Elvis Costello doesn't talk to the press. This is why Costello called a news conference on March 30, the Friday afternoon before New York's "Elvis Costello Weekend"; most of the rock press was taken by shock.
Of course, we had no reason to be shocked; we were shocked because we had made the assumption that Elvis might want to talk about his music, which of course he didn't. If any of us had stopped to think, we could've seen a press conference coming as we saw the infamous Bonnie Bramlett/Steven Stills incident blowing up to ridiculous proportions; a press conference to clear up the mess was logical.
Let me begin by saying that I don't honestly care about what happened in that bar in Columbus, Ohio. I know Elvis isn't a racist; his songs over 3 LPs have continually expressed anti-racist sentiments, & he has done numerous benefits for Rock-Against-Racism, an important fact which, curiously he did not mention during his plea of defense. I accept Elvis' side of the story; he was drunk, and wanted to piss someone off just for the sake of really wanting to piss someone off, a charming habit Elvis has adopted of late. So he made some clearly deliberate racist statements to these people he wanted to annoy, just for the sake of pissing 'em off. It worked. A fight ensued, and Elvis and Attraction Pete Thomas were left on the floor (Elvis with a near-dislocated shoulder that left his arm in a sling and came close to forcing him to postpone his immediate shows). But more importantly, alarming tales of El's racism were spread over the nation's papers, all the way from the New York Times to full feature in People.
As I don't care about the incident, I don't especially care what EC had to say about it. But we have to take what we can get; for 40 min., ELVIS TALKED TO THE PRESS. In those 40 min., Elvis did, probably, say some slightly significant things that can be extrapolated from the rest of the drivel. More to the point, EC would occasionally hint at subjects that would stretch beyond the slim non-musical matter he confined himself to discussing.
The small boardroom that will receive us fills quickly. I notice — it's hard not to notice — that they've stacked the place with black reporters. He'll get his now, we chuckle. After a while Elvis pops in the room, surrounded by a true goon squad. The key goon, who turns out to be one Andrew Jakeman ("But you can call me Jake Riviera"), is a little weed of a fellow who'll remain at Elvis' side the whole time.
Elvis looks fairly low key, as if he'd walked off that first "Less Than Zero" pic sleeve. A horribly misfit dark jacket, black pants, bright-red suede Beatle boots, and a face that looms large and picture-perfect. The fact that he truly looked so much like Elvis Costello greatly surprised me. The next thing that hits you is that he looks his age — that is, very young. That, and he's got a large gap in his front teeth that the pictures never show.
As Elvis reads a prepared statement and then begins to field questions, I expect him to start sweating. As a matter of fact, having seen Elvis and his Nixon-like ability to perspire profusely before, I expect him to get drenched as the atmosphere becomes more and more tense (which it does). But no! Elvis remains calm, collected, mature, totally in control — a marvel to watch. He wins my respect instantly. Jake does the sweating. But onto the master's voice.
Elvis' legendary paranoia rears its bespectacled head. He apparently feels he is in good company. "I'm sure everybody's had occasion to go to absolute extremes in order to... y'know, even to say things you don't believe. Ask Lenny Bruce." (He wasn't available for comment).
As things wore on, Elvis' attitude towards the press began to surface. Obviously as El hasn't done any serious talking to the press in ages, his bitterness and hate towards the media must be acute. I've always held this against Elvis, but after having seen the cream of the rock press in ugly action, I can sympathize (to a degree) with Elvis. The Voice's R.G. and Rolling Stone's C.F. are the worst offenders. El's comment on his relationship with the press was probably the most significant statement of the afternoon.
"The press is not infallible, and nor am I, so I understand there's a certain amount of misinterpretation. That's why, everybody here — I don't honestly know all your names, I know some of your faces — I know that pretty much anybody here from the music press knows that our history in the music press is one of not talking to you, for good reasons, for misinterpretation that's gone down, and if only for that reason you must understand that this seems important enough to me to want to come here, myself, and not sake a press statement that could be misinterpreted again, that's why I'm here, so you can ask me questions about it.
"Any hostility towards the press has usually been because of misunderstanding, or misinterpretations of things I've said, or doing interviews and then reading them and there's not anything in print that I've said."
Another subject that we all know Elvis holds near and dear to his heart is that of America. When someone asked El about what made him so angry on the night in question, he replied with a more-or-less irrelevant quip on the US: "Well, there are plenty of things that make me angry about America, but I'm not here to answer questions about that! A bit further on in the conference, El made the first of several allusions to only being in America to "do a Job" (one of Elvis' new songs, "B-Movies," opens with the line "I found America out of the corner of my wallet..."), climaxing with this exchange between El and a reporter:
Q: There's a quote here that says "We hate you" — referring to Americans — "We've just come here for the money."
Q: Is that true? Elvis: It can be true one minute and not true the next, can't it?
Q: Can it?
Elvis: Yeah, well, it can.
Q: In what sense? When do you hate Americans, and when don't you?
Elvis: When I'm made to feel that I'm only here for the money, then I do, when there's something more rewarding from it then I don't. Everybody has ambition someday.
Q: Do you have a low view of American?
Elvis: I have American friends — I don't have an overall low view of Americans; there is a lot wrong with America, there's a lot wrong with England, there's a of wrong with the world — I'm sure I don't have to say that though.
Q: (listen closely, 'cos here's a reporter with suss). Can you give us a couple of specifics?
Elvis: No, 'cos I'm not here to criticise America!
Ah! Just what I was waiting for — the angry Elvis. I personally thought Elvis was at his best when he got pissed; maybe because that's the Elvis I've come to expect and love. This happened about three or four times during the press conference, most of the time to scold the camera people. At one point El stood up, loomed over the desk, and glared at a reporter. "Listen, I don't really care that much, I can leave right now," he threatened, with a spectacular glaze to his eyes, looking like the vintage Elvis on the "Watching The Detectives" pic sleeve, or the This Year's Model cover. The definitively demented, possessed Elvis I adored.
But for the most part, particularly towards the end, Elvis seemed well-at-ease and happy with his showing, almost cheerful. It's bizarre to see him smile — I hope someone got pictures. He even managed to garner some laughs from the press, as in this exchange: Q: What if somebody called you a "sod-all limey poseur?"
Elvis: Pardon me? (question is repeated). I think that was something said that night, actually. I think several things along that line were said. The only things that were printed was stuff said about black artists. Oh, I said numerous things about white artists. That's not my fault it wasn't reported, 'cos it doesn't make good copy. They don't print the things I said about Crosby, Stills & Nash. And they didn't print the things where Bonnie said that "All limeys were lousy fucks and couldn't get it up."
The press conference ended in a very interesting and revealing manner. As I mentioned before, Elvis was totally calm; it was Jake who did the sweating, and I'm not joking. In a move barely noticed (I know of only two people present who picked it up), while Elvis was in mid-sentence, Jake gave El the "cut" sign — index finger slashed across throat — and El mumbled a quick goodbye and fled the room. Is Riviera Global moving into mind control?
I've left Elvis' most mysterious, and maybe, important (in my opinion) remark for the end. Whether it was a slip of the tongue (nothing is accidental, Freud sez), or something that Elvis meant to mean something else entirely, is totally judgemental at this point. I'll leave the interpretation up to you: "I don't want to be known for (Ohio incident). I don't want the last the last I ever do in America to be that I'm a racist."
In conclusion, the conference was bullshit. Necessary bullshit perhaps, but bullshit nonetheless. There were no questions about the Bramlett/Stills incident that I had to ask Elvis. Here are the questions I was dying to ask: "Are you Wally?" (the name Elvis was supposed to have when he was alleged to be the guitarist for the rehearsal-only pre-Rotten Sex Pistols), "What is the first line to 'Watching The Detectives'?," and finally, "Will you ever record an album with your father?" (Ross MacManus, a 50's big-band vocalist who bears a striking resemblance to his real-life son, Declan Patrick MacManus). But none of these questions got asked.
That night, at the Capitol Theatre, El opened the set with his spectacular cover of the obscure 1964 Merseybeats tune "I Stand Accused." I've always admired a man with a sense of drama.