You wouldn't think a rock 'n' roll singer who adopts the first name Elvis would be nervous about drawing attention to himself.
So the publicists at Columbia Records here and in New York began lining up interviews and photo sessions for Britain's Elvis Costello as soon as they heard the highly touted singer-songwriter would be touring this country.
Since Costello is about the hottest thing this side of the Sex Pistols in England, the publicists found lots of interest. By the time Costello's dates at the Whisky last weekend were confirmed, there was enough media enthusiasm in Los Angeles alone for 25 interviews. To celebrate Costello's U.S. debut last week in San Francisco, a postconcert party was scheduled.
Then, the word from England:
NO PHOTO SESSIONS.
But, the publicists chorused: "We want to help. The writers are enthusiastic about Elvis. His album is getting fantastic reviews. Rolling Stone compares him to Randy Newman..."
That's just the problem, Costello's advisers felt. The media can sometimes be too helpful.
Ever since the enormous coverage given Bruce Springsteen in '75, managers of rock acts have prayed for similar national exposure. Not only was Springsteen featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek, but rock critics for virtually every major publication in the country raved about him. Springsteen's album made the Top 10 and his concerts did good business.
Seeing the results, the industry became almost obsessed with the press' role in the star-making process. More than ever, publicity kits were crammed with favorable reviews in the hope of lightning striking again for other newcomers.
The problem is few of the new artists were able to deliver on stage the way Springsteen had. Even the most promising acts became disappointments when measured against the inflated media expectations.
"You can kill someone's career by building him up too fast," an industry observer said before Costello's Whisky opening. "It's important not to overstate your case. Once someone gets turned off on an artist, it's hard to get the enthusiasm started again. You've got to be careful..."
There isn't much known about Elvis Costello's life before he walked into the London offices of Stiff Records about a year ago with a bunch of his songs. The usually productive English pop press hasn't even been able to uncover his real name.
Because Stiff is a symbol of the rebellious, free-spirited new wave movement in English rock, the label was a natural home for Costello. He's no punk rocker, but he shares the new wave bands' emphasis on passion rather than refinement, classic songwriting values rather than instrumental virtuosity.
"I hate anything with (bleeping) extended solos...," the outspoken Costello has said. "The songs are the most important thing. I want the songs to mean something to people... I like and write short songs. It's a discipline. There's no disguise. You can't cover up songs like that by dragging out banks of (bleeping) synthesizers and choirs of angels. They have to stand on their own."
Costello also shares Stiff's belief that most big record companies are stuffy and out-of-touch with young rock fans. Formed last year by Jake Riviera — who now manages Costello — and Dave Robinson, Stiff Records is as irreverent as its name. "I spent years shouting at people over desks in record company offices," Riviera says. "They turned down virtually every idea I offered them. I decided I could do it without them."
Impressed by Costello's songs, Riviera put the young songwriter together with producer Nick Lowe. They cut an album (for less than $3,000) and promoted it so shrewdly that it made the British charts even though Costello was a virtual unknown at the time.
Typical of Riviera's unorthodox, fun-oriented approach, he had Costello sing some of his songs on the street outside a London hotel during a recent Columbia Records convention there. Though most Columbia big-wigs shuffled nervously past the strange looking young man with a guitar, the incident got lots of coverage in the British pop press. It also got Costello arrested.
But the joke, eventually, was on Columbia. The label's subsequent U.S. signing of Costello led one Columbia staffer last week to recall this ironic phone conversation: "You remember the crazy guy who was singing outside the hotel in London?... We just signed him."
With his slight build, close cropped hair and old-fashioned Buddy Holly-ish glasses, Costello didn't look much like a rock phenom when he stepped on the Whisky stage last weekend.
For all the media interest in him, there was also a noticeable lack of electricity in the 300-seat club. The mood was one of curiosity rather than consuming interest. Costello seemed nervous at first. He was somewhat stiff (no pun intended) and his lyrics — a key element in the appeal of his highly impressive debut album — were all but lost in the sound mix. By the end of the third number, it looked like a nonevent. He was backed by a rather simple bass, drums, Farfisa organ accompaniment.
When Costello began singing "Alison," however, things picked up. A ballad from the album, it's splendidly designed commentary on a former, one-sided love affair. His lyrics have the range, cushion-smooth rhymes and wry, provocative edges of the Band's Robbie Robertson (who was in the audience for Friday's late show).
For the first time, Costello's vocal and manner reflected the passion needed to bring the songs to life on stage. His voice had much of the grainy, intense aura of Graham Parker's. His music, too, has a simple, '50s rock base.
When he followed with "Miracle Man," the momentum continued building. It's a vigorous, nicely sarcastic look back at a doomed-from-the-start romantic encounter. Despite a certain compassion, his music has a lot of confrontation and anger. Like some of Dylan's work, the revenge-tinged songs seem to be striking back for slights and injustices.
But there's also a healthy dose of humor. From his "Red Shoes": "...I said, 'I'm so happy I could die.' She said, 'Drop dead' / Then left with another guy."
Impressively, Costello had some new tunes — notably "You're Not Just Another Mouth in the Lipstick Vogue" — that were equal to the material on the LP. He could use a second guitarist to give his live music more punch, but he delivered the lyrics at times with the compulsiveness that is often found in rock's most arresting figures.
By the end of the set, Costello was punctuating the vocals with various grimaces and hand/body movements. The performance still wasn't what you'd call electrifying, but richly promising. He still needs a lot of work. With only 33 shows behind him, time is certainly on his side.
Coupled with the album, it was enough to place Costello alongside Tom Petty, the Sex Pistols, the Jam and the other new arrivals that have contributed to the encouraging rock 'n' roll groundswell in '77. No one needed an interview to see that.
After the show, Costello sat quietly on a sofa in the Whisky's upstairs dressing room. Despite a closed door policy, several fans — most of whom had met Riviera on his last visit here with the Damned — had made it past the guard stationed outside. Riviera — colorful and outspoken — was in the middle of the room reaffirming his rule against photographers backstage. "It's demeaning," he snapped. "Who needs the pictures of everyone smiling and shaking hands? They're silly. Everyone knows that."
Costello, still on the sofa, seemed a bit overwhelmed by all that was suddenly going on around him these days. After all, it was only three months ago that he gave up his job as a computer analyst.
"That's another reason we wanted to keep things low-key this time around," said Allen Frey, Costello's U.S. manager. "A lot has been happening to him lately. This is his first trip to America. It gives him a chance to feel things out and for audiences to feel him out.
"Except for L.A., San Francisco and New York, he's not even headlining. He's just the opening act. Why push him? You can put so much pressure on an artist that it makes it impossible for him to perform. I've seen too many careers gobbled up that way. We've got lots of time..."