There's a deceptive balm in the air, a bright December afternoon curdled by icy darts of breeze, as Elvis Costello and Cait O'Riordan stride along the thoroughfare from their flat in London toward Holland Park. After a pitstop at a local health store for bags of nuts, Elvis leads the way up a stiff, winding incline, setting a pace better reserved for occasions when you're about to miss a plane, extolling the beauty of the day while Cait, with her curious half-smile, moves quietly apace. The park looks wild and overgrown, an English garden with an Irish attitude. Cait saunters off to look for rabbits while Elvis settles on a park bench. He opens his bag and is soon accosted by fat squirrels, who proceed to eat walnuts out of his hand.
"Patience is a virtue, young squirrel, "he counsels, as one particularly rapacious fan climbs down a tree to nudge the back of his shoulder. He pulls on a glove, turns and feeds the squirrel from his open palm. "You have to be careful," he adds as an aside. "They'll take your bloody fingers off."
Well, Elvis Costello should know. Ten years ago, the man who sang, "I want to bite the hand that feeds me" was top of the pops and talk of the town. Life-sized Costello posters adorned the walls of CBS publicists, while their bosses broke in new calculators figuring his futures. His label debut, My Aim Is True, packed trendy clubs while critics compared him to Buddy Holly. This Year's Model fired concert halls while critics compared him to Bob Dylan. Armed Forces filled bigger halls while critics compared him to George Gershwin. Everyone agreed: Elvis Costello was an Artist.
Then a funny thing happened. Elvis turned out to be an artist. And not artist as in Fleetwood Mac, coming on real sophisticated while turning out fluff by the boxcar, but the kind who makes unpleasant scenes and takes chances with his music and foils your expectations without even saying excuse me. So Costello followed the majestic Armed Forces with an instant record hop (Get Happy!), a bunch of country standards (Almost Blue), an album of pop tunes reeking of torture and so weirdly recorded it felt like a masterpiece gashed with a broken bottle (Trust), and then an album of even knottier songs, with orchestral arrangements no less (Imperial Bedroom), which critics, fans and record company executives quickly hailed as a work of genius, breathed a sigh of relief they were now off the hook, and tuned in to the new Stevie Nicks album. Punch the Clock never had a chance, and when Elvis staggered in with Goodbye Cruel World, his only real disappointment in a decade of unusually prolific and provocative work, you could feel the vultures circling. This year's model indeed.
To be sure, Elvis provided his share of brilliant mistakes and bad feelings along the way. But hey, the guy is an artist. So three years ago he began reconstructing his image and career with the wonderful King of America, the first album since his debut recorded largely without the Attractions, then brought back the Attractions for a wild reprise, Blood and Chocolate. He toured the U.S. and Europe with a good-natured show that included two bands, a spinning "wheel of fortune" to determine his repertoire and a go-go dancer that bore suspicious resemblance to inamorata Cait. He scored music for a film, The Courier, in which she stars. He struck up a songwriting collaboration with a fellow Liverpudlian name of Paul McCartney. He left CBS Records and signed with Warner Bros. And on a more personal note, he and Cait decided to vacate their London flat to live in a house near Dublin, Ireland.
That's a lot of changes, even for Costello. And nowhere is that mercurial mood more evident than on Spike, his Warners debut, and perhaps the most musically ambitious album of his career. "I hadn't made a record in two years and I really wanted something different," he explains. "Obviously, when you work with the same bunch of musicians, there's the advantage that you can count on their interpretations and their style is very vivid to you. But there's a point at which it becomes stale, and you need to stretch more. I didn't want to just take a band into the studio, even a band I'd been using for 10 years. I thought it was time to do this music that was in my head."
Spike was recorded over four months time, in studios in Dublin, New Orleans, London and Los Angeles. It includes musicians as disparate as McCartney, Roger McGuinn, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Chrissie Hynde, Marc Ribot, Benmont Tench, Mitchell Froom, Donal Lunny, Steve Wickham, Allen Toussaint and the ubiquitous T-Bone Burnett, sometimes in seemingly kaleidoscopic combination. More to the point, Elvis gave the musicians room to help shape the sound of his album, rather than simply request stock parts.
"I think the lazy take on this record will be, 'Oh it's eclectic,'" Elvis observes with some dread. "Which I don't think it is. That's a confinement that's been built out of a very narrow minded attitude toward rock 'n' roll. If you listen to some of the great rock 'n' roll of the '50s, it's full of novelty sounds. Think how eccentric Elvis Presley must have sounded to crooners. But over the years it's become amazingly conservative music."
An irony is that when Elvis first came on the scene as part of the late '70s punk explosion, he was hailed as the lone exemplar of pop's more traditional, conservative impulses. (Translation: He wrote the best melody lines.) He still enjoys his way around a hook — on "This Town," one of Spike's more inspired strokes, he gets Paul McCartney to play bass to Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker. And as anyone who's spent time with him can testify, Costello possesses a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of pop music's history and tradition, which makes him more able than most to avoid the cliches and dilettantism that tend to afflict musicians who roam outside their genres.
But what really gives Spike its punch is more elemental than that. It's Elvis being Elvis. The songs are by turn hilarious spooky, nasty, even out to lunch — anything but bloodless. The chap does have a way of dicing up the world.
Among Spike's offerings, for instance, are songs based on a 1952 murder trial ("Let Him Dangle"), a contemporary news item ("Coal Train Robberies"), and a tale handed down from his grandfather ("Any King's Shilling"). For Costello, it's an unusually narrative approach, "looking out rather than in.
"There's more storytelling," he says. "But it's all part of your life, really. The only difference is that I turn the binoculars around. On other records I've been poking at myself — "What happened to me?' Well, this is what I'm thinking about when I'm not thinking about 'What happened to me' or 'What happened to this person that I care about?'
"It comes down to being more settled as a person," he decides. "Your personal life has a bit less froth than a few years before, so there's no real necessity... not that there was ever a necessity to talk about yourself. But it seems important at the time.
"I don't think I ever got too indulgent, hopefully, with the confessional measure. I like to be truthful about things, some of which are quite painful, but only because they happen to other people as well, and that's the job of songwriting. The fact that there's not so many songs now about personal relationships doesn't mean my life has become dead in that sense anything but! It's the opposite. So I'm free to look at other things."
Elvis may have achieved some measure of domestic tranquility, but he hasn't lost his passion, or his edge. He loves to spar with ideas and is a natural raconteur. (He also displays the markings of a formidable rock critic — he's got sharp ears, listens to everything and doesn't mind calling a spade a spade.)
For all that, Elvis Costello comes across as a warm, funny, even genial guy. If he's never been mellow — he's one of the few people I've met who orders double expressos and then asks for a refill — he retains the good sense to be true to himself without taking that self too seriously.
MUSICIAN: Spike would seem to have a lot in common with King of America — both produced with T-Bone Burnett, mostly with American musicians and minus the Attractions. But the musical approach here is radical by comparison.
On King of America the environment was designed by T-Bone: We cast that record together but he made all the suggestions and was like my interpreter for what was needed. There wasn't a tremendous amount of arrangement on that record. The songs were so simple, structurally, that it was pretty easy for those musicians to grab the right kind of feel, the right arrangements. The songs that didn't turn out so well, or didn't even make the record, were the ones that begged for more sophisticated, slightly fuller, more arranged sounds. So when it came to doing this record, the pre-planning was about 75 percent of it, I would say.
Before this album I did the soundtrack for The Courier, and it was great because I didn't have to worry about words or song structures at all. It was like being let off the leash. I could juxtapose instruments that I couldn't get away with doing, or didn't think I could, inside a song. I wouldn't make any claims for it being Nino Rota or anything, but when he heard the soundtrack T-Bone said to me, "This is the way you should do your album, with the same freedom of sounds. America was very strict, very formal; this should be the complete opposite, or else it'll just be like, 'Oh, here are the styles he didn't do on King of America. "'It'd still be bound by its genre. So that was a good piece of advice. He said, "Let's bring on [engineer and co-producer] Kevin Killen, because he's the guy who'll make sense of the way you work. " And when we talked about sounds he said, "You should take that responsibility, otherwise it'll be the way I hear your songs, not the way you hear them." So that was T-Bone's role on this record, more like a devil's advocate or provocateur, you know?
Maybe you should have given him a "philosopher" credit.
Yeah, a guru! We went about drawing lists of people we might get. On this record there were no "live" tracking sessions, so it didn't make any difference whether the people could get on with each other. It was more like that thing you'd do when you were a kid, making your ideal baseball team out of all the famous players.
One of the good things about working instrument by instrument, although it's very slow, is you record someone and then the next person has to react to that. I could see the whole picture; I was like the guy with the box off the jigsaw. I wasn't being Stanislavski or anything, I wasn't trying to be weird. But sometimes happy accidents came out of that "backwards" way of recording.
I suppose the oddest part of the recording was in New Orleans, because we had the Dirty Dozen Brass Band playing these parts with just drum patterns and maybe an acoustic guitar marking out the changes and Allen Toussaint playing piano. Very bare arrangements. But when we took them to L. A. we found we didn't really want to put much more on those tracks. On "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," we certainly intended to have a more conventional soul-band sound — but — but it didn't seem right. Once Toussaint's piano part was on, he's got such tremendous personality, what was the point? No bass could complement that. So the process of doing the record backwards uncomplicated it for me. It made it easier to hear the song.
And at the same time gave you the chance to expand your musical vocabulary?
I think this record is more musical. Blood and Chocolate was an all-out, raving, shouting-my-head-off record. If you sang it gently, a lot of those songs wouldn't make sense. On this record I had to relearn how I would sing the songs after we'd put the backgrounds in. If I started screaming and shouting they didn't always sound right, and I had to say, "No, it's a rock 'n' roll song, but it doesn't have to be a raucous vocal. It can be a bit sneaky."
Can you give an example?
When I sing "Pads, Paws and Claws" on acoustic guitar it comes out like a rockabilly song. But after we'd done all that sort of backwards rockabilly arrangement, the funny beat and everything, it needed a more poppy way of singing to bring the words out. There was a lot of eccentric playing going on already; it didn't need pumping up. Although if you listen, in the midst of all the beats being played backwards and the funny atonals on guitar by Marc Ribot, the song doesn't really change its structure.
That was one of the songs I wrote with Paul McCartney, you know. He was like, "We've got two verses, now we need a bridge!" He really writes like that, he really thinks about telling the story — that it's all very good to have a good hook line but maybe you need to explain what it means. I got an education in that, about being a bit more disciplined about these things. I always take for granted that people are going to understand everything I'm saying. Though he's not pedantic. He'll also go, "I like that," when you suddenly throw in something for effect that might not otherwise seem to make sense.
How did you two begin working together?
I just got a call, and then we went to a meeting to talk about it. I thought it best to come along prepared, so I brought along these half-finished things, to work on as sort of an exercise, to get to know the technique of each other's work. Those are the two songs we're co-credited with on this album, perhaps not the most vivid examples of our work together. After that we wrote a bunch of songs that were more a proper collaboration.
Will those show up on his record?
Hopefully — the ones he thinks are most appropriate to him. I'd never actually written a bunch of songs with anyone before, and what happens is, whoever has a bit more energy that day or a quicker grasp of where a song heads next, it has that person's stamp, even though you work together. So some of the songs have a bit more of me than maybe they should, since we were writing them for his record. Maybe they'll be the ones left off his record and then I'll have a crack at them. We'll just have to see.
Did you have preconceptions about working with him?
You can't deny the baggage, but you try not to let it affect you. Occasionally you look up and go, "Oh my God, that's Paul McCartney!" He's probably one of the most famous people in the world, and I'm exactly the right age to have been a fan. Then there's a certain degree of professional pride, so you're trying to put your point over and justify being asked. Not because he's such a flawless songwriter, but because I like his stuff and I want him to write the best songs — particularly if I'm involved in writing them! But it didn't get in the way much.
When you've been at the center of a hurricane like they were, I think it's inevitable that the face he gives to the public — in interviews, anyway — is a bit more defensive than other people who haven't been through so much. Writing one on one, there wasn't that distance or defensiveness. You don't lay your soul out every day — who does? But he'd go, "Oh fuck off, you can't say that," and I'd do the same thing, have a bit of humor and find a way that works for you to work together. Two people writing is not going to be as personally revelatory or confessional as one, but I don't think that's ever been a big part of what he does. He's a really good melody writer, has a fantastic voice, plays great bass and he can put together some good records.
How did you manage to get McCartney and Roger McGuinn to play on the same song ["This Town"]?
By sheer chance, while we were recording in New Orleans McGuinn was there and I was introduced to him. I was horribly drunk at the time, and I thought I'd made a complete ass of myself. But later, we rang him up and he was great. All we had was a drum machine on the track and it was like, "Roger, fill this out." But what you don't realize is that his guitar is like eight feet tall. When it came to find what other instruments went with it, even a live drummer, it didn't work. We ended up using this kind of powered-down drum machine and then taking out one beat and really turning it backwards in order to live with McGuinn's guitar. 'Cause it's so enormous, it was hard for anything to coexist with it.
McCartney went on the song last. I'd asked him specifically to use the Rickenbacker, because they don't have a tremendous amount of bass on them, but you can make them operate in a slightly higher frequency; therefore you can play a lot more notes and skip around the beat more, and part of his style is flipping between playing a counterpoint and playing a groove. He's a pretty good intuitive musician. He just finds the spot where he should play.
I don't think they'd ever been on a record together before. So I gave myself as Declan MacManus in the credits on that one. We were The Three Macs.
As one who doesn't claim a lot of technical musical expertise, was it difficult to get your ideas across to some of the studio veterans who played on Spike?
I don't know if they're just being polite, but I never seem to have that much problem getting my ideas over. When people start talking about particular intervals, using musical terminology, I might get a little lost. But it's a bit like — have you ever discovered you speak a foreign language when you're drunk? You absorb more over the years than you really admit to knowing when you're being self-conscious terms I wouldn't use myself 'cause they know I can't write it and it would sound pretentious. It's funny to be illiterate in that respect.
Especially as your songs so often have relatively sophisticated structures...
But it's just what I hear in my head. I wanted it to sound like that, so I got these players to play it! And obviously you experiment a bit. The Dirty Dozen, for instance, were great. I'd met them in Sweet Basil in the Village. I'd taken my mother to New York and we ended up going there for a late show and staying for two sets, 'cause she really liked them. The Dirty Dozen kind of incorporate the history of jazz, put their slant on it and make it their own.
I wondered what on earth they would make of our collaboration. In the studio I hit things on the piano, or sang parts I wanted to hear. And they tolerated my kind of naïveté or ignorance about things. I'm not claiming any great innovation here, this was just my way of working with horn players. (Sometimes horn players in England can be a bit snobbish about people that don't read.) Their intonation makes it much easier to arrange for them, because they can make quite simple voicings sound really rich. On "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" they'll play their slurs and it doesn't sound like gimmickry, but what they should do. The last thing I wanted, particularly in New Orleans, was to go there and put on my New Orleans coat, you know? I didn't want them to play any clichés, as they identified them. I think what we did there was balanced between stuff that sounded like it belonged in New Orleans and stuff where we were stretching them as much as they were stretching me. So in that way we didn't get into this phony thing of trying on other people's shoes.
I'd imagine you were drawn to Marc Ribot's guitar and Michael Blair's percussion from their music with Tom Waits.
Mostly from Waits, yeah. I saw Marc give the best guitar-playing performance I'd ever seen anybody give a couple of years ago at the Folies Bergère, when Tom was playing Europe. It was the most unbelievable sort of shadow-boxing act, where he got within this close to upstaging — well, not upstaging, there's no such thing as upstaging Tom Waits — but stepping over him, which no supporting player should ever do. And it pushed Tom to the limits of his performance. It's the only time I've ever seen them do that. It was like a high-wire act. And that was the thing that impressed me, that if I wanted to go in this direction, that he was the man to have.
Michael was sort of the original band member, as it were. We were going to track with T-Bone Wolk on bass, but the Hall & Gates record ran over and he had to pull out. And that accident meant that we were free to go wild with the idea of leaving instruments off. And Michael, therefore, because he had no bass player to track with, got even more into this kind of "landscape gardening" that he does with his pots and pans, and making it impossible for the next player to play any sort of stock part. Because there was no space to play it in.
There's a lot of humor in the way Michael plays, and I wanted to bring that out, because there's a lot of humor in these songs. I'm sort of undone by the image of the first couple of records. There's humor in them as well, but people didn't choose to see it at the time, because it wasn't with the times to be funny. Everything was intense. And I played up to that, reinforced it with things I said and did — and now I'm paying for it. [laughter] Now I run onstage in a gorilla suit and people still won't believe it's me doing it.
To me it feels like Imperial Bedroom climaxed one career, and with King of America and Spike you're constructing a new one.
I'm not really bothered with being a nostalgia act. I've never been afraid of saying "fuck everything else that I've done before." The good thing is that I don't feel there's anything to be embarrassed about. I've made some bad tracks, . a couple of albums that didn't quite come out the way I expected, and one of them, Goodbye Cruel World, is just a bad record. But nothing I'm absolutely ashamed of yet, which isn't bad for 12 years. If I want to pull a song out from 10 years ago, there's always one I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say, "I don't feel foolish singing this." There are advantages to having a career. You do get a repertoire — in lieu of a pension or a health plan.
Though you'll probably always get concert requests for "Alison."
I like singing that song. It created a good mood, and it's a challenge to keep singing a song like that. There was a time when I got very rebellious about it, and by our third tour of America I told the public, "I won't sing that song anymore." And then I went back on it after a couple of years and started singing different versions. In 20 years' time people might still get me to sing it.
I don't have that many hits. Though my morbid dread is getting lumbered with that crass track that suddenly becomes popular and you have to play it forever more.
You shouldn't have that problem with Spike. There aren't any crass tracks and there probably aren't any hits.
The one thing I was determined not to do on this album was make the patronizing pop single that somehow made everything else "acceptable." I wasn't gonna have the light-hearted, throwaway rock 'n' roll song. I just really don't want to do that anymore. It's not like these songs are so "important," but this is what I took my time to write about. There's no point leaving one of them off because it might depress people. If they want a nice easy ride and cheerful music, there's plenty of other records in the racks.
Several of these songs, like "Let Him Dangle" and "Tramp the Dirt Down," seem to have specific political contexts.
Well, the last thing I want this record perceived as, apart from "eclectic," is "political." 'Cause that's a write-off as well, isn't it? That's the lazy way, you know? Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is a "political" record, Lawyers in Love is a "political" record. And there's good stuff in those records.
Perhaps that's painting it with too broad a brush.
I think it's too narrow a brush. I don't see a subject called politics, it's just right and wrong and what happens in life, what you're moved to write about. Whether it has any purpose beyond that is down to the listener, isn't it? I did my job, and beyond that I can't demand that it's accepted a certain way or has some effect. "Let Him Dangle" is probably the last song to convince people of an argument. They'll say, "If that weirdo's saying it, then we should definitely bring back hanging. He's the first one we should hang!" [laughter]
It seems like government and authority always have the best arguments. They are the ones who appear clear and reasonable. They have a way of taking the heat out of everything. You only have to listen to Margaret Thatcher speak; she's terribly reasonable. The English people like her because she reminds them of some schoolteacher that you were afraid of, but also respected. And I don't have that English kind of respect in me, fortunately. It wasn't put in me as a kid. And along with a lot of other people, I can't stand her. I find her ridiculous and more than a little frightening. But it's very easy to make a totem out of her, as well.
So yes, there should be arguments to make and there will always be clearheaded people to argue the moral case. There will be bishops to argue against hanging and bishops to argue for hanging. But there should be songs to sing, as well. It's not like it's going to change a damn thing, but it gets it out of your head to say it. It stops you from kicking in the TV and maybe it does the same for somebody else. And that's the justification.
Maybe this is reading too much into it, but it strikes me that the themes and instrumentation of songs like "Tramp the Dirt Down" and "Any King's Shilling, " and your and Cait's moving to Ireland, are all part of the same impulse, embracing your lrishness, so to speak. Do you agree?
I think it's being more overtly anti-English than pro-Irish! I am quite anti-English, always have been, and it sounds paradoxical because — I am English. I was born here and I'm a third generation removed from Ireland and I don't have any of that "old sod" bullshit mentality. I really hate that kind of sentimentality. It's bogus.
I don't feel any kind of nationality, to be honest. I haven't felt at ease with "the English way" since England won the World Cup in 1966. I like football, and one of the guys played in Liverpool with my team. And I thought, "Great, we won!" That's the last time I remember being proud of being English. Now I hate it.
I've never been part of any strong community, never lived anywhere where there was that feeling, based around a school or a church. Maybe a little bit, but not enough to define that sort of clan identity a lot of people take through life. I just never fit in here. The whole empire and the Queen bit, it rolls me up the wrong way. There's an almost masochistic instinct in English people. My grandmother used to refer to the "higher-ups"; she literally believed the people she worked for were better than her. It seemed incredible to me. I couldn't persuade her otherwise...
So what inspired you to move to Ireland?
Well, I didn't feel drawn by some sort of genetic magnet. We just like the place where the house is. And I don't want to live here anymore. I don't like the attitude.
It hasn't changed my friends. I still like people for the reasons I like them. There are still certain places I like to be in this country. And I don't think Ireland is like the Garden of Eden. I would say Ireland has one of the worst entrepreneurial attitudes. The whole bloody government's on the take.
So it's not their sensibility. It's not the climate; it's not the drinking water. It's just — to be there. We lucked into a place that's nice to live and we've been living in this pokey flat for three years and we want somewhere where we can find that book that you want to read. There comes a point where there are other things than fighting the good fight — where you just say, you only get one life.
If you say you never felt like part of a community...
I don't mean like "I knew I was different as a kid. " But my parents were different. My friends always thought my folks were great, because they were hip to the music and had more contemporary attitudes. They were like liberal socialists. My mother used to sell records, from the '50s through the '60s, and my Dad was a trumpet player who was very into the modern jazz and hop eras, before he became a dance-band singer. And it seemed like a glamorous thing, to have your Dad on the TV or radio every Friday and he makes the odd record and Mom buys records and I got loads of records off my Dad because he had to learn the songs of the day and so there were records going in the house all the time. And they liked other kinds of music. My Dad liked Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Irish music and Paraguayan music, all that stuff.
In the '50s, it seemed like by the time you got to be 17 everybody looked like they were 35. People had great uniformity about the way they thought. Simple ideas we take for granted now were quite unthinkable just a short time ago. And I think it's sort of coming back 'round again that way. When you speak to younger people they don't seem to know what they want. They're really not being given much choice.
I was told right before I took my last exam in school, if you don't get these you're really fucked. 'Cause you're too old for apprenticeships. That was the alternative — or you go to the university and cling to the coattails of some other way of life. Where I lived was really on the edge; my parents' background was working-class, particularly my mom's, but we lived a sort of middle-class life. Which by sociological definition now means a certain income, but really came down to whether you had newspapers or books in the house. Incredible as it might sound now, the difference in class 25 years ago wasn't how much you earned as whether you made money by working or by thinking.
I remember when I first went to work I had a drone job at some computer place for £20 a week. And then I went to work in a bank so I wouldn't have to work shifts anymore, and I took a drop in pay to £16 a week. I'd convinced myself that my inability to get qualifications to get to the university was the same thing as not wanting to go. I had no idea how I was going to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to play music but it was all very vague....
Even though your Dad was a musician?
'Cause that was like, a job. If Dad had been a bank manager I probably would never have wanted to be a bank manager. And so it took me an awfully long time to make the connection between the music that I liked when I was quite young, as a fan, beat music, and when I first started playing. I couldn't identify it as the same occupation. Maybe because in between was that crucial time when rock 'n' roll turned into "art." And I was sucked into that "rock 'n' roll is art" stuff like everyone else when we all got serious and put on long expressions to look for the meaning of this song. So when it came to just playing guitars in bands, when I was about 18, it never occurred to me that this was the same thing the Beatles had done in Hamburg.
All I could think about was getting a band that could play in a pub. Then I met Nick Lowe in a pub, in Liverpool,actually it was the Cavern, funnily enough. I bought him a drink and told him, "I've got your records," just like a fan. It never occurred to me there might be more in it, 'cause they (Brinsley Schwarz) didn't seem to be doing terribly well. I had to buy him a drink. But the music was good fun; it connected with a lot of stuff I'd liked before but had seemed impossible to I make a living from. The music I'd liked as a pop fan I thought just came out of the air; I never imagined anybody in the studio making it. I listen to old records now and I hear the drums, you know? Back then you just heard the record.
I'm just a big record fan, really. Though I think I've reached the point where I'm not looking for any more. Kind of depressing when you get to the end of it, like getting the final stamp in your collection. But then you turn back to the first page and realize that, in the time that's gone between, it sounds completely different. Records that I thought were indispensable 10 years ago — please don't ask me which one sound different. While others sound a lot better to me.
Which ones sound better?
Richard Hell and the Voidoids. [laughs] I think their record is great. I really do. It's an overlooked record. But that's the only one I can think of. All the rest you can throw in the bin. [laughter] We're like Victorian people and their libraries. How the hell did they read them all?
But I think you've tried harder than most to build bridges between musical communities. Singing "My Funny Valentine" in the middle of the punk explosion, or making Almost Blue.
It's a selfish thing. You just enjoy it if there is a challenge involved or you really are arrogant enough to think you can do it. I remember being completely astounded when Jake [Riviera, Elvis's manager] told me George Jones was going to do my song ["Stranger in the House"]. And then that he wanted me to sing on it. Today, being completely cynical about it, somebody on the production side, not George, probably figured, 'This'll open it up for some people who wouldn't otherwise buy his record. 'Well, it's a fair trade. I don't mine that at all. It used to be perfectly acceptable for musicians to get together without being naturally compatible. Like Sinatra and Laurindo Almeida, just because he liked that music.I didn't imagine that recording with George Jones would suddenly make me Country Entertainer of the Year. But I didn't mind if it helped me get into Nashville a bit more. Because I was curious about it. I didn't know its limitations.
Are you disappointed that the country songs you've written haven't had more acceptance there?
Before I went to Nashville I might have been more idealistic that good songs just got recorded. We got a fairly good ride, but there's no way you're gonna break into that without a lot of easing yourself in, and I don't have the time for it. It's a full-time occupation, though there are exceptions, like John Hiatt.
I'd think a song like "Shoes Without Heels"...
I played that to Ricky Skaggs and he just looked at it. He couldn't hear it. It's my voice, I think.
Maybe if someone else sang your songs...
Yeah, if someone covered my songs then they'd get covered! [laughter] But still, Johnny Cash recorded "The Big Light." That's pretty good, isn't it? I'd trade Johnny Cash any day for a half dozen Reba McIntyre covers, though Reba's would probably pay for some new curtains. Reba, if you're listening, nothing against you recording a whole album of my songs. But I'm not much of a song-and-dance man in that respect. Which is probably why I was so snotty about Linda Ronstadt's covers. Because I thought it was more like they liked the idea of recording my songs better than they liked the songs. Which is still an ungracious thing to say. I was just being punky and horrible. Of course there's the curse of Costello to consider when you look at Linda. One moment she was the biggest-selling female singer in America. The next thing she's in opera. Record four of my songs — that's enough to finish anybody's career! Now she's singing Mexican songs; she knows I can't write in Spanish.There are a number of artists that have really gone badly since they've recorded my songs. Dave Edmunds, never heard of again...
Have you ever held back a song because it felt too revealing about yourself?
I don't think I ever held a song back because I thought it was too honest. I don't really think I'm doing such important work, like "Oh, that'll stun the world, if I say that." I have no sense of an audience out there waiting. I just put it out, and I'm always surprised when people come up to me in the street and say something nice.
How about a song like "I Want You," which is so emotionally naked, and people will naturally assume you were singing it to Cait?
But the whole impulse to assume that is a product of Plastic Ono Band. Certain records are like landmarks because they change the way people think about music. I don't think Sgt. Pepper is the best record the Beatles ever made, but it did change the way people looked at albums: The stuff became "art" from then on. And Plastic Ono Band and a few other records in the early '70s, like Joni Mitchell's, defined the notion that songwriting was confessional. Nobody thought Cole Porter was singing "Night and Day" for a particular person. Now people look for that. But it's not my responsibility. And it doesn't illuminate the song more, either. The only difference is if I go, "No, the song isn't about Francis of Assisi. It's about the dustman." But I'm not looking to say anything.
So do you subscribe to the idea that a song can truthfully mean opposite things to different people?
I love that. And that's one of the advantages of using certain types of lyric writing, where it's more open to interpret. Though after a while it's like a card tack, it doesn't really say anything and it's ultimately unsatisfying. You find it out onstage when you try to invest these songs with emotion and you can't remember what the emotion is.
It does seem as if your canvas has grown broader over the years. Your early albums have an obsessive quality, picking apart relationships between men and women.
It didn't seem obsessive at the time and I still don't think it is. I think it's perfectly natural for anybody my age, suddenly let off the leash like that. If there was anything self-conscious about the way I wrote it was the idea to grab hold of a person, to not make a song wishy-washy. In other words, an inspiration from the punk thing. But I never thought, "Well, here's a subject." I just wrote songs and I was quite shocked when people turned around and said, "He's a misogynist!" No, I'm not! I love women! Honestly. Take my word.
Your last album with the Attractions, Blood and Chocolate, had a lot more in common with your early records than with either Spike or King of America. How did that come about?
The Attractions had come out with me to California for King of America, and the sessions didn't spark that well. There seemed to be too much at stake or not enough, it was just unpleasant. I don't think I handled it with tremendous grace, but some other people didn't, as well. When I finished it up I did another solo tour. And I was coming up with the sort of songs you slap on the table and sing. They weren't strongly held feelings, they were just raving songs. And we were on a few raving times then too. I really just wanted to do an EP, and I thought, "Well, I don't want everything to fall apart over the previous bad feeling. So let's do something of what we do."
Meanwhile, between the way we conducted our business and the way I made records, I think we alienated a lot of people in the middle-to-upper levels at Columbia. I got that feeling they never told us anything, but I got the impression they thought I was a con man. Like I had a ready-made blueprint to sell millions, and just wouldn't make that record. It was like, I would go to Nashville, I would record with an orchestra, I'd do anything but make the record they wanted me to make. But they never told me what that record was except that I knew it had to do with being aggressive and lots of these glasses and red shoes with pointy toes, sort of a punk-band attitude but, "Let's have some tunes."
Anyway, we ended up with a bunch of songs that were all pretty much the same — sort of an older, grumpier version of This Year's Model. It was actually done more primitively than that. We didn't use any headphones and we recorded it in Olympic Studios — where the Stones did "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby?" We were really going for that sound, like you're trying to hear what's going on in the background but you can't because some idiot's put a big overdub in the front.
"Tokyo Storm Warning" even sounds like "Have You Seen Your Mother."
I think half the album's really inspired playing. And I thought, "Well, this'll be a surprise. It'll be like 'extra time' in sports, we'll hit the winning goal in extra time. We'll finally give Columbia the real Elvis Costello and the Attractions record they want." Because they weren't mightily impressed with King of America. It did the same thing as most of the records, got some nice reviews, but that joke had got very old — the guy who gets the good reviews and never sells. And after their bungled attempt to portray Imperial Bedroom as some kind of masterpiece, which I found deeply embarrassing, they seemed to have run out of ways of solving this problem that I didn't sell records no matter how good the reviews were. They didn't seem able to sell the strengths of the records individually; they wanted to sell the clichéd Elvis Costello element in it. Which is why I changed my name, to lead them to the thought that there might be another person there.
So when we handed in Blood and Chocolate I was quite convinced this would be the one, just by the irony of it. And of course they did what they did with the last two or three records: They buried it. I don't want to get like people who bitch about their record company, but they were pretty useless, really. I think at a quite senior level they were deeply incompetent — not presently because there are obviously new people involved — and the people who had any intelligence about music were not given enough power. If they'd paid any attention to Joe McEwen, for instance, then we might have done better. But there were all these people who knew "better" that didn't know anything about what we were doing or who we were. And I do feel that the balance of that company was seriously out of whack between the words "music" and "business" at that point. If you look at the other music they were putting out at that time, it bears it out. And they dropped Johnny Cash! That is really unforgivable. That's like the Museum of Modern Art saying, "Sorry, we've taken down all the Picassos. We didn't think they were any good."
So I was really glad to get away from them, and I don't think they were terribly sorry to see the back of me except for all the money I owe them. For which I don't feel any guilt whatsoever. I think they got quite a lot of good publicity out of of the critical acclaim I got. Between me and Bob Dylan they've done pretty well over the past 30 years.
So what do you think you'll get from Warner Bros. that you didn't get from Columbia?
They've asked the right questions and I've tried to establish a more timely relationship with them. You know, there's a world of difference between talking to [Warner Bros. president] Lenny Waronker as an equal and being sort of patted on the head by [CBS CEO] Walter Yetnikoff, which was the attitude I received. And Lenny did produce what I think was one of the best records ever made, Sail Away. That gives him a head start with anybody at the senior level at Columbia. 'Cause they've never created anything except trouble, for me.
All labels have to keep afloat, obviously. But they've encouraged me to make the record the way I want it to be. And not balk and say, "Well, it's gonna be difficult to get that over." Or "Where's the hit single?" They seem willing to try to sell the record I made, not the one they wished I'd made — promote the strengths rather than apologize for its oddness. That's the difference, really, and time will tell whether it works out.
Where has all this left the Attractions?
I think Blood and Chocolate was really good at what it was, and I think we did a good tour, which followed that record and King of America coming out fairly close together. We had the two bands and the "Wheel" and it was an attempt to do something different and we played very small theaters so we could do all these things in intimate surroundings, and we lost a ton of money.
We had two types of rock 'n' roll show with the Attractions on that tour: the ones based on the old repertoire and the all out Blood and Chocolate assault. We could play the old songs with slightly more affection than having to pump them up to be as aggressive as they were the first time around. We could play "You Belong to Me" as if it were "The Last Time," not some punk song based on "The Last Time." And we had a lot of fun.
The tour kind of fell apart once we got to Europe, though. . The wheel could be hilarious or disastrous depending on who you got and what nationality the audience was. Now we know what it's like to be on a game show: Sometimes it's embarrassing. You get some buffoon in shorts prancing across the stage while you're trying to sing, or some girl who's tripping, taking her clothes off. In Holland a guy wanted to play piano and we just let him, and the audience didn't know any of the songs that he knew and we tried to get them to sing along. Some really fantastic disasters.
In some European languages the humor didn't always translate. Sweden doesn't have game shows. They didn't know what we were parodying. In France all the people were too hip to get onstage. We were saved by a bunch of American tourists who were mad to get onstage and show off. I think it's notable that L.A. was our best night.
In Rome the promoter got this girl who claimed to be a famous celebrity, and when she walked out onstage there was an audible "oh no, not her again!" She was obviously some nauseating, ever-present type, not the queen of Italian pop as we were led to believe. So maybe the European leg was a bit more than we should have done. By the end of it, I felt we'd seen enough of each other for a while.
And a few other things happened which are not really mine, to talk about. But before this record started I had some songs that I thought possibly could be done with the Attractions. And I said, "Let's get together and play so we know we're talking the same stuff." And at least one member wouldn't do that. [Since Pete did play on the record, that leaves two.] He said, "We do the whole record or not at all." I said, "Well, don't hold your breath." And that's pretty much where it lays. I don't know that we'll play together, or even what purpose there is to play together, unless we're more positive than that.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, rock 'n' roll was for all purposes the province of the young Now it appears there's a commercial audience for pop performers even as they enter middle age. Do you think that affords opportunities?
Good and bad. In other forms of music it's acceptable that people get old. Because of the way Louis Armstrong's career was shaped in later years, people forget he was a revolutionary when he started. But who would deny him the right to. have a lengthy career? I'd much rather that someone finds peace in their work and live a long and happy life even if they don't challenge you, than burn out and die young. There's nothing particularly romantic about that, I don't think.
On the other hand, you have all these people who are currently big, doing tailored versions of what they've done before, like Steve Winwood and Phil Collins and Robert Plant. I don't like the beer commercials — Eric Clapton and all that. It's pretty soulless. I think there is more interesting music to be heard both old and new. I doubt age has anything to do with it. It's just down to marketing a product on the back of an Eric Clapton or Tina Turner because they're recognizable.
I think it makes them look ridiculous. Look, how famous can you be? What's the point? They don't need the money or the exposure. Was it Miller that did a series with young bands, the Del-Fuegos and Long Ryders? See, in a way that was doing a public service: Let's expose a few young groups to an audience that drinks our beer. That makes sense to me. I can understand a young band taking that opportunity. But I really don't see the point of Eric Clapton doing a Michelob commercial.
And Michael Jackson doing Pepsi annoys me immensely, because he's got this sort of "I'm from another planet" image, and "I love chimpanzees and only eat nuts." He's got a massive platform so he could say something really positive because he's got the ear of so many young people all over the world, not just in America. He's one of the five most famous people in the world, maybe. And what's he selling? Bloody sugarwater! It's stupid, it's irresponsible.
It's hard to believe he really drinks the stuff.
I'm sure he doesn't. Who'd drink Pepsi Cola? It's disgusting. I think it diminishes him, and whoever advises him is an idiot. Some people, like Eric Clapton, I don't think they've got anything more to add, but Michael Jackson is really some sort of totem to people and he could use it more positively. His one attempt to doing some sort of statement,"Man in the Mirror",was very vague, very manipulative, using the imagery without really saying anything. It's disappointing. If it were eight years ago you'd put it down to youth. He's 30 now, so he really should wise up.
And Whitney Houston, you get people taking her new record and turning it into a Pepsi commercial before it's really been a hit! 'Cause she's so famous they can guarantee it's gonna be in the charts at the same time the advert comes out. The calculation of it... I don't have any sympathy for the corporation, of course, but I think it really does a bad service to the so-called artist. It's a bit sad 'cause I think she's a terrific singer. But somehow after the first single from that second album, the light went out of her eyes and it hasn't come back yet. She's like 26 or something and she's suddenly turned into this very tired-looking 37-year-old. But then the whole R&B industry seems to be having a fatal attack of show business at the moment. It's very conscious of itself as a commodity.
Are you conscious of appealing to an audience that is willing to follow songwriters like you beyond the realms of dance-pop?
I haven't got an idea of what the person who listens to my record looks like. I just assume it could appeal to anybody. They only have to have the willingness to listen to it and also that I get a fair break for them to hear it, and that I get written about fairly. I don't think I've ever made a studiously uncommercial record.
The ironic thing is that reviews of really bland records made to a formula audience are received so uncritically. Maybe it's too much like stooping to conquer. You read good reviews of the Robert Plant records. They say, "This is really good at what it is. It's Robert coming back and showing those Kingdom Come boys where to get off." It's a load of old rubbish! He must know that, it's written all over his face. He's just trotting it out because people are gullible enough to have swallowed the myth and it's like eating somebody else's half-sucked Polo Mint.
Then you've got artists who clearly go into their own territory, and somehow their records come up for more scrutiny. So much more is expected of them because they're doing something outside of those narrow confines. Randy Newman is an example. A completely unreasonable demand. Where quite clearly, he would just like to have a hit. It's bewildering, really, why that is.
You must be talking about yourself a little bit.
I don't feel there's any great demand on me. But we get so much more asked of us, the few people who are doing something that isn't so mainstream. We're not in some club together. The only thing that really binds us together is lack of success. [laughter]
But a lot of your records are commercially successful.
They are compared with a little band that prints up their record and sells 5,000 copies. But once you've had some success everyone measures you by these ludicrously inflated terms. You have to play Madison Square Garden for five nights! And then there's nowhere to go except down. So there's something to be said for staying out of that race. As long as I make a living and no one takes away my house and puts me in debtors' prison, I don't really care.
If I have a big success, great. Most all of the money I've earned, I put back into what I do. I don't have a big car — I don't even drive! I've never been that extravagant. I live better than a lot of people do with a nine-to-five lob, obviously. But I don't know how much longer it's going to go on.
Warners gave me an advance and I spent all of it making this record. In a world that's measured by money, I did literally put it where my mouth is. I'm broke. Now I'm going on the road solo 'cause I can't afford to put a band together. I'm not crying poverty, I like playing solo anyway. And then, hopefully, if the record is a success I'll put together some sort of band that can embellish the music more.
In your last Musician interview, you basically put down every record you'd ever made. Weren't you a little harsh on yourself? It's certainly disconcerting to a fan.
I am pretty critical and I don't think blowing my own trumpet about something I did 10 years ago serves any purpose. I would feel bad if people thought, "Oh, he really didn't care about those records." That wasn't what I meant. On another day if you asked what I thought was good about all those records I would tell you all the tracks I think we got right, and it would sound a lot more positive. But it wouldn't be an all-embracing love of my work. I just make records. I don't think I'm on a mission from God. I know there are people in the business who really believe they are.
You know, the John Lennon film [Imagine] came out just as we were finishing this record. And the whole thing about that film felt very oppressive. The book and the film conspired to just completely warp the guy's music out of any context. It's like he's become one of those people, like Kennedy, who just doesn't exist anymore. He's a figment of everyone's imagination. I think that's really bad. He wrote some terrific records.
I don't see people whose music I like in terms of an hour-long documentary. It's a much more raw kind of feeling that's inside you. And if I started to explain it, I wouldn't get it out right.
A lot of the time you have nice conversation and fun talking about things and slagging people that are beneath contempt; it's easy and it's sitting around fencing with words and being terribly smart and smug. Everybody does it. But when it comes down to the stuff I really care about, I hardly talk about it at all. Because it really goes beyond words.