Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus was born in 1954 and raised in a blue-collar section of London, in 1977 he took the name Elvis Costello and released an album called My Aim Is True that catapulted him to the front ranks of the first wave of English punk. By 1980 the first blush of success had faded and the next five years were a period of controversy and trouble. The quality of Costello's music has never been in question; instead, the problem has been what Costello himself dubbed his "mouth almighty." He simply refused to play The Music Biz Game; worse than that, he refused to kowtow to the press. They exacted their revenge by portraying him as an angry young psychotic, and Costello's fine music was frequently drowned out by the din of his ongoing battle with the Fourth Estate.
Costello recently released a new album, King of America, which he hopes will set the record straight. "Though it's not without anger, there's more generosity and love in this record,” he explains. "I'm not trying to hide behind anything and there's no meanness in the songs, which tend to be very open and simple. There's a difference between being mellow and reasonable, however, so it's possible for this reasonable record to also be a punk record — which it is."
Talking with Costello in a suite at the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York, I found him to be a far cry from a stormy soul. Fueling himself with mineral water, carrot sticks and cigarettes, he responded to my questions with wit and honesty. It's no news to anyone who's followed Costello's music that he's a smart and clever man; what did come as a surprise is that he seems uncommonly happy and light-hearted. One of the things he's happy about is his engagement to Cait O'Riordan, bass player with the Irish punk group the Pogues.
What's the most insidious idea currently being peddled by popular culture?
That things will be all right and we'll all be very cozy if we just allow ourselves to be sucked backwards into the comfy fireside embrace of Mr Eisenhower's sitting room. I do a version of an old song called "Eisenhower Blues" on my new album.
Are you an easily enchanted person or do you resist allowing your emotions to be manipulated?
I've certainly been easily led in the past but I'm not easily led at all now, I think that's a change for the good.
Is vanity a vice, affliction or hobby?
That depends on who you are. If you're Joan Collins, then vanity is a career. If vanity holds you back from doing your best, then I suppose it could be affliction. And if your vanity is somehow detrimental to other people, then it would be a vice.
Why is originality so highly valued in art?
Is it valued? Who by? Critics are the only people who care about that. Go to the Museum of Modern Art and look at Pablo Picasso's work and tell me that he valued originality. All those people stole loads of stuff. The Dadaists and Surrealists parodied previous forms and used them for their own ends with ruthless abandon. I don't think they cared a damn about originality — perhaps they realized they couldn't help but be original and that's part of what made them great.
Why is Western culture so enamored of the idea of celebrity?
People love failure as much as they love success. They like to see people taken down a peg and they like to see Elizabeth Taylor get fat. I just recorded a song called "Suit of Lights" which is about this sort of morbid embrace of celebrity.
Would you agree that the creative drive and the impulse toward self-destruction are intertwined?
No, that's just a romantic myth perpetrated by artists lacking self-discipline. But that's not to say that there isn't an element of creativity to be found in the pursuit of self-destruction. The two things are not mutually exclusive.
How do you explain the fact that two people can have comparable painful experiences and one will come away embittered by it while the other comes away having gained some wisdom?
I don't think it's that black and white. You could be a number of other things as well. You could be wiser and more bitter, or you could just be stupid. And, of course, some people are more masochistic than others and they enjoy the pain of, say, unrequited love. They come away neither wiser nor more bitter, but with something they can build a career out of. Many people do that, you know.
What's the most important thing you get from your work?
I get it out of my head and therefore am a bit less neurotic. I can be very neurotic, a terrible hypochondriac — all those sorts of things. I'm a human being and have all the usual vanities and frailties. But I'm not trying to make them into a career.
In Ernest Becker's book, The Denial of Death, he presents the theory that what sets artists apart from other men is that they tend to see the world as a problem — a problem they must address — whereas other men simply don't perceive life in that way. Do you think there's any truth to that?
No, I don't agree with that. I think that artists are the problem. They're the thorn in the side of the world and the ones with a problem. The world carries on as it would.
Ideally, how should the press function in relation to music?
It should shut up and listen. Still, the press must be more than just an information channel because there's such a lot of terrible stuff put out that shouldn't go uncriticized. But the press tends to imagine itself much more importantly than it actually is and occasionally behaves in an outrageously presumptuous way. My new album was recently reviewed in England. This guy hated the record but he wouldn't just leave it at that. He went on to worry about my troubled mental state, my artistic block and my troubled love life. I haven't got any trouble in my love life. Over the past couple of years, my marriage reached an unhappy level. I failed in keeping that relationship going, but hopefully nobody has lost and she and I will be stronger apart than we were together. And I love Cait very much, so I'm not unhappy and I'm not an alcoholic. I can drink a lot when I want to. I don't take any drugs. That London critic's review didn't just infer these things — he stated them as though they were fact.
How important is a larger-than-life image in making people receptive to music?
It's true that music is easier to sell with an exaggerated image, but so what? I was considered a more marketable commodity when I first appeared and they had five pictures of me and five opinions of me, but I refused to be a monkey on a stick or be bound by rock 'n' roll ritual. As far as what my image is now, the writer David Fricke recently made the comment that I'd been "consigned to genius purgatory," which I thought was great. There seems to be this attitude of, " Oh, yeah, we know he's good, but who cares. He's not pretty or anything so let's watch this other band instead."
What's the biggest obstacle you've overcome in your life?
My own stupidity and selfishness — and I definitely haven't overcome either of those permanently.
How did getting money change your life?
Having money meant that I didn't have to rely on dishonest people to pay me the money they owed me. Consequently, I was less prone toward the physical violence I'd felt driven to when I'd been cheated.
Do you enjoy being famous?
I'm not really a pop star, I'm just a singer, and though you get a degree of celebrity out of that, I don't think I'm particularly famous. There was a time around 1979 when I could've been railroaded into pop stardom, but then my career fell apart due to my being an idiot and an obnoxious drunk. People didn't want to be associated with me. People do sometimes recognize me on the street now but it's not a trial to me. Occasionally I get an overanxious person who gets a bit overexcited, and I get some funny mail and the odd funny phone call, but it's not a tremendous tribulation.
You're extremely knowledgeable about a wide variety of music, much of it quite obscure. How have you educated yourself musically?
My dad was a singer with a band that did covers of the hits of the day, so when I was a kid I fell heir to many more records than the average kid. I spent all my money on music when I was a teenager, and when I first came to America, I plundered all the secondhand shops for records that aren't available in England. These days, I might mention someone I admire in an interview and people will quite generously give me rare records and tapes of artists I like.
How do you explain the current trend of social conscience in rock? Three years ago benefits weren't being staged.
Because there's such an unwillingness on the part of the people who should be doing something about the ills of the world, a few altruistic people and a few self-serving people have conspired for their varying motives to try and do something about these ills. The only pity is that these benefits have largely been a horrible travesty of what we call music. The music has all been well-intentioned rubbish.
What do you see as being the dominant characteristics of America?
I could say something glib and cutting – which is probably what people would anticipate from me – but I think you should be more compassionate with people. I'm not trying to write big songs about America, but one of the recurring themes on my new album is the idea of travel or exile. Someone once asked me what I thought of America and I said it was a brilliant mistake. There's no country on earth on more righteous and noble principles, and there's never been a country where those principles have been abused as horribly as they are here. I'm not saying it's a total failure, because the thing isn't over yet, but for something that started so well, it's gone down an awful lot. But that's just human nature and I've tried to keep the commentary in the songs to a minimum because we've got no perspective of history, and even if we did, it wouldn't be right to go around making wild generalizations. After all, this is only pop music I'm up to.
I get the impression that you spend the majority of your time in airplanes, recording studios and hotel rooms. Do you feel cut off from nature?
No. I only have to look in the mirror to see nature.
What sort of landscape do you find most compelling?
I don't like being on the side of a mountain and I'm not fond of heights. I like lakes and being by the sea and I like being in bed. What I like best of all is the landscape of the warm body of the woman I love.