Creem, June 1991

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Mighty like a mouth

Richard Gehr

What do we talk about when we talk about pop music? "Rock & roll is a ludicrous response to most things," admits Elvis Costello. "Most of what goes on is pretty puny, including what I do myself. I fall very short of really great work. Nobody's that smart." It used to be so easy. Yet anyone who's followed the archaeology of rock, from rock song to rock crit, can't help but note a dearth of verbal vibrancy in the pop context. Now that rhythm and ambience have supplanted the well-turned phrase and memorable melody in the world o'pop, with indecisive glumness its rock roll analog, what is to be done with the articulate tunesmith in the postliterate hit parade? Does anybody care? Heard any good metaphors lately?

Costello used to be the most convincing and resonant rock lyricist around. His best records chewed up the lingua terra like a chainsaw slicing through a dictionary or something. And he had the attitude to match. No one else was quite so adept at highlighting the mean in meaning. But with the breakup of the Attractions in 1987, he stepped back into a mode that emphasized music over primary-process word-spew. Carefully crafted arrangements, tastefully assembled sidemen and reacquisition of his birthname marked a public reinvention of the complex Costello persona.

This break was marked with the release of Girls Girls Girls (whose titular equation he says pays tribute to the title of Marvin Gaye's alimony record, Here, My Dear), a symbolic reconfiguration of Attractions-era Elvis. But it only took a listen to '87's King of America to realize that his songwriting had become less personal and more worldly and that Attractions intensity was being redirected into less frenetic tunes with an outward glance. At worst, he's merely put aside his youthful breast beating for weightier themes (e.g., Thatcherism, Irish independence, international injustice); at best, he's in the middle of an extended period of musical development, a traditionalist's experimentalism whose coolest calculated quirks still justify his dwindling audience.

According to my jetlag, this must be London. Elvis Costello (a.k.a. Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (a.k.a. Napoleon Dynamite (a.k.a. Eamonn Singer))) is taking time off from the television series he's scoring to discuss his new record, Mighty Like a Rose. Our interview takes place first in an anonymous neighborhood coffee shop and later in my hotel lobby. These days Elvis (or whomever) sports shoulder-length hair and a scraggly copper beard. Heavy dark clothes disguise a figure unacquainted with Jane Fonda's most popular videos. The eyes occasionally reflect that familiar Eighties anxiety: I should be home working. In a way, our conversation resembles some ancient Costello masterditty about botched communications, faulty technology, misplaced desires and slippery identities.

And what's the deal with these names, anyway? He was Costello until King of America made him MacManus. Now he's EC again. "It was just something I did," he explains after rolling his eyes skyward at the question. "I wanted to reassert my personal identity, as it were, as opposed to this kind of 'toon character, the one with the funny glasses."

Does that character still exist?

"I don't know. Not visually. But I don't even know if it was a character. And it's more like a trademark now than anything else, isn't it?"

Mighty's MacElvis bears little relation to the one-time avatar of anger who sneered and snarled through 11 absorbingly feisty records — from 1977's My Aim Is True through 1986's Blood and Chocolate — with the Attractions, cantankerous contenders for rock's most riveting rhythm section. For a men whose first 11 records constitute nothing less than an extended earwitness report on the metaphysics of blab, the new King of Whatever is remarkably recalcitrant, words-wise. There's an obvious element of professional pride. The conversation sometimes takes the tone of a business meeting (he's not here to have fun, that's for sure), but moments of brutal honesty almost involuntarily escape in short, sharp bites.

At first, he doesn't care to compare Mighty Like a Rose to Spike — that's "pointless." But a few moments later he notes that some of his new songs contain "at least as many elements as on Spike," and continues. "They're just not so consciously unexpected or trying to upset or subvert the expectation of the listener the way Spike does. These songs didn't seem to need that kind of instrumental color. There are 14 keyboards on 'The Other Side of Summer,' all playing the same thing, but nobody's going to sit and count them. There's a lot more comprehensible musical detail as opposed to Spike. Some people found it disconcerting and even a little alienating."

During our conversation, several potentially titillating topics were deemed either too pointless, boring or time-wasting for Elvan's attention — not that a little dumb-faced encouragement didn't pop the occasional pimple of pride. Punk rock, album titles and his ridiculous moniker(s) were all designated as too dreary for yet another tedious journalistic go-over. But, like, what else is there to talk about?

How about the Attractions ("life's too short"), who resurfaced repeatedly throughout the interview, only to be gunned down by Mr. Dynamite. Bassist Bruce Thomas has recently published The Big Wheel (Viking UK), his impressionistic memories of the group. Not wanting to give Thomas any free publicity, Eamonn compares the volume to Bill Wyman's Stone Alone. "It's a disease, isn't it? The boring member of the band always writes the book. Even the Attractions."

No shit. The Big Wheel unforgivably dishes next to no salacious dirt about life on the road as an Attraction, unless you consider the fact that they took drugs, man, and even d -d -drank to be press-stopping material. Even the occasional personal potshot is couched in coy pseudonimity. "The Singer might well have been called Curt Reply, but we simply called him 'The Pod' owing to an increased tendency to resemble the shape of those creatures from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. " Ouch. But more often than not this slim tome reads much like an especially dreary feature from New Age Almanack: "A healing stillness had filled me and spread to the seething and radiant elements around me like rings from a stone dropped in water." Peace, brother.

And yet...the book appears to have inspired at least one song on Mighty Like a Rose. "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" includes "a trashy paperback book... containing all the secrets of life and other useless things." But that's nothing compared to the extended rebuttal of "How to Be Dumb," which contains the album's most searing lyrics and delivery: "Trapped in the House of the Perpetual Sucker / Where bitterness always ends so pitifully / You always had to dress up your envy in some half-remembered philosophy."

Mighty Like a Rose doesn't demand a crib sheet, but it wouldn't hurt. I didn't particularly "get it" until Cosmanus heaved a weary sigh, ordered up a third (or fourth) double espresso and spelled it out for me phonetically, from the Beach Boys harmonics of "The Other Side of Summer," to the bondage and teleporn of "After the Fall" and "Georgie and Her Rival," to the three strong, lovely ballads that conclude the disc.

"Mighty Like a Rose was recorded with a deliberate predetermined sequence," he explains. "It's not a downbeat album [although several tracks suggest otherwise], and I know that once you live with it for a while its particularly personal perspective will emerge. You might say the record begins apocalyptically and then life goes on. It says that even in the first song ['There's malice and there's magic in every season']. It talks about burning people at the stake because of the blasphemy of their existence, like Madonna or somebody. The world does carry on. It doesn't hinge on anybody's record or anything anybody says, even politicians. It has an enormous capacity for absorbing everything we do.

"The remaining songs on the first side [side?] sort of proceed from the point that the world is not going to end right at this moment. By the middle of the record it's perhaps time for the most intimate-not the most personal, but the most intimate-of matters to be reached and then to kind of move away from that."

If his previous records didn't contain comparably crafted structures, he apparently blames that on the Attractions as well. "There's been more juxtaposing of one song to the next and I haven't been quite so conscious of planning it. Maybe I just didn't take a step back and look at it, maybe because of the constraints and foibles of a band, the eccentricities that make a band original and the petty jealousies that undermine it sometimes. Now that I'm not sustaining a constantly touring operation, I'm completely free to do what I want and there's no need to put records out as regularly as I did initially."

His explanations are peppered with equivocations. Kind ofs and sort ofs take the bite out of anything quite so forthright as explaining what a song actually means. His earliest records seemed like nothing more than knotty, nerve-jangled expulsions on the mouth and the damage it can do. Having learned his own lesson, Elvis '91 relies on language less and music more. The new album, he admits, "is more musically based and much less about meanings. The songs are self-evident and the least obscure and deeply personal I've ever written. It's a different kind of emotion. As you get older, the things that really frighten you aren't particularly entertaining to talk about. You might also need a larger form, like a story, play or painting. Or just shut up about it-that's the other alternative. It's very easy to make a career out of look-at-my-wounds music. Any idiot can do that. Just look around."

While maintaining his London pied-a-terra, our idiot (to borrow from one of his own titles) lives comfortably in a Dublin hillside home with a garden and a pond and a wife, former Pogue Cait O'Riordan. He contributed an exquisite duet with singer Mary Coughlan to Bringing It All Back Home, Irish filmmaker Philip King's history of the pingponging collisions between Irish music and the rest of the world's. Now that the singer's gone Hibernian, should we call him Kunte Kostello?

"There's nothing worse than people who've just discovered their roots," he observes quite rightly before launching into an informative thumbnail history of Irish folk's relationship to traditional American music. "I stand slightly to one side of all that as I'm neither a traditional folk musician or necessarily what you would call Irish. I have some Irish background and live there most of the time.

"I was interested in subverting a couple of rather tired old myths in 'The Mischievous Ghost,' one of which is that everybody in Ireland is a flute-playing leprechaun with these terrible epigrammatic sayings. The other is that the romantic, self-destructive poet is necessarily a good thing. I thought that was a good subject for a song about a poet who's taken with the romantic myth and inconveniently dies peacefully in his sleep one day, leaving the whole industry that celebrates his so-called wild inspiration high and dry. So they dig up the corpse, paint him up a little bit and put a hinge in his backbone so they can use him like a puppet. It's a sick song, actually."

Musically, "The Mischievous Ghost" combines bhodram drum and Uillean pipes with a string quintet, the latter in homage to Irish composer John Fielding, who invented the nocturne and escaped Ireland only to die of drink in St. Petersburg. "They used to have to drag him out of bed to do concerts," Kostello says. "It sounds kind of familiar to me."

Mighty Like a Rose contains equally ambitious settings, from "All Grown Up"'s lush strings, to the classical woodwinds interlude in the middle of "Harpies Bizarre," to the eerie circus waltz in "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4." Costellamite even cuts loose with his first studio guitar solo in eight years on "Sweet Pear." The record's wildest track, however, is "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," which was co-written with drummer Jim Keltner. Pretty much an electropercussive two-chord juggernaut, it's reminiscent of "Tokyo Storm Warning" and manages to sound both funny and dire at once--a neat trick.

"There's a berserk kind of humor in a couple of songs based on the premise that the world's gone mad. The image conjuring that up is a man talking into a microphone wearing a gas mask ['Invasion Hit Parade'], which I wrote before the Gulf War happened. The other premise, however, runs from times when you start to think: 'I no longer believe in the innate goodness of humanity, I actually believe the opposite, and it would be better for the earth if we just got the fuck off it.' And then you think: 'How can I say that to my son?"'

Sounds Ballardian to me, I suggest. "Sorry?" You know, J.G. Ballard, the famous British science fiction writer. "Don't know him." Oh. Asked if he's read any good books lately, Costello says he's been too busy working, then mentions Donald Barthelme's King. "It's nice and easy to carry around."

Perfect. But what about, say, Brett Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero? "Never read it, no interest at all. I met him once, though. He was a complete dick. The guy's a twerp. He's the John Wesley Harding of literature."

Harding, of course, is the Costello soundalike who hired the Attractions as his backing group. So what does Harding's idol think of the kid's format? "I don't (heh-heh). I just can't understand why somebody would go out of their way to sound like something that's already proven to be so uncommercial. I can understand people wanting to sound like Sting or Michael Jackson or even Prince, but I don't understand why anybody would want to sound like 1978. It just shows you how boring things have got. If you're going to rip people off--and I've always taken a little bit from here and a little bit from there--you've got to do it with some cunning. Forget about art, creativity or intelligence-let's just put it down to cunning."

Beginning with King of America, it often appeared as though this musical Napoleon's idea of cunning (and forget about silence and exile) involved picking up the phone and having T-Bone Burnett order up a dozen of their favorite musicians, starting with the original Elvis' former sidemen. The hired guns on Mighty Like a Rose include bassist Nick Lowe and former Attractions drummer Pete Thomas in addition to other more recent associates such as keyboardists Mitchell Froom and Larry Knechtel, guitarists Marc Ribot and James Burton, bassist T-Bone Wolk, etcetera. (At the end of May, he hits the road with Thomas, Ribot, Knechtel and bassist Jerry Scheff.)

These are indisputably fine players to a man, of course, but is there a Costello devotee who doesn't miss the Attractions? Napolvis Dynamello now speaks and writes of the Attractions with the vitriol he once reserved for wives and girlfriends. Whoever first pointed out that bands are like marriages knew whereof he spoke. The divorce is final. Costello and the Attractions are history.

"It doesn't exist," he confirmed. "It hasn't really existed for a while. We played our last show four years ago. I don't really want to dwell on it. Life's too short."

Yet there's always been rumors that the group might get back together, and that money was the only thing preventing reunification. "I thought it might be a good idea to try and do another record, because the latter part of our work together got fairly poor support record we made together [Blood and Chocolate] was pretty fine and I felt that having made a fresh start myself, and having done a pretty good job on Spike, it seemed like it would be great if we went out on one more record that at least got a fair hearing. Really, what it was is that I only have two arms and two legs, and I don't have enough arms, legs and fingers for certain members of the band. It had nothing to do with songwriting credits. It's a simple matter of I made an offer, the offer wasn't enough, and so I got some people who would do the job.

"There's obviously a financial difference when you work with a band. Royalties are involved as opposed to straight fees. I would rather pay somebody to play who does an equally good--I'm not going to start slinging mud--but an equally good job. There's no shortage of musicians and I would really rather work with people I can stand to be in the room with, not people you have to think about all the time and watch your back. It just isn't worth it.

Do you feel the same magic with studio musicians as with a group as emotionally charged as the Attractions?

"When you choose to work with the same four people, you work within those limitations. The alternative, of course, is that you can get anybody you want, and I'm beginning to think that's preferable. Nobody's that expensive, that's the shocking thing. I remember being shocked when Chet Baker played on my record. He didn't really know who I was; he just came in, did the job and was gone. All he asked for was an ordinary session fee."

The band's breakup, EC says, "doesn't diminish any of the records we did as a group. On the other hand, at least one member of the group diminishes himself by his attitude. But that's been well-documented at his own hand. Fortunately, now I have a pool of musicians who have the band's musical understanding without any of the messy responsibilities. Because they're all grownup people who know how to conduct business, who have their own careers and who don't need me to tell them what's what. People undoubtedly make a big contribution to what you do, but you do feel that when you get three years shy of 40...In the case of some people, they're already on the other side of that particular hurdle and they still can't make their minds up. And I can't do it for them.

"We were never particularly close as people. That's a real illusion. I think the audience always assumes bands are really tight, particularly at first when there was the illusion that we were a group, as opposed to a songwriter with a group. The group didn't get on only with me, but also with each other. People's tolerance for one another's behavior would change from time to time."

A hearty guffaw greets a question concerning the extent to which the Attractions influenced Costello. "As to their instrumental abilities, my feelings toward any departed member of the group are irrelevant, really. There's never been any question about that. Perhaps the under-recognized fact of the matter is that although they are very good musicians, I had quite a lot to do with the arranging of the songs. There were sections written into the songs originally that couldn't be played any other way. I could get a bunch of bloody college students to play that music and it would sound the same!"

So those keyboard arpeggios and filigrees throughout Mighty Like a Rose have nothing whatsoever to do with former Attraction Steve Nieve's personal style?

"No. Have you ever listened to their record? Then you know full well how poor it is. How many songs have they written between them and how many have I written? Two-hundred. And they've written like three."

Of the 14 tracks on Mighty Like a Rose, two were co-written with Paul McCartney, one with Jim Keltner, and "Broken" was written by Cait O'Riordan. The McCartney tracks, Costello says, "are the ones I kind of secretly coveted" from the group of songs the two collaborated upon for the former Beatle's Flowers in the Dirt. Raving rockabilly throwaways like "Playboy to a Man" have wasted space on all three non-Attractions albums, while "So Like Candy," like "Alison," has the lyrical and emotional resonance to become a semiclassic ballad of the near future.

You can look forward to Costello stepping outside on producer Hal Willner's upcoming Charles Mingus tribute. The singer takes a stab at the jazz genius' "Weird Nightmare," accompanied by composer-inventor Harry Partch's original instruments. "It's a challenge to try to sing in D-minor against only an approximate D tonality," he reckons. Marc Ribot plays a "huge marimba thing" on the track, while percussionist Michael Blair works cloudchamber bottles.

By now, everyone knows that Costello's a Grateful Dead fan, and his cover of Garcia/Hunter's "Ship of Fools" is one of the highlights of Deadicated, which (partially) benefits the preservation of Brazil's rain forests. The big surprise in this area, however, was that he wasn't invited to participate in Red Hot + Blue, the Cole Porter tribute that benefitted AIDS research. Since MacManus is nothing if not the Porter of his period, what was the problem? "Not famous enough."

Like all intelligent people a few years shy of 40, Declis seems increasingly aware of pop music's limitations. "I keep waiting for some great rappers," he says. Unfortunately, "it's the worst kind of name I can think of for anything because rapping seems to suggest they're going to talk about something, but they're not talking about anything-or only about the same thing over and over again."

When we spoke, the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" topped the British hit parade, spurred on by its appearance in a Levi's commercial. As usual, the beloved entertainer sees both sides of the coin. "There's this strange notion that's hung on from the Sixties that somehow music should be free. I read something this morning m the paper about the Clash selling out because they put the song in the jeans commercial. The Clash are not even a group! "

Have you ever been tempted by commercials?

"Never done it. Personally, I don't want my songs fucked around with to sell stupid products. I just got offered a bunch of money this morning to give a song. Over the years, I would say I've turned down several hundred thousand dollars, maybe more."

What about Madonna, who just made a multimillion-dollar deal to do commercials in Japan. Would you work on another continent? "I read this thing that says she's a genius at selling sex. That really takes a lot of genius! I think we should start an organization like Rock the Vote, which she advertised in her underwear. I want to start an organization called Gag the Hussy!"

One more thing. What comes to mind when you recall the first bleak winter of punk rock?

"I can't remember. I didn't have anything to do with punk rock. I don't want to think about that. It's boring. [Sings:] 'Don't look back to the days of yesteryear.' As John Lee Hooker said, 'Live on in the future.'"

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Creem, June-July 1991

Richard Gehr interviews Elvis Costello.


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Photos by Frank Ockenfels.
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Photos by Frank Ockenfels.

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Contents page and page 46 clipping.


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