Dallas Morning News, May 15, 1994

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An endless Elvis summer was
a religious experience

Costello's quirky lyrics hook listeners for life

Michael Corcoran

When the warm organ, bass and drums of "Watch Your Step" started to fade, I heard a sharp rapping at my door, which sprang me up from the couch like a firehouse Dalmatian who'd just heard the alarm.

Back in 1982, when I was listening to Elvis Costello and the Attractions, any intrusion was an invasion of privacy. The knocking pressed hard into my musical womb — nobody knew that I was living in the crummy Ambassador Hotel in Waikiki and, believe me, there were no maids or room service.

I peeked through the window to see a harmless-looking man and woman about my age, which was then 26. "We couldn't help but notice that you were playing Elvis Costello," the guy said. "E.C.'s our absolute favorite!" the woman said.

His name was Mike and hers was Patty Ann and they lived three doors down. During that summer of '82 we hung out just about every night and listened to Elvis Costello records.

I was a big fan, but Mike and Patty Ann's worship was way over the border of fanaticism. Unlike me, they had seen Elvis and the Attractions in concert once, in San Francisco, but they went separately because they each wanted to have a private religious experience without having to relate to each other.

This may seem like a sick setup to some people, but I thought it made great sense. She stood on one side of the auditorium and he stayed on the other and, after the concert, they spent hours talking about what they heard and saw and how they felt. I think that's a lot better than having to yell, "Great concert!" or, "I'm going to the bathroom!" into each other's ears.

Patty Ann and Mike were more into the lyrics than I was. Though I loved to pull on certain lines like "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake" from "Watching the Detectives" or "Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere" from "New Lace Sleeves," I thought of the lyrics as very man-made, while the music of Elvis and the Attractions was spiritual. Mr. Costello and his three backup musicians were playing the fiercest, most inventive rock 'n' roll of the time.

Rykodisc has recently been reissuing the earliest Elvis Costello albums, complete with sometimes astonishing bonus tracks and, even after all these years, the magic remains. Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, Mr. Costello and Pete Thomas could play music the way Willie Mays used to catch baseballs. Listen to the last two minutes of "Lipstick Vogue" if there's any doubt.

So I was more than just a little nervous the other day while I waited for Elvis Himself to call for an interview. As I sat there, arranging five pages of questions to the left of the phone and all his CDs to the right, I thought of Mike and Patty Ann and that summer of '82, and suddenly anxiety overtook me as it seizes that wide-eyed and moronic character Chris Farley plays on Saturday Night Live. I had to tell myself that our scheduled chat was, at least in Elvis' eyes, nothing more than an elegant plug for his concert at Starplex on Saturday, part of a reunion tour with the Attractions to promote the new album, Brutal Youth. Just two professionals going about their business. I also reminded myself that Elvis hasn't made a great record since 1986, when he made two (King of America and Blood and Chocolate).

He seems to be afflicted by the same spent-genius condition that has beset the likes of Warren Zevon, John Fogerty, Tom Waits, Mick Jagger, John Sebastian, Paul McCartney and others who can no longer come close to matching the brilliance of their earlier work.

Maybe everyone, even the greats, have only so many songs in them.

And Elvis Costello was so prolific, releasing eight albums in his first five years as a recording artist, that he burned through his best early on.

As I chided myself for getting all clammy just to interview the guy who made Mighty Like a Rose, the phone rang and my lungs turned into big raisins. "This is Elvis Costello for Michael Corcoran," a very proper British voice said, and the only lead-off question I could think of was "R-r-r-remember when you were with the Attractions? That was awesome." No, not that bad, but close.

Luckily, Elvis is the swift-talking sort who needs only the slightest prompting. He started off talking about the current show, which has him playing live with the Attractions for the first time in eight years.

"Maybe it's our time," Mr. Costello says, after recounting the incredible audience response to the first four concerts on the tour. Crowds have been standing and screaming in ecstasy, especially when the band launches into an old favorite. "It could be that the Attractions are finally getting recognition as one of the greatest bands that the English music scene's ever thrown up."

Mr. Costello alternately refers to the Attractions as "we" and "them" throughout the interview.

"They eat Led Zeppelin's breakfast, which isn't to say they can do what Led Zeppelin did better," he says. "We wouldn't want to play that rubbishy music anyway. We have too much taste for that."

Mr. Costello says that he and his band have been trying to strike a balance between doing the new songs, "which are our current passion," and the late '70s/early '80s modern classics. He says that they've also been playing a few songs from the old records that they had never performed live before.

"We didn't feel the necessity to come up with radically new arrangements for the old songs," Mr. Costello says, "because during the eight years that we were together (1978-86), we'd been constantly updating and adorning the material with little things, little rhythms, that would keep them interesting to us.

"For this tour, we decided to go back to the old records and play them like we did in the years that they were written. In some ways that's much more inventive than for us to try to outsmart ourselves by doing a salsa version of Watching the Detectives just to prove that we can."

Listening to Elvis talk about playing with the Attractions again, you get the feeling that it's far from over — at least onstage.

"We're just having a great time so far, but it is only the first week," he says, alluding to the band's abrasive past (which even included a tell-all book from bassist Bruce Thomas). "We could be killing each other by the time we get to Texas."

An acquired taste

The music of Elvis Costello and the Attractions is not an easy listen, but usually the albums that endure — like Darkness On the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen or Astral Weeks by Van Morrison — are the ones that you didn't get at first. I actually hated Elvis, with his whiny voice and obnoxious sneer, until I heard a cover band do "Oliver's Army." I went back to the original version and was hooked in about 10 minutes.

Once I got past the annoying voice and started listening to the songs and how they were played, I couldn't get enough. I used to sit in the dark in the antique clothing store where I worked, hours after closing, listening to every Elvis Costello record I owned. Just me and the mannequins and the ghosts of a thousand muskrats, rockin' out.

Thinking back to those blissed-out nights, when it seemed that the music of E.C. and the Attractions could cure all social pains, I asked Elvis if he thought that music is given too much importance in our society.

"Music is everything and nothing," he says. "I've always had this contrary-sounding premise that it's best to care passionately about music without giving a damn.

"With magazines like Rolling Stone and functions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there's this attempt to try to turn rock 'n' roll into somebody's idea of rock 'n' roll. It misses the point entirely. It's the fleeting moments in which the music touches your heart or has an effect on your life that really matter, not some thumbnail sketch or these artificial groupings. It's like making a fantasy football team of your favorite stars. It doesn't mean that they would be a great team, because there are too many intangibles."

It takes guts and naivete to name yourself after the King of rock 'n' roll, but Mr. Costello has done justice to the Elvis name.

When he's great, he's spectacular and, even when he's a bore, he's still better than John Hiatt. But Brutal Youth just doesn't speak to me like his earliest albums: There's a big difference between breathless and lifeless and even with a reunion of Elvis and the Attractions, the new album is so weary and world-wise that it seems the players tune their instruments to the death knell. Still, some critics are calling Brutal Youth a return to vintage E.C., and the artist, who endured six years of bad reviews in England for one album (1984's spotty Goodbye Cruel World), will agree with the scribes this time.

"This album has most in common with Trust, both structurally and in the relationship between the composed songs and the ones you just sort of let yourself go on," he says. Yeah, and Muhammad Ali can still stick and move as if it were the second Liston fight.

Inadvertently, an offhand comment Mr. Costello makes about the Beastie Boys sums up the downside of the current situation.

Informed that the Beasties drop his name in a rap on their upcoming album Ill Communication, Mr. Costello sounds vaguely interested.

"What do they say?" he asks, and I tell him that it's something like "I've got more Attractions than Elvis Costello."

"It's just like those boys to be right up on the times, isn't it?" Elvis says, with the semblance of a sneer.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, with Crash Test Dummies, perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at Starplex. Tickets are $ 22.50 and $ 27.50 reserved and $12.50 lawn at Ticketmaster outlets. Call 373-8000.

Copyright 1994 The Dallas Morning News


Dallas Morning News, May 15, 1994

Michael Corcoran interviews Elvis Costello ahead of his concert with The Attractions, Saturday, May 21, 1994, Starplex Amphitheatre, Dallas.


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