Elvis Costello had a message for his audience Monday night at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York.
Several times during his remarkable, solo two-and-a-half-hour performance, he said, "This show is about peace and memory."
This notion struck a chord with me. Many of the 30 songs that I heard him sing that night brought back memories, all right. You see, I've seen Costello 76 times in concert, dating back to the first time in 1977.
In 1981, I saw him and the Attractions, his great band, play three nights in a row at the Palladium in New York City. He once performed for two hours during a virtual monsoon at the Jones Beach Theater in August 1991, as the rain dripped off his thick beard. I've seen him on stage in Philadelphia, Hartford, and Washington, DC — and Chicago, Berkeley, Oakland, and Seattle as well.
Why has an otherwise perfectly sane man turned into a devoted pilgrim?
Simply, Elvis is the ultimate crowd-pleaser. He always has a surprise up his sleeve. He connects by talking to the audience. And he doesn't "mail it in." I recall a 2005 show with Emmylou Harris, on a sweltering summer evening in Central Park. Elvis wore a suit and tie, and when a fellow musician patted him on the back, I saw sweat pour off his clothing.
I've admired Elvis's artistry for so long that I can link his songs to snapshots from my life. The Port Chester performance underscored the point, spanning his career — from his first album, My Aim Is True, 36 years ago, to his just-released collaboration, Wise Up Ghost, with Jimmy Fallon's house band, the Roots.
How many artists' songs are so distinctive that they can bring you back to a definite point in your life and conjure up memories of a romance or a job or a place? Let me show you how Elvis sings the story of my life.
Welcome To The Working Week
In a neat bit of synergy, Elvis opened the Capitol Theatre concert with the song that led off My Aim Is True. This album changed my life. When it came out in 1977, I was a struggling journalism student at Northwestern University. I didn't have a girlfriend to boot. And the frigid cold weather in Evanston, Illinois, lived up to its billing.
Then this album gave me a reason to smile. I had never heard music like this. The singer sneered. The backing band cooked. The lyrics were poetic and literary, heroic and defiant all at once. The working week suddenly didn't seem quite so daunting, and I was on my way in my chosen profession.
Everyday I Write The Book
I often listened to this gem a few years ago when I was — you guessed it — writing a book. During the concert Elvis quipped that he wrote the tune "in about 10 minutes." If only my book on Bob Dylan had gone so smoothly.
Oy vey. This radio hit came out in early 1989 on Costello's ambitious album Spike. That was a challenging time for me. I was crazy about a woman who made it clear to everyone in the world that she wanted to be "just friends, okay?" I refused to take no for an answer. I was idealistic, cocky, and stupid, and — dare I say it — seriously in lust. I was, in brief, a guy. Long story short, it didn't end well. When Costello played "Veronica" toward the beginning of the concert, I thought of Ms. You-Know-Who and gamely smiled.
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
When I worked for Bloomberg News in the 1990s, I (hoping to appear witty and worldly) wrote on my office computer: "I used to be disgusted / But now I try to be amused." That's the opening couplet from "Red Shoes" (also off My Aim Is True), the first Costello song that I ever obsessed over. Bloomberg News was only a few years old at the time, and we had an adventurous, can-do spirit. Costello played "Red Shoes" as the second-to-last song of the concert. I smiled and thought of how much fun I had on that job.
Regrettably, I've never been able to interview Elvis (though I've tried hard). I met him once, on November 19, 2001. He and Lucinda Williams had just concluded taping a television show called Crossroads for Country Music Television. Stan Lynch of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers served as master of ceremonies. I walked over to the trio and noted that the first time I saw Elvis on stage, at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago on December 2, 1977, he and his band had opened for Petty's group.
"You were there?" Elvis asked incredulously. I nodded.
"You see," he continued, "Stan and I were arguing during the soundcheck about which band went on first that night, his or mine. Do you remember?"
I nodded again. Stan leaned in to hear my answer.
"Definitely, you and the Attractions went on first," I reported.
Stan declared: "How can you remember? It was 24 years ago!"
"Well," I said, "Elvis and the Attractions were incredible. I had never heard music like that before. Then you guys came on, and you were so lame that I left halfway through your set."
Beaming, Elvis playfully exclaimed, "See, Stan! We were better." Then Elvis clapped me on the back and said, "Thanks, mate."
No, Elvis. Thank you, mate. For the music — and the memories.