The musical career of Elvis Costello has always been somewhat like the stormy circumstances surrounding the New York Yankees the past two years. In the two World Championship seasons, the Yankee players battled each other, played in a storm of controversy and disputes and just happened to play best when angry at the world.
In his two-year recording career, the talented and enigmatic Costello has had much the same result. He's made three excellent albums, each one surpassing the other in quality and verve. He probably holds the title of the top new wave performer in the field today, with lofty album sales and excitement resulting from concert tours and press accounts.
Costello also performs at best when angry. Like the Yankees, his anger must be vented at the correct source. Usually it is. On record, and especially in performance during his first American tour a year ago, the Briton seethed in anger and frustration over problems with relationships and a commercial, corrupt system that attempts to stifle anyone's creativity. We have identified with his feelings, and appreciated this schnook's baring of his soul.
Sometimes, however, people bite off more than they can chew — like when Reggie Jackson disobeys orders to hit away or when Billy Martin makes disparaging remarks about his boss.
Elvis, it seems, may also have gotten a bit out of control recently. Both the rock press and the dailies have gotten plenty of mileage from Costello's alleged racist remarks about blacks, especially Ray Charles and James Brown, while he was verbally and physically battling with singer Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills' entourage in Columbus, Ohio. Costello drew more press notices when he held a rare news conference in New York last week to deny he was a racist and to explain the comments were made to antagonize his combatants.
We've also read of his angry spoutings about the quality of radio programming, and especially of the time he made uncomplimentary remarks about the station that was sponsoring and broadcasting live his St. Louis show. We've also heard of the 40-minute performances he gave earlier in the tour, some of which reportedly were cut short in order to punish an audience that did not act as enthusiastic as he wanted.
All of this, combined with other factors, made for a letdown in his New York area shows last week. While his 1978 shows at the Capitol Theater and the Palladium were the highlights of the concert year, brimming with excitement, energy and power, his recent shows have lacked much of the steam of a year ago. I caught his Friday night Capitol Theater show in Passaic last week, and while it had numerous good moments, the performance of Costello and the Attractions fell far short of being the event a man of his talents could provide. Reports from shows later in the weekend seemed to agree with my opinion.
What was the problem?
At the Capitol, most of the songs he performed were either from his new album, Armed Forces, or songs not appearing on any albums. The newer or unrecorded works lacked the authority that was in evidence when Costello introduced new material last year. Also, while the new album is his best, its songs do not lend themselves to the power and vividness provided by the electrifying songs on This Year's Model or the subtle, charming and trying songs on My Aim is True. The songs on the new album are better studio tracks than live songs, thanks to their pop nature and the fine production work of Nick Lowe.
And of course, the apparent pressures resulting from the controversies seemed a strain on Elvis. He had been threatened with death in various phone calls. In concert, he was less animated than normal and his voice lacked the hurt, betrayal and anger necessary for many of his songs. He really did not pose a threat to the concert-goer, and psychologically, we need a touch of fear, or at least a dose of intimidation, to create the tension of an Elvis Costello performance.
Costello has sung he'd "do anything to confuse the enemy." I surely hope he doesn't consider his fans as the enemy.
Instead, he should spit venom on the Boston Red Sox.