You MUST get to see Elvis Costello live. Without that experience, listening to his LP My Aim is True is like watching a glorious technicolour film in black and white. The visual impact of his performance wreaks havoc somewhere in the region of the central nervous system. The music critics have already sunk their teeth deep into the lyrics of his songs, sucked out their essence and spewed out the superlatives like a shower of buck-shot. And quite rightly too. When adjectives such as "vibrant," "impassioned" and "brilliant" are being bandied around, and every biggie music mag in the country has Elvis spattered across the front page, then you know something's afoot.
Obviously the whole "Elvis Costello" bit is one helluva great gimmick — but this man and his music are no joke. As he is the first to explain, his intent is serious. An essential part of the gimmickry is the secrecy shrouding Elvis' past. The music writers have already tried wild horses and the rack to extract this juicy information from him. Having cornered him in Probe the day after his appearance at Eric's, Elvis visibly took on the demeanour of a giant clam, slamming shut at any allusion to subjects with archaic or ancient connotations. I don't think he'd have spilled the beans on what he'd had for breakfast. Instantly his expression changed as he cast furtive glances over his shoulder. We drew closer and he proceeded to express his irritation at those who dredge up mouldering facts to satisfy the kind of imagination which feeds on such interesting tit-bits. He rejects his history offhand as being totally irrelevant and extraneous to what he is now — Elvis Costello.
But the fact is — we know who Elvis really is. He does have a past and it is firmly rooted in Liverpool. He was often seen playing in such clubs as the Temple Bar off Dale Street. But that folks is where this revelation ends for now.
Coming to Eric's straight from a show in Huddersfield, Elvis was quite shocked at the difference in response between the two clubs. At Huddersfield everyone was "bashing their heads against the front of the stage, even spitting at us." At Eric's he was confronted with an audience "sitting in rows and listening." Elvis found the spectacle "eerie" and so he talked less and just got on with the music — witness the shouts of "Speak to us Elvis!" during his act.
Elvis confirmed his individualism when he explained that when he moved down to London, he didn't go anywhere, just "shut himself away for four years." When he did emerge, he realised that the latest cult fashion was the kind of clothes he'd been wearing during that time — "proper jackets" straight out of his old wardrobe.
He then let loose another bee that buzzes round in his bonnet — the constant comparisons made between himself and the Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parker syndrome. But a few Liverpudlians know for a fact that Elvis' style has not changed one iota since they first heard him sing at the Temple exactly five years ago, two years before Springsteen and Co. appeared on the scene. So that's one of Elvis' ghosts that can be well and truly laid.
Some musicians tap politely for admittance, others insinuate their presence, or creep up behind when you're not looking. A few rip and score their way into the flesh and stick like a burr. Elvis Costello is one such performer. So many musicians who bask in the limelight of the public eye merely scratch at the door hawking a suitcasefull of worthless goods. Not so Elvis. His desire to express unadulterated truth is crystallised in his music. He scorns decorative effect, strips away the pretty or vacuous. There's no dressing up for him. He comes bearing gifts all right — but he presents them with the delicacy of a left hook to the jaw. His aim is true.
Elvis has succeeded because he has kicked his way through the mud and slime that has built up in the rubbish heap of the music business. He's waded through it holding up a gem of honest talent which outshines all the gilt that disguises the image-raking pornography of the money-makers. He could become a Dylanesque social pioneer in his own right. "I know this world is killing you," he says in "Alison." We stand accused and we are all guilty. Elvis is not appealing, neither is he pretty. He is a man who has looked around, made an accurate and succinct judgement of what he's seen and come straight at us, wielding his disgust as a weapon.
But you can't understand or appreciate the emotion behind the words until you see Elvis himself and he'll tell you. His act is further reinforced by his backing group the Attractions, who provide a complementary foil for Elvis' melodramatic streak. At last, here is someone who has the courage to cut through the meaningless molly-coddling of current songwriting to produce an unexpurgated and honestly performed best-seller. There's no point in quoting cold fragments because you need him there before you. When he is, you can almost see a rod of accusation, constructing itself eye to eye and moving like a searchlight across the audience — constantly weighing up, assessing, accusing. Suddenly he will break off playing, one hand draped desdriptively over the arm of his guitar to concentrate on what he's telling us, and then he'll switch back, finger stabbing out, first at us then back to himself, building up the relationship all the time.
Sitting in Eric's I felt the weight of my own guilt. I wanted to apologise, make amends — anything. Because as well as the anger there is an overt expression of hurt hiding a painful vulnerability. The anger, the' hurt, the accusation — a deadly combination which engenders instinctive male identification and also forms the perfect focus for gushings of maternal instinct. Elvis demands attention. We've done him wrong and so we have a collective responsibility. His anger is righteous but not self-righteous. It isn't the fashionable disgust and degeneracy of the new wave. It is not an adoptive child. He gave birth to this baby himself — so who's going to own up to their part in it's conception?