, Elvis uncoils slightly. Ask what it means and you get posturing. "My songs have to do with situations," he rasps. "They aren't philosophical treatises. I didn't name the songs 'guilt,' 'revenge,' or 'sarcasm.' The journalists did that."
On the road, he carries an accountant's ledger which says "records" on the front cover and he scribbles constantly. "Marriages performed here!" he chortled caustically and flipped open the book as he passed a tacky Justice of the Peace office in Philadelphia. He had time to kill, so the CBS publicist took him to an oldies record store, then to the thrift shops he prefers. He bought shirts ("I don't care what size they are. I just buy them") and combed through boxes of old records. "I'm more interested in people dancing than thinking," he said, up to his elbows in old clothes. "I don't like concepts. Individual things are more important. Being stood up on a date hurts more than a Big Concept." Once he told a British interviewer that "guilt and revenge" were his only lyrical "reference points." Asked to expand on that, he looked at the old shirts for a moment; then: "My album has no love songs. Not in the sense that I choose them. Quite a few of my reviews have tended to picture me as an emotional masochist. Well, many of the songs are involved with revenge and guilt. Some are about being tricked. These are the stronger feelings, the ones you are left with at night. Each song is how I felt when it was written, the spur of the moment."
Costello put together his tour band only last July. Before than, he'd done pickup dates — "always at the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time" — and finally he signed with Stiff Records for practically nothing. In August, Jake Riviera (not his real name either) noticed that CBS International was convening at the London Hilton. So in the best tradition of old rock 'n roll movies, Elvis hustled on down with a guitar and amp and did some theatre. It didn't get him a contract, but it did get him arrested. The contract came later when Columbia's East Coast head of A&R, Gregg Geller, convinced management that the kid who looked like Woody Allen playing Buddy Holly could sing like him, too. "Columbia was one of the big companies who were the enemy at the time," Costello remembers. "They weren't paying attention."
Ten o'clock now. The Hot Club is packed shoulder to shoulder; it's impossible to get to the bar. The line for the late show stretches down the icy block outside. Costello is pushing full-throttle towards the climax of his set. He is lobster red; the veins in his neck bulge, and his ill-fitting narrow-lapel suit is soaked with sweat. "This song is for all the people," he is shouting hoarsely into the mike, beating his hand in the air like a seal's flipper, "who listen to the radio morning, noon and night — and nothing is coming out!" And then he goes into "Radio, Radio." His stage act is good, filled with a snarling, thumping intensity. But the album is better, the rhythms worked out in cleaner lines, the dark-dream lyrics more audible.
During the second act, Costello is thrown completely and leaves the stage briefly when someone pulls a plug backstage — his stage presence is about as smooth as gravel, nothing like the classic rockers. The era of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, in fact, is only history to him. "I'm too young to remember rock 'n' roll, really," he'd said earlier in the car. "I must have heard it, but I don't remember." Besides, nothing curls the Costello lip faster than talk of influences.. "The question of influence is pointless," he barks. "I never list them except in a flippant way. There's no reason to assume that if I listen to Kenny and the Casuals, I'm going to go and write a song like them. I've had image-building work for and against me. The images get to be a burden because people expect them. I'm always interested in undermining whatever impressions people have of me.
"I went through all sorts of periods. For a while, I was writing nothing but country songs. I may still return to that. Problem is, some people think it's a joke."
Maybe. But Costello, who somehow manages to combine the rhythms of the old English "beat bands" with '70s surreal lyrics, is no joke — except perhaps in his over-angry posturing. At home in Acton, he admits to watching the telly "a lot" and likely has kind words for his wife and child. He's even capable of relaxing with a writer, as long as he isn't asked What It All Means. But somewhere behind those dark, bespectacled eyes, the belligerence is real; the pain is no laugh. Declan Patrick McManus is afraid of dying slowly. Even the songs are compressed, as if it all has to be said quickly and directly to the audience he remembers with those small, squawking radios. "I write singles-length songs," he concludes. "If you can't get it down in three minutes, you ought to give it up. It's not mock anger that I express."