What is it about Elvis Costello that makes us want to know about his home life? And what is it that makes him cover his traces with such determination?
In his poem, "The Hollow Men," T. S. Eliot wrote of "Paralysed force, gesture without motion" — suggesting a kind of emotional impotence which may be what Costello is trying, through his red-raw songs and wilfully unpredictable performances, to overcome. Without access to his analyst's log, I couldn't say.
It's possible, of course, that Costello's public personality is a careful fabrication (and that possibility makes the riddle more exquisite). But, real or imagined, his character has such a welcome definition and curious integrity that in the end the hypotheses don't matter.
He's not yet a very reliable performer. The last song of the regular set at Monday's show (the first of his pre-Christmas season) was "Pump It Up": drummer Pete Thomas played the first chorus somewhat faster than Costello chose to sing it, so that the drums finished the chorus a half-bar ahead of Elvis. This led to recriminatory scowls all round, and bassist Bruce Thomas was so affected that he appeared to kick his mic-stand into the photographers' pit. The sour suggestion of impending mayhem wasn't dispelled until the song's end, and it took a dynamite encore — "Radio, Radio" — to suppress the neurosis.
Until "Pump It Up," the set had built from an exciting but somewhat sloppy opening with "Peace, Love And Understanding" and "Red Shoes" (not a good juxtaposition, as both songs depend for added kick on unison triplet fills) through a careful mixture of familiar songs and pieces from the forthcoming album.
Costello's songs don't really take shape until they're heard on record, so it's hard to assess the eventual impact of the likes of "Accidents Will Happen," "Oliver's Army," and something that might be called "Dancing Slowly." The balance, with Steve Naive's sharp organ camouflaging Costello's words, militated against analysis — which may be what Elvis wants, but it does deprive us of the jewelled details which stud his best songs.
The thematically-linked trilogy of "Chelsea," a coruscating "Lipstick Vogue" (his greatest song, holder in perpetuity of the "Positively Fourth Street" Memorial Award), and "This Year's Girl" was magnificent, though, as was "Watching The Detectives," greatly enhanced by clever lighting which created the illusion that Elvis was sitting at home watching TV, the cathode rays reflected on his face.
John Cooper Clarke's brief but animated opening set contained several old favourites and one notable new work: an impassioned piece of social-consciousness rhetoric called "Beasley Street."
Richard Hell, on the other hand, was simply and irredeemably awful.