Guitar World, June 2002

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Cruel inventions

Christopher Scapelliti

After a six-year absence from rock and roll, Elvis Costello grabs his guitar and delivers his brand of brutal truth on When I was Cruel.

On Friday, February 1, 2002, storms hammered Dublin. The Royal Canal overflowed, and flash floods turned cobblestone streets into spindly rivers of briny muck. It was the most rain to dump on Ireland's capital since 1923, the year the Irish Republican Army was slaughtered as it tried once and for all to throw the British off the island.

The morning after the February deluge, another Irish rebel sat in a Dublin recording studio counting up losses of his own: Elvis Costello was working on remixes for his new album, When I Was Cruel (Island), when the grim news came.

"My production manager went down to the basement to get a guitar and found that our equipment was under seven feet of water," Costello recalls, six days after the discovery. "All of my amplifiers and about 15 or 20 guitars were completely destroyed." Many of the acoustic guitars Costello values most were safe at home or in the studio. "But all of the main guitars that I use both in the studio and onstage were submerged for a period. So only time will tell whether they can be salvaged."

Among the flood's victims: a 1954 Telecaster, a Gretsch Country Club, a Hofner bass, and the two Fender Jazzmasters he owns with his name inscribed on the necks; not to mention several Vox, Fender and Silvertone amps — a veritable fortune of vintage treasure. But though it's just days after the disaster, Costello is already taking the loss better than expected. In fact, he's cracking up about it.

"I have to tell you," he suddenly blurts out. "I had this extraordinary experience of driving home with all of these guitars strapped into my car. It looked like I'd just robbed a guitar store. If the police had stopped me, they'd have gone, 'Let's see, you've got a '54 Tele and an early Sixties Strat, a Bass Six and a Hofner cutaway…' " A long, low snicker ensues. "I was like, I mustn't drive erratically. But, you know, the minute you think that, then you think, I'm driving erratically! It's like, try to act normal, and you've got five guitars strapped into your front seat."

It's an expensive laugh, and Costello seems determined to get his money's worth. Only when condolences are offered does his disappointment slip through.

"Yeah, it is a — it's…" His voice trails off in dismay. "But you know," he says resignedly, "nobody died."

The decimation of Elvis Costello's guitar collection is yet another dramatic turn of events in what is one of rock and roll's longest and most wildly unpredictable careers. Angry young rock and roller, country crooner, neoclassical composer — Costello has, over 25 years' time, plied his trade in more genres than any other popular artist, except perhaps former Beatle Paul McCartney, with whom he has frequently collaborated.

Ironically, his present plight has occurred just after he's recorded and released his most guitar-centric album to date. When I Was Cruel is the kind of musical recidivism that die-hard Costello-ites have been waiting for, full of sinewy rhythms and the dyspeptic lyrical sentiments that have been Costello's trademark. Over the course of his career, the British-born singer/songwriter has written prodigiously. He's issued 20 albums or so, most of them rock and roll records made with his former backing trio, the Attractions. As a rule, the group's albums have been keyboard-driven affairs pumped up by the nimble fingerwork of organist/pianist Steve Nieve.

But When I Was Cruel is a different creature. "I see this album as kind of a return to the guitar," Costello says. "This time I felt as if we'd got something fresh on the instrument. The guitar was all new to me again, and the fact that I put it back central to the compositional structure of the songs is something that I'm really proud of."

To write the album, Costello lodged himself in his Dublin home with a guitar, a sampling keyboard and "a kid's beat box with big orange buttons." For Costello — who has spent the past six years collaborating on musical works of an entirely different nature with smooth pop composer Burt Bacharach, classical vocalist Anne Sofie von Otter and the jazz-based Charles Mingus Orchestra, among others — it was a way to get back to basics. And although he frequently composes on piano, Costello made a conscious effort to write the new songs on guitar.

"It was a way to keep the harmony very simple," he explains, "because I'm an idiot guitar player, you know. In fact, the less chords, the better."

Which brings up a noteworthy point: although he's purchased some of the finest production guitars made — and while the image of him wielding a Jazzmaster on his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, is an icon of late-Seventies rock and roll — Elvis Costello doesn't think much of himself as a guitarist. "If I picked up the guitar and you pointed on the neck and asked what note it was, I wouldn't have any idea," he confesses. It's the reason that, over the years, he has routinely declined to be interviewed by this magazine.

Those who know his work would beg to differ with Costello's assessment of his talent. While he's no shredder, Costello has a knack for writing memorable and defining guitar lines, and for deftly plugging them into whatever narrow gaps are left in Nieve's exquisitely zealous keyboard arrangements.

When told his guitar playing is "tasteful," Costello snorts: "Tasteful!" Well, sure. How about the tremolo-steeped signature motifs on his 1977 hit "Watching the Detectives," and on the new songs "Soul for Hire" and "When I Was Cruel No. 2"? What about the driving, relentless three-note riff of "Pump It Up," his best-known song in America next to "Alison"?

"Well, in that sense, yes," he concurs. "I am a songwriter, so I employ the guitar as part of the compositional structure. If you go right back to the very beginning of my recordings — obviously 'Watching the Detectives' — there is frequently in my music a central guitar motif. And a lot of the songs on When I Was Cruel have that device. It's the thing I've been always attracted to. I'm not really big on, you know, just wild open-ended soloing. For one thing, I'm not technically able at it."

That much was evident last November 5, when Costello joined country-rock artist Lucinda Williams for a taping of Country Music Television's Crossroads series in New York City. Attempting to take a solo on "Dust," one of the tracks from When I Was Cruel, Costello tore three or four — he can't remember how many — strings off his guitar.

"I took them off in one swipe," he says. "I'm a fairly violent person, if it comes out. And I'm also very clumsy. I'm likely to just break the damn guitar, let alone play it. It's a combination of clumsiness and kind of, like — I don't know — no hand-eye coordination. Not ideal!" he says, laughing. "Not gonna lead you to be a virtuoso instrumentalist."

On the rare occasion that Costello has taken solos on record, they've been, almost without exception, prepared in advance. "I think it was four or five albums before I took a proper solo, and they were always orchestrated." But there was a moment of inspired playing during the making of When I Was Cruel. It occurred, curiously enough, on "Dust," the very song on which he filleted his strings at the Crossroads taping.

"You know, a lot of playing the guitar in a wild fashion has to do with a lack of fear. If you're incredibly dexterous, which I am not, obviously you have the facility to do that. But when we were recording 'Dust,' I was sitting in the control room with my Silvertone guitar running out into a little Sears Roebuck 15-watt amp, with some kind of distortion device between them — and somewhere in the middle of it, I just went mad. And the guys came in and said, 'Wow, that was quite good!' " He laughs. "It was like they were kind of surprised, you know! And when we listened back, it had sort of the right kind of fire — it wasn't, like, elegant or anything.

"So I figured, Well, that's what you're trying to do when you make records — it's not necessarily to do the most dazzling thing but something that has the right kind of mood, the right kind of fire to accompany the thoughts in that song. So we kept it in." Other attempts at a solo were made, all of them unsuccessful. "But that one — I felt like I got one finally. Which is not bad after 20 years, you know. I finally got one solo on my records that I like!"

Whatever one makes of his guitar playing, there's no question that Costello is among rock and roll's most enduring songwriters, not to mention one of its most prolific. In his first years as a recording artist, he was issuing music at a rate of nearly two albums per year after factoring in nonalbum B-sides and extraneous tracks written for various projects. There's so much of the stuff that Rhino, which has recently undertaken the task of reissuing his catalog, is packaging the material in double-CD sets, each containing the original record plus a full-length bonus CD of nonalbum tracks and demos. It's probably no coincidence that as Costello was preparing to issue When I Was Cruel, Rhino released the three most guitar-dominant records of his back catalog: This Year's Model, Blood & Chocolate and Brutal Youth.

"Over the past year I've been writing liner notes for the Rhino reissues," he explains, "and trying to kind of put some sort of order to the story of a record — how it was constructed and the other things that were surrounding it that may have influenced it."

The reissues have required Costello to reflect as far back as 1976, a pivotal year both for him and rock and roll. Punk was on the rise in England, and Elvis Costello was still Declan MacManus, a 22-year-old computer programmer of Irish-Italian descent, living in London with his wife and young son. By day, he fed punch cards into a mainframe at cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden. By night, he wrote songs — dozens of them — and joined the ranks of anxious, odd-looking hopefuls shopping demos to London record companies. Eventually, he was signed by Stiff Records, one of the seminal indie labels to sprout up amid the DIY ethic of the punk movement. "They gave me, like, a 100-pound advance and a battery-powered Vox amplifier the size of a transistor radio," he recalls. He also received a new name, an amalgam of his mother's family name and that of a one-time rock and roll hero in whom was manifested all of the genre's gross excess and mediocrity.

Everything about Costello's inauguration — from his preposterous moniker to the pleasantly chintzy eight-track production facilities rented for his sessions — seemed calculated for swift obsolescence. With nothing to lose, he took a hazardous number of "sick days" from Elizabeth Arden to record some 14 tracks, supported by a California bar band named Clover, whose singer, Huey Lewis, would go on to have a hit career of his own in the Eighties.

Released in 1977, My Aim Is True was among the most widely acclaimed debuts of the decade. Emerging when it did, the rangy and caustic album got Costello dubiously lumped in with the punks. It didn't matter that his music was rooted in American r&b, that it was better categorized as "pub rock," if not simply "rock and roll" — it embodied the swaggering danger of a lone dissident. Even in appearance, Costello, pugnacious and scrawny, dweeby in his too-tight suit and black horn-rims, conveyed the spirit if not the established manner of punk rock rage: "Buddy Holly on Acid," as an early Stiff press release dubbed him.

The picture on My Aim Is True of Costello holding his Fender Jazzmaster said it all. Here was a rock and roll musician too rebellious to comply with the dress code, let alone select a more appropriate model of guitar. As it happened, Costello owned a Fender Telecaster prior to the Jazzmaster, and used it on several of his debut's tracks. "It was blonde, with a maple neck," he recalls. "I got it through a friend who worked for Fender. It came direct from the factory, in a box." Given his debut's whirlwind recording schedule, Costello had little time to consider the finer points of his instrument. "I didn't know you could change the action on guitars. That's how naïve I was — I had no idea. The strings were, like, an inch from the neck, and I didn't even know you could lower them. I had no technical knowledge at all. Didn't even own an amplifier."

But while Costello estimates that the Telecaster appeared on nearly half of My Aim Is True, his custody of the new, pristine instrument was to be brief. "I was walking through town where I lived and there was a small guitar shop there with a Jazzmaster hanging up," he recalls. "It had dark brown furniture varnish all over it, but, like, really shiny, like you would paint an old-fashioned chair with. It looked terrible. But it had the red mottled scratch plate [pick guard], you know. And I went in and traded in my brand-new Telecaster for this old Jazzmaster. I just liked the look of it."

Most guitarists, recognizing their limited facility with the instrument, might have left all matters six-string to a more capable player. But when Costello set about forming a permanent backup band after My Aim Is True, it never crossed his mind to hire a lead guitarist. "I really didn't want one. In fact, I was determined we wouldn't have a lead guitar player. For one thing, we had a really amazing keyboard player." Steve Nieve was not only younger than his three bandmates; he was also classically trained. "He didn't know anything about rock and roll, really," says Costello. "And the other three of us more or less shared pretty much the same knowledge, if not the same taste." Dubbed the Attractions, Costello's band was formidably tight and proficient, capable of executing nearly any musical style that captured its leader's fancy. Over the locked-in rhythms of bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation), Nieve strangled the keys of his Vox Continental, providing an at-times dementedly harmonic counterpoint to Costello's melodies and enigmatic wordplay. "Steve just was the wild thing that came into that," says Costello. "He could play all these things. And I occasionally made noises."

More often, though, he sang, and it was his voice — a thorny and throaty instrument that veers from a croon to a sneer — as much as his lyrics that brought Costello recognition. From his debut to his 1991 release, Mighty Like a Rose, Costello vented in song with a rage as virulent as it was consistent, attacking fascism, cruel lovers and stupid people in general. Early on, he was singled out by feminists who saw misogyny where he intended to inflict only a jilted man's verbal retribution. His frequent demonstrations of vulnerability were less acknowledged, even when expressed in a nakedly confessional apologia like "Accidents Will Happen," from 1979's brilliant Armed Forces, his best-selling album in America.

"Obviously there have been times when that's been the perception of what I do, that it's all about violence or anger or hatred," says Costello. "And I think that wasn't really the case all the time. They're all emotional responses to events, or a progress through social life."

Occasionally, his emotional responses spilled onto the band. An acrimonious split with the Attractions following 1986's Blood & Chocolate left Costello free to work with whatever backing musicians he chose. But as he began demoing songs for 1994's Brutal Youth, Costello called upon drummer Pete Thomas. By the time they set about recording the album, they'd been joined by Nieve. Eventually, even bassist Bruce Thomas was invited back into the fold. "I found myself playing in a rock and roll band again," Costello writes in the liner notes for Rhino's reissue of the record. "If this did not require forgiveness, then it did assume some small understanding of anger and when to let it go."

The reunion was short-lived; although Nieve and Pete Thomas perform on When I Was Cruel, the Attractions were, for all intents, permanently disbanded after long-running tensions between Costello and Bruce Thomas erupted again in 1996. Still, the Brutal Youth sessions gave Costello a sense of proportion, and it's not coincidental that he points to the album, in particular its ragged waltz-time rocker "All the Rage," as a turning point in his songwriting.

" 'All the Rage' was directly about giving up that somewhat lazy impulse to just rage about things just because it's what you do," he says. "I was acknowledging that there is a trap in that, a danger of a song overstating its case in an attempt to blow some subject out of the water. It's like hitting a marshmallow with a nine-pound hammer.

"That's not to say there was anything wrong with the outlook of those earlier songs, 'cause I still sing many of them with exactly the same feeling. But I think every writer that's ever written with any kind of edge has probably overreached, or used slightly overheated language, in an attempt to say something that they believed."

Which brings us to When I Was Cruel. Is the title an admission of past overindulgence, or simply another instance of Costello's famously acerbic irony?

"Well, it's not for me to say," he offers. "But I do think the title track is an acknowledgment of my own tendency to give people more power than they deserve and to lash out at them as a result. It's a bit of taking responsibility for allowing things to happen in the first place." The song in question, "When I Was Cruel No. 2," is both the album's longest track and its most self-reflective, a narrative set at the wedding of an elderly power baron to a young, opportunistic social climber. In it, Costello casts himself as a wedding singer, a has-been performing in one of Dante's inner circles of hell. Surveying the wedding party, he sees the bitchy backstabbers and jaded poseurs who have inhabited his older songs. This time, however, he finds himself able to feel some pity for them.

"The song is about when you see dreadful people close up, people of power and influence, and you see that they're not really as terrifying as you led yourself to believe," Costello explains. "I've seen some politicians up close, and when you see how seedy they are, how their moral authority is an illusion, it robs them of that sense of dread that you maybe had about them. They may be billionaires, but they have their own little tragedies going on the same way as poor people do."

The shift in his attitude recalls one of Costello's earliest lyrics, the well-known couplet "I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused," from his 1977 song "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." Asked if he's managed to achieve the sentiment of those lines, Costello laughs. "Geez! I hope so. I hope you don't get dull as you go along, or become bitter. It's like I was telling you before about my guitars after the flood: It was a bit of a shock to see these instruments that I've been fond of and used day to day in this kind of disarray. But like I said, nobody died. It's just a problem to solve. And maybe it's a way of being told you had too many guitars to begin with."

Copyright 2002, Harris Publications


Guitar World, June 2002

Christopher Scapelliti interviews Elvis Costello.


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