"What's my line? I'm happy cleaning windows / Well I'll take my time, I'll see you when my love grows / Baby don't let's lie, I'm a working man in my prime, cleaning windows"
Van Morrison, "Cleaning Windows"
"Strange chap. Or is he? No, actually."
B P Fallon, Sunday Tribune
This image may be yours but it's no longer his. In the summer of 1981, Elvis Costello And The Attractions came to Macroom to encounter a groundling horde of bottle and can throwers who, for some contrary reason, believed their immaturity was in tune with the spirit of the afternoon.
Next day, the Undertones were to cheekily deflate a similar barrage by treating it as a Bogside ticker-tape parade but Costello and Co. hadn't the advantage of a Derry education ducking petrol bombs and plastic bullets. Instead they met fire with fire, and faced the mob down, searing through a seething, threatening version of "Watch Your Step" and closing with a cover of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding?" that breached the gap between the irony of the situation and the song's sentiments, a performance that mixed contempt, and fury, at the bottlers yet also spoke for the majority of the audience on their side. Those Attractions, that Costello would never bow the knee.
They didn't look back. Leaving a posse of photographers complaining in their wake, they sped to their hotel and were out of Macroom, Cork and possibly Ireland in five minutes. Decked out in Chandleresque fedoras and trench-coats, the international hitmen were impatiently leaving the scene of the crime.
Those scenes were typically abrupt Costello Mark 1. Even intimacy could regularly seem a matter of confrontation not content. But in the recent past, his Irish audiences have seen and heard a different man. Especially at his two Stadium concerts with T-Bone Burnett, aside from his more biting commentaries, there's also been much laughter and warmth, the sort of combination of audience affection and artistic control normally only experienced hereabouts at a Christy Moore concert.
I daresay his audience have been ahead of the hacks. As a flier for King Of America, he released a cover of the Animals' classic "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and promptly walked into a sucker punch of n NME review from Danny Kelly that depicted him as an embittered, cornered alcoholic, the George Jones of "Primal Therapy", all washed up with a writing block.
Frankly the piece was hilarious to anyone who'd met him through the preceding year. Patently my experiences are incomplete but they're not denied by other informed parties. The well-nigh unanimous impression is of a man with all his marbles intact, currently highly invigorated by his relationship with Pogues' bassist Cait O'Riordan, and who's also been relishing new artistic opportunities steered his way by his new compadre, T-Bone Burnett, a born-again Christian, hardly given to consorting with reprobates or whisky-sodden failures.
But that review also unconsciously exposed some dodgy press preconceptions. In general terms, it's apparently acceptable for acts to connivingly share some coke with a journalist. In some other quarters, it's also apparently acceptable to write up some mainlining idiot who's ludicrously excusing his folly by espousing some spurious cause of romantic Faustian rebellion and bullshit. But to be sometimes legally merry in public is a no-no, even for writers who preach the need to dismantle the eighties star system.
So perhaps Paddies are naturally more tolerant about these matters but I can hardly see the fuss about one bespectacled songwriter deciding to drink after midnight. Also if someone's intentionally humanizing their image and becoming more approachable, they don't need such guff.
But then don't ask this man's opinion. Ask those to whom he affably talked and for whom he signed autographs when he turned up at the Pogues' McGonagles' concert, last year. I figure they'd say they met a man at one with himself.
This is no canonization project. There'll always be the cutting jabs in his conversation, always be a faint trace of bitters to sharpen his opinions but any more cruel genies are corked in the bottle. He seems to have become bored with being constantly viewed as the man with the x-ray eyes and insofar as I'll play amateur psychoanalyst, I suspect he's publically discarding any last streaks of puritanical superiority inherent in his earlier moralistic stances.
Of course, this could be your usual tosh for Elvis Costello sometimes delights in trapping unwary critics in his verbal games. He has a strong, evident desire to explain King Of America but when I wonder could the album's title be misassociated with his absurdist royal rigout on the sleeve, he'll reply "there's all these red herrings in there," a typical comment from a man probably capable of feeding you the line how "Suit Of Lights" was partially inspired by a Coward Brothers sighting — they were the relief band, actually — of Irish battery-operated showband prodigy Magic, in Louth's Blackrock Ballroom on St. Patrick's Day '75.
But I jest. His intentions are good and this time, he does not wish to be misunderstood. A February afternoon in the lobby of London's Kensington Hilton hotel and I keep spying these Jewish rabbis pacing around and wonder if they've been recruited by his manager, Jake Riviera.
But no Jewish rabbi would arrive with Cait who sports a tie with a tricolour insignia specially bought for her by Declan in Cleary's. Later heads will turn when she almost starts a public necking session with him and I see how idle tongues can make bad reputations. But she reclines quietly while her man does the business' intervening only once when he mounts a spirited defence of the Pogues. The mutual affection and reliance is obvious as the interview proceeds fuelled only by tea, coffee and perrier.
I have but one problem. Having heard King Of America only three times on imperfect headphones, I immediately recognize both its quality and shift of sound and vision but before interview time I haven't yet been able to properly focus on its lyrical details. We talk of many matters but don't deal fully with its wordpower. And yet, Declan and Cait, it really is all out in front of me.
King of America reflects a year of breaking routines. Elvis' two preceding albums Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World were produced by Langer and Winstanley but Costello now thinks both were flawed by an overly-conscious attempt to compete in the pop market. Thus the reaction of King Of America.
'85 was also intended as his sabbatical year but this workaholic couldn't entirely quit the music business, producing the Pogues, overseeing Imp Records LPs by Agnes Bernelle and The Men They Couldn't Hang and recording a Coward Brothers single with T-Bone. Add in his Live Aid appearance and his solo tour of Australia and the months preceding the album's recording hardly seem like lotus-eating times.
In fact, for almost the past two years Elvis Costello seems to have been living on two tracks, threading out his pop phase and rediscovering the essence of the song, playing solo with and without Burnett. He half-seriously admits one reason for K.O.A's quality is that "it had eighteen months pre-production! But that sounds too serious. There was a lot of fun."
Did you find it harder getting motivated than when you were starting?
No, no. I think I consciously took myself out of the routine of touring and recording in a cyclic way because I felt there was more wrong with the last album than any 1 had released. I could pick more holes in it. I don't suppose that's very nice for anyone who spent their money on it and who might conceivably like it, to hear me saying "I think it's a lot of rubbish."
Also we were more inconsistent on the last tour than we've ever been. We had some absolutely brilliant shows but we also had some desperately bad shows and you couldn't put a finger on it. So I had to put it down to the fact — basically I had done five years work with just three weeks holiday — of just working too bloody hard and not taking enough time to consider.
I planned to take six months off at the start of '85 and do that list of things you always promise yourself you'll do when you have time away from your job. I was going to learn to drive, write my great novel, learn to play the trumpet...
You never wrote that Great Novel?
No, I never wrote the Great Novel nor learnt to drive, play the trumpet or scuba dive. I ended up writing these songs and giving a recording contract to the Coward Brothers — I felt sorry for them!
So you still couldn't stop writing?
It's just something I do. But suddenly I wasn't back in the studio, come February, having to put it down. I was considering it more. When I went over to produce the Coward Brothers record, I put down a solo session, a very relaxed one. I sat around with T-Bone in hotel rooms with friends of his. There's this American tradition of passing the guitar around which English people could learn from. We tend to be very snobbish about American musicians because so many of them are empty-headed.
So I found I had the confidence to play these new songs to these strangers or vague acquaintances and I was quite proud to play them, then go in the studio for a rough session, hear them in their naked form, and feel confident to go on the road with them. And just plan things better — that's what I hadn't let myself do before. And then of course, I ended up producing the Pogues. So I ended up as busy as ever — it just wasn't in the public eye.
You began your career as part of the punk momentum but now, you're rather apart from the mainstream.
Yes, The mistake I made was that, although Punch The Clock was a record I intended to make and encompassed certain things that I enjoy about assembling a record that could hold its own in the current pop arena, it's ultimately an unsatisfying battle for me. Even if that record had been triple platinum number one forever, I would have been unhappy to have had my most successful record with, perhaps, my least substantial songs.
So for two years, for two releases, I was making records that owed more to contemporary production sounds, working with very successful contemporary producers and therefore,by inference, competing again in that market which, actually I hadn't been in competition with, since my initial momentum as a pop star in '79 — which is a bit laughable to look back at now.
But after the last record, I found I had denied the songs the chance to live for themselves. There were songs, particularly on the second side of Goodbye Cruel World where the lyrics were too obscure. They were deliberately written as obscure and mysterious songs but the music wasn't interesting or vivid enough to make you even care if you found out what they were about.
Has it been a question of discovering a proper context for yourself?
I don't think of it like that. Whether or not, I have a context is for other people to decide, not for me. I can't demand one. I just think that after those mistakes on my last record — which is no slight on the band or the producers, it was my fault I didn't think it out better — I simply decided to get it clear on this record and made the songs musically simpler and lyrically more direct.
You seem exceedingly confident about this record, wanting to explain it in a way that goes beyond the usual PR, artist-meets-press routines?
I am more confident. Because more of the original ideas held through the different unexpected pleasures of making it. So obviously I'm keen to explain how it happened: I don't want people to miss it because they're expecting another record, or the next Go West record. Their expectations have been tailored by other albums and other sounds that are around. That's why I released "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" as a single — because I wanted to tune people into the sound of the record. Some people think it's a punk record. Compared with the sounds of the moment, it's uncommonly clear. Instruments are not often left to sound like instruments nowadays.
Given that you were dealing with American musicians and that the album's called King Of America — couldn't that cause all sorts of misunderstanding in the States?
It leads to all sorts of misunderstandings here! I actually found the people very easy to work with. I tried to explain myself as clearly as possible — it was important to me that they understood what I was singing about because if I wanted them to play in an involved way, there was no point in keeping it a secret.
That may have been a failing on my part, not letting the Attractions in on the secret — especially over the last couple of albums. I've been guarding my meanings more and more. Part of that was personal due to a fault in my way of working and with certain personal relationships in my life. But I discovered I value the musicians in the Attractions more from working with other people. Rather than driving a wedge between me and the Attractions, it now means I understand their qualities better.
Certainly there has been an undercurrent of comment that recent lyrics have been complex crossword puzzles, a mix of metaphors increasingly adrift from any emotional anchorage. So how does he view the role of language in his work and its strengths and weaknesses?
And how and why does he write? If nothing else, Costello is prolific, having written and recorded more songs, even disregarding the issue of quality, than many other writers with a decade's head-start. And whilst Bruce Springsteen allegedly garners inspiration from viewing movies, Costello has been a most allusive, literate writer. From where and when does his interest in language derive? A voracious teenage reader, perhaps?
Was there a time when you followed metaphor too far for real meaning?
You learn the facility of language to serve your purposes and sometimes, you just get tied up with it. Like if you compare "Indoor Fireworks" on this album with "The Only Flame In Town" on the last, they both contain fire metaphors but "Indoor Fireworks" works. It's an effective emotional song. "Only Flame" in its original form as a 6/8 r'n'b ballad was quite effective but once we jazzed it up in the studio into this hyper-active pop record, the word play in it made it sound glib and it lost its emotional impact.
Sometimes you get carried away with spinning the words together and forget the reason you're doing it. If I grab hold of a notion from wherever else — none of it belongs to me or anyone else, if you want to argue that point — I'm using it to serve my purposes just as I'm using my ability with language to serve my purposes. If it becomes an exercise in itself, it's just like me playing a long, boring guitar solo.
What writers do you read and have any influence on you?
I'm not conscious of any writer influencing my style. I don't think I've ever fallen under the spell. I read a tremendous amount as a teenager and then I stopped reading; just about two years before I became a professional musician, I just stopped completely, I don't know why. I think I was working my way through the local library and I stopped about "K"! I'd go on binges. Usually I'd start with the biography of the writer and then I'd read everything he wrote. I was maybe overly precocious as a kid. I read all the Irish writers by the time I was 13 or 14 and figured I'd done them. I read an awful lot of George Bernard Shaw and I suppose I went through some sort of teenage cultural identity crisis where I suddenly felt it absolutely necessary that I read all of Sean O'Casey's plays. I got criticized by my teachers for writing things in essays about Yeats at 14 that I obviously didn't understand at all. I was just being horribly precocious. I calmed down a bit — I thought I'm going to be up on Mount Olympus by the time I'm 18. Like I say, I worked my way through the local library by letter and stopped at Kerouac and then got disillusioned and stopped reading altogether!
Have you come back to certain writers in the last three or four years?
Yes. But there are things that you think you've got pinned down in them and it's really so ludicrous. I'm trying to be as serious as possible about this but there's no way you can really take yourself seriously. Because I had a very second-rate education. I went to secondary modern school so I was a very, very precocious literary student. I really was one of the few kids in the school who could be bothered to read books. I probably was one of the few kids in the school who could read books, who could read at all. So consequently I came off a bit of an idiot because I had nobody to talk off.
I've read an awful lot of James Thurber in the last few years. He's probably my favourite. I've always thought there was a lot of humour in my songs but because of the snarling, biting nature of the musical signatures, people have maybe overlooked it . Because I had already read so many books when I was a little lad, I decided that I wasn't going to be a great poet. I was just going to be a songwriter. I wasn't going to be James Joyce.
Early stories about you can be true or notoriously untrue, but I remember somebody who was on the road with you talking of you dashing up to the hotel bedroom and obsessively scrawling away. You are exceedingly prolific.
Somebody told me I've written one hundred and eighty-four songs. I know plenty of really good songwriters who'll write only one such song a year. Somebody like Chrissie Hynde will have to live to a hundred and three to catch up with me. That isn't to say all mine are good. Maybe I should have been more self-disciplined and self-censoring.
Are you the sort who's forever dashing to the notebook?
I write lots and lots of words down. Sometimes they spring out of conversation or the written page. But there's one thing I could never stand about psuedo-intellectual pop music was certain groups and all their titles would be of William Burroughs or Christopher Isherwood. And I was always nervous about that. As I say, I recognized myself as a latent psuedo-intellectual at the age of 13 and stopped. By the time I was 16, I was a cynic.
Yet you write so much when other groups have difficulty writing seven songs in two years?
It's just the way it works. I just let my imagination run away with itself. I literally write down a lot of phrases and quite often they don't seem to have any order till the song comes out .. . Fear seems to be a real catalyst for me because I hate flying and I wrote six of the songs on this album on the descents! Literally, I wrote "America Without Tears" in the last ten minutes of a flight. I'd obviously been thinking about it but I had the notebook ready, scrawled down the basic version of it and later hardly changed a word.
Quite a lot of songs are written while travelling. You think "it's going to be a boring journey" — you've been thinking about these things — "well I might as well write them down." It's like being a word processor. The thoughts are going around in your head and I literally push print-out and they come out in the pen.
Costello has never avoided the political milieu for inspiration. In Britain, the Red Wedge tour, led by such as Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and the Communards, has forged an unprecedented alliance between the Labour Party and musicians and Costello himself played a solo spot on their Newcastle date. But in this space, he declares his independence and clarifies some misconceptions. He might be class-conscious in his own way but he does not necessarily rhyme to radical rote.
You were involved with Red Wedge?
No. I bailed them out at a concert in Newcastle when someone didn't show up. I was doing The Tube and some people came up an said there might be trouble at this hall where they were doing an afternoon workshop and there was some political wrangle, some faction, militant or whatever, some inter-party wrangle which meant somebody hadn't shown up or there'd been some breakdown of communication. And I went along simply to stop any trouble because there'd been local bands playing and it's all very well doing this in the cause of revolutionary politics except when the pop stars don't turn up everybody gets really upset. So I just borrowed a guitar and did some numbers. It was good fun. I hadn't played for about nine months.
Billy Bragg approached me to be involved but I didn't feel that I wanted to be. I had some grave doubts about the idea of forming an elitest group like that. I don't think they're in any way tempted to dictate to people and I think it's an admirable thing that they're getting people to consider political options — too many are apolitical or just ignorant. But I also think too many people involved in musical political are also ignorant. The truth is that they don't know all about it. There is a danger of leading people into blithe sloganeering and it all becomes terribly right-on and horribly reminiscent of the sort of "we can change the world" attitude around 1972.
I know what I think but I wouldn't presume to tell anyone else. And if you're too stupid to realize that Margaret Thatcher is a self-serving, vicious, old bitch, then you deserve to have her as Prime Minister. After all, the disturbing thing about here is that millions of people buy The Sun each day and millions of people voted that government in. I sometimes feel a little bit hie I'm living in the wrong country.
To my mind, I've never written a political song. I've written songs on which other people have placed political interpretations. From "Less Than Zero" which was the first record I ever released, that was an emotional response to seeing Oswald Mosley on TV being totally accepted as This Elder Statesman of British Fascism, as if time could craze the potency of his anti-semitic arguments. And "Shipbuilding" is just an emotional song. They're all emotional responses, of anger, love, confusion or whatever you write out of.
I've never written a political theory in a song and I hope I never do. The closest I came to a self-conscious political song was "Peace In Our Time" which I now think was a bit of a failure. It kind of states the obvious; it doesn't add anything to the argument.
He had arrived for our interview after a lengthy photo-session for an Italian magazine. "Charming people," he called them, a kind of compliment not often associated with the public personality of the early Costello. But now the name's been changed back by deed poll to Declan McManus, he takes a wry and sometimes jocular perspective on his previous persona.
"The qualities I've been associated with, they've been consciously removed," he says of the new album's calmer tenor. "This is something I and T-Bone consciously worked out. If I was going to make an open sounding record, it also should be open in attitude and spirit and though tittle Palaces' is not exactly a benevolent view — the more spiteful songs which I've been associated with, have been deliberately left off. It's not that I can't still write them. it's just sometimes you don't feel that way."
And what about all those early analyses about "Catholic Guilt" fuelling his songs of love lost and loaded lust? I just think he was exact and honest and not the Vatican's monstrous revenge on rock 'n' roll. Yet those lazy critical lines kept rebounding on him.
Being Irish and Catholic by background, I never quite understood all this early emphasis on Elvis Costello's "Catholic Guilt" etc etc etc?
That's interesting. I slightly subscribed to it early on in a couple of interviews. I did one with Nick Kent which was the most widely requoted one and then I just stopped doing interviews. So by the silence, the words took on greater importance. They weren't profound but they were very good copy. It was a very good interview and I drank a tremendous amount of Pernod through it which made me very spiky and I said a lot of things that came back to haunt me. I don't necessarily think there isn't some element of truth in them but, because of the silence that followed, they took on much greater importance and they were always brought up against any new thing I ever put out.
Which is something to do with why I've reverted to my real name, to remind people there is somebody lurking there. I'm not that set of values and opinions that were attributed to me, over half-a-dozen interviews and two or three songs. After all, on the first album, I had a song called "I'm Not Angry".
Watching your Dublin concerts over the past few years, there seemed to be a wide difference between your performances at them and the person one had read about earlier?
A lot of the early stuff was nervous energy, sheer nervousness. I still get it now if people come up to me in certain circumstances. They'd be rude to you to create an impression, rather than appear sycophantic. And that's almost the same as when I first appeared. I had no real experience of playing to an audience. I'd played in bar-groups and solo in folk clubs. I had always played to virtual indifference and, suddenly, we had expectations to fulfill. There was an awful lot of nervous energy generated out of that. And just simply not wanting to slip back. I had made this jump from a day job and I wanted to make sure I grabbed the moment. It was better to make an impression than be ineffectual.
A lot of the stuff was over-reading. I must be the most over-read person — people reading so many meanings and implications out of everything I've ever done in this business.
So this change back to Declan McManus is definite?
Yes. I don't know why I ever changed my name originally. It was enough that I became a very quickly established identity as Elvis but my parents still called me Declan. Obviously the record companies would get very upset if I tried to leave the Costello identity because that's a very effective publicity device and I will continue to be known as that. It's just distancing myself a little bit from the preconceived perceptions of early Elvis Costello and also, from a purely personal view, that I have my own name again.
In terms of your contemporaries, you don't seem to be as competitive about your career. You seem more content with yourself.
I don't think of this as a career. I just make records. I do it as a job. If I didn't do this, I would have to find another job. The world doesn't owe me a living. From what I observe about the pop business, we seem to be going through a time when the people getting the most attention are those who Sincerely Want To Be Famous rather than those who Sincerely Want To Be Good. They're not much interested in whether they're making records that have the qualities I value in older pop music.
Talking about viewing your music as a job, does that stem from your father being involved in the business as a danceband crooner?
I was completely cynical about the music business before I ever entered it. I had no illusions about it being the solution to all my problems. I no longer worry in the slightest. Unless somebody puts a gun to my head and tells me I can't make records anymore, I really couldn't give a damn. If this record doesn't sell lots and lots, it's simply because people's ears have been saturated with lots of terrible-sounding records so they can no longer hear records that sound like King Of America. I think it's a very good record. I see no reason why it shouldn't sell as much as any of the big selling records that have come out recently.
But isn't there still some fear it might be misinterpreted in America. where you've previously had problematic situations?
No. If they want to misunderstand it, it can only be good publicity. Anyone who misunderstands it in some sinister way is an idiot already. There's no hope of them getting anything out of it because they're going to wilfully misunderstand anything I say.
It's good to meet someone and feel confident there's even better work to come. The strewth of King Of America derives from its range and depth of feeling, from a humanity much less guarded than its perpetrator had previously disclosed on record. Such open-mindedness and open-heartedness may mean that King Of America is only the start of a new phase. Certainly the experience of making it seems destined to adjust his future working methods with the Attractions.
Why do his following regard him so specially? It may be increasingly obvious that his uniqueness says as much about the standards of his competition as about the man himself. Let's not fool ourselves that pop ever had superior standards to international banking but now that video has replaced the flying trio of ducks on the wall, songs have become abominably illiterate. Campaigning against the Vietnam war, US Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy declared that only "a moderate degree of intelligence" was required to end it. Changing the state of pop needs an even less "moderate degree of intelligence" but Declan McManus is among the few who have both the willpower and devotion to use theirs.
He also has a consistently proven and driven application to his trade and the standards he believes should be inherent in all songwriting. Anyone with lasting, as distinct from lucky and ephemeral, success must have dedication but Costello seems to possess both that work ethic and a fundamental sense of realism in even stronger measure.
That's why he found the original NME singles review so "hysterical". One source says he collapsed in laughter as he read it, immediately sensing its publicity potential. The tale certainly suits his craftily mischievous sense of humour. He's definitely had great glee turning the tables.
After all, he's soon to make his film debut in Alan Bleasdale's No Surrender in a cameo role as a maladroit conjuror, a role that equally suits his sly yet often self-mocking humour. The man who deflates his bookist teenage pretensions with abundant relish is now called "Uncle Brian" by Cait and seems most refreshed in his new guise as a fundamentally benevolent if still wily statesman of pop who nonetheless retains a tough-minded abhorrence of cant. And now that he so resolutely distrusts the quick glib word, he's also among his own best critics.
I ended the interview rueing that I hadn't had more time, beforehand to enmesh myself in the subtleties of "The King Of America" — regrets increased by later intensive listening. Though he kindly understood the unavoidable logistical reasons for my limitations, Declan still wished to talk more about King Of America.
But it really is all very simple, I replied. When such a prolific writer finally takes a deserved sabbatical to reconsider, before recording in an equally long-needed change of musical scenery, the real surprise would be if the resultant album wasn't special. A change of emotional climate, finding new friends and allies and then falling in love — it all confirmed a new sense of self.
Nobody lobs bottles at Declan McManus and the man himself really prefers not to snarl back. And yet, I enter one caveat. Despite all the name-games, Declan McManus may still need Elvis Costello, the alter ego who thrives on tension.
So swing the scales, beyond both spikiness and sycophancy, to a new balance.