The beloved entertainer answers my call to his room with a croak. He's not up yet. I'm not surprised. We've been up most of the night, drinking our fool heads off at a party celebrating the Irish Music Awards. We'd driven back to Dublin in the haunted hours before dawn, drunk and rowdy, no doubt convinced we were having the time of our lives. This morning we feel like death, of course, bones growing out of our heads, tongues turning to chalk, hoarse-voiced and delirious.
On the phone now, to Costello, in the lobby of his hotel, I'm shaking, wracked by nausea, chills and fever. Costello sounds as bad as I feel, which is as bad as it gets. He asks for 15 minutes to pull himself together. I tell him we'll give him 30 and meet him in the bar, where Sheehan and I have beers for breakfast. Costello joins us, looking like his heels have dragged him all night across scrubland, naked. We all proceed to feel very sorry for ourselves, and then we go up to Costello's room, heads still pounding, every nerve end flayed and twitching.
We talk late into the afternoon, too tired almost to quit. Drinks keep arriving. Pretty soon, I'm getting drunk again. We try to remember when either of us last felt quite so bad, and Costello remembers when it was always like this for him — endless tours, fuelled by drugs and too much booze, every day a hangover, a stumbling through entire seasons, strung out on alcohol and narcotics; hell, after the novelty had worn off, leaving only the habit and the debris.
"I really thought all that nonsense had reached a kind of peak when we were in Holland doing Get Happy!!," Costello says, his voice chipped at the edges with exhaustion, "when we were literally writing songs on the way to the studio from the bar. But later, it was just as bad. Probably worse. When we were in Nashville for Almost Blue, there was a film crew with us, making that South Bank Show documentary. While they were filming, it was all very serious, and I'd be making all these ponderous statements about why I was making this country album, which everyone seemed to think was a completely lunatic thing to be doing. But as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, it was 'Right — more drugs, where's the f***in' drinks?' Screaming our bloody heads off, because we were just so completely f***in' out of it.
"A lot of people think that album sounds so depressed because I was drinking so much at the time. But there were other things that contributed to that, things were happening in my private life that! don't really want to talk about. It wasn't just drinking. I mean, I was drinking a lot in f***in' '78. But I was having a better time then. It's when you're drinking and you're not happy, that's when you've got to worry. That's when it's gonna affect the way you look at things, because you're probably drinking for the wrong reasons. And that's when things start to get warped and you don't think anything through.
"I remember Nick Lowe once said to me, he said, 'You know, I just don't understand you. You fight every drink or any drugs you take. You fight them all the time. You're trying to stay straight all the way through it.' And I still do it. I'll never admit that I'm drunk. But we all drink. And sometimes it's for the right reasons... to let your mind off the leash for a while, and have a bit of fun, and then you don't mind if you make a bit of a prat of yourself, like last night. And it doesn't matter if you end up shouting at people, or have a punch up or whatever, as long as you wake up the same person. It's when you don't want to wake up the same person that you've got a problem. "And I think I maybe went through that for a while. There were times when I'd feel every moment as bad I do this morning. Times when you'd wake up, feeling like you were knocking on heaven's f***in' door and there'd be nobody there to f***in' answer you. Those were the worse times..."
There was a general feeling back then that you were purposely f***ing up your life to give you material for your songs.
"I think I did that for about a year," Costello says, tired now and showing it. "At the very most. And then I began to mistrust the results. Because if you do that, it's like when they pour acid in rabbits' eyes or something. What does it prove? It proves that it hurts the animal. Very smart. It's unnecessary research. And I guess I did some unnecessary research for a while. And then I'd write something that would scare the hell out of me... Like, there's a couple of things on Get Happy!!, that when I read them back, I just scared the hell out of myself. And I thought, 'Uh-uh... better not think any more about this... it's going too far...' Because you can think too f***in' much, you know, and it gets a bit f***in' evil"
Did you ever during this period think you were going too for, becoming too personal, too explicit, pouring too much venom, rage and spite into your songs?
"Maybe in retrospect... I can recognise sometimes where I maybe went over the line. But then again, I was never really that specific. I mean, people who really do pay too much attention for their own good have tried to peg certain songs to certain people. It's like a game, isn't it, that started in the early Seventies with people like Joni Mitchell. People always wanted to know who those songs were about. And people have tried that with me, and it's always been wrong.
"The fact is, those songs were never merely confessional... Even if you're satisfying your own selfish desire to put somebody down in a song or praise them, it isn't important that everybody knows who you're writing about or the specific emotional situation that provoked it. The song should have a universal appeal, otherwise it doesn't serve any purpose. It becomes merely self-indulgent. Like, 'Let me tell you some more secrets about myself...' It's all me me me. And that just gets really f***in' painful after a while. But then you get people saying, 'Well at least it's honest.' But is it? Is it honest to go around going, 'Look at my open sores.' I don't think it is. I think it's just f'in' indulgent."
Do you feel resentful, then, that people still dig through the bones of your songs, looking for the explicitly autobiographical in your writing? "No, I don't resent it," Costello laughs, setting off a bout of wheezing. "Just blame John Lennon. It's the Plastic Ono Band, that album started it all. After that everything was supposed to be f***in' confessional. The early Seventies were full of all these people baring their f***in' souls for public scrutiny. There were records whose authenticity depended on the confessional aspect, and if you read certain magazines and the background interviews, you knew who these songs were about.
"And that for me always used to spoil it. Particularly when you found out what dickheads some of the people were that they were writing about. I'd rather have them be like Smokey Robinson songs, which could be about anyone. I don't think it's important that people know who 'Alison' was actually about. It's none of their f***in' business. It's a song. 'I Want You' is a song. It doesn't matter who it's about...
People still automatically assume it's addressed to Cait... "Yeah," he says wearily. "But it's just nonsense. It's just a song. It's a really well written song. It's also very personal, but you don't have to know the whole story to be touched by it... It's like people might say this new record is less personal because most of it's written in the third person. That's just as misguided. It all came out of my head, so how can it not be personal, you know... But there are still people, yeah, who want everything I've done documented and explained... but we're really getting into something else here.
"Like I say, it's all in the past... none of it means a damn. You can't go digging around forever in the past. It's history. Let it go. It's what I'm doing now that counts. That's what I want people to realise."
WE were in Dublin to talk about Spike, as if it hadn't been talked about enough already. The album arrived in February, in a blizzard of promotional activity unprecedented in Costello's career. For the first couple of weeks of the album's release, he was everywhere. You couldn't pick up a magazine, turn on the radio or television without finding Costello waxing lyrical about the record.
It got to the point eventually where all this public salesmanship seemed evidence almost of a desperate attempt by Costello to revive an interest in himself and his work, increasingly marginalised in the Eighties, and to recapture the commercial ground he'd lost after the enormous commercial success of Armed Forces in 1979. There were times, though, when his cheerful bluster seemed positively ingratiating.
"I certainly didn't feel that way," Costello bristles when this is brought up. "I think it's important to remember that the last 10 years with Columbia in America were often really frustrating. They just didn't know how to promote us. They'd run out of ideas. And by the end, I think they'd just given up, especially after King Of America, which they didn't have a f***in' clue what to do with, and Blood And Chocolate, which they hated and subsequently just f"'in' buried.
"So this was our first one with Warner Brothers, and obviously you've got to accept the fact that the record company has nothing but horror stories from the past about you, and I simply didn't want to get off on the wrong foot with them and end up having to go through the same old f***in' battles just to get a f***in' record in the shops.
"So when the impetus came from America for me to promote the album, I said I'd do it. There was nothing ingratiating about it. As for being desperate — you can't force people to put you on the covers of magazines or on the television or the radio or whatever. That was their choice. And it just proves to me how f"in' dull everything must be right now, if someone with my tenure in the business can just reappear after three years and get that kind of attention. I mean, it's no big f***in' deal.
"But it amazed me, the ease which on the one hand you can come back and command the centre stage, just by saying you're there, and secondly still be regarded as somewhat outrageous. But what else is happening? In England, there's a cult a week for some band that's gonna save us all, and then you never f***in' hear of them again. It's very easy and I suppose attractive to get excited and emotional about The Darling Buds or somebody. But after a while, you can't keep up with who's the latest flame.
"And who's outrageous anymore? Like I was just in a radio station somewhere in America, in the south, quite a mainstream station. And this guy said, quite a mainstream station. And this guy said, 'Sometimes I just have to let my hair down and get outta here, go over to my old college station and play as much Nick Heyward as I like!' And with all due respect to Nick, he's no Jimmy Reed. I mean, I think Nick Heyward's made a couple of nice records, but he's not the wild man of rock 'n' roll. But he was this guy's definition of outrageous... And if that's indicative of the present climate, it's maybe not so curious that I still get some attention. And it's maybe why anything I do, not so much in England, but particularly in the States, seems to them to be effortlessly weird.
"So to get over to them the fact that the record isn't all that strange, you sometimes have to fill in a little of the background. You know, I've run into this a lot. People build up such preconceptions or they just associate you with one thing and they can't hear anything else you do. It's like they're looking at a painting you've done, upside down. Unless you can change their point of view, they're never gonna see what that picture is. That's another reason I thought talking about the album was worthwhile.
"I mean, there are people even now that can't hear this record because they can only hear the old records through it. They manage to synthesize the sound of it. I've actually read it in print: that this sounds exactly like all my other records. Some German guy when I was doing all the interviews in Europe, he came along in a trench coat and he's going, 'I zink ze rekort iz a verk of genius, but zer iz no new way forwert.' He thought there were no new ideas on it. I said, Well, I don't remember ever before writing a song about a comedian dying and going up to heaven and meeting God. Show me were that appears in my back catalogue and I'll agree with you.' And he went, 'No ...it does not have ze post-modern vey.' And I thought, 'What's post-modern?' It doesn't exist. It's an oxymoron. It's a senseless concept. Like military intelligence. Or Vice President Dan Quayle.
"But, anyway, it proved the point that sometimes with the best will in the world to try and speak plainly to people, you can't do anything about how people listen to what you're doing. They'll hear whatever they want to hear."
My own first reaction to Spike was loud and indignant the furious gnashing of a fan betrayed, small-minded and spiteful. My favourite Costello albums have invariably found him in harness with The Attractions, galloping at full tilt, often neurotic, eyes blazing, burning up the surrounding landscape. Spike is a notably different beast, and at first I wasn't much convinced by any of it.
As you'll know, the record was recorded in London, Hollywood, Ireland and New Orleans, and features an international supporting cast, including co-producer and "musical conscience" T-Bone Burnett, Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Roger McGuinn, Allen Toussaint, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, guitarist Marc Ribot and percussionist Michael Blair from Tom Waits' band, veteran jazzer Buell Neidlinger, an assortment of former Confederates and a line-up of some of Ireland's finest traditional musicians.
The album largely reflects these global resources, romping through what Village Voice critic Richard Gehr described as "the rock of all ages: Morrisonian Celtic soul, gospel, R&B, protest folk, cool jazz, C&W and ballads". Costello has been this diverse before, but never all at once. Spike sounded initially like a kind of musical tourism.
Costello is appalled by this description.
"I absolutely resent that," he says, hauling himself out of a slouch. "You make it sound like we were sending these songs on f***in' holiday. It's nonsense. The songs were recorded wherever it was best for the songs, and played by the people we thought would play them best.
"I don't think your criticism holds up at all. I think it's just a cheap shot. You know, it's amazing. I got accused yesterday of using the Irish musicians on 'Any King's Shilling' because it was fashionable to be into traditional folk music, it's a ludicrous argument. I was getting thrown out of folk clubs 20 years ago...
"And it really just goes to show the depth of ignorance of people who can't hear that the instruments are being used in a different way to traditional music. On 'Any King's Shilling', the song is set in Dublin in World War One, and I wanted to complement that location musically. I wanted it to sound like 1 914, you know. So we wanted it to have the harp, and to sound very formal, like drawing room music. And the conversation in the song is also quite consciously written in that very formal turn-of-the-century idiom.
"I mean, I'm not a mug. I know what I'm doing. I've been doing this for 12 f***in' years. I know how to speak now, thank you. And the conversation in the song couldn't have been, 'Hey, Charlie, yer better watch aht, they're gonna kick yer f***in' 'ead in, mate. 'I'm trying in the song to imitate the way people spoke then. It's quite conscious. It's not important that people applaud and go, 'Oh, what a clever literary device.' I mean, you don't want to turn into Tom Stoppard or someone. But if I'd written it in a more contemporary vocabulary and had contemporary instruments, people would have assumed it's taking place in Belfast or Beirut or wherever. And I actually wanted to tell a more specific story.
"At the same time, it's obviously not lost on me that the song has a more topical relevance. The idea that the song could be about something that's still happening today isn't beyond possibility. But you don't have to shout it from the f***in' mountain tops to make sure people make the connection. So the choice of instruments and the formality of the arrangement, it isn't a form of musical tourism. It's an attempts create a kind of snapshot of the past.
"And for my money, it works. It's only if you're determined to criticise the record without thinking about it that you could say I'm using these instruments just because they're hip. That's just shit, nonsense. In each case, each song was a story that we told from the inside first. It's not what the more facile critics have assumed, which is that it's somehow showing off, which it isn't at all. I can get really indignant about this, because I really know I'm justified in the use of all the instruments.
"When it comes down to it, they don't know what I know. It sounds arrogant, but that happens to be the way it is."
It took a while for Spike to sink in. I still have to leave the room whenever "Veronica" comes on, but over the last couple of months, as the musical climate deteriorates and the rediscovery of the f***ing wah wah pedal is about the only thing that gets the young braves excited, the record's become increasingly indispensible.
Beyond the crafted excellence of songs like "...This Town...," "Let Him Dangle," "God's Comic," "Satellite," "Any King's Shilling," "Miss Macbeth" and "Last Boat Leaving," the album would be worth the price of admission for one track alone. I'm thinking, of course, of "Tramp The Dirt Down", Costello's furious indictment of 10 years of Conservative government and Margaret Thatcher specifically, in which Costello wishes the dragon dead and imagines dancing on her grave. It's a vicious tirade, all the more brutal for the absence of melodrama, breast beating self-righteousness and political posturing. The clear-sightedness of its venom is chilling.
As Greil Marcus observed in Village Voice: "To make true political music, you have to say what decent people don't want to hear; that's something that people fit for satellite benefit concerts will never understand, and that Costello understood before anyone heard his name." It's this terrific disinclination to pander to liberalistic, simple minded humanistic self-righteousness that separates Costello so profoundly from the simpering conceits, the bland admonishments, the reek of moral attitudinizing that marks the worried global concerns of Bono and Jim Kerr and Sting...
"...Sting," Costello laughs. He knows what I'm talking about. "I always try to avoid slandering Sting because he's such an easy target," he continues. "And he's so pompous at times, but I think he's basically a decent guy... We had a very funny conversation at that Clapham anti-apartheid thing that Dammers put together, the one that lost all the money. And he came into my dressing room, because he always seems to sort of seek me out if we're ever anywhere together, to take me to task for the last horrible thing I've said about him.
"And he said, 'I really don't know what I'm going to do next, What topics are there left for me to discuss?' And I said, 'That's the f***in' trouble with you.' I said, 'You've been a bloody pop star for 10 years — now you want to be a serious f***in artist. Don't come around here with your serious artist shit. And by the way, fire that f***in' piano player.' He seemed to take it quite well. And I think it's good for people like that to hove people like me around to take the piss out of them... It's almost like they need people who aren't afraid to take the piss out of them so they can sharpen their act up a bit. Because he's pretty good, Sting, when you get in a little fencing match with him. He's a pretty sharp guy. He's not quite as pompous and idiotic as he might appear in a few of the announcements he makes in the papers."
Then why do I feel this irresistible compulsion to ridicule the posturing old bastard at every conceivable opportunity?
"Probably because nothing he ever does quite rings true," Costello offers. "If he's making a speech about the Amazonian rain forests, he has to go and get himself painted up by the tribe... and it's like, 'Oh, NO! Don't do that, Sting! For f***'s sake.' But that's maybe what you've got to do if you're standing onstage at the Markana stadium in Rio trying to make a very sincere statement. Maybe you do have to make it in neon letters, eight feet high. In which case, of course it's gonna end up being a f***in' platitude.
"I remember I did this benefit show with Susannah York a few years ago, called The Big One. And it had real good intentions, and it had U2 and The Style Council and Ian Dury and a few other people who have since disappeared, like Mari Wilson. And every f***in' actor in England was on it. And it ran hideously over time, by about three-and-a-half hours. And these people couldn't see that the words they were saying were just falling out of their mouths and dropping onto the floor. And in the long run, I was the same as everyone else...
"Everything was just like... all the words they were spouting were like... it was like they were made out of cast iron. They didn't fly through the air and hit people where they're supposed to be hit, wherever it is, the head or the heart. They just went clunk on the floor, like a load of f***in' scrap metal, you know.
"And I suppose it was just this very effete, affected form of protest that didn't really mean anything that got to me. These people, they really meant it. I think they were sincere, so I don't want to start slagging them off. But in the long run, it was just a lot of cocktail party chat.
"It reminded me of that Woody Allen movie. He's at some chi-chi kind of party and everyone's talking about orgasms, and then suddenly he introduces Nazis into the conversation. He tells them that a group of Nazis are gonna march on New Jersey. And this guy goes, 'Oh, yes — there was a witheringly funny cartoon about that in the papers... Humour, that's the way to deal with these people, don't you think?' And Woody Allen says, 'No.' He says, 'When it comes to Nazis, I find baseball bats are much more effective.'
"I don't think you have to spend too long pondering the significance of that remark to get the point."
So what does "Tramp The Dirt Down" achieve, what will it change?
"Nothing I can think of," says Costello. "I honestly don't think it will change anything. Like I said to one guy who asked a similar question, songs like that, they're like tiny marker buoys... this is where the ship went down. A song like that, it's not a party political broadcast, there's no manifesto... It just says, 'I'll only be happy when this woman's dead.'
"And some people no doubt might find that extreme. But it's meant to be. I make no apology for that song. It's an honest emotional response to events. And yes, it's unreasonable, it's irrational, and writing it was like casting out demons or something. And the song itself is the result of a form of madness, because when you get to that point of thinking these thoughts, actually wishing somebody dead, it really does become a form of madness. It's a psychopathic thought. And it's f***in' disturbing to find it in your own head. But it would be cowardly not to express it. Because once it's there, if you don't get it out, it's only gonna come back and haunt you some more.
"I also think you have to remember that it's not only her the song is aimed at. It's what she represents. The way she's changed the way people value things. It's like some kind of mass hypnosis she's achieved. People are afraid to speak out. You know, one thing I thought I'd be asked when people heard it was whether I was saying it might've been a good thing if she'd died at Brighton. I don't think so. It would have made things 10 times worse, because then she would have been a martyr. We would have had a dead queen. So, really, in a profound sense, the song is hopeless. It's a hopeless argument. Because I think it's a hopeless situation. So, no, it's not in a large, historical sense, going to change anything.
"But I think it does have maybe an individual effect. There's always a chance it'll sneak through somehow. Like, I sang it in Shetland, at the folk festival, and I sang it in one place that was very brightly lit and I could see the audience quite clearly. And all the way through, there was one guy nodding away, applauding every line, obviously getting into it. And on the other side, there was another guy being physically restrained from getting up on the stage and hitting me. He just fused, he really went. You could see it in his face. And I thought, Well, I've really got a winner now.' To the extent, you know, that it had succeeded in being at least provocative."
Is that all you can ask of a song these days?
"I've never really known what you're supposed to expect from songs," Costello says. "And I think there's a danger in the very talking about it, it makes it seem like you've achieved more than you have..
Especially when the song itself becomes merely attention grabbing because of its subject. Like Morrissey's "Margaret On The Guillotine", which ended up as a novelty, trivialising the argument.
"I don't know much about Morrissey," Costello admits, "apart from the fact that he sometimes brings out records with the greatest titles in the world, which somewhere along the line he neglects to write songs for. But I haven't heard that particular song, so I can't really comment on it. But generally, I think the best that can be achieved by songs like 'Tramp The Dirt Down' is something like 'Free Nelson Mandela' achieved. The record didn't get Mandela released, but it did increase the membership of the anti-apartheid movement, because Jerry very intelligently printed their address on the sleeve. And the record introduced Mandela to a lot of people who maybe otherwise would never have heard of him. And there's a point where political art only works at that level — the communication of basic information.
"On a more immediate level," Costello goes on, no stopping him now, "you can, I suppose, hope to annoy people, like that guy in Shetland. I mean, The Sun ran a piece a couple of weeks ago saying I'd been banned by the BBC because I said 'I'm f***in' sick of this' on The Late Show. I haven't seen the programme, but I remember swearing. I was asked something and I remember saying, 'I'm 35 years old, I'm not a boy any more. Don't patronise me.' It's like that Grateful Dead song, 'Ship Of Fools' — "It makes me wild / With 30 years upon my head / To have you call me child"... You do sometimes feel particularly with the nanny aspect of this government, that they are treating everybody like they're little f***in children...
"So The Sun runs this thing saying I swore on a live television show. And it was obviously pre-recorded because I was in America when it was shown. But a spokesman is supposed to have said, 'Well, it jolly well caused a stink around here at the BBC.' And they even quoted me. 'Costello said last night, "I stand by every word." Well, they must be f***in telepathic at the f***n Sun, because no one spoke to me about it.
"But that's an accolade, to get that sort of thing written about you in The Sun. It means you're still getting up somebody's f***in nose.
"And these days, that's an achievement in itself."