It's safe to say that over the past five years no other individual in rock has done as much as well as Elvis Costello has.
In fact, the only artist who compares is David Bowie during his peak years in the early and mid '70s. Though stylistically miles apart, both he and Costello managed to transcend the overall scene on the strength of sheer talent yet also retain their individuality by not pigeonholing their music (at the behest of marketing men) into any one streamlined style.
Though Bowie has the edge as a performer, Costello surpasses him as a songwriter and takes the round on the strength of his emotional intensity as a singer. Since 1977 he has released a total of eight albums — a staggering total of more than 100 original songs — and while none has been perfect, Costello can hold his head high as one of the few artists (Bowie isn't among them) who hasn't recorded an insincere or schlocky note along the way.
And yet, for all his accomplishments, the man who comes to the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre tonight is something of a mystery.
Costello is a little-known figure, mostly because he avoids interviews — there are only a few scraps of conversation in print — and because his feisty manager, Jake Riviera, shields his charge from prying eyes with the tenacity of a pugnacious bulldog.
However, a thumbnail sketch of his life pieces together along these lines:
Costello, real name Declan MacManus, was born in England in 1955. At one point his father was a dance band leader, and it doesn't take great imagination to assume Costello's eclectic fusion of styles and tastes derived from hearing a wide range of music played in the home.
Though he spent some time working as a computer programmer, Costello spent most of the mid '70s unsuccessfully trying to wedge his way into the music business via the usual route — writing songs, playing small club dates and making demo tapes.
The "break," as it was, came in 1978. The English scene was opening up in the first of its pre-punk contractions and in June, at the age of 21, Costello signed with Stiff records on the strength of early tapes that found him singing everything from Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" to the Amazing Rhythm Aces' "Third Rate Romance" to an early, slow version of his rocker "Radio, Radio" called "Radio Soul."
With producer Nick Lowe at the helm, Costello released his debut album, My Aim Is True, in 1977. Despite (or perhaps because of) one-dimensional arrangements and static production values, the 12-song LP won immediate acclaim. Though without a hit, Costello's lyrical complexity distinguished him from the pack, and he won a number of rookie-of-the-year awards from the rock press.
Early on Costello was lumped together with the rough-edged punks simply because no one was quite sure what to make of his pigeon-toed stance, cropped hair and volatile temperament. Costello's shows often ended early when he'd stalk off stage in a fit of pique. His contradictory remarks confused everyone. One celebrated incident involving singer Bonnie Bramlett ended in a punch-out after a drunken Costello made a racial slur; within two months he was playing rock-against-racism concerts in England.
After splitting from Stiff and putting together a permanent, three-piece backing band, Costello released two bracing, straightforward rock albums. The second, 1978's Armed Forces, was a bona fide classic. However, in 1980 he abruptly shifted course and began to trace the roots of popular music with a series of compelling, if less accessible, records that stretched the boundaries of the rock context he had seemed committed to. Those records included:
• Get Happy, a paean to rhythm 'n' blues and the Stax/Motown sound that featured an amazing total of 20 songs.
• Taking Liberties, a pastiche of B-sides and throwaway material that showed Costello's throwaway compositions were more complex than most other artists' "A" material.
• Trust, a summary of styles, the first showcase of the total range of his songwriting talents.
• Almost Blue, a collection of country standards that was his tribute to the form.
• The new Imperial Bedroom, a throwback to the unabashed romanticism of the '30s and '40s and his most successfully realized album thus far.
A change in demeanor and approach matched these musical shifts. Suddenly Costello became a polished, consummate performer, tossing off three-hour, 30-song shows. Besides focusing on his own career, Costello branched into other musical avenues: in '79 he produced the debut album for the premier ska band The Specials; in '80 he co-produced Squeeze's East Side Story LP; and this past year he wrote the liner notes for a Gram Parsons compilation package.
Binding all his endeavors is the emotional intensity referred to earlier. Costello's foggy, bruised voice isn't pretty, but he's an intense, committed singer who obviously cares about his music. This passion was never more evident than on a spring night in 1981 when, despite a severe case of the mumps that made his face resemble a pale, swollen bullfrog from the neck up, Costello flew from London to Los Angeles to sing three songs with his country idol, George Jones.
Perhaps this is the overriding quality that makes tonight's show seem such an attractive ticket. Few of today's performers convey the sense of conviction and integrity (not to mention the talent) that runs throughout Costello's music.
Simply put, he is one of the few special people left in rock.