Lou Reed came to New York last month. commanded a Broadway stage and played the song "Rock and Roll" for the umpteenth time. The rendition was passable — springy, lively, the audience was up and dancing — but for a song about somebody whose life was saved by music, there was little at stake.
Odd, but not surprising. Safe at last in his middle years, Reed is struggling to defy Neil Young's famous dictum about burning out or fading away. The solution Reed's most recent album offers — political commitment, — is as noble as it is intermittently successful (see In These Times, Feb. 22). Not all of Reed's topical verses succeed, but on his best new songs (the Andy Warhol eulogy, the AIDS song), he's found a new muse: his own mortality.
At 34, Elvis Costello is 12 years Reed's junior. but on his new album, Spike, he's also got death on his mind. "God's Comic" features a weary deity who lies on a waterbed and greets the deceased with a half-hearted harangue about the state of popular culture. Sipping a cola while He spouts off about everything under the sun, He could be the inspiration for Reed's avuncular stage patter. In any case, the music — from the sprightly verses to the chorus' echo of a beer hall sing-along — is a far cry from the apocalyptic fury Costello embodied on his debut record's "Waiting for the End of the World."
Like Reed, Costello's in the midst of a mid-career crisis. Twelve years after his scabrous debut he still puts out more wit and bile than you'd ever need, but after a while his withering fury seems creepy. What, after all, is this supposedly happily married, artistically successful man so damn angry about? Rather than resolve the contradiction of growing old and continuing to rock and roll, Costello simply is talented enough to have avoided it.
Spike faces this dilemma and comes up with the same answer as Reed: go left, young man. Costello's politics have always been what you'd call progressive, but his Old Testament sense of vengeance hinted at a separate agenda. The constant demonization of his enemies — fascist leader Oswald Mosley on "Less Than Zero: corporate Britain in "Night Rally," any number of women on any number of songs — has always been more an act of self-definition than social critique. For Costello, the political was personal — and in the worst possible way.
The first sign of a change was 1983's "Shipbuilding," about how war (the Falkland Islands was the inspiration) affects a small town in England. Pleased by the wartime boost to its economy, the town seems perplexed that people actually die in combat. Yet, ridiculing the small town's small minds, Costello sounded crushed by the way circumstances reduce people to this sort of blood-and-butter calculus.
1985's King of America featured moments of similar generosity, but amidst his typically opaque lyrics they seemed mere ploys in the elaborate cat-and-mouse game Costello has played with his listeners for years. Spike opens with another evasive maneuver — the first verse of "...This Town..." disparages some cheesy singer who burdens his audience with his "topical verse." But that initial reservation aside, Costello wears his political sympathies on his sleeve.
"Let Him Dangle," the story of a wrongful execution, puts Dylan's similar "Hurricane" to shame. Elliptically written, sparsely arranged, it sidesteps the sort of grandstanding that passes for social commentary nowadays: there's nothing here but Costello's sense of wounded justice.
He also keeps himself out of the picture in "Any King's Shilling," an old soldier's plea that a young friend not follow in his footsteps. When Costello's voice quavers on the high notes, it's like he's fighting back the disgust that's become an involuntary reflex. The reserve is worth it; his tone of righteous fatalism could have been lifted from a Wilfred Owen poem.
"Tramp the Dirt Down." the album's centerpiece, is more explicit in its self-abnegation. Costello starts with a snapshot of Margaret Thatcher on the campaign trail (When she kisses a baby, he asks, "Can you imagine all that greed and avarice coming down on that child's lips?") and goes on to express a sincere hope that when she dies, he'll "stand on [her] grave and tramp the dirt down." Even for the vitriolic Costello this is a real shock — set as it is against a sedate Irish folk melody.
Apparently it scared Costello too. After settling down to a series of rips at Thatcher, the song ends with an ambiguous retraction. "I hope you live long now," he tells Thatcher.
I pray the Lord your soul to keep
I think I'll be going before we fold our arms and start to weep
I never thought for a moment that human life could be so cheap
'Cos when they finally put you in the ground
They'll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down.
The song's structure is perverse. It starts off with a malevolent impulse, justifies it for three minutes, and then turns against its own hate. Costello sounds genuinely weary of this anger that doesn't change things. He wonders how he's allowed himself to get so twisted up inside that his first political impulse is akin to assassination.
Where these songs tie their messages to concrete circumstances, "Last Boat Leaving" keeps its historical context open. A father, in the middle of the night, says farewell to his son for the last time. "Do you know what I've done?" he asks over and over, and we definitely don't. He could be lots of people — a laid-off Pittsburgh steelworker hoping to find a job in Alaska, an IRA terrorist who can no longer remain safely in his own country, or just a beleaguered teenage parent unprepared for the demands of family life.
That's the final song on the album, and it strikes a faint echo of the last song on the latest Randy Newman album, Land of Dreams. Newman, another middle-aged misanthrope, closes with "I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do," about a masochist who enjoys bringing his loved ones down with him. Unlike Costello's narrator, who sounds torn apart over leaving his son, Newman's delights in abandoning his.
Newman, like Costello, has always had problems relating to a mass audience. In "I Just Want You to Hurt" he dreams of performing a few songs in front of the entire world and then telling the assembled how much pain he wants them to feel.
How strange — the only community he can imagine is based on mutual hostility. But then, Newman doesn't write songs to establish a common ground between him and his audience; he'd rather justify his own alienation. The songs work because he's talented enough to dig the same hole for the rest of his life and find art sticking to the end of his shovel every time.
Costello finds himself in a similar situation. Politics for him has long been not an opportunity for solidarity but an affirmation of his essential aloneness. And there are many who would be happy to see Costello do nothing but crank up that ol' perpetual anger machine once a year for the rest of his life.
Costello, fortunately, isn't one of them. Spike is a stab at establishing a sense of community, and its most moving song. "Satellite," shows how far he's willing to go to get it. "Satellite," like his earlier "Watching the Detectives," details the lives of people who find in mass media the intimacy they can't experience in real life. But where "Watching" was caustic, "Satellite" declines to judge. As someone who himself chooses to communicate through a commercial medium, Costello realizes that any finger he points will eventually be directed his way.
This is, indeed, a kinder, gentler Costello. But don't get the wrong idea, Elvis hasn't repented; he's just realized, as he once sang a long time ago, with very different meaning, that there's no such thing as original sin.