Elvis Costello is the man Elvis Costello loves the press to hate. This runt size bespectacled Englishman (real name Declan McManus) is undoubtedly the most impressive new talent to emerge from the British rock boom in the past few years.
But Costello spent several frustrating years just trying to get himself a recording deal before finally someone gave him his chance, and Elvis hasn’t forgotten all that rejection. So much so that he has built up an alarming reputation in recent times since establishing himself on both sides of the Atlantic, as a revengeful, hateful bastard whose head seems to have swollen in proportion to his escalating success.
Not merely content to keep a little black book which lists all the names of people he feels at some time have walked all over him and they’ll get theirs from Elvis some day, he and his manager seem to attract more than coincidental infamy for the number of journalists and photographers who are on the receiving end of seeming gratuitous violence. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Costello now refuses to do interviews (his Australian promoters were told prior to the show that Elvis would do no press - period) that the more he refuses to meet the press - the more they feel compelled to score an interview.
There is no doubting Costello’s enormous ability as a songwriter and recording artist (we’ll suspend judgement on him as a performer until after he displays the goods on show) but while one can laud his already established talent, it is hard to separate the nurd who seem to be lurking inside the musician.
Earlier this year Costello was getting ready to play a gig when he encountered a Scandanavian photographer backstage. Costello jumped up and down and said he wanted the photographer “out”. Not simply out of the backstage area but out of the theatre. The photographer informed him that he had paid for his ticket and while it was Costello’s privilege to boot him off backstage, he was perfectly entitled to go to the front of the house to see the runt perform. It was then that Costello’s security goons were ordered to rearrange the photographer’s looks and trash his camera equipment. What the goons didn’t bargain for was a black belt karate lens dweller who went efficiently about dispatching his would-be assailants against various walls. Costello freaked and ran into his dressing room and bolted the door, refusing to come out until the photographer was forcibly ejected.
Cliff Richard’s manager who had witnessed this enthralling encounter, invited the photographer to join him in his box. Costello continued to refuse to do the gig until his bogey man was ejected. A stalemate developed but finally after keeping his fans waiting an hour and a half, Costello ventured forth to play.
Another time a journalist was not so lucky when he tried to talk Elvis into an interview and persisted in asking why he refused. Costello’s manager, one stylishly named Jake Riviera (read Andrew Jakeman) took exception and the hapless journalist found himself at the bottom of a staircase with a broken wrist and a sore head which had managed to connect with Riviera’s fists. But revenge which seems such a central and acceptable component of Costello’s world, can be a two-way thing and Costello found himself on the receiving end of some punishment one night during a recent American tour when New York singer Willy De Ville, leader of Mink De Ville, gave Costello a beating.
There is little doubt that Costello (like many smallish people I care to add) is an extraordinarily bitter person (Costello said it himself).
“My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant. Not something actively destructive just someone who irritates, who disorientates. Someone who disrupts the daily drag of life just enough to leave the victim thinking there’s maybe more to it than the mere hum-drum quality of existence.”
But in a medium that relies on outrage and extremism to make a point (not to mention a dollar) is Costello just another poseur or is this year’s model - the angry young man (he claims he’s all of 23 which is generally greeted with guffaws in the British rock press) he appear to be? If it is indeed all part of a carefully executed radical persona embracing revenge, aggression and cynicism that Costello currently bathes himself in, he’s gone to extraordinary lengths and alienated a great many influential people along the way (which certainly isn’t a bad thing), but that hardly seems even the smart thing to do.
For mine, Costello is everything he pretends to be - arrogant, disdainful, bitter et al. But there is no denying the man’s genuine talent no matter how much he strikes me as a big-head suddenly too full of his own importance. However, I do think that his opinionated self-importance is guided by a belief that feeling pissed off with things as he does, he enthusiastically indulges an excessive zeal to make his point.
“I never wanted to be simply one-dimensional … or two-dimensional, for that matter. But you’ve got to make a stand and go to some extreme in order to establish something directly opposed to all that awful blandness out there.”
Whatever the quirks of Costello’s obsessive (“I think I’m more devious than obsessive,” he says) character, he has produced some of the very best rock music in the past few years. And his songs whatever one may think of the current state of rock ’n’ roll, easily go the distance in making up for whatever personality defects one may care to admonish. Something like “I’m Not Angry” is as good as any indicator of Costello’s lyrical bent that shows he’s not just any bucketmouth.
“You’re upstairs with a boyfriend while I’m left here to listen,
I’m left here to listen,
I hear you calling his name,
I hear the stutter of ignition,
I could hear you whispering as I crept by your door,
So you found some other joker who could please you more,
I’m not angry.”
Costello has an infinite gift for imparting the sideswipes of life. But he’s just as good at handing them out too.
“Americans have never produced one decent home-grown rock ‘n’ roll band, so when they’re confronted with the real thing they tend to get a little over-excited.”
Costello doesn’t merely confine his bitter barbs to caustic comment that doesn’t put more of him on the line than would be considered healthy. In his latest Australian single “Radio, Radio”, he puts the cretins who populate the radio industry and try to dim our musical tastes, well and truly in perspective with the sort of venom that is not designed to win him any friends in that sphere of influence.
“And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools, who try to anaesthetize the way you feel.”
Costello is not without political feeling too, which surfaces in one of his finest songs “Less Than Zero” which Costello wrote about having to watch British Nazi Sir Oswald Mosley on the idiot box. “”Calling Mr Oswald with the swastika tattoo”. Which American’s misinterpreted as referring to Lee Harvey Oswald. Accordingly Costello paid due note to the confusion and changed the lyrics in America to refer to the alleged Kennedy hitman.
Where Costello’s venom takes him next is naturally enough a fool’s guessing game and one he is probably not at all interested in contributing to while he’s on tour here.
What Costello will make of the Australian press and they him is another no-win guessing game but if the feathers start flying who knows what might happen! Indeed with a fitting sense of perversity one could even hope he might be able to top Frankie Sinatra’s celebrated scrap with Oz journalism. He could even write a song about it.
Since writing this article and posting it off to National Review, Costello has arrived in the country and as of this time of writing (the day following his first Sydney concert), Costello’s behaviour has more than supported some of the decidedly nasty things I’ve previously mentioned about him. After performing for only 50 minutes at the Regent Theatre on Sunday (the first of four Sydney concerts at that venue), Costello and his band The Attractions, quit the stage. According to my source within the promoter’s company, Costello walked off because he was supposedly dissatisfied with the staging and tour arrangements.
After leaving the stage and refusing all efforts by the promoters to entice him back on, Costello and his party locked themselves in their dressing room (history repeating itself, right?). The fans who had at first called for an encore soon began to vent their wrath and began pelting the Regent stage with ripped up seats (about 50 were torn out by pissed-off punters who had paid $9.50 a ticket), bottles and cans. As well curtains were torn down and windows smashed. Australian Concert Entertainment director Zev Eisak who promoted the concert, estimated the damage at a minimum of $2000. Significantly Eisak was quoted after the fiasco, and after he himself had been involved in a physical confrontation with Costello’s manager Jake Riviera, as saying, “if I’d been a concertgoer I’d have been upset with the show”.
ACE has promoted about 30 shows at The Regent so far this year and has never experienced trouble with touring musicians on this level before.
When it is considered that ACE, among those concerts, have promoted Chick Corea and Weather Report, two of the most demanding acts from a professional viewpoint of staging concerts who insist on everything being done properly down to the finest detail, they not only had no complaints but were impressed as the efficiency of their Australian tours. Costello’s stand therefore carries little credibility and only smacks of him being the jumped-up little smart-arse tantrum thrower he seems most decidedly to have become. Consistent with the terms of his tour contract, Costello refused to talk to journalists backstage about the invident following the concert’s premature ending.
While Costello languished or whatever he does immediately after walking off and leaving his fans holding their tickets, the enraged fans went on a 30-minute rampage which was only halted by the arrival of police after ushers failed to quell their anger. The outcome of this episode is that the managers of the other scheduled Costello venues around Australia, are now all taking extra stringent security precautions in case there is a repeat of Costello’s erratic antics to further inflame his fans. Whatever the outcome of the rest of the tour (if it manages to see the distance after the dust has settled between artists-manager and promotors), Costello’s first night debacle has ensured a blaze of publicity and such is the devious mind of Riviera, one wonders if it isn’t part of some outrageous publicity stunt.
More likely it’s Costello simply being consistently obnoxious.