Elvis Costello, the New Wave rebel-without-a-cause, made a less than auspicious local debut at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Saturday night.
The sparsely attended shows appeared to be part of a mass conspiracy by Columbia Records, Brass Ring Productions and Elvis himself to keep his career just this side of limbo.
Costello, for the unenlightened, is a 23-year-old former computer operator from London who managed to cop the 1977 Rolling Stone Album of the Year Award. His real name is a closely guarded secret — though he appears to be the offspring of some unholy tryst between Woody Allen, Buddy Holly and at least two of the Crickets.
This carefully orchestrated aura mystery is doing nobody a favor — not Elvis and certainly not the 300 plus people who did something less than pack the cavernous auditorium.
Questions of artistic purity aside, hype has its uses — such as alerting people to an approaching event. There is no reason for an artist of Elvis' caliber to be playing to three-quarter empty auditoriums except that newspaper and radio advertising were close to non-existent.
Part of the problem is Elvis himself. He appears to be angry as hell. He is already semi-legendary for telling a packed house at a CBS convention to "go f--- yourselves."
"Elvis just has a hard time relating to people," a Columbia Records rep said. "They've put a lid on the press because he can't handle it — he tends to come off very negative."
He was dressed like the ghost of rock and roll past — dark suit, skinny tie, white socks and plain dark loafers dear lord, he even has acne.
Elvis is New Wave only in the vaguest sense his music defies categorization. There are traces of Buddy Holly and other late-'50s rockers, a dose of mid-'60s British pop the Stones, the Who and such teen rave-ups as Herman's Hermits and more than a little of Bruce Springsteen, the early-'70s pseudo-savior of American rock.
Elvis' lyrics are what lift him out of the New Wave genre. They are, in the main, James Dean-style revenge fantasies on a near psychotic level. There is a peculiar, introverted quality to many of them that is chilling like a man idly twirling a gun, alone, late at night. Elvis is uncompromisingly not nice, though sometimes the tough-guy stance slips and the adolescent fury that fuels his songs seems ridiculously overblown, the reiterated ranting of a grounded teenager.
Some day Elvis may sing a ballad. Some day he may even fall in love. But, until then, these relentless danceable songs are some of the best music currently coming out of Britain.
None of this was really in evidence on Saturday night, with the volume and tempos jacked-up to impossible levels.