Elvis Costello & The Attractions' early Detroit shows are among my fondest rock 'n' roll memories. I saw him the first time he played the city, a few weeks after This Year's Model was released. He performed two shows that night, both no longer than 50 minutes, though they each seemed to contain a zillion great songs. "We're going to get you!" he proclaimed halfway through the first show, immediately going into "Pump It Up." The entire audience were on their feet for the rest of the show. "This song's called 'Lip Service' 'cause that's all you'll ever get from me" was the only thing he snarled during the second show, which had mostly music biz v.i.p.s in attendance. He ended one of the most passionately angry sets I've ever seen with an incredible "I'm Not Angry." And it was magic.
Those shows were every bit as good as any Bruce Springsteen was doing at the time. Like Patti Smith before him, Elvis seemed to represent the dark underside of Springsteen's cumulative romantic rock visions — This Year's Model sounded like "96 Tears" and the Stones filtered literally through the entire history of rock 'n' roll — and I actually compared the guy to Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Beatles in print. New wave/punk rock, or whatever they were calling it that week, finally had its hero savior — a songwriter to believe in — and Elvis Costello & The Attractions were easily one of the greatest bands in the history of rock 'n' roll back then.
I saw them as often as I could after that, and they remained consistently great for a very long time. There was the frenetic "rock star" tour shortly after Armed Forces, and the "Heatwave" new wave rock festival in Toronto between Get Happy!! and Trust. And he played over two hours at an outdoor Detroit venue following Imperial Bedroom (which, in retrospect, was probably the beginning of the end) – and I was still proclaiming that this band would be as big as the Beatles if there was any justice on earth. Then he came to Detroit with the Attractions twice more. The first time, on the heels of the so-so Punch The Clock, he was horrible. The second time, following the awful Goodbye Cruel World, he was merely boring. And even though the in-between solo tour with T-Bone Burnett was 'politically correct" and interesting, it was also very weird. And the resulting King Of America LP, a partial return to form, sounded best to this listener during the moments Elvis had his mouth shut.
So I looked forward to this "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" performance by Elvis, the second of three shows in Chicago, each with a totally different theme. The show promised to feature a large wheel containing numerous songs from Elvis's repertoire. Audience members would spin the wheel, thereby choosing which songs he would perform. This sounded like a perfect device for Elvis to come to terms with his past, perhaps a way to put it to rest once and for all, while being a chance for fans to hear the "old" songs performed with the Attractions one final time.
In retrospect, it's easy to understand why Declan McManus wants to "kill off" the Elvis Costello character, even though the character created some of the greatest rock moments of the '70s. Elvis Costello was more interesting and fun than Declan McManus appears to be, but it was disillusioning for all concerned (perhaps most of all for the man himself) when he fell into the clutches of all the "rock star" trappings (drugs, groupies, the Ray Charles incident, etc.) we all thought his heart was too big to fall for. And it no doubt scared him when he saw the corporate rock star machinery, not to mention the blind hero worship, in all it naked glory. So go ahead. Kill off the character. Explain the reasons in interviews. But, as the expression goes, isn't there a time to just let dead dogs lie?
The "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" started out as a satire of rock star celebrityhood, but it soon turned into a total mockery and indictment of rock 'n' roll itself. And the strangest part of the whole affair was that the audience didn't seem to realize (or at least care) that they were being mocked. Following a routine by the worst stand-up comedian I've ever seen in my life (see, this was all part of the same "joke"), Declan came out playing the role of Napoleon Dynamite, who would comment throughout the show on "this Elvis Costello guy." And Declan ran back and forth, assuming both roles during the performance.
A parody of Wheel Of Fortune, the set resembled a game show. Elvis/Napoleon had his own Vanna White in the form of Maryanne Windsor, who served as his Girl Friday and alternated dancing in the Go-Go cage with various audience members. There was also a celebrity lounge featuring Gatorade and a TV. Several members of the Chicago Bears acted as celebrity "co-hosts" (he used various celebrities, Tom Waits and John Doe among them, in other cities). A lot of the wheel spinners were young, cute, rock 'n' roll girls, some of whom would scream, squeal, hug and kiss the "rock star": this was a case of living theater in action. And Elvis made snide references to show biz trappings like Lake Tahoe throughout, dropping the names of rock stars like Lou Reed ("Soon we'll see him on the video monitor singing "Sweet Jane" live from Japan via satellite") and Bryan Ferry ("This is a Bryan Ferry medley," he said before launching into a cover of "Ferry Cross The Mersey," one of the show's few musical highlights).
The main problem with the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" was that the music was secondary to the show. Elvis's voice sounded so bad that the vocals were often grating. And the Attractions, once one of the most professional bands in rock 'n' roll, sounded horrible. The bass was so loud and boomy, it ruined the entire performance. Too often, it was impossible to even make out what song they were playing until Elvis began singing the lyrics.
Elvis & The Attractions performed 25 songs, running the gamut from "Red Shoes" to "Lovable," some of them ranking with my all-time favorites, and hardly one of them made me feel a thing. In fact, the only thing I felt the entire night occurred when Reagan appeared on the TV screen delivering his post-summit "Star Wars" speech, as Elvis performed "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding." And the chill running down my spine wasn't the good kind.
God knows there's a lot in rock 'n' roll that deserves to be mocked, if not destroyed. But Elvis/Declan strikes me as much too bitter these days to make this "joke" funny. In his King Of America review, Jeff Nesin wrote that Elvis's "terminal suspicion of any and all culturally sanctioned happiness gets tired" – and that pretty much defines the problem with the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook" in a nutshell. I truthfully don't want Declan McManus to go back in time and become the old Elvis again. I just wish he'd leave some fond memories alone and keep his fingerprints off my imagination.