Elvis Costello's marathon of New York performances last weekend might have been newsy enough, even without the controversy over his recently quoted, apparently racist remarks about Ray Charles and James Brown. With them, the weekend took on an added edge, and made a lot of people think hard about just, what Elvis Costello has to offer.
The marathon included a Friday evening performance at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J.; two shows Saturday night at the Palladium and a round of club dates Sunday night at the Lone Star Cafe, the Bottom Line and Great Gildersleeves; this writer saw the first Palladium show and the Lone Star and Bottom Line dates.
Mr. Costello has widely been regarded as the best of the British new-wave rock artists — especially with Graham Parker's presumably temporary eclipse as he switched record labels — and he's sold better than any of them, as well. He owes his success to the excellence and diversity of songs, which blend rock fervor with interesting, enigmatic lyrics and real variety of musical structure within their self-imposed limits. And at his best, in performance, he's attained a thrilling intensity, a possessed outpouring of songs: As a songwriter, Mr. Costello recalls Neil Young in fecundity, if not in style. But at less than his best, his impact disintegrates into occasional gripping moments separated by stretches in which one wonders what all the fuss is about.
The intensity was only intermittent Saturday and Sunday. The main trouble for this writer is that Mr. Costello's voice is extremely unpleasant. So what, you might say — Mick Jagger (who was in the Bottom Line audience) is no crooner, either. The trouble with Mr. Costello's voice is that it limits his range severely. Which in turn would be a minor problem except that his songs themselves aspire to that range. Especially in more plaintive material, he's reduced to a hoarse croak, and that simply doesn't do his own work justice. Even in uptempo songs, there's more here than toneless hectoring.
Still, the voice works for the projection of anger, mocking irony and bug-eyed passion, and at his best those emotions came across. For this taste, the most effective show was the one at the Lone Star. He seemed more relaxed after the tense, stiff Palladium performance (there had been some 150 telephoned threats). And the sound system at the Lone Star was thinner and clearer than the pounding rock systems at the Palladium and the Bottom Line, allowing for the subtlety, individuality and barroom funkiness of his band, The Attractions, to come across.
Musical considerations aside, it's bit hard to separate one's immediate artistic impressions from all the fuss that's surrounded Mr. Costello of late. At his news conference Friday, Mr. Costello explained his racist remarks as part of a deliberate attempt to infuriate his foes in a brawl; he argued that he had also said outrageous and insulting things about all sorts of white
artists and institutions, but that only the slurs against blacks — which he didn't mean, really — had been quoted.
This writer is inclined to believe Mr. Costello, as far as that goes. But this incident is only the latest in a series of encounters in which Mr. Costello has revealed himself to be so angry and bitter as to approach the clinical. His work has been defined by its furiously denunciatory passion. If that passion is perceived as a welcome scourge — the justified outrage of a moral man and artist confronted with a corrupt world — then it's easy to be caught up in it. But if the passion seems simply the product of an embittered individual, then it doesn't seem like passion at all, but merely twisted pique.
Judging not only by his calling of the news conference but by his continual references in his remarks and his song-selection to this latest controversy, Mr. Costello is clearly concerned, and one would like to think that his concern is motivated by real self-examination and not just by careerism. But in the end, his personal problems are really irrelevant, except insofar as they directly affect his art. If he is to survive in the public eye, it will be because his songs and his performances are so good that people won't be able to do without them. As of last weekend's performances, that artistic question was still open.