"You'd really like Elvis Costello," the J. Geils Band's vocalist Peter Wolf assured me one night when he was ransacking my record collection. "He'll listen to an old rock and roll record and then turn around and want to hear some bebop, then maybe some African music, then Billie Holiday..." I'd figured Costello would have broad tastes and a healthy curiosity about lots of different kinds of music. His music just keeps growing, gaining maturity without losing its emotional honesty or its edge, and it stands to reason that he must be growing right along with it. "But Costello doesn't seem to like music critics much," I said. "He hasn't even given an interview in almost five years." Wolf promised to have a talk with Elvis about that.
And it worked. I met Costello in the lobby of the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York City, and he came strolling in carrying his guitar, Just as friendly and cheerful as you please. He'd bought a suitcase full of records at various Manhattan stores, and he showed them to me — Richard Hell's Destiny Street was right in there with a couple of super-rare Chet Baker items ("my favorite singer") and some Ella Fitzgerald.
We began by talking music, but it was evident that Costello had a lot on his mind and the conversation quickly turned to that fateful night in Columbus, Ohio, when he became involved in a drunken brawl with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett that ended in a round of insults which reportedly included Costello referring to Ray Charles as "an old, blind nigger." His comments were reported to the press within a few days, and Elvis flew to New York to face a roomful of angry rockcrits and reporters in a press conference that began as an apology but degenerated into a shouting match. Costello wound up the tour and didn't return to the U.S. to perform until 1981, almost two years later.
But on records and in concert, Elvis hasn't let the lingering fallout from Columbus slow him down. His recent albums, particularly the new Imperial Bedroom, leave little doubt that he is the most talented popular songwriter of our time, and he just keeps getting better — more assured, more versatile, more in control of his material and its nuances of feeling. His concerts used to be short, almost unbelievably intense, and perhaps a little overbearing. Now they are long (the last one I saw was well over two hours), wonderfully varied, and bursting with a more open, less self-absorbed brand of energy. As of this writing, Costello and the Attractions (a tight, powerful, utterly distinctive band that doesn't get nearly enough recognition) are embroiled in another lengthy American tour.
Talking with Costello was something like listening to him sing. In conversation he is intense, full of ideas that just have to come out, but he's also very precise about the way he says things, very conscious of how they'll sound and of all the ways they might be taken. Still, I wouldn't call him guarded. He's very enthusiastic about all the music he considers good, and very eager to let people know that he considers the sincerity and feeling in his own music at least as important as its craft. And he's ambitious. If he isn't already our generation's Cole Porter, he isn't going to be satisfied until he's exactly that.
Since this is the first interview you've given to the press in more than four years, the first question has to be why? Why have you closed yourself off from this kind of thing?
I held off doing interviews because I didn't feel I had enough to say. What was I going to do, go through the albums track by track and explain the songs? That doesn't leave the songs open to interpretation; it keeps the listener from using his own imagination.
I can understand your not wanting to talk to some of the English music writers, who seem to be mostly fashion-conscious and not very knowledgeable musically. But that's no excuse for just avoiding doing interviews with anyone.
There were very few journalists I wanted to talk to. So many of them just ask idiotic questions. But more than that, it was important to me to be very clear about what I was doing. I read a lot of interviews in which the artist betrays artistic confusion. And during the early part of my career, I wasn't too clear about what I was doing; I just did It. At this moment, though, I feel very clear about what we've done and what we're doing. I can look back and see that there was a distinct break in my career after we made Armed Forces, for example. I think of the albums we've made since then as running together very distinctly — Get Happy!!, Trust, Almost Blue and Imperial Bedroom. Before Armed Forces, we were constantly touring, trying to attack America. And then we stopped... I'm sure you know why.
I wasn't going to bring up the Columbus incident until later. I was going to talk about music first, jolly you up...
No, I want to talk about it. Obviously, it was the most horrific incident of my whole career.
So you were in this hotel bar, right? And you got into a drunken argument and said the one thing you knew would really outrage them more than anything else you could say. That was the impression I got from the accounts of what happened. ..
That's pretty much what happened. It was a drunken brawl, really, and I did want to say the thing that would outrage those people the most. I was very drunk... but that's no excuse. Those words that I said certainly don't represent my view of the world. I suppose if you allow uncontrolled anger to run away with you, and if you make a career out of contriving anger, up on stage, whether you're feeling angry or not, sooner or later you'll find yourself saying things, using words you don't mean. It'll all come back at you. That's no excuse. People were angry, and rightfully so. There was a very intense press conference, the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Before that, I had just always assumed that people would recognize my allegiance to R&B, to black music. But it wasn't obvious enough.
But don't you see that by refusing to talk to the press, projecting all that anger, building up that whole mystique, you set yourself up for a fall?
You may be right. One writer in Rolling Stone actually wrote, "This is just what we've been waiting for. He fed himself to the lions." There was a lot of righteous indignation at certain publications, on the part of the sort of people who go home, play their Sandinista albums, and worry about El Salvador. But I don't want to talk about other people, really, because it will sound like I'm trying to make excuses, and I'm not. It's just that I've never been able to sit down in an unemotional atmosphere and say that I'm very sorry.
And of course I have to live with the fact that people hate me because of it. You work so hard, and then you become best known for a confused, idiotic incident... Everything I've done since has really been colored by that incident. When we went In to make the next album after that, Get Happy!!, I think that, subconsciously at least, we set out to make a soul record. Not just in terms of style, but a record that was warmer, more emotional. And I think all the records we've made since have had those qualities. They've been more personal than the three earlier albums, they were made at a higher emotional pitch. The whole band was working very hard together.
But just to give you an idea of the sort of thing that still happens because of that incident in Columbus, just recently, when we were working on Imperial Bedroom, our bass player, Bruce Thomas, went over to the next studio to visit Paul McCartney. And Paul was working with Michael Jackson. Bruce and Paul know each other, so they were all getting along great until somebody mentioned who Bruce worked with. And it just cast a pall over everything. Michael Jackson got very angry and just sort of walked away... Bruce and McCartney sprang to my defense and said, "You've never heard the whole story." But still...Michael Jackson is somebody I admire greatly, but I couldn't just go up to him and shake his hand. Do you see what I'm saying? Ever since that incident in Columbus, I've been carrying this weight around. It was like suddenly having the blues. I was very nervous about performing in America again. My life was threatened. When I did begin performing here again, after Trust was released, I made a conscious attempt not to come off looking arrogant or like an ogre.
Well, the shows after Trust were a lot longer, there was a lot more give-and-take with the audience. And they couldn't really be as angry, whether the anger was contrived or not, because you were writing so many more ballads.
I was very angry when we first came over here. And all the complacency I saw in America made me angry. But I'm not writing songs from the point of view of a 22-year-old computer programmer any more, I'm writing from the viewpoint of a moderately successful musician. And I don't think of a lot of the songs I'm writing now as rock and roll. On Imperial Bedroom especially, I was making a conscious effort to remove the dominance of the beat and have the melody dominate. I don't want to be just yelling and screaming; I'm not a wild man as such. I'm in pop music. Now Jerry Lee Lewis is a rock and roll singer. He's deliberately perverse. When he was booked on rock and roll revival shows in Europe, he sang hymns. Then I saw him recently at a big country music festival in England, and he sang nothing but rock and roll. Little Richard is another one, a real rock and roller. There aren't that many, I don't think. There are a lot of pretenders to it — bozos dressed in silly clothes.
The first time I heard some of the new songs from Imperial Bedroom, when you performed in New York City last New Year's Eve, I got the impression that you were aiming at being a kind of Cole Porter or Jerome Kern for the '80s, that you had set your sights on writing standards.
Well, that kind of songwriting — Cole Porter, Kern, Rodgers and Hart — is something I'm very fond of and aspire to. When people ask me, "What's a great song," I name something like "Love For Sale" or "Someone To Watch Over Me." You can hear Billie Holiday sing "Someone To Watch Over Me" and then hear Ella Fitzgerald sing it, and they're different, but they're equally valid. In the last 20 years or so, very few people have been up to that standard of lyric writing. People haven't been writing great songs, they've been making great records.
I could imagine Frank Sinatra doing one or two of the songs from Imperial Bedroom — "Almost Blue," for example. Is he a singer you really like? Who are some of your other favorites?
So far, the most widely heard cover versions of my songs have been the ones by Linda Ronstadt. Her versions didn't do my bank balance any harm, but... ugh... it did smack of a decision, her decision or her producer's decision, to try to get a bit of "new wave credibility." There aren't that many singers I like... now Sinatra, yes, that would be ideal. My publishers asked me not too long ago what my ambitions were, and I said that first I'd like to hear one of my songs recorded by Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin, and second, I'd like to write music to a lyric by Sammy Cahn. I did attempt a collaboration with him, and it didn't quite work out, but I really would like to keep a link with that era of songwriting. But everything is so pigeonholed now. Radio formats... Why can't you play Billie Holiday and then Hank Williams on the radio? They're the same thing. Why can't you hear Sinatra, Chet Baker, Lee Dorsey, Jerry Lee Lewis, Randy Newman, the Band, Little Willie John, Aaron Neville, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Stevie Wonder, some early Mel Tormé... Those are some of my favorite singers.
A lot of people would be amused to hear you talking about Mel Tormé and Chet Baker and so on ... I think in a lot of people's minds you're still that angry young new wave rocker...
I always thought it was a real mistake to toss around that expression "new wave" in connection with my records. In the early days of Stiff Records, around 1976-77, Jake [Riviera, co-founder of the pioneering British label that gave Costello, Nick Lowe and many others their start] used to keep trying to come up with slogans. And I said our slogan should be "surfing on the new wave" — not being really involved in it, just riding on it.
But the sound you created with your band the Attractions, on those first two or three albums, really defined in a lot of people's minds what "new wave" was supposed to sound like. The sort of cheesy organ sound, the vitriolic lyrics...
I remember when we started out, we did sometimes think about trying to create some new cliches...The Attractions are an incredible band. It amazes me that they haven't received more credit. Not for creating something people copied, necessarily; it seems egotistical to think people are copying you, because when you hear something in a record, you really can't be sure where it came from. I'm just surprised the Attractions haven't received more credit as a band.
But as far as that "new wave" sound, from Get Happy!! onwards we've been consciously escaping from that sound. Commercially, escaping was the wrong thing to do. Radio, certainly in this country, is so slow to pick up on new sounds. If we had really wanted to be more successful over here, we'd have followed Armed Forces with another album that sounded a lot like it. A record executive would have thought that way. But I'm not so worried about our comparative lack of success. It's given us a lot more room to maneuver in. We've tried to make records that sounded different every time. You can't make a completely new music, not in pop. But you can reassemble the parts and come up with a new toy.
When you said your failure to achieve mega-success gave you more room to maneuver, did you mean more room than some of the other groups that were classified as new wave?
Not necessarily. Look at the three best American bands of the '70s: the Band, Little Feat and Steely Dan. I think their success, the snobbishness of the audience they attracted, the snobbishness of the critics, and perhaps their own snobbishness as well, just killed them off. They got worse instead of better. As for the new wave thing, some groups have survived it. The Police and the Pretenders have made some great records. So have the Clash. But there aren't many people out there who are consistently trying to juggle all the things they've learned and come up with something fresh. A lot of new groups have just slipped very comfortably into the places of the old groups they replaced. Don't get me wrong, I'd still rather listen to the Police, the Pretenders or the Clash than a group like Asia. But basically they've just become a new rock hierarchy, a slightly more attractive hierarchy than the one they replaced.
But I'd rather point my finger at myself, not at other groups. You know, some of the more vitriolic songs I've written have been observations of myself.
Quite a few of your songs seem to be about sex and power. More specifically, in "Little Hitler" and some other lyrics you compare the way people can allow themselves to be used by their lovers to the way people can allow themselves to be used by unscrupulous politicians. And sometimes there's another dimension which is peculiarly English, the whole class system.
I do tend to think there's a lot of decadence and moral weakness in people in positions of power. Traditionally, the aristocracy in England has been decadent and immoral. There's always a lot of intrigue and government scandals, and while over here these things are more straightforward—you see the videotape of one guy handing the other guy the money — in England it tends to be more seedy.
The Profumo scandal...
Exactly. None of my songs are literally about that or any other particular event, but some of them do have that flavor —"Man Out of Time" on Imperial Bedroom, "New Lace Sleeves" on Trust, going back to "Green Shirt" on Armed Forces and "Less Than Zero" on My Aim is True. I guess there's one on each album, but that's not a thing I've consciously continued.
A lot of the songs are just more general observations of what can result from one person gaining power over another person.
"Little Savage" and "Human Hands," on Imperial Bedroom, are positive results of that.
The songs give people the impression that you've had quite a few stormy, abusive, manipulative personal relationships. Are those lyrics drawn mostly from personal experience, or from observation?
Some of it's observation, and some of it's observation of myself. Sometimes I'll superimpose something from my own experience and an imaginary scenario, at the same time. To me, at least, it's blatantly obvious what most of my songs are about. But some of them are about a whole load of contradictory things. It would take as long to explain "Kid About It," on Imperial Bedroom, as it did to write it.
You're exceptional not just for the quality of your songs but for the quantity. There were 20 songs on Get Happy!!; and they were all really first-rate songs. You must be a pretty fast writer.
I am. These days, I'm consciously slowing myself down. But there could have been 20 songs on Imperial Bedroom; there are still some sitting in the can. It's just that as you rehearse them, the best ones tend to rise to the surface.
I don't think I'm particularly fast. Look at how many songs Jerome Kern and Cole Porter wrote. Porter would write some very good songs for a show, and they would get turned down on a whim. The lead was the producer's girlfriend, and she didn't have the range to sing the song, or something like that. The songwriters who worked in the Brill Building in New York in the early '60s, Gerry Goffin and Carole King and that crowd, those writers turned out hundreds of songs. I put 20 songs on Get Happy!! to make a point. I was trying to get away from this precious idea that every song has to be the Sermon on the Mount.
Yet you want the songs to connect with people...
Yes, if you write pop songs you do want them to be important in people's lives. I'd love for one of my songs to be as important to someone as "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" by the Temptations was to me. On the other hand, I hate it when the relationship between the audience and me gets too intense and reverent. I hate rock and roll climaxes, that whole sort of predictable response you get at the end of a rock concert. I'd rather close the show with a ballad. This whole "man alone tortured by his art" stance is something I'm trying to get rid of. I'm just not as weighed down by the pain of it all anymore. The important things to me are the words, the melody, the way you sing them — all the little innuendos you can get into them — above all, the feeling behind them. I'm trying to cut back on the clever wordplay and write things that are more directly emotional, more personal, things with more heart.
Other than that, what am I gonna do? Write a rock opera? Rock films, rock musicals... they're pathetic, a joke. So there's really just continuing the songwriting, honing that, doing it better.
Have you started thinking about the next album?
The next album will be about whatever happens to me between now and when we start recording again. That's what it's about. It's just life.