Life, September 1983

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Elvis Costello

Joyce Maynard

Britain's peerless pop songwriter woos America with a new album and a rocking road show.

The house is a pleasant, comfortable-looking Tudor in one of London's nicer districts — Chiswick. A child's bike in the yard, lots of roses and the odd toy scattered on the path. The harried-seeming, slightly overweight man who emerges from within could be a Dad, on his way to the office in any of a half-dozen 1960s situation comedies. His not particularly well-cut black suit is already slightly rumpled, pants a little short. He runs a hand absently through conservatively cut black hair (making the general effect no smoother) as he heads toward the road, briefcase swinging.

If this were The Dick Van Dyke Show, the case would pop open here, sending papers fluttering. That doesn't happen, but as he approaches the bus someone calls his attention to the sleeve of his jacket, where a white and orange necktie sticks out at the wrist, flapping in the breeze. Not looking all that surprised, the man extricates the tie, runs back to the house and tosses it inside the door.

Returning to the bus, he collapses into his seat and takes a swig from a quart bottle of mineral water. "Number thirty-four this week, down from thirty-two," he says — it could be the stock market, but in fact it's his new single, and the other five people on the bus are members of his band. Elvis Costello, the British rock star, is off to work.

Although he wouldn't happily accept the classification of either rock or stardom, in the six years since the release of his first album, Costello, now 28, has earned a solid and passionate cult following. The rock press respectfully has called him "the most important figure In British new-wave rock" (although he rejects the term new wave, preferring simply "pop"). His latest and most accessible album, Punch the Clock was released this summer to enthusiastic response, and the hope is that a 36-city U.S. tour now underway will send Costello to new levels of success.

If you listen to lyrics, Costello's are among the most interesting around. Frequently cynical, even bitter, they combine the simplicity of the early Beatles with rich, obscure, sometimes nearly incomprehensible imagery. ("Boys everywhere fumbling with the catches, I struck lucky with motel matches / Falling for you without a second look, falling out of your open pocketbook, giving you away like motel matches.") Even when we don't know precisely what's going on, it's still more satisfying to be in the dark over a Costello number than to grasp a lot of other people's songs.

His real name is Declan Patrick MacManus. Raised in a blue-collar section of London, he describes himself as a pretty straight kid who worried about his jazz musician father showing up at school in a caftan.

Remaining text and scanner-error corrections to come...


Life, September 1983

Joyce Maynard profiles Elvis Costello.


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Page scan.

Photo by Donald McCullin.
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Cover and contents page.


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