Just as China's invasion of Vietnam proved a potent metaphor for the Clash shows here recently, the nuclear mishap in Pennsylvania — with its threat to emit invisible clouds of deadly radiation — seemed a convenient symbol for the dramatic self-destruction courted by Elvis Costello.
Sweeping into New York for an unprecedented six shows in three nights, including three at three different clubs on April Fool's day, Elvis was greeted with severe criticism when some allegedly racist and disparaging comments he made a few nights back after a show in Columbus, Ohio became publicised.
In a drunken argument at the Holiday Inn with members of Steve Stills' entourage, The Last Angry Man lambasted America, Ray Charles, James Brown and Crosby, Stills & Nash before his tirade was abruptly halted with a KO punch delivered by none other than singer Bonnie Bramlett.
At a hastily arranged press conference called by Costello himself on his arrival in New York, the liberal branch of the local rock Establishment vented its outrage, while the rest of us giggled nervously. Elvis was coolly in control the whole way though, patiently explaining that his remarks were the result of a drunken brawl, calculated to outrage and goad rather than offend.
Judging from the two performances I saw, the feisty Mr Costello spent the rest of his stay in New York desperately attempting to exorcise the ill feelings he had engendered.
At the Palladium in the first of two shows, Elvis launched into a swelling version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Love Peace and Understanding" which bypassed the tongue-in-cheek quality of Nick Lowe's lyrics to express heartfelt concern.
Costello is almost as skilled as Dylan at restructuring his own material. The numbers from Armed Forces — "Goon Squad," "Two Little Hitlers" and especially "Oliver's Army" — have developed to the point where they are now Elvis's strongest work, though the concert doesn't reach its first climax until "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea."
The Palladium performance was a triumph of large-scale spectacle. The Attractions, with special kudos to the wall of sound keyboards of Steve Naive, are a seamless backing unit, providing Elvis with flesh sad muscle for his skeleton structures. Costello's wrenching guitar playing, owing no small debt to Voidoid Bob Quine, continues to develop colouration and subtle strength. The band followed its leaders' every rhythmic whim, grinding down to a complete halt, for instance, on "Radio, Radio" when Elvis cleverly decided to match doe audience's lethargy with his own. The tempo continued to crawl until the crowd's enthusiasm literally powered the concert into its feverish climax.
The next evening Elvis played, at four-hour intervals, the Lone Star, a country and western tavern; the Bottom Line, the Industry Club; and Great Gildersleeve's, a red-light showcase on the Bowery, just a block from CBGB's.
Seeing Elvis in an intimate atmosphere was certainly a treat, but it was almost too good to be true. Indeed, the Attractions have become such an overwhelming powerhouse outfit that they practically need a large auditorium in order to stretch out to their capabilities. Not to say the performance at Gildersleeve's wasn't superb, but tensions were running high and the small room could barely contain the energy.
A batch of impressive new material was offered. Two tunes that stood out were "High Fidelity" and "I Stand Accused," the latter yet another guilt-assuaging ditty which could just as well have been written in response to the carping criticism Elvis received during his New York stay. The band also did a marvellous, reggae-fied version of Ian Dury's "The Roadette Song" while "Talking In The Dark" recorded for a promo 45 which was handed out after each club show, was yet another unfamiliar song.
Everything considered, Costello's three-day New York marathon was a success. Even if the off-stage Elvis continues to goad, prod, annoy or exasperate, when Mr Costello enters the concert arena he is a mesmerising presence and well aware of it. So, if the real life Elvis seems only too human, that is precisely his message: accidents will happen, we all make mistakes. It is Elvis' ability and good fortune to be able to turn his own weakness into strength through the catharsis of performance.
Let's just hope he doesn't forget the all important distinction between artifice and reality. The star trappings are already being hung on him. It's up to Elvis not to let them insulate him irrevocably.