A girl named Constance wrote a letter to the pop star called Elvis Costello. She was in the Middle East — she didn't tell him where — as part of Desert Storm. She was twenty-three and had joined the military to get money for college. She told him she was sleeping with her eyes open, waiting for the attack to come. She listened to his records on her Walkman. They were a comfort, the best thing she had aside from photos of her family and her gas mask. When Elvis read this letter, his first reaction was "serves you right."
Later he thought about it some more, this human being in fear reciting her little litany of belongings, and decided it was also heart-rending. But it was the first reaction that interested him most, and it was that which he used on his latest record, The Juliet Letters, a collaboration with the classical string group the Brodsky Quartet. In the song "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet," the narrator quotes, with a sneer, Constance's barely changed letter. The narrator is not a musician, but a writer. Writers, Elvis explains with a piercing but slightly amused stare, are nastier.
There are three of us here in the basement bar of a discreet London hotel, sharing our morning coffee. The third man is Ian Belton, one of the Brodsky Quartet. The option of interviewing Costello alone is not proffered — this, as it will be endlessly emphasised, is a collaboration, not a pop-star-fronts-snooty-classical-players-on-a-whim affair.
When Costello last courted the press, to encourage interest in his 1991 album Mighty Like A Rose, he had the exploding facial foliage of a demented, gone-to-seed vagrant. Now he is clean-shaven. His hair is short again. I'd guess he's also lost weight, and now looks much younger than his thirty-eight years. But when I unwisely refer to him in an early exchange as "middle-aged," he reacts with an uneven mixture of mirth and indignation.
Though he's polite, the encounter has something of the atmosphere of a test. He is open about his general contempt for those who write about pop music: "The big defence amongst slighted musicians has always been that the critics are frustrated musicians. They're not. They're frustrated people." He remains truly engaged in our conversation only when it is strictly about making music or it takes a tone that satisfies him that we've distanced ourselves intellectually from the daft dialogue of a pop star interview. Faced with this, I set myself the satisfyingly pointless goal that I will not leave the room until I have made him answer two particular questions not on his agenda: (1) how he feels about the 1979 Columbus incident (in which he became a pariah after reputedly dismissing Ray Charles — in the most inflammatory version of the tale — as a "blind, ignorant nigger" in a drunken squabble with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett in an Ohio barroom) and (2) why he shaved off the fuzz-monster explosion. We both have our pride.
Elvis Costello — or, as he was born, Declan Patrick MacManus — always heard classical music. His father was a professional musician who fronted a well-known British dance band, and his mother worked in Liverpool music stores, selling 78s. Sometimes, when Declan was a teenager, his father would bring home Grateful Dead records. Sometimes jazz. But sometimes it was the classics. When he was seven he was seriously ill and at home for several months, and between TV programs his parents would play him Mozart. At school he would sing Catholic church music in Latin. It all went in, and it never left him.
Still, he has always been easily obsessed with one type of music. At one time he would only listen to jazz. At another, only reggae. When he was about 15 he was into modern English folk and wouldn't listen to any recording featuring an electric guitar. His classical obsession kicked in a few years ago. In 1989 he saw the Brodsky Quartet performing Shostakovitch's string quartets. He knew nothing about them whatsoever. "They could have been Russians for all I knew." But it was so impressive that each time he found their names in the listing he'd see them. Meanwhile, two of them — violist Paul Cassidy and celloist Jacqueline Thomas — had been to his concerts.
In November 1991, they finally met. They went to a pub, talking and drinking the afternoon away. Costello, armed with his "naive view of the classical world," was pleasantly surprised to discover they were normal people who knew about everyday life as well (as) their own little domain. First violinist Michael Thomas, as a gesture of friendship, gave Costello a piece he had written — "Auld Lang's Syne" rearranged in the style of Shostakovitch. "That's very nice of you," said Costello, "but I can't read it."
Not yet anyway. But he was learning, and soon he could read and write music in the old-fashioned way. Now he merrily drops words like "pizzicato" into the conversation, and he has just composed and written out a film score for a forthcoming film. At that first meeting the idea of working together was mentioned. Initially they played and discussed cherished pieces of music and considered how they could collaborate. Finally, they settled on the combination of string quartet and Elvis's voice. Around that time Elvis Costello's wife, ex-Pogues bass player Cait O'Riordan, spotted an intriguing snippet in the newspaper. A professor in Verona had taken it upon himself to visit the dead letter office and pick up any mail addressed to Shakespeare's tragic heroine Juliet Capulet (as in Romeo and Juliet). Letters written to a dead imaginary woman. It set Costello's head spinning about what letters were and what they could be. He suggested to the Brodsky Quartet that all their collaborative songs could take the form of letters, be they love letters, chain letters, whatever. They each wrote examples. An early tendency was apparent, particularly in the quartet's contributions. "Sadder lyrics," reflects Belton, "seemed to come more easily to the people who hadn't written before."
"I thought I was a miserable sod," nods Costello.
Costello worked as an editor, pruning and adapting the texts, throwing out the hackneyed. Typically, by the time he was happy, the device was stretched to bursting point. "Swine" is the deranged graffito of an enraged eco-terrorist. "I Almost Had A Weakness" shows a twisted, uncaring aunt snubbing a relative's begging letter. "This Sad Burlesque" is a howl of anguish at Britain's 1992 election result. The final three missives come from beyond the grave.
I ask Costello whether, in real life, as a noted master of word-play, he writes collectable, literary letters. He says no. He doesn't write many, anyhow. I ask him whether he keeps copies of those he does. He laughs, shakes his head.
"My letters to British Rail, telling them how crappy they are," he offers. Elvis really did write to the railway company. They booked him into a no smoking car which was full of smoke because in half the car smoking was allowed. He was furious. "I said it was dishonest," he huffs. "Smoke can't read."
Elvis Costello turned up in 1977, after a few years trying and failing at pub rock and folksinging. He was just in time to be adopted as punk rock's laureate. It was perfect: the nerdy, Buddy-Holly-for-a-more-hateful-generation, four-eyed stare, the lips spitting vitriol. The wiry legs-akimbo stance. The impertinent name (his manager suggested Elvis just before his namesake's death for some cheap easy attention; Costello was a family name).
When you appeared, I begin, people's impression of you was this man stuffed with psychic malevolence...
"Not psychic malevolence again," he sighs. "I thought I had it surgically removed."
So I strip the question to its barest bones: Was there really an angry young man there?
"Probably. And now I'm probably an angry middle-aged man, as you keep saying. Or an angry old man."
You'd need the beard for that.
"That's why I grew the beard," he mutters. "To piss people off. There was an element of that on the last record. A lot of people hated it: 'He's got a beard and he's gone mad.' And critics piled on the agony, and, as usual, got it completely wrong."
About the music or the beard?
He mentions a particularly annoying review in the New York Times. It complained that he didn't have a coherent worldview. "I thought, 'What? You mean like George Bush has a coherent worldview?' Thank God I don't! I'm a fucking musician. I'm not a dictator." As criticism he found it surreal.
Elvis Costello has a house on the outskirts of Dublin. He also has a fiat in London. I want to know which he perceives as home, so I ask, "Do you think you live in Ireland?" Costello is too mischievous — or cruel? — to let such sloppy syntax slip by.
"Actually," he says, "I think I live on Saturn. On Saturn I still have my beard and my hair."
Elvis Costello's psychic-malevolence-in-spectacles period lasted a while, during which he built up a strange love-hate relationship with America. He used to jump up onstage and announce, "We've come to ask for the country back." He was banned from Saturday Night Live for changing the song he was scheduled to play. And then there was the Columbus incident. How much of a millstone has that been?
"A big one, because people keep asking me about it," he answers pointedly.
In your memory, I venture carefully, is it primarily a dumb thing or a misreported thing?
"Both. Completely idiotic and, generally speaking, completely misreported. And I think we've talked about this enough."
After 1979, his music began to diversify and wear its pre-'77 roots more nakedly. (In 1981, he even slipped in a country LP, Almost Blue.) While he's proud of those first records, he hates the people who are still fixated on them, "the people who wished I'd died in a plane crash in 1979 so I could literally have been the Buddy Holly of that time."
Eventually, the past's weight dragged too hard. In '86, he released King of America. He had used pseudonyms before — Napoleon Dynamite, the Imposter, the Emotional Toothpaste, the Coward Brothers — but this was a new LP with his face on the sleeve, and the record was credited to the Costello Show. His personal credits were to Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus. (The Aloysius was an affectation: a middle name he had borrowed from the late British comic Tony Hancock.) The media diagnosis: Burnt-Out Pop Celebrity Schizophrenia.
"I never had a problem,' he now scoffs. "I made that little adjustment of the name and changed the credits to remind people that it was a persona to an extent."
By the time of his next record, Blood and Chocolate, he was Elvis Costello once more, though his songwriting is still credited to his birth name. I advance the theory that, were he still concerned, The Juliet Letters might have seemed an obvious record on which not to be Elvis Costello.
"If I'd changed it for this, I would be guilty of saying, 'This is my serious music now.' It's just silly. I am Declan. The quartet call me Declan. And Elvis. And Knobhead."
We talk about the future. There is another Elvis Costello album, provisionally titled Idiophone, under construction. There is also an album of cover versions that was recorded before Mighty Like a Rose with the same personnel and entitled Kojak Variety. He calls it a modest record in the style of one of those old theme records like "two sides of such and such," or Sam Cooke's Night Beat.
"I kind of miss the straightforward direct nature," he says. "Everything now has got to mean something. It's got millions of psychoanalysed resonances of whether or not you're chasing your other schizophrenic self round the bathroom. All that nonsense."
Quite. Kojak Variety features songs from the years 1930 to 1970, and a sequel is eventually planned. Costello is also planning a musical drama for the theatre, based on one of the stories he sometimes writes. Amidst all of this work there is also the recently released Wendy James album. Wendy James was the singer with trashy British punk-pop wannabes Transvision Vamp, and for her first solo LP she decided to send letters to her favourite songwriters, explaining her feeling and soliciting contributions. Costello, who had never met her, decided to do more than contribute. He sat down one Friday night and by Sunday had written the whole album. Ten songs.
"It was easy," he shrugs. "A bit of fun. Almost to see whether I could do it, because I always said that I could. They're not world-beater songs, but they weren't supposed to be. They're kind of an imaginary history for somebody that I'd never met."
Most of them are simpler songs than he writes now, songs that remind one of an earlier Elvis Costello. One song cheerfully rewrites the Clash's classic "Clash City Rockers." The words put into Wendy James's mouth are of little rich girls slumming it. One song is called "Puppet Girl." It strikes me that he may be enjoying the occasional chuckle at Wendy's expense.
Still, for him it's an impressive feat. Why, I ask him, have you never done this before?
"Nobody's ever asked me."
So you'll knock out an album over the weekend for any two-bit singer who asks?
"Yeah," he smirks. "By the yard."
Later that evening Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet play live on the BBC Radio 3 program Night Waves. This is the heart of the classical music establishment, and Elvis Costello shows the politeness of the interloper. He is asked the sort of wide, lazy questions he would normally chew up and spit back: As someone who's noted for introducing an element of social comment into his songs, does he think art can save the world?
"I'm not sure the world is worth saving, myself," he says.
The interviewer turns to Michael Thomas, and mutters that it would be great if it could.
"Yeah," drawls Costello, "it would be fabulous. We're trying our hardest."
"Oh," exclaims the interviewer, missing any irony or sarcasm, "so at least you're trying to save the world?
"Yeah," Elvis deadpans. A pause. He could leave it there, daft and irregular, but he doesn't. He moves back to the microphone. These dumb people with their dumb questions. Can art save the world? "I don't think it's much good against Nazis," he mutters. "I think machines are better, myself."