Hot Press, December 14, 1984

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Hot Press

UK & Ireland magazines


Two of a kind

Bill Graham

Bill Graham shares tea, beer and conversation with the Fabulous Coward Brothers, better known as Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett.

Albania. Whisper the word carefully. It is a immutable law of the cosmos that once someone invokes Albania, craziness is bound to follow. At the National Stadium, it was the destruction of "San Francisco."

Those two stand-up comics, self-confessed members of the Albanian Motherhood, an obscure Eastern sect of acoustic guitar stranglers and Tirana's answer to Tennessee, the fabulous Coward Brothers stood on the stage and merrily mugged both Tony Bennett's and Scott McKenzie's versions of " San Francisco ".

Few knew the form of Texan dark horse T-Bone Burnett but from long-distance stayer, Elvis Costello, it was a revelation — particularly to those who had previously accounted him a rather dour nag. Elvis singing: "If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair" ... well, as Sam Snort later quipped good naturedly: " All that was missing was the keyboard player from Blancmange".

Elvis Costello also quipped good-naturedly. Earlier he'd sat stage right at his piano and drolly apologized for not facing the audience.:" It just might make me look like Russ Conway when I smile". Then he mocked an over-inflated review that had praised "the Debussyean ambiguities of my piano playing" and hit the bone in the marrow with "Shot With His Own Gun."

Elvis ad-libbed because he had to. Different shows require different strokes. Bereft of the protective covering of a band, he and Burnett were venturing into waters rarely explored recently, as they learnt how audiences would take to the bare essentials of their songs. In that discipline, performances must be spontaneous.

The concert also confirmed just how far Costello has moved from his original tensely rebellious and aloof character. He still plays hard but there's been an increasing relaxation within Costello throughout the eighties. He may have come to realize how spurious veneration can destroy decency. Certainly he seems even more prepared to acknowledge the bond between himself, and his devoted audience, in a friendlier spirit.

It was a most absorbing night. The lyrics now took the forefront — an intriguing situation for those like myself who've never approached Costello like a scholar and who value him for his tunes, the cleverness of his arrangements and his attitude of independence. Thus stripped bare, the imperative was to seek the intensity that originally motivated the song's creation.

The conclusion was that the Fabulous Coward Brothers Reunion Tour gave full value — and then some — almost three hours of music and the number of songs, surely over 40, must have broken the Stadium record. If one passed on one course, there was always another dish to savour. Costello may give on his own terms but none can claim he doesn't give.

In truth, the encore's were almost a second concert. At the break, he'd slowly left the stage, prowling away from the microphone, whispering 'you can make me' and the ice, all that sense of concentration at a seminar, seemed to crack on his return.

We got "Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes," "Alison" and an aching version of Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away," which like the earlier Almost Blue showed of Costello's interpreter's affinity for the country ballad.

Then the Fabulous Coward Brothers, their tag-team to challenge the Everlys served their sweet 'n' sour dessert. By now the audience had forgotten protocol, surged to the front and breached all psychological barriers. Harmonising over covers like Bobby Charles' "Tennessee Blues," it was now street busking time. The only missing element was promoter Paul Charles passing 'round the hat.

Costello returned alone. "Inch By Inch" was perfect as he mimed some silly guitar poses without ever losing grip of the emotional core of the song. Then "Shipbuilding" as elegy and a closing "Peace In Our Time." He could have sung even more and there were many missed late buses. A most successful, most useful engagement.

But Elvis Costello isn't the only Coward Brother. After all my original assignment had been to interview T-Bone Burnett.

Our beliefs about Texans can be travesties. They aren't necessarily the stetson racketeers of Dallas as T-Bone Burnett proves.

He'd had the unenviable task of playing support, coping with a crowd generally unfamiliar with his songs and still filling in from the bars. Did they expect a man with a stalky basketball player's frame in baggy but debonair light grey pants singing a learned, laconic song about "Art Movies"?

Possibly not. Burnett's music derives from traditional Texas sources but he isn't a man who's limited his curiosity to the latest studio engineering techniques or the matrix numbers of grimey blues '78's.

Nor does he oversell himself or his associations. For example, he modestly refused to milk the audience when he introduced "Having A Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her" saying only it was co-written with an Irishman and omitting to mention Bono by name.

A man long on his own personal road, Mr Burnett. He started as a producer "in a little studio in Fort Worth, Texas, doing r'n'b bands, that sort of darker than blue music."

"I also did a lot of esoteric, real regional Southern stuff," he recalls. "I liked rock 'n' roll then because it was real regional and it was a music of possibilities. Like a band like ? and the Mysterions could just go in for a 100 dollars and cut a record and be... ? and the Mysterions."

In '72 he made his first move as a performer as J Henry Burnett but The B-52 Band & The Fabulous Skylarks album got shoved into a siding due to the volatility of music business politics.

"It lasted about three weeks. It was one of those situations when Russ Regan who was president of MCA left the day after the record was released. So when the new regime came in, nothing happened."

He next emerged playing guitar among the cast of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour and with colleagues, David Mansfield and Steven Soles formed the Alpha Band who released three albums for Arista between '76 and '78. He has mixed feelings about that project.

"I don't remember that period very well if you can call it a period," he wryly responds. "The Alpha Band was just like a magazine. There were about 15 people involved in it and it was like a magazine with 15 contributing editors. It never went in any particular direction.

"But it was good fun. We did manage to spend a couple hundred million dollars of Clive Davis' money. Actually we were hired by CBS to see if we could break Arista!"

He liberated himself in '80 and through Chrysalis, put out his first genuine solo album Truth Decay. It was a genuinely independent work. While the New York acts were playing rock 'n' Rimbaud or latching on to the art-disco shapes of Blondie and Talking Heads, Truth Decay was music from the American heartland with incisive lyrics happily free of rock 'n' roll cliche. Furthermore, it lacked any LA studio fraudulence.

"I wrote this bunch of songs and sent them to my publisher" he says. "And Denny Bruce who owned Takoma Records (then distributed through Chrysalis) said 'let's put them out'. They were really demos."

Subsequently he released a 6-song EP Trap Door on WEA followed late last year by an album Proof Through The Night featuring the stellar but most unindulgent contributions of Pete Townshend, Ry Cooder and Tom Petty's Stan Lynch.

Says Mr Burnett: "All my records have been done live. We just sing them and play them. I feel that with Proof Through The Night, I tried too hard to make a record rather than just singing the songs." In contrast, his new EP Behind The Trap Door, on Demon, "has some of the qualities of Truth Decay." Again there's no elaborate gameplan.

"I was living too vicarious a existence" he says. "In the studio, you tend to get really insular. I never knew if my songs really connected with anybody. It was like shouting into a void.

"It's a terrifying thought, stepping on a stage. First you're admitting a couple of things that you're completely, wildly, uncontrollably insecure, and you're admitting you need approval, a lot of it."

Spoken like a true Coward Brother. And sipping tea beside us and occasionally interjecting was the other F.C.B., Elvis Costello. Hereabouts all interview etiquette ended and it became an informal chat over tea and beer. Neither was stretching out to tell his life story but there are insights in the anecdotes and opinions of two men on the road.

So how's the tour been going?

T-Bone: "I've decided to take this year off and just do solo shows. I feel I've had a really lucky life — like the year I decide to do some solo shows, Elvis does too and he asks me to come along. It was really fun in America."

Elvis: "It's the most fun I've ever had on a tour. In America, the largest venue was about 6,000 and the smallest was about 1.700 seats."

How do you do 6,000 with just acoustic guitars?

Elvis: "It's something that really down to the audience's concentration. There is no spectacle to it. It makes very little difference. The people at the back of a 2,000 seater can no more see your expression than the people at the back of a 6,000 seater.

"Actually my agent said that she had booked a tour for Neil Young through small clubs and then he went to see Dan Fogelberg who has this enormous invisible following and he was playing 20,000 seater on his own and it was absolutely magical because the audience was so interested in him. It didn't reallly matter, so long as the sound-system was good enough.

"But I think there's the size of hall where it gets too removed. We did find in the 6,000 seaters that there were the 5 idiots in the audience that thought they were at a band show. They'd be shouting out all positive things but they's be shouting them out at all the wrong moments. That type of stuff happens at a band show and you don't notice it but when you're playing solo, you're so vulnerable."

Do you find yourselves ad-libbing much more and changing around the set?

T-Bone: "That's the great thing. The main reason I wanted to play solo was because I had always played with a band, and you only have so much freedom. You tend to set up a pace which you have to go through with, even if there's a line you'd like to emphasise. I wanted to learn how to stand in front of an audience and just be generous, strip down and be a person, try to knock down the fourth wall."

What's been the most surreal show, so far?

Elvis: "The most surreal one was the one in Illinois."

T-Bone: "Yeah, I was running amok, a little bit."

Elvis: "You were writing messages to the audience on bread-sticks. I should think that's pretty odd."

(The conversation wanders somewhat before Elvis remarks on audience's expectations.)

Elvis: "Somebody came up to me, the other night and said 'how come you don't write any rude lines in your songs anymore like "You see yourself rolling on the carpet with this year's girl"' and I said 'Haven't you listened to the last record and "Inch By Inch"?' I said it's just that you write things in a different way. Because the other line is cruder, there's more of a vicarious thrill in hearing or saying it. Whereas the other line is more honest and more accurate. People can get distracted by detail."

Here in Ireland, you're coming to a country and a city which is more used to the stand-up musician.

Elvis: "That's what I was going to say about that hall and generally the atmosphere in Dublin. For instance, we had that disastrous show — well, it wasn't disastrous in the long run but it was fairly technically disastrous at the Stadium, a couple of months ago when I lost my voice.

"But the review and the atmosphere that I got, the response that night, was so much more generous. The review in Hot Press picked out the fact that we made the effort to try when my voice was absolutely gone — the worst it's ever been on stage.

"Now a couple of nights later, we played London and my voice wasn't that much better and the reviewers took us to pieces. All that happened was the audience was much more cynical, much less prepared to be involved. And we panicked a bit. Instead of coming down dynamically, the band played at the level they normally did and my voice, no matter how much they turned it up in the PA, simply couldn't get above it. It was really thin and cracking up a lot. Consequently it made the band appear really unsubtle and the criticism was mostly of the band.

"They must have appeared to be really unsubtle whereas here, the understanding of the songs was such that we were able to turn the band down to almost no volume and I whispered through. Granted it wasn't very pleasant musically but at least we finished the show and something went on between us and the audience and it was marvellous. Because we've had such good shows here. '

I remember the one, two years ago in the middle of the blizzard.

Elvis: 'That was marvellous. It was 7 degrees below in the hall. We did the sound-check with our overcoats on... There was a fog in the lobby of Jury's and the cab-driver drove at 80 miles per hour all the way. He didn't bother with the fact that the road was covered with ice. He just went on the basis of skidding all the way. We were driving through Dublin clinging on to the seats and these cars were smashed into lamp-posts with other people attempting this technique of driving. Maybe if we drive fast enough, the rotation of the wheels will break the ice, it was that kind of logic. It was the most frightening thing."

But one realises more and more that the chemistry of the show involves the audience?

Elvis: 'That's what I've learnt from this tour. Previously I might have gone out and done one number on my own at the end of a show or I might have wanted to debut a number. But I've had to learn it all backwards.

"Like the second last night of our band show at the Dominion in London, we just hit the 2,000 people who were prepared to pay £6 to come and hate our guts. It was unbelievable. There was one guy. We were too loud, I think, and this guy started heckling 'You're too loud, turn it down. We've paid money. We count.' and he led a rebellion in the audience and 60 people asked for a refund.

"And we struggled all night. I tried everything. I tried being nice to them. I did the panic thing of playing a well-known number but of course, you just play it worse. We walked off because sometimes when you've got a very staid audience, they get irate and then you come back and say ' fooled you' and then you're all right. Nothing worked. I went on the next night and I said 'Look, we're not having the same again'. I said 'This is not showbiz. It's real life'."

T-Bone, so how did you come to write a song with Bono?

T-Bone: "I was in the Portobello Hotel in London, just working on this song and I thought I'd go down to the bar and get a drink. He was down there and he looked at me real strangely. It turned out he'd been talking to somebody about me. And I walked into the bar and said 'I'm working on a song, come on up in a little while.'

"So he came on up. I changed some words and he gave me a riff. Like we were just kicking around. He's a real good guy. I really like him."

You haven't met since?

T-Bone: "Yeah, the other night at the Portobello again!"

Elvis: "The same thing happened to me in reverse because after T-Bone's show at the Half Moon, they'd just got in from Wembley. And I'd never met him before and T-Bone had been telling me what a great bloke he was. And I have to admit I don't like their music, well not all of it. But without knowing somebody, I suspected it and found it pompous. You can understand the gulf between the way I work and the way they do, so I just didn't believe in it. And T-Bone was saying 'You're wrong, he's very sincere.'

"So it was the same thing. We walked in and there he was. I must admit I completely changed my mind about him. I will probably listen to the records again.

"If he'd been self important, I'd probably taken great delight in telling him so. But because he isn't and he's modest and seems very sincere and to have a lot of integrity, I said I thought you're walking a tight-rope and you'll fall off as many times as you'd stay on. And he said ' well yes, we do'.

"And he also said about 'Pride (In The Name Of Love)' — well that's the first song we've probably written. As a song. He recognised the fact that they were starting to learn the craft of constructing songs, as opposed to constructing pieces of music, some of which are thrilling and exciting and some of which are really tedious'.

(The dialogue moved toward rock 'n' roll philosophy if there's such a thing. Both men are sceptical)

T-Bone: "In a sense, rock 'n' roll is the best of America. It's the poor kid who has nothing and gets a second-hand guitar and turns into Elvis Presley — a truck-driver who can become King of the World or bigger than Mickey Mouse.

"That's the good part of it. The other part is that people, to varying degrees, a lot of it happens when one's imagination and fantasies go before the actuality. There is a process of becoming a performer and there are few people who even care enough about that to ever learn it. Probably 90 or so per cent of everybody who's ever made a hip-hop record just makes a few hip-hop records and then does something else."

(I mention rock 'n' roll tradition and am sharply pulled up).

Elvis: "Rock 'n' roll tradition is an awful word. It's like rock 'n' roll heroes."

T-Bone: "Rock 'n' roll is a museum. In my opinion, it's no longer a form of music."

Elvis: "The escape from repression is now a tool of repression. The kind of music that perpetrates is reinforcing all the moral values that rock 'n' roll originally freed people from."

T-Bone: "You know music is a good thing but I keep hearing about these rock 'n' roll evangelists. I quite like Bruce Springsteen. I think he's really good and really sincere but he's got this amazing crew of apologists. I'm not really familiar with Dave Marsh's stuff but he called Bruce Springsteen "a rock 'n' roll evangelist" and and he said, I think this is almost the quote 'But to Bruce Springsteen, salvation lies in the rock'n'roll lifestyle' .I almost wanted to vomit because....

Elvis: " .... that's nonsense because he doesn't even live the rock n'roll lifestyles as imagined in rock magazines. He's just the audience. He's really ordinary. He makes strenuous efforts to convince everyone that he lives just like an ordinary working man". I thought he said it all with 'Racing In The Streets" "Darkness Of The Edge Of Town" album but since then he's been repeating himself. I get the impression that there are other aspects of America which remain unexplored.

T-Bone: 'I know that he is a really good communicator and that he's able to get across to people. What I hear in his voice, that people relate to is frustration. I think he puts across frustration really resonantly and powerfully".

Elvis: "He uses that line 'I learnt more from a three-minute song than I ever learnt at school

T-Bone: "Which I think was a most cloying line'

(The pair try to hunt down an equally cloying line before the Texan returns to his theme)

T-Bone: "That excludes Pascal, Shaw. It excludes a lot of worthwhile things'.

Elvis:(merrily) 'Unfortunately , the apologists will then say it's a startling indictment of the American educational system'.

T-Bone:' What's curious is that I constantly hear, because I'm a Christian, this condemnation of Christianity. People say 'what of all the people who have never heard of Jesus, all those millions of people before Jesus?'. 'Well if salvation lies in a rock'n'roll life-style, what of all those billions of people who have never heard of rock'n'roll? It's really myopic, it's tunnel-vision. It's thinking the whole world revolves around the ash-tray there'.

Elvis: ' Unfortunately that attempt that has been made and sometimes quite intelligently, and not always offensively , to turn rock'n'roll into culture, that Rolling Stone style - makes events which are of very limited importance , even to the perpetrators, appear as if they are carved in stone. That world didn't shake at its roots when the Rolling Stones released 'At Their Satanic Majesties' Request'. I mean , how many times do you read the word 'genius'?

Most probably, most people who'll come to your concert tonight don't give the same over-riding importance to music as musicians or journalists?

Elvis: ' It's not an excuse for making shoddy records though. Like a lot of people say to me 'maybe, you take yourself too seriously'. I always work at much greater detail in lyrics than most people. I think T-Bone is the same.

'But the fact that every line is not going to mean everything to everybody is not an excuse for not making that effort. Because that is my job, that is what I do. But there's no book that comes with every record on 'That Posture At Which To Accept This Gift Of Music.

Surely then your attitude is to be as good a craftsman as the man who built this table here?

Elvis: "Yeah, but craftsman's a bit of a dangerous word because it suggests everything is artful and self-conscious about everything you say. It's just like putting as much of yourself into it as you can and you learn the technique. But in the best songs, the technique is unconscious. The worst songs I've written are where the technique is very conscious, where the wordplay overtakes the meaning. That's the same as a beautiful woman wearing too much make up."

T-Bone: "I think any songwriter will say that his best songs were written in three minutes."

But then you have the necessity to write your quota of so many songs per year?

T-Bone: "Well I've just got out from under a record company and I've enjoyed it so much, I'm going to see how long I can get by without having one. Because when you're under that, you tend to think of Quotas and it's all nonsense."

Elvis: "I want to goad my record company into letting me go for that very reason. Because they have so little understanding of the business they're in. They're just in the business of making money and selling to people.

"The reason I released 'Peace In Our Time' separately and I didn't want them to promote it was because how can every record released be a work of genius? How can people believe in what's been said if every record is the most important that's been released. It's complete nonsense.

"And the flip side of that is that they insult your intelligence — instead of having a Promotions Department, they have an Excuses Department, that — every Tuesday — gives you the reason why your record didn't go up in the charts. RCA actually have an "Excuses Department"! They say things like, the catalogue number is the wrong colour. They're trapped in the petty detail of the business and they can't see beyond that.

T-Bone: "There's a great poster on Andrew Lauder's wall from Columbia in the sixties and it goes like "What do you do if you're the record label that has Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Barbra Streisand, what do you do for an encore?" It's like "we're so heavy and so legitimate, what do we do for an encore?" And then it says "You release Electric Came The Spider" — some group you've never heard of! It was so perfect.

But everyone's involved in this inflation of language. A writer sees some abominable act being hyped and he knows this other act which is better — though he can see faults in it. And then you end up inflating your own language to put this good, if flawed act ahead of the hype.

T-Bone: "But the real thing is, my goal is, to get better at what I do and forget about that. I don't want to be ignorant of it, this whole world of images in which we live. I don't want to ignore or deal with it stupidly.

"But I've found with myself and the whole Christian business — it's all imaginary stuff because first of all, what does it mean to be a Christian? To say I'm a Christian musician, you might as well say I'm a Venusian musician for all that means to people. Does it mean I'm Jerry Falwell? At this point, it's a pretty meaningless word."

How much time then do you get away from music?

T-Bone: "I haven't had any time for the last two or three years. At this point, I'm just going to try to get really good. Not to be a singer like Caruso but to be a singer who gets through to people. Because I know when I relate to music, it's when something happens inside. It's nothing that happens consciously. It's just beautiful."

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Hot Press, December 14, 1984

Bill Graham interviews Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett.


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