Scott Raab talks to the musician about YouTube, Pompous critics, Questlove, Hank Williams, and how he just never got into Zeppelin.
Lunchtime, Blue Note Records offices.
Scott Raab: I brought this ancient “Alison” single to show you. Can’t remember how I came across it.
Elvis Costello: I’ll bet you it has strings on it. We put those cheap synth strings on the track before there were really even synths. They said. “The strings will make it a hit!”
SR: It didn’t work.
EC: It was never a hit. It wasn’t even a hit for Linda Ronstadt. I’m grateful that she recorded it, because the money that brought in kept us afloat in the first few years, when we weren’t selling any records at all.
SR: Amazing how different the music business is now.
EC: It was very much more word of mouth. You could say to someone, “Have you heard this?” and they would never have heard of it. Although I suppose that’s what the recommendations on the Internet now try to replicate. I found on YouTube a fantastic interview and performance of Bill Evans on Finnish television, playing a beautiful version of “Alfie”. Evans plays “Alfie” like it was a Bach prelude or something. I showed it to Burt Bacharach.
SR: It’s an incredible archive, but utterly chaotic.
EC: There’s both good and bad to YouTube. In some ways, it levels everything out. On the other hand, much less can escape, good and bad. People can’t really understand that now, when everything is available and everything is annotated, but you used to watch a television show and it was just gone. You really had to pay attention. Its mythic power came down to the fact that you saw it once. Hendrix being on the Lulu show and switching songs – I filed it away long before I was even playing an instrument. It was just so thrilling when television went out of control.
SR: You once pulled the same switcheroo.
EC: I did it a couple times. Only one time did anybody notice.
SR: The Saturday Night Live incident is what I remember.
EC: I also did it on English TV, but that was just us being drunk – nothing particularly revolutionary.
SR: To a large degree, you’re still defined by your first few albums as the “angry young man” – Mr. Revenge and Guilt.
EC: I went to quite some lengths a number of years ago- 30 years now, nearly – to dismantle the initial character that was sort of a contrivance between my naturally inappropriate appearance for the job of rock’n’roll singer and, to be honest, my natural reticence and shyness.
EC: I’m an only child, and I wasn’t particularly confident when I started. So what came across as aggression was quite often just uncertainty. And then, of course, you get a reaction from it and, like anything, you lean into it a little bit more. That’s not a strategy I would recommend, but in the end it becomes sort of a calling card.
SR: The same sort of typecasting was applied to Lou Reed, rest his soul.
EC: One of the real shames about the way people wrote about him is that they insisted on seeing him through the filter of the first impression of the Velvet Underground records, as if he were never anybody else but that man. They were missing the humanity that was in those songs and instead focused on the darkness. And then failed to grasp what was going on in the development – that he was a human being.
SR: Artists are supposed to be difficult.
EC: I think people in this line of work, if they’re good at what they do, then you’ll find that they’re a little bit odd. And socially awkward.
SR: Rock critics tend not to take such things into consideration.
EC: People speak with enormous pomposity and arrogance about music. Orwell wrote about the use of scientific language to distort political argument. It's done a lot in art and music criticism. They say words that make them sound like they know what they're talking about, and they clearly
don't know what they're talking about. If they were ever called out, they couldn't actually explain what they were saying. Their actual vocabulary about music is very poor indeed.
SR: To categorize art is the opposite of making it.
EC: We're not butterflies, you know.
SR: I've seen you referred to as a third-generation performer, and I know your father was a singer, but I've never read anything about any of your grandparents.
EC: My dad's father was a White Star Line trumpet player in the '20s. It shaped the way that I think about music. My grandfather was classically trained, military trained. He was an orphan who ended up in the Military School of Music in Kneller Hall. And then he was in the
First World War as an orderly. He wasn't a trained soldier.
SR: You knew him?
EC: I remember him just about. I was four when he died in '58. My grandfather and my father disagreed about music, not least of all because my dad wanted to improvise. It wasn't just that he wanted to play different music; it was just that he came off the dots.
SR: The dots?
EC: My grandfather didn't improvise at all. So he was playing a bandsman's book in the army. In '21 or '22, he left the army and joined the White Star Line and had ten years, predominantly at sea. He never really returned home. The theme of exile is attractive to me, because its sort
of like the family business. Not just music, but travel.
"WHAT CAME ACROSS AS AGGRESSION WAS
OFTEN JUST UNCERTAINTY YOU GET A REACTION
FROM IT AND LIKE ANYTHING, LEAN INTO IT A
LITTLE BIT MORE."
SR: The troubadour lifestyle.
EC: Yeah, but it's not a fanciful, romantic idea. It's just a reality. And my dad had a steady job with a really major dance band from '54 till '68, and then quit because he wanted to play different music. He wanted to sing about peace. He believed in these things.
SR: That's beautiful.
EC: And he had versatility as a singer, which is also something that I've kind of inherited.
SR: Can you read music?
EC: I can write orchestrations, but I can't sight-read music and play at the same time. I don't have enough facility. But you must hold on to the sort of finger-painting aspect of music. That's something I learned, particularly from listening to Neil
Young. Tom Waits is another one, because Tom's music is incredibly sophisticated and beautifully arranged, but he's using a toolbox that's unlike anybody else's. It's not crazy to want to have certain songs be developed harmonically and still want to make noise with
the guitar. And you can have both. I mean, really all the people that I like are of that kind of dichotomy. They are the natural heirs to the tradition of the so-called Great American Song-book writers: Rodgers and Hart. Jerome Kern. Irving Berlin. It's sort of an elitist idea, because it
doesn't include Willie Dixon or Hank Williams.
SR: I saw Steve Earle teaching a songwriting class and talking about "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and telling his students there's never been a greater song written in the American vernacular.
EC: I agree. It's so difficult to do what Hank Williams did. And he would write two or three of the greatest songs ever written, recorded in the same session. Funnily enough. the other person that can write like that is also
called Williams. And that's Lucinda. Think about "Overtime" or "Lonely Girls." They're unbelievably economical, but they're devastating. Obviously they're written in a different time and from different experience, but I don't know another American songwriter that writes as economically as Hank Williams other than Lucinda Williams.
SR: Have you ever thought about writing about your life?
EC: I've been working on a book for a few years.
SR: A memoir?
EC: With a memoir, I'd iust be arguing with the account of myself that's on the Internet already or various biographies and articles. Rather than working on one manuscript, I've written essays that would end up being little paragraphs or chapters
SR: Have you read Questlove's book?
EC: I didn't want to read it while we were working together (on Wise Up Ghost), because I thought it would give me some false sense of knowing what his motivation was. I needed to know him through the choices that he would make. But I eventually read it. There were a lot of similarities, because of his dad being a singer. So the proximity of music and the experience of growing up in a household with an unusual amount of access to music is the same, but for me it goes back one more generation.
ROBERT PLANT'S A GOOD GUY BUT THE MUSIC NEVER SPOKE TO ME. SAME WITH PINK
FLOYD IT JUST PASSED ME BY. I NEVER WAS CURIOUS ABOUT IT."
SR: What you're writing sounds similar to Chronicles, which was a delight to read.
EC: A fascinating book. A memoir doesn't have to be full disclosure There's no rule that says it has to include every event. It's what interests the writer. I found Keith Richard's book interesting. He talked about how he listened to Howlin' Wolf when he was younger. And you think what a jump it is to go from making a bad cover of "Little Red Rooster" to creating "Jumpin' Jack Flash" four years later, but the tools are all there in the Howlin'WoIf records.
SR: Their "Little Red Rooster" is truly awful.
EC: Its ramshackle, but when I first heard it, I didn't know any other version, so just accepted it. But the minute I heard the original records, I never wanted to hear those blues covers again.
SR: Hence your Led Zeppelin problem.
EC: I've never liked them. I've tried really hard. Robert's a good guy, but the music never spoke to me. I occasionally hear them by accident and I go, "Well, that's an interesting sound." Same with Pink Floyd. It just passed me by. I never was curious about it.
SR: You seem no worse off for having missed them.
EC: No, and I figured there's a lot of stuff that I spent a lot of time with that filled me up a lot More than that ever would. I heard Pink Floyd music played for the first time at the Hurricane Sandy
benefit last year at Madison Square Garden, Roger Waters came out. It was fantastic. Hearing it now, I understand its appeal to people. And there are a lot of things that you can like at a distance without a huge amount of time pondering. It's not so complicated.
SR: You've spoken fondly of the Clash for that reason.
EC: I love their records. They're still thrilling, and they've held up beyond those bravado statements that were in a lot of songs at that time. There's a lot of endurance and humanity in these songs. It's a real shame that we didn't get to hear what was coming next.
SR: One of the coolest things about seeing you play is not knowing what's coming next.
EC: I have more of a sense of what's useful to me now. I've got these songs. and can create a story for the evening with these songs and I can do it a number of times over, with a different feeling, a different mood. And that's not done for the benefit of posterity, but it is drawing from the strength of the past. just like the original writing of the songs was drawn from what you've grown up loving. I'm drawing from two generations back how to think about music, how to think about why travel to make music, what the possible pitfalls of that are for the way your life is structured. The good and bad of all of it get into the mix of what's created, what you're creating.
SR: You make the music seem like a living thing.
EC: It is a living thing. Certain songs have been written years apart. but they have a natural continuity to my mind. And if I'm feeling that, then its probably investing it with a little more emotion and
clarity than picking them because "Oh, that comes from this record" or "I've got to do from that period" or "That one's in G" or "I need a fast one now."
SR: Do you ever think about your body of work? Your own musical legacy?
EC: I don't. I really thought twice about the Rock and Hall Of Fame when that came in. I always was of a mind that it's an inherently stupid idea to put something like that in a glass case, And then all my friends, including my then-soon-to-be wife (singer/pianist Diana Krall), rang me with such congratulations I felt like, well, it'd be in bad form if I turned this down. You want to try not to be churlish. But all sorts of people are missing from all these academies. I want to make a suggestion: It's getting really crowded in there. think a few of us should get out of the way, and they can put some more people in.
SR: Must be strange to be in a hall of fame when you're still the hardest-working man in show business.
EC: It's what I do. It's good to have work. It's what I do. I've never had any real concern about posterity. I hope some people will be sorry when I'm not here, but I'm not playing for that. And you're not tipping for that.