HEAVYWEIGHT boxing champion Muhammad Ali was once asked what he would do if someone came up to him and tried to pick a fight.
"I'd run like hell," a wide-eyed Ali shot back, "cause he must be crazy."
The crazy guy would not have been so lucky if he had come up to fire-breathing musician Elvis Costello.
One of the world's most talented songwriters is no mood for a quiet conversation.
The 59-year-old, who is hours away from his last gig of the year - at Zepp Namba music hall in Osaka last Sunday afternoon - has a reputation for being prickly.
His trademark black-rimmed plastic spectacles and pork-pie hat thinly disguise the soul of a punk, even more than 35 years after he rode New Wave music into the '80s.
He's still a fiery little devil.
"You have 15 minutes ... I'm putting you though to Mr Costello now," the operator says.
Hello. So, what would you prefer to be called, Elvis? Declan?
"Don't really care ...," Costello says.
Well, what shall I call you?
"Anything you like ... What does it matter, anyway?"
Hmmm ... deep.
And so it goes for a several minutes, Costello parrying question with barbed question. Just as it begins to feel like the Monty Python arguments skit, there is a "click".
"We seem to have lost the line," the operator chips in, too quickly. He then adds, "I'll get it back ..."
Costello - also known as Declan Patrick MacManus - has had a big year. More than 100 live shows began in Australia, and stormed through the United States, Britain, Europe and, eventually, Japan for the first time. And he released a critically-acclaimed soul-funk album with The Roots.
And now all he wants to do is visit his mum, Lily, in England, before flying to Vancouver to spend Christmas with his wife, Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall, and their twin boys and family.
"This line is very poor. I can hardly hear you."
The line isn't good.
"Could you perhaps talk more slowly ... it's your accent," he suggests.
Hmmm. Of course.
He's wants to talk about the tour and new album, not so much about "years ago".
You have covered a lot in your career ... you seem to be a man in a hurry ...
"Really? At times I feel downright lazy ..."
Yes all of us do at times, but, you've covered punk, pop, soul, country, jazz, the classics ... and then there's your ballet and the opera you were in.
Are you afraid of anything?
"No," Costello says, bristling again.
"Look," he says, "If you want to do something, you just have to start and see how it goes.
"I don't do it to be famous or anything like that.
"That's not my motivation.
"... The sort of things that push you on in music (are) ... curiosity, a passion for new ideas.
"Sometimes I don't make the smartest choices, but they're mine ...
"I live with them."
Take 1977. During his first visit to the US and on the cusp of success with his first album, he and his band The Attractions took the place of The Sex Pistols after they dropped out of a live spot on NBC's high-profile Saturday Night Live.
Less than a minute into the live-to-air performance, he swapped the scheduled song for Radio Radio, a number critical of corporate-controlled broadcasting that the show's creator Lorne Michaels had asked he not play.
Michaels - who since has produced Seinfeld and 30 Rock, as well as movies such as Three Amigos, Coneheads, Enigma and Wayne's World - was furious.
Costello was banned from the show for more than 10 years.
But in typical unsinkable Costello style, he appeared on the SNL's 25th anniversary show - parodying, of course, the 1977 debacle.
Costello, who can simply ooze sarcasm, says the song-swap was homage to Jimi Hendrix, who did the same thing on BBC TV show Lulu years before. Hendrix was banned, too.
But what about other TV spots?
How did you get on The Simpsons?
"Well, that wasn't me."
"That shouldn't have been me."
Thirty 30? Sesame Street?
"They're all distractions, really," Costello says, annoyed again. "You're asked to do them because someone on the show's crew likes your music ... that's all ...
"It's not what you do, really."
So you didn't enjoy them?
"No, on the contrary. Some of them were great.
"Doing Two and a Half Men with Sean Penn was a real buzz ..."
You've collaborated, writing songs and performing with some of the greats - Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach.
"Yes, and they both are great," he says.
"But you have to remember they get things out of a collaboration too," he says a little defensively. "They wouldn't do it otherwise."
His latest album, Wise Up Ghost, is another collaboration, this time with US hip-hop quartet The Roots.
It is another change of direction for him, a jazz-funk tilt at a windmill.
But his music, which includes classical work with the Brodsky Quartet, writing a ballet and seeing it performed, and singing in a modern opera with Sting, has never been just a dream. He works hard at it.
Costello has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music. He is a renaissance man who celebrates change.
A consummate live musician, his skills were honed during a decade of playing in knockabout venues when he was younger.
Until you see him play, it is easy to forget how good he is.
And confidence does not seem to be a problem.
" ... I don't feel any form of music is beyond me," he has said in the past. " ...In the sense of that I don't understand it or I don't have some love for some part of it."
Costello lives with Diana and his twin sons, Dexter Henry Lorcan and Frank Harlan James, in New York.
So what does Elvis Costello do when is in "lazy" mode? Watch cricket? Football?
"Well, not cricket, for a start," he spits.
"Football ... yeah ... I love Anfield."
Costello has been a Reds fan since he was a kid. His mother is from Liverpool.
It was fighting his way through the social upheavals and change in 1970s Britain that allowed the punk music of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Stiff Little fingers, UK Subs and Buzzcocks and their ilk to burn with a bright flame that shaped his attitude, if not his music.
"My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant," a petulant young Costello once said.
Still floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee?
Maybe there is something to grumpy old men after all.
Elvis Costello and The Imposters play the 25th anniversary Byron Bay Blues Festival at Easter from April 17 to 25.