"The past prima donna in buttons and bells / Was speaking what's left of her mind as the audience rebels / Do you know what I'm saying?"
You're finished. Your career, if you could dignify such an improbable procession of delicious accidents with such a term, is over. The band that you fronted to national stardom and global notoriety has split. The same media that was once only too happy to flog issues by the truckload on the back of your impeccably outrageous announcements and increasingly threadbare costumery, has rounded on you. Your comeback single entered the charts at about 52 with an anvil round its neck. The album that you spent the best part of a year working on has collected such a unanimous and unequivocal critical hammering that your label refused to release it in England. You've had it.
Fourteen minutes 57, 14 minutes 58, 14 minutes 59... goodnight, sunshine.
"Next year she'll serve her function in an Audrey Hepburn hat / It still won't suit her much but she'll get over that / She'll be pale and feign indifference as they're handing out the prizes / Spilling daddy's pearls of wisdom and her ugly sister's tranquilisers."
Here's how the story's supposed to stumble along from here: You might release a couple of under-produced solo records on a nowhere little label, which will serve no purpose other than to provide The Stud Brothers with some target practice. You might be called upon to make up the numbers on a game show, even "Wogan" on a slow night. Your birthplace, wherever that is, might be the subject of a question on a pub trivia game. You might even, as you approach a decade of dignified irrelevance, be asked to appear on The Word. You'll be remembered, vaguely, and you'll struggle, unsuccessfully, to content yourself with the thought that a has-been beats a never-was any day.
But it's not really a job, is it?
"The faint embrace of gravity is causing my delay / Yes, cancel my departure / Looks like I'm here to stay"
But. Here's the fun bit. It doesn't happen like that, because you are Wendy James, 27, of Ladbroke Grove, and sticking to the script has never been your strong point. So when you do break cover following the decline and fall of your tinsel empire, you do it with rather more panache than most would have expected and many would have hoped. You've signed, solo, to MCA worldwide and to the unstoppable Geffen in the States. In your David Bailey press shots, you look fantastically sulky and interestingly aloof.
Oh, and your actual album, the heroically titled Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears, comprises 10 new songs written just for you – and, to a large extent, apparently about you – by a certain Elvis Costello. You've, uh, kind of landed on your feet, Wendy. It's a pretty unlikely story.
"No," she corrects me, looking up from her coffee. "It's a magical story."
"Hey, little puppet girl / Now it's time to dance and sing / We built your reputation to fade away the very day / You cut cut cut cut cut your string"
Towards the end of 1991, as Wendy trekked across America on Transvision Vamp's valedictory tour, she bumped into Pete Thomas, former drummer with Elvis Costello's mighty Attractions, in some drinking establishment or other somewhere on the West Coast. Wendy, already contemplating a future alone, asked, on the spur of the moment, if he thought Costello – whose work she had admired for years, but whom she had never met – could conceivably see his way clear to dashing off a song or so for her. Thomas shrugged. "You don't ask, you don't get," he said.
A bit over a year later, Wendy's husky whisper takes up the story in wine bar in Holland Park.
"Anyway. When I got to Washington, I sketched a letter to Elvis, reasonably long and reasonably philosophical, which served two purposes. One was obviously the communication with Elvis. The other was that it was just nice to be able to put it all down on paper, just as a means of assessing the pros and cons of where I was at that point, just talking to myself, really. So I sent it off, and tore up my copy of the letter, thinking nothing would ever come of this, it's a ridiculous idea."
A fair enough thing to think, really.
"I didn't hear anything for a while. Then I got a phone call from Pete Thomas, saying you'll-never-guess-what-but-I-can't-tell-you… and that put a smile on my face. And then Elvis's publisher rang up and said ‘Well, he's written you an entire album, and if you like it, it's yours.'"
Just like that.
"I was astounded. It's like, if I say to you, imagine if your favourite artist or performer of all time has just written you, personally you, your very own album."
All that arrived on the messenger's motorbike that day was tape of bare demo versions of the songs – which Wendy will be able to bootleg for thousands if all else fails – and a lyric sheet. The only time she met Costello, at a party after U2's Earl's Court concert, all she said was "Thank you." All he said was "Have fun."
"London's dismal and divine / And I know one day, one day / It's gonna be mine"
It would seem, then, that we are to be left to guess as to Costello's motives. The amateur psychologist will contemplate the self-conscious cleverness of Spike, the ornate overcooking of Mighty Like A Rose and the astonishing Juliet Letters, and conclude that Costello, while maintaining his knack for writing splendid pop, feels too old or embarrassed to sing it anymore. Certainly, he'd have been hard pressed to find a better voice for the brace of venom-laced fizzbombs assembled here – while Wendy is unlikely as ever to take Callas to five sets, she's got a great punky yelp, and her breathy purr on the slow ones strikes its usual balance of gush and gauche.
And what a story he'd got to tell.
The rise and demise of Transvision Vamp and their wilful frontwoman, a tale of ambition soured and hope betrayed, in two sides. I would like, if I may, to be the first of thousands to suggest that it reasonably approximates a rampant hybrid of This Year's Model and Evita.
"There are," admits Wendy, "some lyrics that I take absolutely personally, and some that are more hypothetical. But the tracks do have a certain order to them, yes, and it does historically count ups and downs of rejection and success and failure and having to grow up. More times than not, I am singing from a completely personal point of view."
It gets quite bitter at times.
"All of the songs, from the melancholy songs to the glory glory hallelujah songs, are all rather cynical. And there isn't a moment on the album where you can get away with anything, because you're being asked to look at yourself in a very hard-hearted manner every step of the way, and there are many times when it's cutting someone's ego, whether it's mine as the singer or someone else's."
Given that Costello doesn't know you, and presumably winged it on the basis of your letter and anything he may have heard or read, did you never feel at all defensive?
"No, no, all that is good, I mean, I'd like to shatter some of those illusions that I had about myself and that other people had about me. How can you have progress without change? Understand it and learn from it. And some of these songs helped me to do that."
"Incorruptible / Unattainable / Unacceptable / Unforgiveable / Unforgettable"
The last time Wendy James spoke to Melody Maker, just less than two years ago, she made the infamous predictions that she would one day win Oscars, that before she died, the whole world would know her name. It was a spectacular performance, exactly what we used to pay her for.
When this is brought up today, it elicits a guilty-though-unrepentant smile of the kind people make when recalling some Christmas party indiscretion and the – understandable, if nonetheless disappointing – assurance that "that's all history." All Wendy James today appears to have in common with the Wendy James of Transvision Vamp is the same well-judged showing of black-root-hair and the same unrelenting, unblinking, and frequently unnerving blue-eyed glare.
"Look, without wishing to sound like a cliché, I just want to feel proud. My appetite for pop stardom has… lessened. I don't want to be that anymore. There are other things that are more important to me now."
"We can make this easy on you or we can make it rough / By the way I have to say you didn't love me enough"
On February 8, Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears – the title is Wendy's own work, which is to say she nicked it from Dylan herself – will be officially heralded by the release of a single, "The Nameless One," a funky wah-wah-drenched free-association of names, slogans and puns. The album follows a month later, and it'll do fine. With a glee and a verve not heard since Armed Forces and Get Happy!!, Costello has let his trash instincts run riot. Songs like "London's Brilliant," "Fill In The Blanks" and "We Despise You" are purest New Wave froth.
Elsewhere, on the jewellery-rattling ballads ("Basement Kiss," "Do You Know What I'm Saying," the grand finale "Stand Forever," which will have them thumping the seat-backs in theatres up and down the land), you'll be reminded of the delectable, ornate fripperies of Imperial Bedroom.
Wendy would like it stressed – when Wendy says she would like something stressed, you don't argue – that the actual sound of the thing has more to do with her own efforts and those of former Rolling Stones producer Chris Kimsey than any help from her bespectacled auteur. Live in the studio, she says, her and her hand (Pete Thomas on drums, former Terence Trent D'Arby bassist Cas Lewis and occasional Van Morrison/Bob Dylan sideman Neil Taylor on guitar) all together, every take.
"We recorded the album in June of 1992, and I'd lived with the cassette since December. So by that point, all the songs had my interpretation on them, and by that point, as far as the album was concerned, they might as well have been written by me. By that point, they were my songs. "
Nevertheless, she remains properly enigmatic about their content. A suggestion that the "Denis the Menace of Little Venice" named in "London's Brilliant" is her former partner in crime Nick Christian-Sayer, is abruptly choked at birth. "Ah well, you see, you can't take it that simplistically."
But people will, won't they?
"Well, that's their prerogative. But I don't."
Not even a bit?
"Well, I always liked Denis the Menace, anyway. But it isn't that literal, Andrew, it's a story. But yes, that one is all about that West London let's-form-a-band-and-be-just-like-The-Clash, which is what Transvision Vamp were all about. Wholeheartedly."
The only way to do anything silly.
"She danced like an ambulance / Talked like a cartoon mouse / She took off her clothes and it brought down the house / Do you know what I'm saying?"
Eventually, Wendy decides that her shiny new pop-fable does have a moral, of sorts.
"It's... the pomposity of the music business, the pomposity of the stars within that business, how brilliant – in quotation marks – London is… these are all things that are, at the end of the day, bullshit. And it's a healthy thing to be reminded of the bullshit factor on a regular basis. Otherwise, before you know it, you're believing in it, subscribing to it, and becoming it."
Is this observation or experience?
She smiles. She knows what I'm getting at.
"I have to say, I feel as though I remained innocent throughout the whole… court case. Ha! I was put on trial, based on untrue accusations, but… it is rather hard, and it would take an incredibly strong person, to point out the ironies of sexism in the western world while wearing such minuscule items of clothing. Which is sad, I think, sad, because I still subscribe to the belief that we should all be allowed to express ourselves how we like.
"But it doesn't work. And I did, eventually, have to face that fact. But I think there were moments when I did say some constructive things about women, and power to women, and how misogyny attempts to hold them back. But it wasn't taken seriously, because I was looking like an object, rather than a person."
There are those – on the side of the tediously right-on as well as with the yob squad – who will regard this last sentence as a victory. They shouldn't.
"It might be a dream but it's my dream / A fantastic, disastrous affair"
Wendy says, just before she goes out to have a look at some flats, that she is fearsomely keen to tour. When I suggest that it would be tantamount to a criminal outrage to miss the opportunity of performing "Stand Forever" on a white balcony while a thousand doves fill the sky, or "Do You Know What I'm Saying?" reclining on a tattered chaise-lounge in a ballgown covered in stigmatic blood, she looks at me like I've grown antenna. She has, I tell her, the makings of the greatest show on earth here, a chance among chances to play the flaming diva angle to the hilt.
"I don't know," she says, doubtfully, like the antenna have just turned green at the ends and are going "beep." "If you're going to be that over-the-top, there'd have to be very hefty hints that you were taking the piss, or you end up like everybody else with a 40-piece orchestra."
Oh, go on.
"We shall see."
"I want to stand forever / Till the mountains crumble into the sea / And that's not as unlikely as it used to be"
"I'm two, three years older now, I can't be something I'm not, and I don't want to be. I'm happy with this. I can't be happy, chirpy, poppy Wendy. That was fine when I was that person, but I'm not any longer. I've grown up a bit."
Expertly timed pause.
"Just a bit, mind you."