Everybody is listening. No-one is speaking. There's this man standing there absolutely entranced. He's wearing a dark suit over a polite sweater and he's go on a stripey tie. As his hands grip the back of his seat, through his glasses he gazes upwards somewhere, a smile playing on his face. Christy Moore finds himself looking at this man, almost examining him. He's a classical musician, this gentleman name of Derek Bell and usually he's to be found playing with The Chieftains.
A man with a ponytail sits at the mixing console, gently re-adjusting faders. This is Kevin Killen, a co-producer on the record now being made. Behind Kevin, Donal Lunny grins expansively.The fiddle players Steve Wickham from The Waterboys and Frankie Gavin of De Danaan have wandered off somewhere, along with the uillean pipes and whistle whizz kid Davey Spillane. Absent from the studio control room too is T Bone Burnett, the man from Texas who's also helping produce here and whose last major project was organising the Roy Orbison in-concert video special. One of Roy's musicians for that show stands middle of the unspeaking gathering. He's wearing a dark shirt with while spots on it, horn-rimmed glasses and he hasn't shaved for a couple of days. He focuses on an unseen space in mid air as he listens to his music being played back, his music being played by these exemplary Irish musicians. This is Elvis Costello in Dublin last May at Windmill Lane Studios, beginning his newly-released LP Spike (WEA Records).
"I don't really have any idea of what I am" Elvis is telling you now, eight months after being at Windmill. "On my passport it says 'Musician' - well, that's a bit of a liberty." He goes on to say he doesn't read music, that sometimes what he does "is like a conjuring trick, a turn of phrase, mixed up with a turn of melody mixed tip with a notion of how to combine the two things to write stories ... it sounds rather fey to say I'm a storyteller but I would say that's pretty much what I do these days, more and more."
Elvis Costello, a man who must know he's extraordinarily gifted, is more than humble with it. As a songwriter. he admits to being more than pleased that his songs have been covered by some of his favourite artists, people like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Paul McCartney, Dusty Springfield, George Jones. As a singer and performer... Elvis has passion and intellect and craft and vision, often a vision that some things are getting pretty dam weird down here on this planet. Like, you ask him is he more at peace with the world these days and he says "I think I'm more at peace with myself than I am about the world". Whatever... I must say that I love this man very much, love him and his woman Cait went out to the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London to see a concert of Shostakovich played by a string quartet, "one guy from Derry and three from Middlesborough who are rather exotically called `The Brodsky Quartet". Today, this Sunday morning, Elvis will be appearing on the RTE television and radio show 'Beat Box'. "I think I'm supposed to be taking my guitar, singing a song" he says. "I think maybe I'll play 'Pads, Paws And Claws'."
It's a skittish lighthearted song, written by Elvis and Paul McCartney and it's on the new LP Spike. Paul plays on the album too, as does Byrdman Roger McGuinn chiming on his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. Among the other luminaries appearing on Spike alongside the Irish musicians are Jerry Scheff, the bassist from Elvis Presley's TCB Band, to the singularly extraordinary Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans - a six-piece brass section who are the next generation down from the chaps who played with Little Richard and Fats Domino - to Allen Toussaint who wrote and produced songs like "Ride Your Pony" for soul singer Lee Dorsey, to Chrissie Hynde. But in the heel of the hunt it doesn't matter a toss how famous or how different or how skilled the players are if the end result fails to shine. Actually, Spike doesn't shine - it glows.
Back to Windmill Lane Studios and May 1988... Elvis and the Irish players are recording Elvis' song "Any King's Shilling," a spellbinding tale sparked off by the true story of Elvis' Liverpudlian grand-dad Patrick MacManus who found himself a bandsman in the British army stationed in Dublin on the eve of the 1916 Easter Rising. An Irish pal of Patrick's advised him to keep his head down the following day. Elvis takes the part of the Irishman as he sings, over a backing of Derek's harp and Derek's beautiful antique-stringed instrument called the tiompan and Donal's bouzouki and Davey's uilean pipes and low whistle and the fiddles of Steve and Frankie and Christy's bodhran, over this stirring music Elvis sings "I don't know what I'm doing is right / I don't know if I should be forgiving / But for now it seems it means my life / While for you it could be just a lively / Stay at home tonight if you know what's good for you / I can't say more it would be telling..." Sensitively sung, it's enormously moving, the kind of event that doubtlessly is happening this very moment somewhere in some troubled place.
And the music in "Any King's Shilling"... it's not skiffle-dy diddley-eye with all the players swooping about like swallows on amphetamines in some wild session. Oh no. As Elvis notes, "It's quite formal music, like a piece of traditional Irish chamber music with Derek's harp like what you'd hear at an old drawing-room concert.' Truly brilliant.
"Tramp The Dirt Down" is of a different hue altogether, a hateful and vicious song brimful of poisoning disgust aimed at the heartless person that is Margaret Thatcher. "When England was the whore of the world Margaret was its madame" Elvis announces before promising "There's one thing I'd like to know, I'd like to live long enough to savour / That's when they finally put you in the ground / I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."
Hardly love peace and understanding, huh? Elvis elaborates now "I hate the thought of even thinking these thoughts. It's pretty abhorrent but plenty of people feel that way. 'Give me the gun and I'll do it'. It's horrible to be driven to those thoughts and that's the thing I forgive the least, that culmination of anger that drives one to these feelings..."
People sometimes accuse Elvis as being simply angry but it's not that: he's often endowed with a dark humour tied into unobscured powers of observation allied to a low tolerance level for the complete savages and monsters of this world. For example, Elvis isn't in the fan club of the multi-millionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch, a creature who appears to believe that the more rubbish he hurls at us via his satellite TV and his newspapers... well, the more the merrier.
These sort of people, Elvis figures, they reckon they haven't made it until everybody hates them. "You're nobody in this town, you're nobody in this crowd .. . you're nobody till everybody thinks you're a bastard", Elvis sings in the pugnacious chorus that, turns out to be as catchy and user-friendly as a million selling ABBA hit. Elaborating on his song "This Town" the singer speaks of "these wretched people with no love and no beauty, graceless without love people who are standing on the moral- ground while jumping feet-first into the abyss.
He continues his theme in "Satellite," "a fairly grim sci-fi look into the future", with Chrissie Hynde on harmony vocals. "Coal Train Robbery" is "the grimmest song of all about charity or the truthfulness of charity." Elvis believes Live Aid and Band Aid was the genuine end of it, but now all too often charity has become as easily discarded as a used tissue, feeling just another fashion that is yesterday's flavour. Elvis tells you "Governments, they should just get the pen out and write the cheque", and he goes on to say he understands the Eamonn McCann Self Aid argument that says charity rock concerts simply let our supposed leaders off the hook. And Elvis scornfully reads out a story from Wednesday's newspaper: "Robert Maxwell retired officially from charity today. He said 'The poor love was worn out from all the giving' ... Every body in this town, Rupert...
Sinéad O'Connor was originally going to sing Elvis' song "Last Boat Leaving" on the soundtrack at the very end of the film The Courier, but the ending of the film was changed thus making its optimistic context in the film redundant. "Last boat leaving: still time to get out" Elvis explains. We get to heaven in "God's Comic," or at least the comedian who has been paradying a drunken slobbering priest, he gets there only to find "So there he was on a waterbed... Reading an airport novelette, listening to Andrew Lloyd Weber's Requiem". God, Elvis is telling me now, God is appalled at how we've treated the world. And anyway, he says we treat God like Santa Claus, only talking to Him when we're in a pickle as in a panic we promise to be good.
The song "Let Him Dangle" concerns the vile legal execution of Derek Bentley in 1952 for shouting to his underage friend Chris Craig "Let him have it". Craig shot a policeman and Bentley was hanged. "This," Elvis points out, "is a song about the preciousness of life. Nobody should be murdered, by the judiciary or otherwise". "Veronica" is the second of the two Elvis Costello-Paul McCartney compositions, the tale of a supposedly senile lady who ... well, actually maybe she does know what's going on, you know. It's kind, this song, contagious too, and deserves to be a hit.
But among my favourite tracks is "Baby Plays Around," written by Elvis and his missus Cait. With Elvis on acoustic guitar, this sad song could well become a standard. "She walks those shiney streets/ I walk the worn out floors" he sings in this song of helplessness anchored in love. Ah, yes. And then there's the cover on Elvis Spike LP. It is, Elvis points out knowing that it's very obvious anyway, a joke. "hat" he says referring to his unsettlingly painted face mounted on a trophy board, "that's what showbusiness is - stuck dead on a wall with a spike up your arse. I don't think I'm in showbusiness in that narrow definition with a stupid smile on your face and a glib catchphrase.."
No you're not, Elvis. Y'see, Elvis Costello has enough love in him to complain, not to moronically accept the lowest common denominator bulshit that clogs up the pores of our lives. He's a special man, Elvis is, and people such as him... well, we need them. Recorded in Dublin, New Orleans and Los Angeles, Spike fearlessly nails it up for us all to see and hear, to see and hear and maybe change. Fair play to the man, fair play indeed.