Declan Patrick MacManus was born some twenty-odd years ago somewhere near London, and spent his childhood in London and Liverpool. The sole offspring of a broken marriage, MacManus was raised as a Catholic, married at an early age, had a child, became a computer technician for Elizabeth Arden beauty consultants, and, on weekends, followed in the footsteps of his musician father by playing in bluegrass bands in the London area.
A photographer is trying to get a posed picture of Elvis Costello backstage at his Milwaukee gig. It's been an uphill fight just getting there, but now the photographer is being quizzed: is he the one who took the picture of Costello and a member of Cheap Trick backstage at a Madison concert? The photo in question appeared in an issue of Creem; apparently, it had not been intended for public release.
"No," replies the photographer. Costello and company abruptly lose interest in him. "Don't I get a picture?," the photographer cries after them.
Costello shakes his head. "Once bitten, twice shy," he says.
In the early portion of 1977, Elvis Costello made his first ripple on the British rock scene. Stiff Records, a new label created by Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera (Costello's future manager), released "Less Than Zero" (backed with the first apocryphal Costello track, "Radio Sweetheart") as a single. It did little in the way of sales or airplay, but the critics, at least, began to pay attention. Not a few listeners suspected that Nick Lowe, an ex-member of Brinsley Schwarz, had actually done the record. Certainly the name was a joke — no one had ever heard of Elvis Costello.
"Like, I went around for nearly a year with demo tapes before I came to Stiff, and it was always the same response. 'We can't hear the words.' 'It isn't commercial enough.' 'There aren't any singles.' Idiots. Those tapes were just voice and guitar demos. I didn't have enough money to do anything with a band. It was just a lack of imagination on the part of those people at the record companies. I felt as if I were bashing my head against a brick wall, those people just weren't prepared to listen to the songs.
"But I never lost faith. I'm convinced in my own talent, yeah. Like I said, I wasn't going up to these people meekly and saying, 'Look, with your help and a bit of polishing up, and with all your expertise and knowledge of the world of music we might have a moderate success on our hands.'
"I was going in thinking: 'You're a bunch of fucking idiots who don't know what you're doing. I'm bringing you a lot of good songs, why don't you go ahead and fucking well record them?' They didn't seem to understand that kind of approach."
Costello's meteoric rise coincided with the release of his second single, "Alison," and the first album, My Aim Is True, which offered, for the first time, the physical proof of Costello's existence.
But what proof! Two pictures featured the same skinny figure, his hair cropped into a pre-Beatles tuft, his face covered by black, horn-rimmed glasses, oversized coat decking his frame. His hands clutched a Fender Jaguar.
The music he made was the best rock-and-roll since the early Who.
Apparently, Costello's appearance is no more a joke than his music — he's been dressing that way for years, the perfect unarchetypal rocker. The music was unusual for 1977, also; Costello, bored with empty technical virtuosity, extended solos and meaningless songs that extend forever, opted to write songs that would reach people on a personal level.
"That's why I like and write short songs. It's a discipline. There's no disguise. You can't cover up songs like that by dragging banks of fucking synthesizers and choirs of angels. They have to stand up on their own. With none of the nonsense. Songs are just so fucking effective. People seem to have forgotten that.
"Like, people used to live their lives by songs. They were like calendars or diaries. And they were pop songs. Not elaborate fucking pieces of music. You wouldn't say, like, 'Yeah, that's the time I went out with Janet, we went to see the LSO playing Mozart.' You'd remember you went out with Janet because they were playing 'Summer In The City' on the radio."
Elvis Costello's songs are double personal, written, played and sung with unparalleled intensity. Consider "Alison," which at first listen sounds like a sympathetic love song: "Sometimes I wish I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say / I guess somebody better put out the big light, 'cause I can't stand to. see you this way / Alison, I know this world is killing you / Oh, Alison, my aim is true." His tunes are all based on personal experience, and so Costello is only interesting in expressing his own feelings;. songs may have wide application for people, but they are visions of Costello's condition, not humanity's.
The themes to Costello's songs are ostensibly revenge and guilt, but closer listening renders the theme to be love (and by extension, the spirit) thwarted. In "No Dancing," he sings: "So now you see / how it can be / Why can she give him everything but sympathy?"; in "I'm Not Angry": "You're upstairs with a boyfriend while I sit here to listen / I hear you calling his name, I hear the stutter of ignition."; in "Miracle Man": "I was doing everything just trying to please her / even crawling round on all fours / I thought by now that it was going to be easy / but she still seems to want for more."
Apparently, Costello has spent most of his life being hurt. The pain, which everyone can understand, transformed to the bitterness that underlies all of Costello's music, as indeed, his life.
Two possessions separate Costello from your everyday rock star: a huge, nail (described by New Musical Express writer Nick Kent as "the kind of oppressive-looking affair that would be ideal for pinning whole limbs to crosses at human crucifixions") used as a defensive weapon, and a little black book listing the names of all the persons who inflicted torment on Costello at some time in his life. Including record executives who rejected his work. Including rock critics who refused to consider him as anything but an imitation Graham Parker or a latter-day Van Morrison. All of whom are in for an unsavory vengeance when Costello reaches the heights of fame.
Anyway, Costello's biggest break occurred when Riviera sent him, with only his Jaguar and a portable amp, down to the London Hilton during the CBS Records convention. The hotel management promptly had Costello arrested, but not before he wowwed the CBS execs, who (on consideration of the heavy airplay the album was getting on East Coast FM stations) signed E.C. on for American distribution.
Milwaukee, 15 February, 1978. Some 800 people have appeared at the Centre Stage to see Elvis and his band, The Attractions (composed of Bruce Thomas, bass; Steve Young, keyboards; and Pete Thomas, drummer). As if walking to a bubbler for a drink of water, Elvis plods onto the stage after the introduction, plugs in his guitar, and, without more than a couple words, erupts into "Waiting For the End..."
Those familiar with the album understand this to be a rougher, more raw sound — there is no longer even the pretense of civility in the music. Also understood at this moment, only a few seconds into the concert, is why Elvis Costello is great: the total intensity of his performance. What was joke before is dead serious; not one person in the crowd could believe that Elvis does not personally feel what he sings. It's the intensity and the obsessiveness that make Elvis Costello. And the talent.
While the concert began with songs from My Aim Is True (most notably a new American version of "Less Than Zero," which features a woman watching on TV as John Kennedy is gunned down by Lee Harvey Oswald — the British version is about pre-WW2 British fascist Oswald Mosley), the bulk of the concert was composed of material scheduled for his next album, The King Of Belgium, due out in Britain on Radar Records, April Fools' Day.
With the force and thunder of an M-16, Costello and the Attractions plowed through a baker's dozen numbers, ranging from the sinister ("Little Triggers"), to the vicious ("Lost In The Lipstick Void"). While there was no room in the Centre Stage to dance, the crowd responded to each number with overwhelming applause. The band had tightened tremendously in the few months since they last passed through the area, and The Attractions gave a high polish to the playing without tarnishing in the slightest the savage edge of the music.
Still, it's difficult to see anyone else while Costello is on stage. His psychotic staggerings must be a put-on, timed as they are to the action of the music, but Costello brings a dangerous sincerity to every motion, to each shifting inflection of his voice. There is not so much violence in Costello as the ever-present threat of it. The lights played against the obsessed face, delineating every feature and illuminating Costello's mask-of-vengeance visage.
The audience brought Costello back for two encores, and from the sound of the applause, it could have been the entire week's audience at Summerfest. Had he kept coming back, they would have stayed all night.
Unlike a lot of rock and roll these days, Costello is consistently exciting. True, he seems to be calming down a bit with success — he showed little belligerence toward his audience, and his jacket is fitting better this year. But there's still that urgency to his approach, that feeling of utter necessity to his songs, that has already placed Elvis Costello in the forefront of rock and roll. With the lack of anything else as distinctive happening, Costello and the Attractions may be the most important rock group since the early Who.
Columbia Records is scheduled to release a two-record live Elvis Costello album by summer, so he'll be coming through the area again soon. This time GO!
He's the stuff of rock and roll legends.