After a breath-taking 54-song year — 20 on Get Happy!!, 20 on Taking Liberties, and a modest 14 on Trust — was barely six weeks old and Elvis Costello was gone again. The Silver Train bus that carried E.C. and the Attractions and their old Chinas (whatever the hell that meant) Squeeze as they crawled across the U.S.A. is now schlepping Steve and Eydie or the Rossington Collins Band. Mr. Costello leaves in his speedy wake thousands of satisfied customers, a new album getting "very hot add-on action" (a highly technical trade term which means it's getting played a lot on radio radio), and several reasonable questions. The questions, alas, will have to resolve themselves over time because E.C. doesn't talk to the press.
He doesn't talk so loudly that Jann Wenner (famous publisher of Rolling Stone) called Walter Yetnikoff (famous president of Columbia Records) asking for some divine corporate intervention on behalf of his mag's planned cover story. My informant didn't mention where Yetnikoff was at the time combatting taping from the radio with Bruce Springsteen perhaps, or shredding newspapers onstage with Billy Joel but, whatever his feelings on the matter, the outcome was the same: no interview. Not wanting to shake the same foolish tree knowing the same result was inevitable, I opted for rummaging through the CBS files looking for clues. In a few short days I saw every E.C. videotape, read reams of prose, listened to countless tapes and generally glutted myself on scripture. In the course of this research one of the most interesting things I found was that he has been sighted on the Underground (subway to youse) on his way to London gigs. I was amused by this bit of intelligence and it certainly puts the lad in exclusive company. One night 25 years ago Benny Nadell saw the Cleftones in their stage tuxes taking the D train to a dance in Coney Island. Many years later my brother reported that the Dictators took the IRT from their lair in the Bronx down to the Palladium where they were headlining. (AC/DC, the opener, came in limos.) And now Elvis Costello had been positively sighted beneath the pavement, eschewing the protective hauteur of a stretch. Who says rock 'n' roll isn't full of surprises?
The biggest surprise this time around was the notorious Costello demeanor or, more accurately, its total absence. On the Trust tour E.C. was a real mensch: warm and gracious from the stage and, in his ten minute chat with Tom Snyder on Tomorrow (Sample dialog TS: Do you love your Dad? EC: Oh, yeah.) the very model of good humored decorum. In fact the two of them fell all over themselves to be nice — Torn didn't ask any blind, ignorant questions and Elvis didn't bite the hand that fed him. (TS: This was very comfortable for me thank you very much — I didn't expect it to be and it was.)
Now if you're wondering what Elvis Costello, that scourge of complacency, was doing making Tom Snyder feel very comfortable, so was I. And since it was Elvis Costello month at my house I even have some informed conjecture to offer on the subject, but let's backtrack a moment for the sake of clarity. I did not take quickly to Mr. Costello, regarding him with suspicion through the salad days (1977-78) of his first two albums. I scrupulously avoided any exposure to the man or his work because the extravagant praise then being heaped on him made him seem like nothing so much as Liverpool's answer to Warren Zevon — Thanks, but I'll pass. My low opinion was confirmed by his bug-eyed malevolence on Saturday Night Live. What an overbearing twerp, etc., etc., though there were substantive reasons for his anger, it turns out. I scouted the record stores and bought it the day it arrived, thus making amends with my small contribution to E.C. earning his first gold record. (My Aim Is True has since gone gilt but that's still not much considering... which is number 713 in my running list of significant parallels between Costello's career and that of the recently beatified Bobby Dylan. On the phone last night a painter who's not given to rock 'n' roll punditry said totally unsolicited—that even she thought E.C. is the Dylan of the 80's. If that is, in fact, the case or a reasonable facsimile thereof, then Elvis is still awaiting his Byrds or even Manfred Mann to make lover's lane safe for the lad's own product. I thought there were 20 hits on Get Happy!! but CBS couldn't seem to find one. This, too, shall pass but I digress.)
I was even more impressed by Get Happy!!, a real tour de force and as far afield from his early one-dimensional man pose as he could get and still be the same guy. I thought and still think that it was the best album of 1980, but critical support was decidedly less fervent than it was when all the boys wanted to wear his red shoes and all the girls wanted to slip on his hair shirt to run to the bathroom in the middle of the night. When Taking Liberties appeared to thunderously mixed reviews I saw it as critical resistance to a generous (but generally shapeless) E.C. grab bag of tracks from all the stages of his fine, fine, superfine career — a kind of holding action on both sides, but holding against what? Early fans were obviously reluctant to see the avenging nurd slip into the pages of rock 'n' roll history. More temperate observers, myself included, were anxious to see where it would all lead. Elvis, unburdening himself to Father Confessor Snyder, had this to say about The Transition: "Well, to be really straight about it I suppose some of the time it was nerves that tend to make you more aggressive. Other times it was righteous, particularly when we first came here and we might've just landed from Mars or somewhere, the way people looked at us. So we were genuinely trying to put it over forcefully, and the complacency that was in music at that time — which is not that it's got any better, it's not getting any better at all — but it was just the same way we felt at that time. And as we've gone on about... what is it?... seems like years, I just want to present a wider picture now. So, inevitably you get some people saying, 'You've sold out. You've gone mellow!' God knows, I don't think that at all. I'm just trying to present a more complete picture — 'cause you have 20 years to write your first album and you have six months to write your second one. So I just want to present a more complete picture of a person."
Which brings me to the informed conjecture I mentioned before. While hardly symptomatic of hardening of the arteries, E.C.'s newly broadened perspective bespeaks serious commitment to a lengthy professional career which, I must point out, is not the same thing as bending over, grabbing your ankles, and submitting to the corporate fist. During the week that Costello was in New York two different people told me how pleased they were that he was so obviously happy. (No small matter this — right up there with life and liberty.) A Long Term Artist is what Elvis Costello means to be. Lou Reed is a Long Term Artist and Marvin Gaye is an LTA, too. The Sex Pistols were diametrically opposed to LTAhood. The Clash seemed to be making accomodations. Bob Dylan is an LTA, but after 20 years, he needs a long term rest. The Beach Boys are not LTA's though the music they made from 1962-67 continues to be well received. The Rolling Stones and the Who, both venerable LTA's, continue to punch in from time to time. Will Elvis Costello stand up as well? Will he be able to keep the largest part of his audience? (Could be difficult.) Will he be able to expand his audience? (Interesting possibility.) We'll all be watching.
Trust has all the earmarks of an LTA release: 14 very good songs which will stand scrutiny. It is not the album to die for in 1981 — there's no "14 new songs from the only band that matters" sticker on the front. Those of you who get your grandest frissons from the shock of the novel should probably look elsewhere. (Actually, you already have.) One must remember that Elvis Costello did not invent modern song — he just writes and sings them very well and knows where to look for this year's models. "New Lace Sleeves" and the new country tune "Different Finger" are early standouts on my turntable. (How about a whole LP of country songs one day, speaking of expanding audiences — as an LTA he's entitled.) Before I make this sound too much like one of those Honda retirement communities Red Buttons is always touting, let me make clear that E.C. hasn't switched abruptly from the obsessive to the random comprehensive — it's a "more complete picture" of the same person, after all. And the live show I saw at the Palladium was hot.
E.C. and the superb Attractions (with Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont added for the second half) tore through the nearly 25 songs from the first LP through half of the new one plus four amazing covers with poise and power. Costello, whose voice carried the entire set, has developed a vocal aesthetic. It's his complex constricted bani tone that makes all the words (and there are a lot of them) matter and seem to fit. He works very hard at singing on stage: arms drawn into his chest, fist clenched, eyes closed, looking like a small B.B. King as he reaches for notes and phrasings. ("Who's making lover's lane / Safe again for lovers?")
The cover lifted the show into the realm of the sublime for me. After an opening acoustic "New Amsterdam" largely punctuated by shouts of "down in front," E.C. waved off Bruce Thomas who was running out to plug in, and began a second guitar and piano number, "Gloomy Sunday," a bizarre European cabaret ballad about suicide that Billie Holiday recorded in 1941. A strange choice, it would have been too clever if it hadn't been quite spontaneous. As the set built to a palpable intensity he sang "Little Sister" (a real nod to EP that would have been unthinkable two years ago), a tough "Need Your Love So Bad" (Little Willie John updated by Belmont's bow to Peter Green) and an utterly perfect Patsy Cline song, "He's Got You" (Let's hear it for Hank Cochran). A couple of nights later he threw in the old Temptations' classic "Don't Look Back" (Smokey Robinson on pencil.) The night after that he told Tom Snyder, "I admire Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart as lyricists and I really like Hank Williams." Performers who have been around for a bit and plan to stay can afford a relaxed and honest relation to the past which is very different than searching out obscure Sam and the Sham (bless his goatee) B-sides.
Meanwhile, back onstage, E.C., clearly enjoying himself, played on: "King Horse," "Secondary Modern," "The Impostor," "Green Shirt," "Mystery Dance," "What's So Funny...," not greatest hits, but simply great songs that were alive and exciting for players and listeners alike. For the absolutely last encore he spliced Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster (Jammin')" into the middle of "Watching The Detectives" — an inspired bit of mixing and matching to end an extraordinary show. All in all, an LTA triumph that wasn't too self-indulgent about looking backward, spending most of the time blazing straight ahead.
Costello once vowed that he didn't intend to be around for his own decline — which is witty and eminently quotable, but is, frankly, difficult to arrange. People only avoid the ravages of time by serendipitous (Jim Croce), self inflicted (Ian Curtis), or nasty (Jimi Hendrix) misadventure, and wishing won't make it so. "Hope I die 'fore I get old" has lived to become the Who's albatross. "It's better to burn out / than it is to rust" sounds great only when you pretend not to notice that Neil Young consumes several gallons of naval jelly at a sitting. Besides, when Neil Young writes about himself these days he's interested in "Staying Power." Elvis Costello, 26 and flying, is now a full-fledged Long Term Artist Whether he's around for his own decline or not is immaterial since he seems to realize that he's got a very long way to go. And there's always George Burns.