By now, everybody but Bonnie Bramlett's dog have given their side of the Columbus, Ohio brawl between the forces of Stills and the forces of Costello.
Naturally we find that the whole story hasn't been told, and leap into the void to offer you our thoughts on the events.
Elvis, of course, gave a rare — uh, unprecedented press conference on March 30th at the CBS building, to "make just one statement — that I am not a racist."
He went on to make a short summary of his feelings, then answered questions from the assorted New York music and general news reporters who hastily gathered for the event. In regard to the racist remarks about Ray Charles and James Brown attributed to him by Bramlett and several others, Elvis said: "I was misquoted out of context. I don't really want to get into a trivial feud with another act, but I think it's necessary to point out in what context these remarks — although they weren't strictly reported — were made. In the course of this argument, it became necessary for me to outrage these people with about the most obnoxious and offensive remarks I could muster, to bring the argument to a swift conclusion, and rid myself of their presence. It worked pretty good — it started a fight...I did say some things that. taken out of context, were really offensive towards the people whose names I was taking, you night say, in vain. These people [the Stills/Bramlett contingent] have now chosen to seek publicity at my expense by making it a gossip item. It's been very understandably confused, and I suppose it will be quoted even more out of context as time goes on, and it worries me that people are going to think about words I have said, and presume that those were my opinions."
The questions started. "Can you be any more specific about the circumstances that caused you to say something so outrageous?"
"Yeah. I'm sure that everyone has had the occasion to go to real extremes, to say something that you don't believe. Ask Lenny Bruce."
Incredibly, one journalist confessed to never having heard the album, but insisted on questioning Costello on specific words he'd heard about in the lyrics, like "checkpoint charlie, itchy fingers, white niggers, Johannesburg darkies"..."Is that in your record?" he asked.
"Yes, and once again, those words have been taken entirely out of context. That's what I'm saying — you use emotive words in a song, or in a conversation. If you're then quoted out of context, they can make you look anything from an angel to...Adolf Hitler"
"What was the original argument?"
"We were just talking about conflicting opinions about music and about the way we work — you know, usual barroom talk. I'm not saying it was a profound conversation — that's why I'm saying it's so ridiculous — that you're all here, and I'm answering questions about this thing. It's basically just a conversation that went on in a bar in Columbus, Ohio."
"Do you have a low opinion of Americans?"
"No. I have American friends... I don't have an overall low view of Americans — there's a lot wrong with England, there's a lot wrong with the world! Surely I don't have to say that!"
Elvis capsulized my feelings on all of this when he answered someone who had brought up an interview where Elvis had said "But then again I agree with them — I'm not a mature, balanced person as far as I'm concerned."
Elvis responded: "Yeah, but then nobody said that to make records you've got to have a certificate that says you're a nice and wonderful person."
But that probably went against the grain of the basically 30ish, 60's-sensibility journalists packing the room. Whatever one's opinions of the content of Costello's remarks, the self-righteous tone of the questions (which disintegrated into sarcastic baiting) was offensive. His remarks went against the grain because it's an idea dating from the 60's that rock stars are not only literate and well-informed, but basically utopian in belief (well, hippie-utopia), benevolent in intention, and flaming nice to boot. But, as a recent letter writer to the Village Voice pointed out, that's how you get ostensibly liberal, long-haired types like Eric Clapton, aligning himself with racial purist Enoch Powell, and shocking the wits out of his old hippie fans. Why? Just because the guy used to be a brilliant guitarist? Seemed to stand for something in the 60's? The artistic thrust of a lot of artists like Costello would seem to be: if you're that naive about your 'rock heroes', then you're really fucked.
There seems to be a cultural gap here, too. It seemed wildly improbable to the American journalists that a person could respond, "I think I'm crazy ALL the time" to the question, "Were you crazy when you made the statements?" One isn't supposed to do that, better to murmur something more calculated to make the people gathered like you. It's inconceivable that Elvis really didn't care if they thought he was a nice person or not — his only concern was explaining the quotes attributed to him.
The conference kept coming back to the basic question of racism, though. The major irony is that so many of those present, awash in self-righteousness, were — ARE — major participants in the New York 'new wave scene', which can be lethally racist. Lester Bangs wrote a primer on new wave racism in the April 30th Village Voice, describing the insidiousness of it in that scene, because it's on the lips of the hip elite, more often than not.
People who wrote off the Rock Against Racism movement a year ago as a particularly English answer to a particularly English problem might think twice about it now. They might ask Elvis about Rock Against Racism — he played for one of their biggest rallies in September.