It was the night of the Ali-Spinks fight, but the real brawl was backstage at Elvis Costello's Milwaukee concert, where blood was flowing like a Pabst brewery. Bruised and puffy (and beaten) after 15 rounds, Ali still looked a lot better in the morning than the bewildered young photographer who was savagely shitkicked at the end of Elvis' show.
Elvis just gave the signal, his road crew did the rest. The poor shutterbug never knew what hit him. He wandered through the lobby in a daze blood pouring from a jagged cut over his right eye. If the new champ needs a couple of sparring partners, he knows who to call.
Elvis was so pleased he came out for a second encore. "This one's for the guy who's still getting beat up backstage," he bragged, slapping his fist on his guitar. Backstage, Elvis was still ecstatic over his crew's bush-league behavior. "I would've hit him too," he quipped, but I had to go back onstage."
Elvis' defiance and rancor seemed more fitting onstage, where Elvis and the Attractions, his locomoted support unit, launched a fusillade of electrifying and memorable rock tunes. Elvis has been accused of sounding like practically everybody in Rock Dreams and I'm not about to add to the list. Suffice to say that he delivers the goods. His gruff, evocative vocals fit the mood of today like brass knuckles unleashing vulnerability and rage.
Elvis' hour-plus set is jacked-up at a furious, funny-car pace, primed to attack a healthy variety of musical styles, including rockabilly and several hypnotic reggae mood pieces. The highlight: "Watching The Detectives," a trashy ballad of unrequited lust featuring the immortal Mickey Spillane homage — "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake."
His ancient Fender guitar has Elvis punching in at 1958 on the rock 'n' roll time clock. Sporting thick glasses, swept back hair and a baggy gray flannel suit, he looks like a spastic Frankenstein clone of Buddy Holly. Most imitators homogenize their idol; Elvis lobotomizes his, whirring around the stage like a runaway, rock-steady robot badly in need of a pair of corrective shoes.
The Attractions reinforce his malevolent visage. Their dark glasses and expressionless muskrat faces bring to mind a trio of Clockwork Orange droids, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting audience at a moment's notice. Elvis' song intros are masterpieces of comic understatement. "This song's about London," he said before a new offering. But I'm sure you can apply it to any place you live. It's called 'I Want To Go To Chelsea' " (pronouncing Chelsea as if it were some sort of horrible mental institute).
With Elvis, it is safest to trust the song, not the singer. He boasts that he's "not angry," that "there is no such thing as original sin," but this is just a facade, an aesthetic chastity belt.
He is most comfortable with a hostile audience, who feed on his antagonism and hurl it back in his face. Elvis' post Valentine's Day offering — for all the sweethearts in the crowd — was a cheery ballad called "Little Triggers." Last year when playing in front of a bunch of Island Records A&R men, Elvis introduced another new. song. "It's called 'Lip Service,' " he said cooly, "and that's all you're gonna get from me."
Elvis, a black-comic poet of revenge and guilt, has only contempt for sentimental teen-mag romance. "Everybody loves you so much girl," he sneers with the braggadocio of early Dylan, "I don't know how you can stand the strain." He is jealous of stardom — even the angels want to wear his red shoes. And at 23, his bitterness knows no bounds. "I'm gonna pay it back," he sings, spitting in the faces of the stupid music biz hacks who panned his songs one month and lauded them the next. "I'm gonna pay it back, one of these days."
Now Elvis' day has come. He's not trying to change the world. He's waiting for it to end.
This acidic, uncompromising musical vision is more reminiscent of classic '60s British club rock than Elvis' new wave peers. Nevertheless, punk casts a giant shadow over the fiery singer's frantic rock dynamics. The punks grew up under the spell of Iggy and the N.Y. Dolls, Elvis under their equally inspiring antecedents. He reveres rockabilly legends like his namesake and Jerry Lee Lewis, who preferred burning down a stage to giving a up; and the original British working class heroes like Arthur Seaton and Jimmy Porter, who bloodied their adversaries in Saturday night pub brawls and stuffed stolen money down drain pipes on Sunday morning.
Elvis fits snugly into the new angry young man tradition, soldering a growing distrust of celebrity status to a brash dismissal of sophisticated rock technique and technology. The Ramones practice the put-on, the Pistols preached nihilism. Elvis "used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused," striking a delicate balance between the punk party line of parody and pessimism. "Music is a matter of life and death," he growled, and it doesn't matter at all."
I'm tempted to turn off the typewriter here and now, but it seems only sporting to let Elvis, an articulate if not altogether friendly interview, have his say (particularly when you consider what great lengths his manager went to, to make him unavailable to the press).
Elvis steadfastly denies that rock has any aesthetic importance. You won't catch him at any Soho art/rock crit brunches. "That's the biggest problem with the last 15 years of rock," he said. "People always claim it's art — and it's not." Elvis laughed at my argument that rock alters our perception of the world. "Don't get so esoteric. That's the problem with you critics — you try to make everything so complicated when it's not."
But doesn't being a celebrity complicate his life? "Bollocks," he said sullenly. "I'm no celebrity. That's the problem with being a star. You always let people down in the end. I'm not a bloody arbitrator of public opinion. There's no mass following waiting for my next word off the mountain. People should be waiting for their own next word, not mine.'
And he's not poring over the royalty checks, either. "Even the money's irrelevant. It's all a matter of whether you own the money or whether the money owns you."
Elvis staunchly defended his new wave peers, sneaking in an attack on the Stones. "The Pistols were the best band to ever come out of England," he said. "Most groups just destroy themselves when they get on record labels. Look at the Rolling Stones — they've just hung around too long. That's why the Pistols are the best, they haven't stayed beyond their time.
"Fleetwood Mac — uugghh! They're the dullest group around," he groaned. "Just a washed up old blues group, not challenging at all. They're just safe and convenient to play over and over again.
But then, that's America for you," he mumbled, trailing off. What about America? "Well, you know there aren't any good American rock bands," he retorted. "You've never contributed one good band to the world."
Now, those were fighting words. First, this obnoxious little weak-eyed runt turns a bunch of hoods loose on an innocent photographer. Then he calls me esoteric. Now this tiny turnip claims America's never weaned a decent rock group. That kind of crap may play in the NME, but not in these pages. What about the Stooges and the Ramones and the Cult and the MC5? How could he possibly slight the Shadows of Knight, the Amboy Dukes and the Standells?
I was tempted to strangle the scrawny twerp with the shrink-wrap from the Rascals' Greatest Hits. My better instincts prevailed. I asked Elvis if he remembered Chuck Berry, Little Richard or Bo Diddley. He retreated a pace. "I never heard of Bo Diddley," he deadpanned. "I'm talking about bands, not singers."
His point is well taken — to a point. British rockers have always sought the solidarity of a full-fledged band, while stateside rockers were more likely to strike out on their own — but denying the existence of any great American groups is like claiming that all Brits are the size of an underfed jockey. The charge should be taken as a national insult.
Elvis glared derisively at me. "Anyway, where are you going to hear all these great American groups," he added sarcastically. "Not on American radio. It's disgusting that you have so many radio stations and they're all so terrible." Of course, the government-owned BBC radio hardly constitutes an improvement. They wouldn't touch Elvis' first single, "Less Than Zero," with a ten-foot barge pole.
"They didn't ban it," Elvis said. 'They just wouldn't play it. If it had been banned, at least I could have gotten some notoriety. 'God Save The Queen' wasn't banned because it attacked Her Majesty. It was because the Pistols went on the telly and swore. If there's one thing the English can't stand, it's bad language."
Elvis is even less optimistic about radio's future. "What annoys me the most,", he said, "is these big bands like Zeppelin and ELP who whine so much about how bad radio is in England, but then they refuse to put out any singles." On the other hand, Elvis refuses to play his most obvious single, "Alison," in concert. But then, like a politician, he likes to play both ends against the middle.
First off, Elvis — no matter how vehemently he attacks his rock elders — is just as much a product of his influences as any other garage band veteran. He named himself after one rock idol and has capitalized on his striking resemblance to another. His lyrics borrow their venom from Pete Townshend and their resignation from Gram Parsons. And his band, the Attractions, with their Farfiso dominated mid-section, are direct Anglo descendents of Question Mark and the Mysterians.
And Elvis can strike his rock populist pose and rail against the music biz to his heart's content, but without CBS's awesome promotional muscle, our boy would be no more reknowned in America than fellow Stiffers Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury. Hype may be a dirty word in the new wave lexicon, but most bands are going to live or die by its double-edged sword. The week after Elvis appeared on Saturday Night Live, his album hit the hot 100, where it has remained ever since. His second album is already finished, but isn't due for release for a couple more months. Why? The label wants to milk all the sales they can out of the debut disc before setting the promo machinery in motion for round two.
Finally Elvis, despite his confirmed cynicism and cheap shots at American bands, still fosters some laughably simplistic notions about Americana. Much of the credit for this hard-core anti-Americanism goes to Elvis' manager, the inimitable Jake Riviera, a serious candidate for most despicable character of the decade.
Riviera's Gestapo tactics are the stuff legends are made of. A founding partner in Stiff with Dave Robinson he roughed up several writers during Elvis' first West Coast tour, tried to eject a Milwaukee writer begging for an interview and took a swing at me seconds after we met. It would be redundant to add that he missed.
Riviera firmly believes that Elvis is going to be the savior of the American teenager. After an initial spate of interviews, he has put a lid on the press, holding out for a cover story in Sixteen Magazine. Jake also suggested — quite seriously — that Elvis should play high schools, not rock halls. This ludicrous strategem — Elvis' loyal audience is, if anything, older than established rockers like Frampton and Nugent — reminds me of Malcolm McLaren who naively booked the Pistols into working class towns and Southern hamlets under the misapprehension that these would be punk strongholds.
This is not to expose Elvis as some sort of fraud or charlatan, but to remind new wave sympathizers that bringing down the record industry's Jericho-like walls entails a bitter struggle. I merely advise Elvis to be on his guard. His gifts as an artist — whether he accepts the title or not — are assured. But his growth as a songwriter must survive the pressures of sudden notoriety and breast the fluctuating fortune of the new wave, whose rise has closely paralleled his own climb to prominence.
A more serious concern is whether Elvis will allow his recalcitrant public persona to corrupt his provocative songwriting talents.
His future depends on reconciling the tension between musical aspirations and audience expectations. Despite his studied rejection of the trappings of rock artistry, an artist he remains. This gap between iconoclasm and idolatry was too much for the Sex Pistols, who formed a hit squad for aging rock heavyweights but made the fatal mistake of standing in a circle when they fired. Let's hope Elvis' aim is true.