Question: Who is Elvis Costello, and what does he want from us? Answer: None of our business.
Costello is an enigma. There's something burning behind his four eyes, but the nature of the fire is classified information. If his thought patterns could be captured on an Etch-a-Sketch, the result would be a very unpleasant montage of jagged lines. People would feel uncomfortable and a lot wiser after looking at it. It's probably for the best that Costello's demons are his own. The important thing is that these demons prod him forward.
Costello is angry. Not like the brooding short-haired hipster who pulled a switchblade on somebody at Zoogies before a Plasmatics show last week. Costello eats runts like that for breakfast.
Costello can articulate his anger, and he uses his temperament (which is as stable as a frayed electrical wire) as the catalyst for much of his material. He's a superb vocalist and a perceptive lyricist. But his unique musical contribution is the unlikely equation he dreamt up while biding his time as a computer operator.
Pop anger. Costello's perpetual ill will is inspired by and directed at the gentler sex, but it's not a misogynist manifesto as much as the declaration of a cynical romantic.
Costello doesn't sing punk songs, he shouts angry love songs. Or he murmurs or whispers them. His bitterness is biting, but his wistfulness can't be disguised. Costello is that one perceptive prick in the crowd who can see how futile all these relationships are, but can't give them up. He's not stupid enough to drive all night to buy somebody shoes nor is he apathetic enough to declare that love stinks.
Costello is a recluse. He's notorious for refusing to be interviewed. Reporters are as welcome backstage at a Costello show as bacteria in an oxygen tent. Like African natives who believe that a piece of the soul is stolen when the shutter clicks, Costello doesn't like to be photographed. (But as Al Pacino said in Godfather Part II, you can shoot anyone. The A&E photographer/sniper hid behind some urns near the Northrop ceiling last Friday night. We had a backup nestled in a nearby grassy knoll.)
Costello is prolific. The supply of Costello material might exceed demand, but he doesn't care. In 1980 he released Get Happy, a sarcastically titled collection of 20 songs that initially seemed an exercise in groove cramming.
Hindsight has revealed the album's strengths. Get Happy is an impeccable mixture of pop ballads, rock songs, and sardonic words. Taking Liberties, a slapdash collection of B-sides and unreleased material, soon followed. And Trust, his new album, will be available within weeks.
Costello appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1977 when the Sex Pistols stood up NBC. He seemed like a demented Poindexter riveted to his guitar, which he played with seizure-induced movements. People chuckled: for about five seconds. There was something there. Costello demanded attention and he deserved it.
If the axes of the metal morons are phallic appendages, Costello's guitar is a physical extension of his paranoia. He strums it violently and almost spastically. He doesn't take leads.
I'd never seen him live before last Friday night, and I brought two preconceived images with me: the hellion who played the Longhorn in 1977 and the aloof, disinterested performer who ignored his audience at the Civic Center Theater show in 1978.
Friday's show bore no resemblance to the deranged or apathetic extremes of Costello. He played an unusually long set, tacked on three encores, and cheerfully acknowledged his listeners.
Perhaps he was egged on by the enthusiastic response he received. Oddly enough, after the show there were a lot of claims that Costello has been seriously upstaged by Squeeze, the very hot warm up act.
Squeeze played a zingy set highlighted by Glenn Tilbrook's powerhouse guitar playing. They're much better musicians than Costello's three-piece band, The Attractions, which is only a vehicle for Costello. Without him they'd probably be lost, though the keyboardist is proficient. Still, I'll take the tortured artist any day.
Costello appeared in a blue suit with tinted glasses, and when things got hectic he draped his necktie over his shoulders. For Costello, this is letting it all hang out. For most of the show his face was buried in the microphone so he may have appeared stiff, but he remained more dynamic than twice his weight in jumping rockers.
The concert was paced with a string of short numbers from Get Happy and Trust. The changes in tempo were jarring — from the searing "High Fidelity" to the almost bluesy "Clowntime is Over," and from the raucous "King Horse" to a wonderful rendering of "Secondary Modern," where Costello let each word drip from his lips.
For such an unpolished crew, Captain Costello elicits great things from The Attractions. But the musical diversity of the relaxed set was an irritant to large sections of the crowd who wanted more energetic moments like the mile-a-minute "Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."
Costello was on his best behavior. He cracked occasional smiles and was generous with the oldies, playing "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison," and a lengthy "Watching the Detectives," with a snippet of Stevie Wonder's "Masterblaster (Jammin)" tossed in.
Yet, too many listeners sat mummified during the set and left Northrop grumbling. Before they started bickering and elevating Squeeze over Costello they should have asked themselves: what did they want from Elvis Costello?
I came away with far more than I'd bargained for.