Elvis Costello makes a joke. Standing before 2,000 people in the grounds of the Tower of London he coughs lightly, places a hand in front of his mouth and excuses himself. "I'm sorry," he says, "it seems I have something in my throat. It must be down to all the CO2 being emitted from Wembley Stadium".
While in an ugly suburb in north west London the in-crowd were busy "raising awareness" about a little known topic they call "the environment," in another part of town Elvis Costello was letting his music do the talking. It all depends on what you care to believe. It might be that you believe in Madonna and her rallying cry of "Hey You." Maybe you believe that music can change the world. Me, I believe in Elvis Costello. Actually, I believe in Elvis Costello's music. I don't think it can change the world, but I know it can change my world.
In 16 years I must have seen Costello play on at least 20 occasions. I've seen him play sets so obscure I've wanted to slap him. I've witnessed performances that are as close to magic as anything you will ever see. And for the sake of his own identity, for the sake of his music, I've seen him gamble his audience away. Only the committed now remain. We show up once a year or so, alive with the knowledge that we don't know what we're going to get. We're a cult. Would you like to buy a flower?
Elvis Costello was once asked what obligations he had to his audience and he answered, plainly, "absolutely none." When the VH1 music channel called last year asking if he would play a concert of his hits, Costello replied that if they wanted to someone just to play hits they should call Joe Jackson. And then he put the phone down.
Costello got his own way and played the set he wanted to play, but the story points up the fact that these days this is a man out of time. The folks over at Wembley Stadium are right, there is something in the air. But it's not what they think it is: it's smugness and nostalgia. It's the Police doing the chicken-in-a-basket run, only in stadiums. It's rock stars cosying up to politicians, or making mawkish noises for a dead princess.
Elvis Costello may have walked himself to the margins of the mainstream, but for a number of us he is still a key component in the battle of ideas. He won't get fooled again, because he was never fooled in the first place.