Once he was so much a part of things that Little & Large did impressions of him. Now he's so much out of things that my impressions hardly seem to matter.
"Hands up if you've been here before." My hands stay by my side. "Now hands up if you were lying." My hand shoots up. See, I was here before. The last time. (Just making it clear that I have a right to speak about Mr Costello.) We have to establish these things, it seems. Boring as all hell, but there you go. So, yes, I did seem him at The Roundhouse. I saw him supporting Santana at Crystal Palace. (Yikes! — Ed) Saw him at The Nashville supported by The Pop Group. He always had brilliant supports — Richard Hell; John Cooper Clarke; Pere Ubu. There's no support tonight. I know what you're thinking. "Here we go. No support tonight. Not like the old days." Nope. Thank f***.
Let's get specific. He plays "You Belong To Me". It's odd without the drum sound. That drum sound. (Three seminal LPs — Live At The Witch Trials, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, This Year's Model — three DRUM albums.) Floppy. He plays "Pump It Up" with an accordion. Point-missing stuff. He turns "Alison" into "He'll Have To Go". (He used to turn it into a heart-breaking John Hiatt song whose title escapes me. The sadness doesn't and I miss it.) He plays "I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)" and it's like Elton John playing "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fightin')." Embarrassing.
BUT! He plays "Beyond Belief." Straight. He plays "Accidents Will Happen." Straight. He plays "Just About Glad." Acoustically. And, most of all, he sings "Riot Act," a song of unmatched bitterness, bloody-mindedness and selfishness. Three of my favourite things. One of my favourite songs. Delivered without a trace of the ho-hums that blight much of the evening. At these moments smug nostalgia is hijacked by contemporary bile and I can stop enjoying it as An Event.
But, before I turn into an anal Elvis fan, why does he change the lyrics of "Man Out Of lime"? Why play "Shipbuilding"? — let's get to the nitty-gritty. Where does The Ex-Imposter fit in these days? I remember him stopping playing the piano at The Royal Festival Hall to tell us, "My style has been compared to Rubenstein. Helena Rubenstein." That's when I fell in love with Elvis Costello. I remember him saying a couple of years and a handful of mediocre albums later that when he started out, "You were punk or you were new wave. Or you were more intelligent than that." That's when my love for Elvis Costello turned to hate. Tonight I fall in love with him all over again, and that love turns to hate all over again.
Where does this leave him in the grand scheme of things? Elvis Costello is still The Great Unknown, I'm glad to say. Just about glad.