Musician, March 1994

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US rock magazines


Elvis Costello and his invisible twin

Bill Flanagan

Q: How many cranky rock legends does it take to reunite the Attractions, cut several simultaneous albums, write a play, compose and perform with a classical quartet, and learn Italian, musical notation, and how to drive a car at the same time? A: Two.

Elvis Costello is in the music room of his home in the hills overlooking Dublin, Ireland, talking about his new song "Pony Street," a pointed dialog between a mom who grew up in the '60s and her embarrassed, conservative daughter. It would make a great duet for Michelle and Chynna Phillips. "Instead of 'Eat up your greens,' the scenario is basically, 'Come on, take your barbiturates," Costello says. "You've got to get into those spandex trousers and go down to the Rainbow and act like a slut and don't you comeback here trying to marry that accountant!' I think it probably does happen quite a bit — the rock 'n' roll mom who's a little bit past the look now. Everything has become an off-the-peg fashion. You get a little bit of punk with a little bit of the '60s mixed up with a bit of bondage, but it's all had its original context surgically removed so it's no longer dangerous. If a kid wants to wear a £500 jacket with safety pins in it, it's no longer a statement of destroying that — it's just a fashion accessory. I'm not saying, Oh,for the old days of rebellion 'cause I never did any of that shit myself, but it's ironic.

"One of the things I got the story off was a review I read of Guns N' Roses in one of the English papers. The journalist asked this seven-year-old girl which one of Guns N' Roses she liked most and she said, 'I like Axl 'cause my mummy says he puts a cucumber down his trousers.' And I thought, well, there it is — there's rock 'n' roll neutered forever. And maybe thankfully, as well. Maybe that side of it is dead and buried — although there's some serious practitioners still around, heaven knows."

And as long as they are around, Costello will be there making fun of them. He will be 40 next summer, and he has reached the point in his prolific career where his early albums are being reissued in boxed sets, but Costello can still get as worked up as any teenager. On his new album, Brutal Youth, he returned to recording with his estranged band, the Attractions, with whom he will tour later this year. He has more projects underway, and more albums in the can.

"You'd think, 'Well I've written everything I've got to say now,'" he continues. "But as you get older you look farther, and you look at yourself and you change. It means there's still stuff to sing about. There's no rule that says you have to get better and better and better until you explode. Or more refined in any sense of the word. The writing doesn't have to get leaner — you could be more effusive one time and the next time it could be really sparse.

"And that's ignoring the fact that it's not just words! What's a song about? It's about music as well. For instance, 'All the Rage,' which is a much more accusative song, was originally set to the figure at the front of 'Science Fiction Twin.' It was going to be a much faster song. It didn't work at all. It was a more angry song but it didn't sound convincing. Sometimes when you have something right in your heart you don't even pause to think about it; it just comes out. It's a horrible moment when you realize it hasn't achieved the effect that you wanted, even though it's satisfied your desire to revenge yourself about whatever it is that's getting under your skin. Even if it's supposed to be aggressive or enraged, if it just sounds like hot air then that's wrong. That's why 'Beyond Belief' on Imperial Bedroom sounds like it does rather than a rock 'n' roll song. It's a rather odd combination of a low, very intimate vocal and an out track. Because I redubbed the vocal on it an octave lower and completely changed the melody, which gave it this unsettling thing of the band going full tilt and a voice very close up — something you couldn't possibly achieve live. Because I wasn't happy with the way the song came over being yelled over the top of the backing; it just sounded like something I'd done before."

Avoiding doing things he's done before keeps Costello on the front edge of his talent. Even his decision to reunite with the Attractions after seven years (and some hard feelings) was not, as might be supposed, because Rykodisc was re-releasing all their early albums and it was time to cash in. Nothing with Costello is ever as simple as that. Costello spent much of 1992 working on The Juliet Letters, a collaboration with the classical chamber group the Brodsky Quartet. During that time — and for a lark — he wrote and recorded 10 rock 'n' roll songs for British pop singer Wendy James, knocking them off with Attractions drummer Pete Thomas in the studio where Costello had recorded his first album in 1976. The fun and ease of that side-project made him imagine that he could write and record his own next rock album with the same abandon. So he hatched the unlikely plan of cutting it in December of '92, so that the spring of '93 could see the release of the sophisticated Juliet Letters, the ironic Wendy James project and a new album of rocking Costello tunes which would be called Idiophone. Sometime around Christmas of '92 Costello closed his eyes long enough to admit to himself that some of the Idiophone material wasn't up to his standard. So he postponed work on his rock album until the summer of '93, alter he was done touring with the Brodsky Quartet.

While he was doing those projects, Costello was also writing the book and songs for a stage musical to debut at England's Nottingham Playhouse next year, as well as composing for other singers, learning to read and write music, and even taking a one-month trip to Florence for a crash course in Italian. Costello mocks his own eclecticism in a song on Brutal Youth called "My Science Fiction Twin," about an Elvis Costello clone who "filled up his purse dictating verse while painting masterpieces. His almost universal excellence is starting to disturb me. They asked how in the world he does all these things. He answered, 'Superbly.'"

By the summer of 1993, when Costello, Pete Thomas and producer Mitchell Froom resumed work on the postponed rock album, they knew that they wanted a stripped-down record of a small band playing live together in the studio. Attractions pianist Steve Nieve had played on some of the Idiophone sessions. It had gone well and he was asked back. Costello again played bass on a couple of tracks, but his ideas were ahead of his technique so he asked Nick Lowe, who produced Costello's first five albums, to take over. Half of the album was cut that way, before Lowe's attention began to wander and they had to find another bassist. Mitchell Froom finally suggested a bass player he'd used on a Suzanne Vega album — former Attraction Bruce Thomas.

At first Costello resisted. Although there had been lots of bruised feelings and petty feuds between all four musicians by the time Elvis Costello and the Attractions closed up shop in 1986, the biggest gulf was between Elvis and Bruce. It had gotten worse when Bruce published his novel The Big Wheel, a mocking roman a clef about life with E.C. Still, the others told Elvis that Bruce had grown up a lot, and he agreed to call him and at least talk.

"I said to Mitchell, 'I just don't think we'll get along, I don't think it will be any fun,'" Costello says. "But we talked and, really, we saw the very best side of Bruce, he was really funny, he played really well, he had lots of good ideas. We'd both had our respective say about stuff. It's disappointingly unlike People magazine. This isn't a reunion record where we sort of went, 'I love you, guy! I forgive you for every mean thing you ever said about me!' We're not like that. I just think life's really a bit too short to bother about things. Everybody's had a good scream and shout and it really doesn't matter anymore. While I don't think it would be a very good idea for us to be trapped together in a crowded lift for several years — which is similar to our first eight years together — we can play together an awful lot better than a lot of other people."

The first time in seven years that Costello and the Attractions recorded together was on August 2, 1993, at Olympic Studios in London. Steve Nieve was wearing shoulder-length hair (which he would shave off before the album was over) and everybody looked a bit droopier than they had in the grand old days of punk rock. Pete Thomas had been the center of communications between the band members during their long vacation, playing with Costello on various projects and even touring with Steve as temporary members of Squeeze. While Froom was getting set to roll tape Pete was trying to get Steve to recall road stories ("You must remember that girl on Nantucket? With the garden and the Depeche Mode tape?") but the keyboard player was denying all memory.

Unlike their rowdy past, the four musicians treated each other with Alphonse & Gaston courtesy. Clearly each was determined not to be the one who started the fight that broke up the group again. They went into the studio, picked up their instruments and began playing a song called "Distorted Angel." The first run-through felt tentative. Elvis expressed doubts about Steve's rather baroque piano part, so for the second take Steve moved to organ. They counted off and quickly landed on something close to their beloved Armed Forces style. Elvis busted a string a few bars in but they kept going.

Listening to a playback, Steve sat off in the corner silently, Bruce and Pete were very enthusiastic, and Elvis had doubts. He said he wondered if in going for a great sound they'd lost the song. Bruce dug a cassette demo of the tune out of his bag and they all expressed amazement at how much slower it was than what they'd been playing. The lyric (about the shame of a little boy who gets caught playing doctor with a little girl) had gone from a poignant lament to a mad jumble.

The producer conceded that the sense of the song had been lost, but that sound was so great... Elvis wondered if there wasn't a way to have both. Looking for that compromise they tried cutting a version with Elvis playing the first verse accompanied only by his acoustic guitar — to establish the story — and the Attractions crashing in on the second. They next tried that same approach with Pete drumming a sort of Egyptian pattern behind the acoustic verse. That went nowhere. Elvis asked Bruce to calm his hyper bass part; Bruce did but on each subsequent take it regained a bit of frenzy. The Attractions kept trying to bust out and Elvis kept trying to hold them down. Finally Pete said loudly, "I thought we were making a rock record!"

Elvis said, "It can rock without losing the meaning of the song."

Then the courtesies kicked in again — Elvis asked Steve if he was sick of playing the tune, Steve said not at all. Another take and then Elvis asked Pete if he wanted to go on to another number. Pete said no, no, it's fine. Finally they finished a take that everyone pretended to like and pronounced the day's work done. The pressure off, they started playing a tricky song called "You Tripped at Every Step," nailing it perfectly on the first take. From there on, the recording sailed along. "Distorted Angel" was sacrificed for the sake of getting the band past its opening jitters and into their rock 'n' roll shoes.

Looking at that first day of recording now, Costello says, "We played like idiots 'cause everyone was so anxious to get it right. We were trying really hard and everybody was really, really positive and trying to keep on a really up note, but the truth is we were playing really badly because we were playing too hard. When we do that the sound just closes down. We're aware of it; the harder you hit the drum the smaller it actually sounds, and the bass gets very pointy and you hit the guitar so hard it becomes just distorted white noise — you can't hear any tone. It was just that everybody was excited."

Pete Thomas says that the fact that the band nailed "You Tripped at Every Step" on the first take was crucial to morale. "Mitchell just came on the talkback and said, 'That's it," Pete recalls. "When we all stood there listening to it, it couldn't have been more perfect. It was a real lift for everyone. I think everyone's little problems fell away and there were four very thrilled chaps looking at each other. That doesn't happen very often."

Having toured with Costello after the break-up of the Attractions, Pete says that now "I'm the only bloke at the rehearsals who's gonna know all the songs! Poor old Steve rang me the other day and said, 'I've come across this very odd few years of things I'm not fully conversant with. There seem to be some records here that don't appear to have me on them!'" Pete lets out a cackle. "Steve and Bruce have got to knuckle down and learn 'Brilliant Mistake' and all this other stuff."

Once those parts are learned, Pete says, formality will go out the window: "This is just like, Buy a box of fireworks, put it in the middle of the stage, throw a Molotov cocktail into it and run! I think that's what people want to see and I think at its best that's what it's going to be. It's not like, 'Okay, we'll really hold the rhythm down,' or 'Let's get the groove.' With this band we're all mad — we get by in the real world, but when we get together it's a fireworks display."

Costello stresses that beyond this year the group has no definite plans. "I have no sense of how valuable this is in a mercenary way," Costello says. "I think it's more in the minds of writers or record company people who somehow imagine it's going to put right everything that they think went wrong with me in between. It's not like the difference between what's-his-name, Monty from Pink Floyd.. .Roger Waters. It's not like the difference between going out as Roger Waters or going out as Pink Floyd. It's not a commodity, like the Who reforming. I'm not trying to demean it because this was a good group that perhaps didn't get as much credit as it might have done. And of course I get asked all the time if we're going to play together again. But equally, I get asked, 'Are you ever going to sing with John Hiatt again?' or 'Are you ever going to record those Wendy James songs?"

Those Wendy James songs' are not the little sideshow Costello tries to make them. Their story starts two years ago. Costello never had a driver's license till he moved to Ireland but, unlike the chickens who assume they cannot learn anything new after age 18, Costello figured he could figure it out, So he signed up for driving lessons as soon as he got to Dublin, bought a car and got his license. Admiration for his initiative was only slightly compromised by the fact that when he pulled up at a Dublin hotel in January of 1992, he was driving a loaner to replace the car he had wrecked in a recent crash.

As he whizzed past the lampposts, walls and sheep that demark the border between Dublin city and its rural surroundings, Costello stuck in a cassette he had just recorded. He had been approached by a representative of Wendy James to write a song for her new solo album, and in atypical burst of perverse enthusiasm, he had knocked off 10. Costello said he would send the finished tape to James with instructions to cut all of them or none. The music came blasting out of the car speakers with the venom of the Clash and quickly turned that reference into a joke about trendies 'still digging up the bones of Strummer and Jones." Further tracks found him at his most caustic, describing some unlucky singer this way: 'She danced like an ambulance, talked like a cartoon mouse/She took off her clothes and it brought down the house."

Song after song sang on the car stereo as Costello played slalom with sheep and goats and the question finally had to be asked: 'Elvis, are you sure you want to give this away? It's like This Year's Model Part 2!" Costello laughed and said, 'That's exactly why! I've done all that before, I can do it in my sleep."

So he gave the album to Wendy James and she re-recorded it all with studio musicians replaying the parts and pretty much strangled the thing in its cradle. Elvis never made any comment about James' version of his tunes, even when she cooked up a promo campaign suggesting that he had written them out of response to a soul-baring letter she had sent him about her life, art and ambitions. He just went back to work on The Juliet Letters and let the Wendy songs sink into the atmosphere. But hopefully the world will someday get to hear Costello's versions of London's Brilliant," "Do You Know What I'm Saying" and "Basement Kiss," because they are great work, even if the artist who cranked them out doesn't think so.

Costello tries to brush off serious discussion of those songs, but he can't pretend there was no commitment behind the Solzhenitsyn-like (well, at least Woody Allen-like) cultural indictment of these lyrics: Boys will be boys, blood must be spilt, and nothing like show business ever was built for letting your critical function wilt under the weight of your liberal guilt.

"I suppose that has to do with rap," Costello says. "A lot of white writers are really deeply afraid, particularly in these days when you can't say anything that's not p.c., to say, 'It's wrong to say that about women because somebody will go and do that because you're on TV saying it,dummy!" To paraphrase Network. If I said half the things said by either the dumb ravers or some of the more obnoxious rappers they would be down on me like a witchhunt. And it's nothing to do with freedom of speech. I'm just saying it's stupid! It's stupid to say you want to shoot people or rape people. You don't need a PMRC, you don't need a sticker on a record, because I can just not listen and I have the right to say, 'This is dumb and ugly.'

"There's a lot of dumb and ugly things in the world. It could just as well apply to the lingering cucumbers-down-the-trousers boys, but they're now kind of quaint. It's funny to think they used to be thought of as a threat because now it's sort of coy. I saw country music television last night and there was some guy I never heard of doing some song with a girl in silhouette wrapping her legs around him. It looked like a Whitesnake video from the '80s. There's progress for you! They can do that in Nashville now!"

Later on, Costello returns to the subject, bringing his debating skills to hear on several sides of the argument: "Somehow retrospectively people like Barry White are being endowed with hipness, which they didn't have. Whereas the cucumber-down-the-trousers merchants have been drummed out of town. Or you just accept them for what they are: It's like going to the circus. Even Rod Stewart has managed somehow to sing some of his old songs. Okay, he's fessed up now — 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy' is a bit naff, but I think there's a lot of tenderness in 'You Wear It Well.' That shouldn't be overlooked just because he did 'Hot Legs.' But then again, 'Hot Legs' is a true song, too. Nobody said we all had to be redeemed at the end of it! It's not church. For all the screaming and shouting about sex — that's what rock 'n' roll is supposed to be about isn't it? This is the water-drinking '90s rearing its ugly head:We're not allowed to enjoy any illicit lust for drugs or bad sex. It's not on anymore. Particularly if you're older! Heaven forfend that you'd still own up!"

Costello sticks his nose back into that particular rock 'n' roll tradition on "Thirteen Steps Lead Down," the first single from Brutal Youth. "I suppose some people will think I'm being deliberately provocative because a lot of people get a lot of help from those 12-step plans," Costello says, "but the truth is that the way down has to be one more step. Whether or not you believe 12 steps will help you back up, 13 steps are definitely the way down.

"I wrote 'Thirteen Steps Lead Down' in Spain. I went to see where Franco is buried. It's a big tunnel under a mountain. It's such a sick mausoleum because 100,000 people are buried in this tunnel from either side of the civil war, and he's buried at the center with a sort of altar. It's a retrospective gesture of reconciliation, avoiding the fact that if not for him they wouldn't all have been dead. It was guarded by these futuristic, literally distorted angels, these fascistic gods.

"Nearby is the palace where all the Spanish kings are buried. Whereas the awful imagery of Franco's tomb is so unsubtle and so typical of fascists, at least the despots of the past really knew how to do it. You go down these green marble stairs and there they are, all in beautiful gilded coffins with death masks. And it's 13 steps. Of course it would be, to be ominous. I was looking for a phrase for obsessive and repetitive behavior; the girl is in some cheap bondage scene in the first verse and in the last she's in the bondage of luxury and nothing really much in between except unreliable lovers."

Bimbos and the men who love them often come up for disparagement in his songs. It's sometimes hard to tell whether Costello (who declined the promotionally precious Playboy interview in 1991 because Playboy is sexist) is at heart a modern feminist or an old-fashioned moralist. "I'm going to get stick again on this record that I hate women and stuff,' he shrugs. "But I don't — I hate men!"

Nothing Costello has done in recent years divided his partisans as much as The Juliet Letters, his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet. To some it was confirmation of Costello's genius, to others it was proof he'd lost his mind. Paul Cassidy of the Brodskys recalls his group's initial feelings as their friendship with Costello led to informal sessions playing together at his home: "Obviously we thought to ourselves, 'This guy's a bloody legend.' We never said that to each other, but the thought goes through your head. What all five of us discussed at great length was that the crossovers between rock and classical that had gone on in the past, in our opinions, were almost entirely disasters. We were very, very wary of that. We never said, 'Hey, let's make an album,' or 'Wouldn't it be great doing a tour.' We just let the material come out. We soon realized that in fact we didn't need drums, pianos, guitars or anything. What presented itself was the possibility of actually writing a song cycle. We did not try to be a rock group and Elvis did not try to be a diva. It's not Bobby McFerrin pretending to be an opera singer or Michael Tilson Thomas pretending he's in a rock band."

Asked what surprised him most about the whole project, Cassidy says, "Elvis. He's a very special guy. He knows more about classical music than I do. He's obviously gone into it in great depth over the last six or seven years. When we started working together he wasn't able to read or write music, so the initial workings were quite slow because he would put his ideas on tape or play them to us, and we would be busily writing these things down, which is difficult and time-consuming. His ideas were coming thick and fast, but he's not the greatest piano player in the world. Sometimes we'd just look at each other and say, 'This guy's off his rocker,' 'cause we couldn't hear what he was hearing. It was well-formed in his brain, but it wasn't coming through his fingers. So he just decided to learn how to read music — which he did in about six weeks! Elvis started turning up with his ideas written out in four Staves. Absolutely amazing."

On first listening, The Juliet Letters sounded so unusual that some people never made it back for a second listening. They missed something good. Once you got used to hearing a rock singer swooping and crooning over a string quartet, the songs themselves started to emerge, and the songs on The Juliet Letters were extraordinary. They came to further life during the concert tour Costello and the Brodskys undertook in the spring of '93. On stage no one could miss the humor in some of the tunes (On "I Almost Had a Weakness" Costello rolled his eyes and gestured like Groucho) and the poignancy of others. The audiences went wild, demanding encore after encore.

Following a triumphant sell-out at New York's Town Hall, Costello greeted well wishers at a post-show party. While he was chatting with two people and shaking hands with a third, a woman approached him and said quietly that she was Constance, a female soldier who had sent him a frightened letter from the Gulf War that he set to music in "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet." Costello has met every sort of lunatic fan and hustler, but a few words from this timid stranger convinced him she really was the woman whose letter had inspired his song. But another V.I.P. appeared in his face and by the time he'd excused himself and gone looking, Constance was gone.

"I've had a greater variety of interesting letters, good and bad, about The Juliet Letters than any other piece of work I've ever been involved in," Costello says. "You know, a quarter of a million people bought the record, which is a fantastic amount for a chamber music recording; there's nothing comparable. Of course, you could say, 'You're just being clever by calling it that; it's a pop record dressed up as chamber music.' But it's a fact, it is some sort of chamber music without any obvious ancestors. Even if people's invitation into it was created by my name on the credits, that's still fine. They would have taken it back to the shop if they didn't like it. Some undoubtedly did. But in the main when people gave it a little bit of time it came through to them and in fact revealed itself to be a much more open record emotionally than some other stuff I've been involved with. But then, it wasn't wholly my work. It was a collaborative effort.

'Of course, there were those people in the classical world talking very loudly about 'naive harmonies' or 'wrong harmonies.' Well, wrong harmonies compared to who? Compared to Bach? Compared to Stravinsky? Compared to Ornette Coleman? I have every confidence that once the style war that goes on about any sort of new or different piece is fought and lost in the minds of fevered criticism, people will keep returning to those songs."

Costello has an almost touching faith in his audience to understand what he's on about in his music. With Brutal Youth, he figures his listeners will pick upon the fact that 'London's Brilliant Parade" is a tribute to and send-up of the Kinks, on which he plays dobro as Ray Davies did on "Lola." He thinks pop fans with good ears will find it as funny as he does that the bass on the Faces-like 'Just About Glad" plays the melody line of the song, because that's what Ron Wood often does. (He thinks it's a further hoot that the Faces always sang randy songs about getting laid and in his version the singer is relieved that he did not get laid.)

Costello assumes his listeners get inside musical jokes because he himself always catches such things. Costello's father was a well — known British big band singer and trumpet player, and young Declan grew up surrounded by music. The breadth of his musical vocabulary is sometimes spooky. Six years ago Costello agreed to be a judge in Musician's Best Unsigned Band contest. Sitting in T Bone Burnett's California apartment, Costello impressed his fellow judges not because after hearing one song he could point out each entrant's influences and references (any number of otherwise useless critics could do that), but because he kept correctly deducing all their personal situations.

"This girl sounds like she plays in little cafes by the ocean," he'd say. She did, on Cape Cod.

"This is a band of well-off college students whose parents bought them their gear when they were at school in.. not New York... Boston!"

All true; it was like playing 'Name That Tune' with Kreskin.

Not to claim Costello has psychic powers, but how would you feel if you took a copy of Brutal Youth to New Zealand, put it on in a car touring the countryside, and when it got to the song "Rocking Horse Road" told another passenger, "Oh, this song is about a street Elvis got lost on somewhere in this country," only to have the driver turn around and announce, "Rocking Horse Road? Why that's it, right over there!"

Bring that absurd coincidence up to Costello and he just says, "So now you know what I mean."

Well, maybe it could use a little explanation. Rocking Horse Road is a long street down the middle of a peninsula near Christchurch. Costello was drawn there because the area has the same name as the Liverpool resort where he spent summers in his youth — New Brighton. After hours wandering the beach in the hot sun, Costello stumbled, disoriented, through the suburban neighborhood nearby and found himself gripped by an unreasonable panic.

"It just became like the twilight zone," he says. "I started to think later on, when I reflected on it, that that's many people's ideal. That could have been the life I aspired to when I was a schoolboy; to have a nice house on a nice street. I didn't want to write 'Pleasant Valley Sunday': It's more personal than that. This is one way it could have gone for me and then it didn't."

And that is the real theme of Brutal Youth. The soulful "Rocking Horse Road," the goofy "My Science Fiction Twin," the biting "All the Rage" and the elegiac "Favorite Hour" all deal, in one way or another, with the notion of another self who lives the life Costello might have lived. Brutal Youth is full of doppelgangers, secret sharers and bizarro worlds.

"Some people have imaginary friends," Costello says. "Well, I have my imaginary friend when I'm feeling dark; it's 'My Science Fiction Twin.' The first verse of that song is the flip side of the last verse of 'Rocking Horse Road.' Even if I'd done this job I still could have ended up living in Weybridge with a creation of the plastic surgeon.

"There are all these people who live these apparently hollow lives of celebrity in Hello magazine and stagger from one of those appraisals to another. I wonder what the life in between is like? Perhaps it's not unlike this, perhaps I shouldn't judge them. I'm not really judging them — I'm saying I could have been that.

"Also, it's about how if you have a tabloid life and then you write about it in your songs as well, that's fair enough for as long as people are fascinated. But I've always resisted that. Certainly people know a little more about me than I'm really happy about, but I can hardly complain if I put intimate details in songs. But I use them as the material out of which to make songs which are about something else entirely. I mean, I don't think I've written too many weepy here are my wounds songs. Because I think in the long run they're useless beyond being cathartic for the writer.

"'All the Rage' is the other side of the coin from 'Science Fiction Twin.' You realize that the things you're saying, you're saying to yourself as well. Which is the best kind of accusative song."

On "All the Rage" Costello sings, "Don't try to touch my heart, it's darker than you think / And don't try to read my mind because it's full of disappearing ink." Coming late on the album, those lines have the effect of summoning the ghost of that young Elvis Costello Ryko is currently reissuing to tell the world,Just because we've been on this 15-year journey together, don't think you know me any better now than you did then.

"Yeah," Costello nods, "but I'm also saying it to myself. Maybe that's the distance, maybe that's the award that's been given to you for the journey. I don't want any long-service medals, I don't want any sympathy or special consideration because of it. But I do honestly mean what I say on the bridge. If anybody's on my back then I would say that the bridge of that song is about as close to it as I've been able to put in a song. I will just go along the way I want to and there isn't really anything that anybody can much do about it."

The bridge Costello's referring to goes:

I'll probably play along left to my own devices
Spare me the drone of your advice
The sins of garter and gin confession may delay
You know the measuring pole,
the merry boots of clay?
I've heard it all before. You'll say it anyway.

Costello was going to close the album with 'All the Rage," but thought that might seem like he was trying to be 22 again. So he added a coda, a song he wrote when he was at Dartington, a British college/music retreat, where he and the Brodsky Quartet put the finishing touches on The Juliet Letters in the summer of 1992. "Favorite Hour" is a gently melancholy song that implies something really sinister — perhaps a condemned man waiting for his hanging — before coming back to campus for the final verse, which contains the phrase, "Now there's a tragic waste of brutal youth."

"We were leaving Dartington when I wrote the last verse," Costello says. 'It was a bit like a more reflective version of 'Science Fiction Twin' or 'Rocking Horse Road.' It is about the options that have come up and gone away. One of them was college life. Sometimes you see colleges and they look so welcoming, and I never did that. When I was down there I saw a chapel which was now a music hail, beautiful trees and gardens with Henry Moore sculptures we stumbled on in the woods. I thought, 'This could have been the life I had.' On the last verse I deliberately made all the imagery like when you read translations of German poetry and Schubert; it's all about babbling brooks and stuff. It is probably beautiful in German, but when you read the English translation it's sort of trite. Maybe it's trite in German, I don't know — but it doesn't really matter because the music carries it. So I said the waving branches are waving goodbye, and the murmuring brook had better speak up.

"Really, what it comes down to is, I don't count my blessings! So you've got 'All the Rage,' all that rage that you can't ever get free of. And then in 'Favorite Hour' it's 'blessings I don't count/Small mercies and such.' It's as simple as that. When somebody gets sick you realize you say not, 'It isn't me, thank goodness' but 'It isn't me, what a surprise!'"

Costello has been talking about this stuff for hours now, and he's getting restless. He is wary of getting into what he calls, "The ramblings of the tortured I AM, the pampered artist. This is the dilemma in writing songs. You can write about a totally unique experience, so unique to yourself that it is almost meaningless to other people. But you still have some distant admiration for the song, because it conjures up a mood which you have not necessarily experienced. I've written songs like that and in retrospect realized that they don't communicate a universal experience. They don't even pretend to. 'Kid About It' off Imperial Bedroom is about as obscure and abstracts lyric as you could imagine, yet it definitely means something."

So how rarified is too rarified?

"Joni Mitchell's talking about fairly rarified things on Court and Spark and particularly Hissing of Summer Lawns," Costello says. "I still think they're her two best records, not the earlier ones that people love so much or the ones where it just becomes either too selfconscious or, probably, just too rarified. That can happen. It happens to most."

Costello looks past his window. The lights arc coming on in Ireland and it's time to think about dinner. "I've been lucky to not be so famous," he says. "I can still move around. I discussed this once with Dylan: the difficulty of maintaining some perspective. That was the thing I was most curious about. You can have the most fantastic imagination but you've still got to have some substance to draw from. You can draw from other people's experiences and piece it together with other things, but it won't always ring true. I also don't think you can live an experimental life just so you can have subject matter. I know — I've done it.

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Musician, No. 185, March 1994

Bill Flanagan interviews Elvis Costello.


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Photo by Keith Morris.

Musical youth

Bill Flanagan

In a previous Musician interview Elvis Costello pleaded for the return of his stolen Telecaster. He got it hack, but now prefers the Tele with which he'd replaced it. A Fender loyalist, he also has two Jazzmasters. The "magic" guitar on Brutal Youth, he says, is a Gibson E160 sunburst that inspired him to write sis songs Imost of which made the albumi on the day he got it Elvis is still playing through two Vos AC3O amps. His acoustic guitars include a Ferrington, a Martin 12-string and a Martin 0-28. "My main Martin is 00018, a prewar I'm getting fixed up." He uses D'Addario strings on his acoustics, and Ernie Balls on his electrics, "heavier than most people's — I like the sound of the strain."

Costello says it's small hands, not friendship with McCartney, that made him choose his old Hofner Beatle bass and Hofner President . Still he burrowed Pete Thomas's Precision on "Kinder Murder." Nick Lowe also played a Precision on the album. Elvis's wife Cait keeps a Precision in their living room that Elvis often plays. Bruce Thomas, however approached this album with a Jerry Jones recreation of a Danelectro Longhorn. Pete Thomas played a Gretsch drumkit with what Elvis calls "the very bright characteristic Attractions snare. It goes konk" and Zildjian cymbals.

Steve Nieve played an assortment of cheap upright pianos purchased for the sessions so that he could stick tacks into the hammers and other mutilations not acceptable with studio rentals. He also arranged a little house of keyboards so that if the track called for a switch from, say, piano to organ on the chorus, he made the change live in the studio, rather than have to go back and overdub. Around him were a Hammond Organ, a Vox Continental, Wurlitzer and Roland electric pianos. Although a Chamberlain pops up once or twice on Brutal Youth, the "Mitchell Froom subculture" did not appear much this time out. They used Sennheiser 441 mlkes for vocals, Shure SMS7s on most of the instruments, and Neumann KM-IOOs with binaural heads on the drums.

In the middle of E.C.'s music room sits a Roland RD-bOO, MIDI'd up for his film scoring, and a Bechstein grand piano. Over in the corner are a couple of old Yamaha synths and an antique harmonium Mitchell Froom dragged into the Brutal Youth sessions and Costello liberated.

Cover inset photo by Keith Morris.
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Do you have Elvis Costello in the can?

Bill Flanagan

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The Rykodisc reissues of Elvis Costello's Columbia albums demonstrate how much more Costello records than can fit on even frequent releases. The Ryko My Aim is True, for example, has nine bonus tracks — almost a whole second album. Here is a guide to some of Costello's recent unreleased work.

Kojak Variety — After the success of "Veronica" in 1989, Warners offered Elvis a budget to record a non-LP B-side for his next single. E.C. realized that for what it would cost to cut one song in L.A. or London, he could find a cheap studio in the Bahamas and make a whole album. Backed by the all-star Confederates, Costello tore through versions of "I Threw It All Away" by Bob Dylan, "Days" by the Kinks, "Payday" by Jesse Winchester and other songs he had loved growing up. Release of the album was to follow Mighty Like a Rose in 1991, but by then Costello was working on Juliet Letters and didn't want to come out with two oddball records in a row. Now he talks about making a companion album of covers from the post-punk world.

The Wendy James Album — Pete Thomas on drums, Elvis on guitar, vocals and bass, pumping like it was 1977. Beyond having the sound old fans thought they'd never hear again, the songs add up to a (probably unintentional) commentary on punk-era London.

The George Jones Album — Old Possum mentioned to Elvis in passing that he'd like to hear some ideas for good songs for him to sing, so E.C. went into the studio and cut an album's worth of suggestions. The collection — intended for Jones' ears only — includes Costello singing Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise," Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." After cutting the last of those Costello enthused about what a brilliant lyricist Dylan was, saying no one else could come up with a line like "I have been on the lanes and rambles." It was tough to tell him the actual words were "Mine have been like Verlaine's and Rimbaud's."

The Elvis Costello Song Book — Elvis's original versions of songs he wrote for other people. Among the gems in the E.C. vaults are his remarkably Byrds-like version of a song written for Roger McGuinn ("You Bowed Down") and a tune offered to David Crosby ("Almost Ideal Eyes") with multilayered "Déjà Vu" vocals, If I Could Only Remember My Name harmonies and high "Carry On"–like eruptions (You have to wonder what Crosby's reaction was). There are also tunes written for Johnny Cash, Sam Moore, Charles Brown, Annie Ross, the Contemporary Composer's Ensemble and the W.B. Yeats Festival.

Contents page.
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