GQ, October 1998

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Elvis Costello : Cool? Cool…so what?


 Taiji Yamashita

A Fashionable and cool man. This must be what the most people think of him. Is this true? Yes, he was a real cool guy. Moreover, an extraordinarily cool guy.

Last August 1, Elvis Costello stood on the stage for Fuji Rock Festival '98 only with Steve Nieve on keyboard, his sworn friend since his debut. The rough sound of his electric guitar and his tremendously persuasive voice shot through the tens of thousands of audience, who suddenly stopped dancing and stood still now on the reclaimed land under the glaring daylight, then diffused over the Tokyo bay.

A young man standing next to me, who seemingly saw Elvis Costello for the first time in his life muttered, "Cool……"

Cool, indeed. According to the theme of this issue, it goes, "He is COOL".

And his attire, too.

Since the middle of 1980's, he's dressed in black or dark suit every time I saw him on the stage of his Japan tour.

Now he looks nice in his deep blue jacket, with his extremely short cut hair.

"Do I always wear black? I've never minded it at all."

2 days after the concert, he started talking in a way as if to say, "Who cares about COOL anyway?"

"Well, when I started my career, I didn't have much money with me, so it came to black 'cause it looks fairly nice for its price. That's how it started, I think. I hardly care about the fashion. It is of secondary importance for a musician. Take a look at the covers of my records. In the cover of my first album My Aim Is True, the jacket I wear is the one I got it from my friend, my housemate, who nearly threw it away. He said he doesn't need it for it is torn, but I thought it's nice 'cause it looks like a gun hole. In the cover of my second album This Years Model, I'm wearing the suit which I bought at a secondhand clothes shop in Minneapolis at US$7. I wore it till the Armed Forces era. Around the time of Trust, my life became a little bit comfortable at last, so I ordered a blue silk suit for the first time, but it shrank by the heat of the lights when I wore it on the stage, and was spoiled…..Everything goes like this. It's OK if I feel good in it."

Though he boasted so, he wears a jacket and shirt by DNKY, and Prada's shoes today. Even if this is because he was conscious of being photograped, still quite a good choice. After the period of wearing whichever clothes he could afford in his younger days, he might have come to a point to refine a sense of fashion, because of his age, or by the trends of the times, I suppose.

"But I've cared about the glasses a little, perhaps. When I started my career in this industry, I was the only one who wore glasses. It's been a sort of my trademark, so I tried to wear the similar models as possible. But when I grew my hair long, it didn't fit (match) nicely so I changed the frame for round one, …..such as these.

"Of course, among the musicians, some people are particular about fashion. 1966's Bob Dylan for example. Rod Stewart……his history is amazing. Pink pyjamas? How could he! Though he once had such a terrible time, but still it's acceptable when he does it.

"Cool in Jazz is Miles Davis. Most people may remember him wearing an elegant suit in his early days. But he's mentioned somewhere that he wasn't willing to do it so, like "I did it only to be par with white." He wore very flashy clothes in his later years.

"How about John Lennon? He always looked mysterious when he didn't wear his glasses. Maybe it was just because he was extremely short-sighted. But he looked so cool.

"So, most people who are generally regarded as cool are those who wanted or tried to look differently from their own. It's a kind of self-defense. But a real 'COOL', I think, is the one who behaves naturally without such intention, just like John Lennon. Look at Burt Bacharach. He always wears simple and plain clothes, but looks very cool, doesn't he?" Burt Bacharach. The reason why Costello mentioned this big name of a giant who has sent numbers of outstanding pop-songs and main theme music for silver screen to the world over the decades, is because these two men have just completed their collaboration album "Painted From Memory". They first met to co-write the theme song called "God Give Me Strength" for the film "Grace of My Heart" and found a kindred spirit in each other. It didn't take much time to finish the songs to make an album after that. Sad and painful love stories unfolded in medium tempo. Melodies and arrangements that give gooseflesh for their extreme beauty, sprang out like water from an endless fountain. Elvis Costello is very prolific. He might have written over 400 songs in these 20 years, and I can moderately say that most of the songs from his new album will be ranked in the best 50 of them. Burt Bacharach might contribute to it a great deal of course, but I can't overlook Costello's maturity as a composer.

"Collaboration with Burt Bacharach was done case by case. One time I almost completed a song and fleshed it out with him, another time Burt has written a song (melody) completely and I only put in words. And there is also a song completed in a conversation style, like Burt wrote one line and I wrote the next.

"He always accepted the words I wrote for the songs affirmatively, and it seemed that he liked my melodies. He was also confident that my voice is strong enough to express accurately when the song develops dramatically. But sometimes he advised me to sing a little more quietly. Quietly at the beginning, then rise to a crescendo, and quietly again in the end. Singing like this, we can broaden songs and make them very beautiful.

"By the way, I have worked with many splendid musicians by now, still I must admire his energy. Not only in a physical sense, but also, what can I say…a power to concentrate or…a capability to feel the inside of music. Talking about a little bit professional issue, a thoroughgoing inquiry into the details broadens the extent of freedom of expression. He clearly grasps the relationship between various musical instruments and can definitely capture how to use the voices and harmonies. Then he organizes all of them very rhythmically and dynamically. He draws out the best performance from all of the musicians, especially he makes the singer 'sing'. The singing seems like a wonderful moment of coincidence, but it is the best moment that can be achieved only because everything was decided on the way to get there. A singer can sing feeling like he is in the arms of the sound."

Yes, I said that most of the songs from the album would be his best 50 song-writings, but I dare say that all songs would be ranked in the best 30 in singing. (For your information, this album contains 12 songs.)

"Oh! This hat I'm wearing now is my favorite. This was my lucky hat during the recording of the album. I really love hats. When I was 22 years old, I thought 'Hats? Bloody dowdy!'. But now I'm 44 and found that wearing hats is not so bad."

22-years-old Elvis who came out to rock scene as an angry young man never could have imagined the collaboration with a beloved pop maker in his future. But 44-years-old Elvis is at his peak now, as a songwriter as well as a singer, with a help of great senior. He accepts both the changes in him and maturity as a natural result. Elvis Costello who looks great in his hat must be the unconscious cool guy, too.


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GQ Japan, October 1998


Taiji Yamashita interviews Elvis Costello following his appearance with Steve Nieve at the Fuji Rock Festival on Saturday, August 1, 1998 in Tokyo, Japan.
Original article in Japanese, translation into English by Hiroko Maeta (vetiver@hazama.co.jp)

Images

1998-10-00 GQ Japan page 1.jpg

1998-10-00 GQ Japan page 2.jpg
Page scans. Photos credit to Jun Izumi

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