He looks like an emaciated version of Buddy Holly, he was once a computer programmer in England and he's generally regarded as a misanthrope.
Although he's apparently mellowed for his current tour, his fans were moved to burn his concert posters two years ago when the iconoclast refused to return to the stage for encores.
Although he has always refused to talk to the press, he did garner a good bit of publicity a couple of years back when he was belted by Bonnie Bramlett for making racist comments about Ray Charles.
Rather than glorify the intri-cacies of love or lust, he perfers to view these twin obsessions of rock 'n`roll with a poisoned eye that moves him to cast a couple of young lovers as two little Hiders.'"
If nothing else, Elvis Costello is an original.
But, luckily. there's much more. Ever since he burst forth in 1977 with his first album, "My Aim is True," Costello has been one of unlikeliest rock stars around.
He also happens to be a great songwriter. No-body can touch Costello when it comes to compress-ing a complex view of things into a two- to three-minute time span.
He served notice on his first album with -Mys-tery Dance," a song that lasts for all of one minute and 35 seconds and says all that needs to be said about the rites of sexual initiation.
Other stand-outs Costello has penned during his short career include -Alison," "Radio, Radio," -Pump it Up:. -Green Shirt." "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," 'New Am-sterdam," "Riot Act' and -Going to the Chelsea."
Costello is equally adept at writing a ballad or a rocker, his understanding of rock's myriad idioms is unsurpassable and the sheer output of quality mate-rial is boggling. In just the past year, Costello has released three single albums carrying a total of 54 songs.
Costello has maintained that blistering pace with the release of • 'Trust ,' • his sixth album in little more than three years. The record -- with 14 cuts instead of the requisite 20 that dotted his last two albums — continues the excellence that has been Costello's trademark ever since he signed a record contract
While the British singer has long been a darling of the critics, he has never earned the record sales worthy of his talents. His fourth album, -Get Happy," did spend a brief time on the top ten of the best seller charts and the single "Alison" was a minor top 40 hit, but mass acceptance and mass sales still elude Costello.
That's unlikely to change with Trust."
Costello remains a murky, ill-defined figure and his music remains something of an acquired taste. In a word, his songs are enigmatic.
Many of Costello's lyrics are nearly indecipher-able as he tends to bury his vocals deep within the recesses of the musical mix. He doesn't help matters by refusing to include lyric sheets with his records or even making them available through the mails.
But the patient listener can unravel the vocal labyrinth and the rewards are always worth the ef-fort .
The content of Costello's songs are another mat-ter altogether. When addressing the subjects of love or relationships, Costello doesn't rely on the cliches or platitudes mouthed by most of rock's songwriters.
There's an underlying menace to nearly all of Costello's songs and he views relationships as power struggles between two fascistic partners. "Watch Your Step" — perhaps the best song on "Trust" —illuminates the element of menace as well as any song he's written and "White Knuckles" adequately illustrates the second concept.
The focus of Costello's songs simply aren't geared towards the predominately teen-age market that buys singles and propels rock singers into the realm of megabucks. Costello is a paranoid who has nothing in common with the breathless romanticism that dominates the airwaves.
It's ironic that the new album is titled "Trust." Judging from the songs, Costello doesn't trust any-thing or anybody. He's always looking over his shoulder. worrying about what might be gaining on him. He views relationships as essentially destruc-tive and believes optimism is a sentiment best left to fools.
Despite the bleakness of his lyrics, Costello isn't as cheerless as he might appear. If he was judged simply on the strength of his music bereft of the lyr-ics, you'd think he was the happiest guy on earth.
The playing of his band, The Attractions, is al-ways muscular and energetic. The music on "White Knuckles." for example, bounces merrily along and would be fit for a children's song. But the content, with lines like "white knuckles on black and blue skin" belies the playfulness of the music.
The result is the creation of tension between music and lyrics that has always been one of the foundations upon which great rock is built. Tension is something Costello understands.
More importantly. Costello understands rock'neroll He knows what makes it work and he's been able to graft his personal vision onto rock's basic tenets.
Costello may not always be great fun to listen to but he's never boring. You may not have to be a ma-sochist to like Costello, but it helps.