SANTA CRUZ — Elvis Costello, arguably the most arresting and gifted rock songwriter of recent years, wants to discard his angry-young-man image. That's one reason he's doing interviews for the first time in four years and why he has adopted a softer, more melodic tone in his new, pop-flavored Imperial Bedroom album.
Sitting in a hotel room here last week on the eve of a U.S. tour that includes shows Tuesday and Wednesday at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, Costello acknowledged that the controversial image initially helped him attract attention, but he feels it eventually threatened to smother him, emotionally and creatively.
"I think I was definitely beginning to lose control of things," Costello, 27, said. "It's too personal to go into all of it, but I will say I made several wrong turns in succession around the time of the Armed Forces album. I found myself getting farther and farther from what I started out to be and moving toward all the things I hated."
In the five years since the release of his first album, Costello has established himself as one of the most enigmatic and volatile figures in rock.
Alarmed by seeing the pop machinery strip the creativity from many of his own favorite artists, the Englishman challenged pop conventions at every turn — avoiding interviews. refusing to court radio stations and frequently showing little regard for his audience. It wasn't uncommon for him to walk off stage after only 40 minutes during his early tours.
Though he argued that journalists were being superficial when they described him as abrasive, Costello reinforced that image time and again.
The most dramatic of the Costello explosions occurred in 1979 when the singer got into a drunken dispute with Bonnie Bramlett and other rock musicians in a Columbus, Ohio, bar. Trying to offend their sensibilities so they'd leave the bar, Costello later said, he made a racial slur against Ray Charles. After the other musicians reported the incident to the press, the tale was widely distributed, causing many rock fans to brand Costello a racist.
Costello was so shaken by the reaction that he broke his press silence to meet with reporters in New York to give his side of the story and apologize for the misunderstanding. He then resumed the media blackout.
Because of Costello's cool relations with the press, I felt like a man trapped behind enemy lines as Costello whisked into the hotel lobby here. But he posed patiently for the photographer and showed no uneasiness during the subsequent interview.
Asked why he is doing interviews again, he said:
"I think it's just time. I've been making records for five years now, and certain things probably need some explanation. In the past, I was never very keen to explain things as we went along because I felt it would diminish the impact if we constantly amended what was on the records. Plus, we were working at such a furious pace a lot of the time that I didn't think my opinions might be all that considered."
Despite the compassion and humor in his early albums, the combination of musical fury, brusque manner and biting themes about romantic betrayal and false allegiance caused Costello to be mistakenly lumped with rock's punk contingent.
Costello made a musical break from the early starkness with the Get Happy album in 1980, substituting a lighter, Memphis R&B feel. He made additional steps away from the aggressive tone of the early LPs with 1981's Trust and, especially, the all-country Almost Blue.
In his live shows, too, Costello has become far less combative on stage, frequently thanking the audience and even (gulp) smiling.
Costello's latest musical move comes in the new Imperial Bedroom.
Rather than emphasize the big beat, Costello and producer Geoff Emerick (a former Beatles studio aide) focus on vocal nuances and stylish production touches that are reminiscent in places of the Beatles' White Album.
Without sacrificing the tension of most Costello recordings, the music this time centers on many of the sophisticated elements of pre-rock pop. They range from the accordion-assisted flavor of "The Long Honeymoon" to the torchlike tone of "Almost Blue."
And the lyrics contain enough classy and inventive rhymes to suggest that Declan McManus (Costello's real name) might have adopted the stage name "Cole" (as in Porter) if he had lived in an earlier pop era.
Here are four examples — from different songs — of Costello's lyric approach:
So in this almost empty gin palace
Through a two-way looking glass
You see your Alice
There's been a long honeymoon
She thought too late and spoke too soon
Don't get smart or sarcastic
He snaps back just like elastic
Almost doing things we used to do
There's a girl here and she's almost you.
The last set of lyrics is from the new album's "Almost Blue," a ballad with the stamp of a standard on it. While most of the other tunes on Imperial Bedroom are more idiosyncratic, there's an ambitiousness and scope in the LP's bending of pop traditions that is breathtaking at times.
Coupled with his seven earlier albums, the new collection represents a creative explosion perhaps unmatched for quality and quantity in rock since Dylan's mid-'60s period.
Costello was just 22 when his first album, My Aim Is True, was released in 1977, but he seemed unusually impatient for attention, all but snarling at the British pop industry for not acknowledging his talent earlier.
Like much of Dylan's material, Costello's songs frequently unleashed anger and aggression. Many of the tunes seemed to be almost obsessive attempts to avenge past slights and injustices. But he also seemed to be striking out at the potential weaknesses in his own character.
The key to Costello's promise was his range. "Alison," for instance, was a splendidly designed tale of romantic disillusionment. Later recorded by Linda Ronstadt, the ballad exhibited a naked tenderness rare in any areas of pop, much less the high assault of rock.
Plus, there was the disarming humor of a song like "Red Shoes," which included the line, "I said, 'I'm so happy I could die' / She said, 'Drop dead' / Then left with another guy."
That album finished second in 1977 in the Village Voice's annual poll of the nation's rock and pop critics. The follow-up, This Year's Model in 1978, topped the Voice poll.
Expanding musically and thematically, Costello also finished in the top 10 in the Voice survey in 1979 with Armed Forces, in 1980 with Get Happy and in 1981 with Trust.
Despite this critical outpouring, Costello seemed uncomfortable when I first interviewed him in 1979. Though extremely articulate, he was testy when certain subjects were raised. By contrast, he was far more relaxed last week, frequently laughing and going into great detail about the development of his songs. Whatever the turmoil of the late '70s, he seems to be a man who has regained perspective and control.
I began the interview by asking him about the early days at the Whisky:
Does the Elvis Costello of today have slot in common with the Elvis Costello of five years ago? You seem a lot snore relaxed and open.
"I'm still quite ambitious. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be No. 1 because I think we're the best group in the world, but I'm not eager for success in the same way. I've seen how detrimental it can be.
"I'm speaking about the Armed Forces period when we were the equivalent in England of what, say, Human League is now. I think it was us and Blondie on top for that week (laughter). You have to watch yourself to make sure all that doesn't inhibit your writing. People like Asia want to be famous. They don't necessarily want to be good. I never want to be famous if it means playing music I hate.
"I'd like to have hit singles, but you have to realize just how awful AM radio is over here. It makes me sad that someone like Randy Newman would only have a hit with 'Short People,' which is fairly insubstantial next to (Newman's) 'Davy, the Fat Boy,' which is brilliant"
What was your attitude like when you first played the Whisky?
"I was just pleased to have an album, because I never thought it'd be possible — I had been turned down by everybody even though I had total conviction that the songs were good. It finally happened so fast. In a minute, I went from being this computer technician to a professional musician. By the time we got to this country, people were beginning to say we were a big deal. We had to live up to a lot of expectations."
Do you ever regret using the name Elvis? There's a novelty ring to it.
"That was Jake's idea (Costello's manager, Jake Riviera). I guess it was just to catch your eye when you're thumbing through the racks of records. Everyone else seems to be named Tommy or Jimmy or whatever. But, no, I don't regret it I wasn't trying to sound like Elvis so I wasn't worried about being written off as some kind of parody artist. I didn't give the name much thought, actually. I just sort of absorbed it."
Back to the Whisky. Were you excited, cocky?
"I think we had a very snotty attitude the first couple of times over here... It all kind of built up until the freakout at the Santa Monica Civic."
You mean the night you stormed off-stage? I thought it was over equipment problems.
"No, it wasn't that. I just sort of cracked up on stage. A lot of things were going on that left me confused. I remember having an argument with Dave Edmunds just before we got to L.A. on that tour. I was telling him that the whole tour was a failure and that we had lost the battle over here. We were playing to half-empty halls in a lot of cities and radio was ignoring the record.
"Then we got to LA and the Civic was full. It all looked too easy. I began to worry that it was all phony — that people had just convinced themselves that we were the thing to see that week. I was questioning if we were really any good. If we couldn't pull a crowd 1,000 miles away, why should we suddenly be God in California."
What about the incident in Columbus?
"It's very important to me that people understand what really happened that night, and I keep running into examples of how they don't. When we were working on the new album, for instance, (Paul) McCartney was in the studio next door working with Michael Jackson. Bruce (Thomas, who plays bass in Costello's Attractions band) gets along very well with McCartney and he went down to see him. Everything went fine until someone introduced Bruce to Michael as my bass player. Then it got really unpleasant" (became of the stigma of the racial episode).
"That really brought it home to me. A few friends in the business said they could see how the situation could arise — how you'd say anything to get rid of some people. But it's still no excuse for what happened, and I apologize again. The whole thing was just further evidence to some people that I'm some kind of bastard."
But you admit that the angry-young-man image helped, at first.
"Yes, it was a shield, for one thing. It kept people at arm's length. It allowed you to operate freely. But I finally felt the image started to take over. That's why we started to move away.
"I don't think there was anything angry about the Get Happy album. That's why I was so frustrated when the reviews came out and they were still talking about this angry young man. The same with Trust. They kept writing the same things regardless of what was on the record."
Get Happy seems to have been a turning point personally as well as musically.
"It was. I was very cynical when we did Armed Forces. It's a very cynical album — I don't like it at all; that's my least favorite album. I think Get Happy was the start of the exorcism of the problems.
"Even without the incident in Columbus, I think we would have come off the road for a while. Things were pretty intense. Jake (Riviera) and I used to even talk about it being time for a motorcycle accident (a reference to the near-tragic incident that forced Dylan to take a break from the hectic pop swirl in the late-'60s).
When you speak of problems, are you talking about the various excesses associated with the rock life style — the whole fast-lane syndrome?
"Yes, all of that. But I'd hate to see this interview head toward Pete Townshend territory. Did you see that awful interview he did in Rolling Stone? It's disgusting how these maudlin, middle-aged rock 'n' rollers are always feeling so self-righteous because they've finally gotten themselves together or whatever.
"But I guess there's a lot of interest in it You can read about it almost every week in People or somewhere. Maybe I should do that, too (laughter). I guess its one way to become an international sensation."
What was it that helped pull you out of that period?
"I think a big thing was that I love my wife and son. You finally have to get a grip on yourself and realize that you're not just doing all this for yourself, but for others as well."
Let's talk about the Almost Blue album. You're a big country music fan. Did you want to share that music with your rock fans?
"By the time I did that album, I felt a little disillusioned with my own material. It seemed to be getting a little precious. I felt I was heading down a cult cul-de-sac, if you will. It was like I was starting to sound like I was just writing for the people who bought my records rather than songs other people could also enjoy.
"So, I wanted something more direct; I wanted an album of very simple songs with the emphasis on the vocal. The original plan was to do a whole album of ballads, including some standards and some blues tunes. But I felt that might be too confusing—this "new wave songwriter" doing a whole album of other people's songs. If I stuck to country songs, it would provide at least some focus that people could grab hold of."
What about the new album?
"We sat down and we decided we wanted to do something different again. Because the country album was very straightforward, I wanted to go to the other extreme and explore more complicated forms. I wanted to take the beat out of the record... turn down the drums so that people could really hear the words this time. It occurred to me that some of the angry-young-man thing was due to the fact that people couldn't hear the words, especially on Get Happy."
There's a definite hook-up with the elegant Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart tradition in parts of the album. Does that suggest you find rock too restrictive a form?
"No, it's not that I hate rock 'n roll or that I don't want to record it again. I just wanted to emphasize melody rather than energy this time. I often set myself little tasks, like maybe trying to write a whole album in the Goffin-King style, where most of the songs are very simple musically but have such great melodies."
Is there a way you can talk about how you write lyrics?
"You often get a collection of phrases and a story develops from that. I'm a great one for hearing phrases in speech or seeing them in a newspaper or book. I'll write them down. They don't have any meaning for a while, but suddenly I'll put a bunch of them together and they'll lock together in a story."
You like a certain abstractness in your songs. Do you worry sometimes that you're making them too difficult? Part of the challenge of pop music is reaching a wide audience.
"Some of the songs on the album are pretty straightforward, but others are more complex The idea isn't to confuse the listener. I don't sit down and say, 'This will really impress them.' It's just that you want to stimulate the imagination."
What about the constant change in your music? Is that designed to keep the audience from getting into a rut?
"It's designed to keep me from getting into a rut. So many people in rock end up as caricatures because they limit themselves. Their music and their show become just a theatrical device.
"When we started, the overriding idea on stage was to overpower everybody. But that has obvious limits. There are a lot of songs you can't do if you're just going to offer people one continuous burst of venom."
Without a lot of radio airplay, you've been able to build a very loyal following. Do you get strength from the affection of the crowds? It seems obvious that they respond to your musk on a deep, personal level.
"It's good to know that people care enough about what you do to give you the freedom to move into new areas. But it's also important not to bask in that affection. You've got to keep pushing. You have to write for yourself. The only thing you can really trust in the end is your own heart."