It was really Elvis Costello week. First there was a three-night, sold-out stand at New York's Palladium (see Live! page 44), just one stop on his current tour. Then, the normally non-talkative one gave his first ever American interview on the NBC network's Tomorrow show, a late-night chat show seen, as they say, coast-to-coast.
Costello and the Attractions performed "New Lace Sleeves," and then Costello alone sat down with Tomorrow host Tom Snyder for the chat. Snyder, a bundle of nervous tics (eyes blinking, eyebrows going up and down) even in the best of times, looked distinctly ill-at-ease. Costello seemed in fine humour though, leaning back and arching his eyebrows over his shades, getting intentional laughs, while Snyder's questions were provoking embarrassed snickers from the younger members of the studio audience.
Costello's last appearance on American television was also on the NBC network, when he appeared on Saturday Night Live and totally freaked out that show's production crew by suddenly stopping "Less Than Zero" a few bars into the song and switching to "Radio Radio." (Ah, you saw Hendrix on The Lulu Show too, Elvis — Ed.) Snyder began by asking him about the incident.
Costello: "Well, I thought it was a live show, something about the title suggested it. And the number that we were sort of bullied into doing, it was written about a very English situation and didn't fit, and I had a new song that at the time wasn't recorded, about radio, and we just did it spontaneously. And evidently it's not that live. I think they told us not to come back.
Snyder: "Do you rebel against that, if the record company says 'Hey, we want you to do this song, this is the one we've got the money on'?
Well that was before we persuaded them that that isn't the way we work. After a little gentle persuasion we got a much better understanding on those matters.
You've been described by people who've written on you as being an angry man...
I don't know how they can see that.
We don't see it now as we might have seen it at one time. Have you worked that out pretty much, have you learned to channel your energies and not get angry at situations?
Yeah, well, to be really straight about it I suppose some of the time it was nerves, you know, which tends to make you more aggressive. Other times it was righteous, when we first came here and we might as well have landed on Mars the way people looked at us. So we were trying to put it over forcefully, and that was the way we felt at that time. We're trying to present a wider picture now, so inevitably you're going to get people who say you've sold out and you've gone mellow and God knows.
You've matured with those situations.
What a horrible word that is. Matured. No, no, I'm not in the business of maturing. Makes you sound like cheese or something.
When you were a computer programmer'
I was actually a computer operator. I was just a button pusher.
The reason I ask is, the company just sent me one of these home computers to play with.
I can't even work a calculator. It just happened to coincide with my getting a record contract. This stuff about my being a computer programmer is nonsense. I did it for about twenty minutes.
Was it frustrating for you, working a job like that and knowing you had this talent?
Oh yeah. It's all very well for me now, 'cause I've got a record contract and I can put out records, and if I don't I suppose they send the boys around or something. I was turned down by every record company in England. I just didn't present myself. Probably due to the fact that I'm a big fan of those old films where they go in and say 'Have I got a song for you!'
I actually believed you could do that. I used to sit down with these guys and play my guitar and say, 'Well what do you think?' They were used to getting demo tapes they could attach these polite notes to, and I did actually force people to sit and listen to me for twenty minutes between taking phone calls. It's particularly embarrassing when you're in the middle of a song and suddenly the phone rings and he's going: 'Yes darling I'll be home around eight, no, lamb casserole will be great, see ya later honey.'
There are still people trying to do that and they're not gonna find it funny. People come up to me and ask me if I've got any tips, and there ain't any. Just keep knocking on the door until they answer.
I get people coming up to me, giving me tapes, seeing if there's anything I can do, and I don't have any pull with the record company. They think I'm one brick short a load, you know.
Who are your heroes, as far as songwriters?
Well, no heroes, really... but there are people I admire. Some current people, and some people you might not expect. I admire people like Cole Porter, and, as far as lyricists, I really like Hank Williams.
What about your dad. Jazz musician?
Yeah, originally. Then he was a band singer. He's still a professional musician. He plays more dates a year than I do, he works very hard, drives up and down England. Plays social clubs, night clubs.
Do you love him? (Kid you not, he really asked this.)
Do you ever go see him?
Yeah. I used to play with him sometimes, but I could never get in tune.
I'm glad that you go see your Pop and that you realise he works very hard.
He was actually discouraging me from getting into this business.
This number that you're going to do now, "Watch Your Step," is this a warning?
I'll leave that up to you.
And Costello scored the last laugh.
This was very comfortable for me, thank you very much. I didn't expect it to be, and it was.
I just wanted to do that, because people said to me, 'If you're on, do the funny legs', because of the picture on the photograph, 'You've got to do the funny eyebrows'.