Judging by his appearance earlier in the week on Russell Harty's weekly wine and cheese spectacular, the reason Elvis Costello maintains a low profile in the pop media is because what he has or wants to say hardly makes for the most interesting or image-enhancing material.
Sunday night's South Bank Show documentary, which followed Costello and The Attractions recording their latest album Almost Blue with producer Billy Sherrill, failed to reveal more than a layman's guide to recording in Nashville and make more than a surface incision into the whole Costello myth. A fact which reflected just as much, or more in fact, on the South Bank production team as on Costello.
Driven by a slow, serious approach following The Artist In Exile In Search Of New Expression, the documentary laboured under the weight of its own misconceptions and by the time the decks had been cleared of politeness, confusion and some very stilted and barely believable keyhole scenes (like Elvis the hick cult star meeting legendary Nashville producer Sherrill for the first time), we were left with a closing which posed more questions about Costello and the Nashville visit than most of the preceding 55 minutes had done.
Perhaps the fact was that, as journalist Allan Jones said early on in the programme, there was nothing illogical or bizarre about Costello going to Nashville to record the album. The country influence had always been there in his work (from the use of Clover as backing musicians on My Aim Is True to the "Stranger In The House" freebie given away with This Year's Model) and he's never been the type of performer to stick with one format for any length of time. A delve into the country heritage was a logical step after the search for renewed briskness and simplicity on Get Happy and Trust.
And, apart from a frantic rearrangement of Hank Williams' "Worn Out Shoe," Costello was playing this one for real — which is something the South Bank boys seemed loath to accept.
Interviewed wearing dark glasses, showing something very close to a double chin and gradually edging out of a camera-shy nervousness, EC gave the customary reasons and motivations for making the album; and then became a semi-narrator and travel guide to Nashville and the history of country music in general. This was all quite acceptable stuff — the bare bones of country music that even a greenhorn like myself was acquainted with — but it was at the expense of any real prodding or probing, merely establishing Costello's credentials and providing a timely plug for the album release.
A programme which centred on Billy Sherrill's upfront, deadpan bluntness rather than Costello's self-conscious inscrutability would it seemed, have made for a much more lively and humorous hour's worth of TV. When someone hits a bum note in recording, Sherrill says "I won't say who he is — but he's playing bass" and when, later, he's interviewed aboard his river cruiser about the possibility of the record being successful he responds "I hope so, I'll buy another boat." It was moments like this that kept Sherrill's reputation unassailable and made him the undeniable star of the show.
The Costello/Sherrill relationship was little more than a working one. Costello and The Attractions appeared anxious to impress and were worried and confused by the producer's lack of commitment or enthusiasm. The viewer was never fully convinced of the 'artistic validity' of it all, and everyone seemed peculiarly anxious to keep fiscal concerns out of reckoning; but perhaps the above comment from Sherrill says more about his involvement than they'd like you to believe.
The programme continued its bland non-committal course when it followed the group to a genuine C & W club in Aberdeen, where they merely surveyed the scene rather than asking some of the dyed-in-the-wool punters for their opinions or even bringing Elvis out to meet them. But then the main rule of the programme was —pass no judgement and cause no controversy.
It was left to Costello to throw a thin web of intrigue over the whole affair. Mumbling morosely about the contradiction within himself about the old 'live fast, die young' mythology built around country stars like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons, Costello couldn't help being "inexorably drawn to it" even though "You don't die young romantically." He closes with the statement that "This business sucks you in after a while. It's not really based around truth and I've had the disturbing feeling that what I do is a perversion of truth for quite a while."
I found it hard to sympathise though I didn't doubt him. But what was going on behind the shades? Was Costello having a little laugh to himself? Or giving us a juicy ending to keep his own myth buoyant? Worse, I actually think he was being honest, but the last people I'd expect to get the answer from would be the South Bank Show production team — or, indeed, Costello himself.