Hot Press, July 16, 1987

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Elvis Costello

As his singular contribution to the birthday party, guest writer Elvis Costello offers a handful of stories from his ten years on the beat, which serve to illustrate why, in his own words, "I'd rather be a folk music fan than a teen idol."

Bill Monroe stepped back up to the microphone. As the Bluegrass Boys stroked their instruments in a gentle vamp, he began to give thanks. It was not the usual sugary homily that blights a beautiful evening. It was a simple dignified word about the mutual appreciation. He said he would return and even at seventy-five it did not seem a vain promise. Throughout the evening, pitch and time had been just so many rules to be broken as the feeling had taken him, yet the show had been as formal as a ritual in many ways. Here was a man playing the mandolin with a power and will which made the hysterics of most heavy metal guitarists seem all pale and floppy.

"I remember the good times"... As he spoke, the applause for his vote of thanks was silenced. The small club leaned into his next word, as it surely would be some precious memory."…they're gone." People didn't know whether to laugh, but just then the boys hit the chorus and they brought "Farther On" to its sorrowful close.

It was an older man that we met at the back of the club. Everybody called him "Mr. Monroe" and he called everyone "Sir" – even Cait as he glanced over his glasses at her and saw some more spiky hair and another black baggy suit. He signed the albums which a Mr. Burnett had decided we should have from the concession stand. It was the kind of night that you want to remember in some way, it was a record of Mr. Monroe back when he was more or less "inventing" bluegrass. But sometimes I just pull out the cover and look at that tiny signature and wonder. Like the man said "I remember the good times…they're gone."

So, like some other people around here it's been ten years since my first brush with immortality, yet upon the example of a man with fifty years more experience in these matters, I have at last found a justification for my morbid dread of nostalgia. I can only tolerate the sight of the media gorging and vomiting, gorging its own vomit and gorging again, for the sake of a few surrealistic moments when some high-lighted half-wit in a ghastly patterned suit tries to explain "hippies" to thirteen year olds on Super Channel or maybe it was the BBC Radio series where they tried to explain away "punk" for "musical" success. You were left with the distinct feeling that Radio One was really quite chummy with this "threat to the fabric of society", when the truth was they barely gave "punk", or anything like it, house room and hated it because it was hard to talk over the intros and the records were louder than their self-promoting prattle.

So when Rolling Stone rang up for my memories of Sgt. Pepper it was all I could do to stop from jumping down the line and throttling the hapless bastard. Being aged enough to recall a time when this was an organ of the "alternative society", I've watched with amusement as they have become the "Playboy" of the cocaine generation, fostering an unhealthy notion of a rock and roll pantheon, by taking out the "roll" and leaving the cold, hard, immobile "rock." By making "legends" into a yardstick to beat everybody else about the head with, they have deprived us of the pleasure of celebrating such noble anniversaries as the day when Terry Onions first had a wank while listening to Gene Vincent.

From all of this you will no doubt deduce that I am not the right person to invite to a birthday party. But that is not to say that the past does not have its uses. When Sibelius was composing, his family had to chase the birds from the trees outside his window in case they interfered with his music. I'm not Sibelius, when I'm writing I'll grab a piece here and there, take an old shoebox, bolt some handles on it, slap some green paint on the side and call it a canoe. Other times, usually when I am furthest away from a piece of paper or a guitar, like in my bed asleep, the suspicion of an idea will gnaw away until I'm forced to write the whole song down in ten minutes. Anyway there're ten years worth of records in the racks, I can't tell you what to like, and I'm not about to start blowing my own trumpet on this particular soap-box. My contribution to this birthday party is a handful of stories illustrating why I would rather be a folk music fan than a teen idol. Louis Armstrong said, "Everything is folk music, you've never seen a horse playing music", and I, for one, believe him.

The notion of my teen idoldom may seem a little fanciful if not plain ridiculous here in wonderful '87, but let me tell you, young pup, for ten minutes back in '78, (you'll no doubt marvel at the cosmic realignment of the numbers), those who decide these things were in a bit of a fix. Apparently Blondie had missed the plane from America and the Police were still trying to write enough proper songs to fill a set of over twenty minutes, so they asked, very nicely, if we wouldn't mind holding the fort for a while. There was a hit record of sorts and plenty of opportunities to look snarly and foolish at the same time. After a year of roaring around the world being horrible to foreign people, it felt just like being in the bloody army that I'd been singing about, to get this whole thing started. Flushed with our success at trouncing the Australian press, in a manner that made the Beastie Boys' recent jaunt look like a convention of anorak salesmen, I had one of my "brilliant ideas".

At his recent concert Billy Connolly remarked on the warm welcome he received upon visiting towns for the first time… "You're here, you've finally come, it's so good to have you here!!" Except in Dundalk, where they greeted him with "where the fuck have you been?" Let it be said that we booked a tour where every other date was in Dundalk. We were greeted by yellowing posters advertising the appearance of "The Sweet" and "The Tremeloes" when they were still in the charts. Of course the idea of going "off the tour map" had its rewards – there were quite a few floor shaking nights. In fact in Ayr the floor gave up the ghost and tried to leave the building with the audience still on it. And it's not every day that you have to lock the doors of a hotel in Merthyr Tydfill, because a gang of nice skin-heads want to buy you lots of lager. If this is starting to sound like The Commitments then that is just a compliment to the accuracy of Mr. Doyle's creations. I believe he might have invented the Frenchman's motel in Fishguard, where after leaving the stage via a door in the back wall you found yourself in a freezing car park, with a two hundred yard sprint to a chalet that passed as a dressing room. I know you'll all be relieved to hear that even then the patrons were considering safe sex, as we found the two plank-like beds nailed to the floor, a chaste distance apart.

I hate to keep dropping the names of these glittering night spots but it was at Tiffany's in Wakefield where I saw the future of rock and roll. Playing to a melting throng of teen-people, the entire contents of C&A and about twenty gallons of Harmony hairspray – and that was just the boys – it occurred to me rather painfully that this hyperactive, half drunk quartet of leering drug fiends had very little business ruining these nice young people's evenings, not to mention their lives. They had never seen the sheer ugly spectacle of a band trampling their nice pop songs in a flurry of sweat and bulging veins and eyes, behind a wall of noise which resembled a ranting cabbage being introduced to a gaggle of angry food processors. Then by some miracle the audience recognized "The Hit" and reacted with the wild spontaneous abandon which you can see every Thursday at seven thirty on BBC One. If we had written a note to everyone in the audience saying "I had a good time, honest", so that they could show their parents or read it the next day, you still couldn't get past the feeling that somehow we had cheated. It was enough to make me hand in my resignation as a trainee sex-god, when as if by magic we stopped having hit singles and the terrible moral dilemma was mercifully snatched away from me.

I hope in saying this I don't hurt anybody's feelings, who might have been there that night and seen it all differently. Neither am I belittling those nice folk who bought those records and dug what they were about. I still sing some of those songs and still feel the same about many things. But from then on my career became a practical joke at the expense of several major record companies, who with all the wisdom of hindsight, presume that what the world wants is a record which I am not about to make, for the very good reason that I've made it already. So the game we play is one where they have to decide how upset and betrayed they're going to pretend to be when I do something like recording a bunch of country songs in Nashville. This may seem rather cynical, but I am quite aware of how lucky I am to follow my chosen profession. But for a twist of fate, like my totally illegible handwriting, I might have got the first job I went for and still be in that Dickensian office in Liverpool, going rapidly blind while correcting admiralty charts.

It may well be another of those tell-tale signs of passing time, like policemen looking fourteen, but the charts are the last place I look for inspiration. Call me old-fashioned but I rather like the idea of using my own imagination and not having all the blanks filled in. Meanwhile pundits are filled with spite and loathing. They deride anything they can't claim to have invented. Yet when it comes to some of their more brainless, vicious rap posturing, they tremble in their liberal skins. Could this be because they are afraid to speak their minds? Or is it because this is the stuff their wet dream are made of?

The difference between now and, even, ten years ago, is that you put on the record and then ripped up your clothes and got pissed on cider. Today's pop world is more like a cash-card advert. Here they come, walking down the street to a beatbox and a DX7. They are clutching the right brand of diet cola. Somebody does a little street dance, usually something just out of fashion, like breaking. The guy who looks like he belongs in Hitler Youth pops the card in the slot and suddenly all these cute cartoon squiggles come dancing out of the crowd and turn everybody pink, peach and purple and Mel and Kim materialize through a brick wall and sing something about shopping and fucking. And this is from a man who thinks "Respectable" is a good record. Well it's a hell of a lot better than that twerp crucifying "Respect Yourself". This is what it comes down to: "Consume Yourself".

Well I'm not about to give up and die just because things turn a funny colour for a while. Bill Shankly is supposed to have said "Football's not a matter of life and death, it's much more important than that." And I'd be the first to agree with him, only somebody beat me to it. Anyway the same things goes for music – well it's a lot more use to humanity than running shoes and coca-cola. Of course there are many other valuable things in life, like love, decency and dignity, all of which are hard to hold onto when you turn music into a business.

I wouldn't want to bore you with a lot of in-crowd humour, as a lot of things that have happened to me in the last ten years have a sort of "you-had-to-be-there" quality, while others remain like snapshots from an old holiday. Apart from the army and the merchant navy there can be nothing like pop music for seeing the world and "not seeing" if you take my meaning. In an abundance of squandered opportunities, there was always late night drink which meant that you didn't have to go to the art gallery as you had promised yourself, pretending to be cultural ambassadors while crawling around the capitals of the world.

I'm happy to say though that there have been plenty of moments of wonder, when the thought "what is a boy from -- doing here" has crossed my mind. For example, upon hearing that all three Attractions had become fugitives from justice after some petty violation in Disneyworld and had been pursued by a police car wearing Mickey Mouse ears. Or the lull in recording in Nashville, when, to pass the time, the engineer and producer decided to examine and admire the guns that they just happened to have about their persons. There have been numerous opportunities to make a complete fool of myself, like being persuaded to be "flown" on a pantomime wire while miming to "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" by those witty Top Of The Pops people, and then having to get blind drunk in order to do it because of a fear of heights. Or venturing across the stage in front of eighty six pieces of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, after one days rehearsal, and finding to my cost why bands have drummers. I even volunteered for the post myself while visiting the missus on a dark and dismal German tour. Pogue's drummer Mr. Ranken had a finger which had turned green and was threatening to fall off, so I found myself behind his set in a dank concrete cellar in Bavaria. It has been scandalously suggested that I was less than metronomic that night, but the truth can now be revealed … I was bloody awful.

Other collaborations have been more in the nature of leaving the door open and having the good fortune to wander in. As a "folk music fan" I refuse to dwell on whether I had earned the right to sing with Chet Baker or to duet with George Jones and Sam Moore. I'm the one who knows you couldn't hear a damn word I was singing when we hit the chorus. Even so it was a gas. So was turning on the TV and seeing Johnny Cash doing my song "The Big Light." On a recent night in Dublin I turned round on stage to find James Burton taking a solo on one of my songs. A few nights before that, in London I turned ‘round again to find Van Morrison singing "Jackie Wilson Said." This may seem like a load of boastful name-dropping but that is not how I've made my living, these ten years. It's just a small bonus that does not in any way seek to under-value the nights on stage and the days in the studio, that I've spent in the company of Bruce Thomas, Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve.

One of the most fanciful notions in modern television brings me to the final tale and a bitter lesson. The "fanciful notion" was the pairing, on a television spectacular of a rock and roll singer and a big band singer in front of a swing band. The band was Count Basie's, the singer was Tony Bennett, the mug was me. It was incredulity rather than vanity which led me to accept the offer. I felt sure that it was all some young drug-crazed television executive's fantasy. I was certain that somebody would have the good sense to pull the plug before it ever was visited upon the unsuspecting viewer. It was something that you could tell your grandchildren, that for one night you sang in front of the same band as Billie Holliday.

Three days before, I was convinced it would never take place. Those were three days of howling, bawling mayhem in front of a sonic battle between The Attractions and the TKO horns, that reduced my voice to a whisper, that certain National Stadium-goers know all about. Any illusion I might have harboured about "holding my own", or even springing a few surprises were rudely dashed at the Red Parrot Club. Throughout the rehearsals Mr. Bennett was patient, sympathetic and paternal. From the looks on their faces the same could not be said of the saxophone section. Mr. Bennett was also very, very good.

I had bluffed my way through my solo number, a smoky ballad that I might just have persuaded the audience was better heard through laryngitis, when we came to the big finale, a duet on "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing", a number I'd have had second thoughts about tackling in the bath. After several half-hearted and witheringly embarrassing attempts, I did what any grown man would do – I broke down and pleaded for mercy. Count Basie was in the last six months of his life, and not a well man. He sat astride a sort of motorized golf-cart at the piano and played even less than his economic style had previously allowed, due to arthritis. When I said I couldn't cut it he fixed me with is big sad eyes and said, "Young man, I'm seventy-nine years old and I can't get my arm above this," indicating the extent of his movement. "You can do it." After that I had no choice, Mr. Bennett even took me into his dressing room when my air-conditioning failed and the temperature started towards 95 degrees. He said,"When we hit the last chorus I'll put my arm around you, I don't want you to think anything funny about it, it's just a warm thing." He was cool that way.

Later on it was just like an upmarket version of what happened back in Wakefield, I was applauded wildly by people who couldn't tell the difference between what their ears told them and what the New York Times told them. My reward, though hardly deserved, was to stand two feet away from the piano as Mr. Basie took his solo and introduced his big finale. Of course there was a technical hitch with the cameras and this perfect piece of music was lost, forcing a retake which was obviously painful for him. I'm happy to say that all of these indignities remain buried in an NBC vault somewhere and long may they moulder. These days "No" rolls off the tongue a lot easier than it used to.

It's just as well that there is less of the future than there is of the past, otherwise we'd have nothing to talk about. There were two very wise lines in the film Prizzi's Honour. One was "The calender takes care of everything, Charlie", the other was "We forgive nothing." Those responsible for advertising holidays in Belfast to the tune of "The Bright Side Of The Road", with the ominous line, "Let's enjoy it while we can," might do well to consider the latter. I certainly hope that the calender takes care of all those soul singers that I love and that no more of them turn into funny little plasticine men whose noses occasionally mutate into trumpets.

See you in ten more years.

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Hot Press, July 16, 1987

Elvis Costello offers a handful of stories from his ten years on the beat.


1987-07-16 Hot Press cover.jpg


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