In the black fastness of a windy winter's eve on an Irish mountainside, the traveller's spirits are lifted by the sight of Johnny Fox's pub ("undoubtedly the highest licensed premises in Ireland — pleased to quote you for small farmer's outings, golfing awards, weddings and christenings"). Here is our rendezvous with Elvis Costello, resident of the parish, beloved entertainer and — as it happens — teetotaller. ("Fuck knows why he came to live over here, then." puzzles our taxi driver.) And here he comes now, swaddled against the elements and every inch the hardy country walker — every inch, that is, except for the gold painted fingernails of his left hand. "It's a style thing," he explains, with a cryptic smirk.
Cash For Questions is the game, and Costello lunges onto the readers' letters, faxes and e-mails printouts. Around the lounge are chintz armchairs and agricultural implements. Upon the mantelpiece are china dogs, chiming clocks and the occasional vintage rifle from the glory days of Michael Collins' IRA brigade.
It's peculiar blend of twinkling bonhomie and faint, vestigial menace — not unlike the bloke in specs who now casts a beady eye across your enquiries. Finally out of his eight-year stint with Warners, likewise binning his band The Attractions, and warming up for another collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Costello is the same pugnacious, invigorating conversationalist he has always been. He turns the same, steel-trap mind to queries from his fans as to the probings of the press.
So, sleep uneasily, he from Birmingham who asked him why there hasn't been a decent Costello album since Blood and Chocolate. Not only does our man take issue with your view — as of tonight, he knows where you live...
This semester I'm teaching a college course about your career. Does that scare you?
— Peter Galub, New York
Christ! People should get marked down for doing my course. It doesn't scare me, but there must be something more improving than listening to my stuff. It's a way of keeping people entertainment by studying something that doesn't require as much concentration as something difficult, like algebra or Aristophanes.
Any New Year's resolutions?
— Joshua Hertz, St. Hugh's College, Oxford
I don't celebrate New Year. Which one? Jewish? Muslim? I'm a pagan.
Radiohead cite you as a major influence. Do you find that flattering?
— John Meredith, St Helens, Merseyside
Thom Yorke's mentioned my name a few times. Of the people who are around at the moment you couldn't have anyone more talented than him paying you a compliment. OK Computer was one of the great records of the year. In the kind of music that I do, which I suppose is songs, and how you then explode them out, they're doing it as boldly as anybody.
Thom is mighty: the time I was on TV with him he threw himself into the performance, which is difficult on TV because the camera can make you look like a ranting puppet. I can think of some of my early performances which are like that.
I heard that in the early days your glasses had no glass in them, or were clear glass — pre-dating the now common practice of wearing them for purely aesthetic purposes. True?
— Grahame Woods, Northwood, Middlesex
At the time I had my first pictures done, I did wear glasses, regular cheapo ones. But I decided I was going to change to something striking. So I got what were old-fashioned ones then, but every 15 years someone comes along to make them fashionable again. Like in America Kurt Cobain wore them a bit, so the kids did, and over here Jarvis wore them. Every so often there has to be a speccy guy who comes along.
In some of my old shots you can tell they're flat from the way the light catches them, but I have worn glasses since I was 18, so I wasn't cheating.
Why are your songs never on karaoke machines?
— David Ryan, Colchester, Essex
Too much words. Can't fit them on the scroll.
Since you're in the new Spice Girls film, would you consider writing an album for them? Perhaps they could do some covers: Victoria could do "Sulky Girl" and Geri could do "Battered Old Bird."
— John Scott, Midlothian
Fantastic. Victoria could do "Sulky Girl" but you're being a bit rude about poor old Geri. I once tried to get out of doing the Brit Awards, which the idiot head of my record company wanted me to do, and said I'd only do it if they could get En Vogue to do "Pump It Up" with me. And they went and got them! So I had to find another excuse...
As for the Spice Girls film, their company rang me up and asked if I would be in it. I wouldn't have thought I was the kind of face you would get to do a cornflakes advert. Maybe 20 years ago. I was surprised.
I hated the way they were treated at the Ivor Novello awards. They won one for sales, plus they're credited as writers. But none of the old farts there, and some of them were young old farts which made it sadder, wanted to believe it. And when they went up for their awards there was this low, grumpy rumble like you get in the House of Commons. And I thought, You bastards! It's only a bit of fun, it's only pop music! So then I was all for them. I went from not giving a toss to, OK, I'm on their side now.
Alison. Who is she?
— James Cameron, Kirkcaldy
That's an impossible one. It's whoever you want it to be. I know who the song relates to, but I'm not going to tell you because the song is for you to listen to. It's for who it should be in your own mind. Is that a slippery enough answer?
Have you ever written a song to get a girl to sleep with you?
— Mark Krukar, Seattle, Washington
I think that was about the first 250 wasn't it? (Laughs) No, I don't think so. It may have had that effect but I didn't do it deliberately.
What's the story behind I Want You? Is it just a personification of lust?
— Yon Pulkrabek, Ithaca, New York
I'm very reluctant to tell people the stories. For one thing it's none of their fucking business, and the other thing is, knowing how much is real and how much is invention spoils how you listen to it. Your business is to work out how you feel about the song, and if you can make up an even more dramatic story than the one I intended then you've done a good job.
What do your friends call you?
— Jim Chiappe, Northern California
Anything but Gladys. Depends on who they are and how they know me, simple as that. Family call me Declan.
I read in an article that a certain "twattish bassist" was responsible for the final break-up of the Attractions?
— Connor Ratcliff, Liverpool
Can I pass? He (Bruce Thomas) is getting too much publicity. Let's just wait for his next book. Putting the Attractions back together was worthwhile as a musical idea, but it turns out it wasn't such a great idea as people, not all of us working together. There's bad blood.
If you could have one superpower what would it be?
— Matt Burriesci, Santa Monica, California
I've got more superpowers than I need. This X-Ray vision is a bit of a drag.
Apart from the Hank Williams lyric book I gave you, what's the nicest thing a fan ever gave you?
— Peter Gale, Newbury, Berkshire
Some very nice things. People are generous to give you a record they think you might like. Letters are nice because they contain thoughts, so long as they're not written in green ink, saying things like "You are the Angel of Death." You get a fair share of those.
I got one of those things like your auntie used to make, you know where you put stockings in them and make a draught excluder? I got one from Japan that was like me, with glasses on, three-quarter life size version of me in a suit and everything, it was brilliant.
Your last few albums have not been great commercial successes. Do you feel you are creating "useless beauty" for ungrateful masses?
— Stan Karas, Stanford, California
No, I'm just making the music that means the most to me. The reason the records have not been successful recently is because the record company I've been working with doesn't give a shit about me. And that's why I've left them. I've worked hard, I've made good records and in the long run people will see them for what they are — or they won't, depending on whether they've been distracted by something else shinier.
I can't waste my time worrying about that any more. I did my bit. Whether or not the records clicked with a wider public is down to luck and timing, and sustained commitment, because there's an awful lot more out there. Since we started the industry has grown much bigger and some people are shouting louder and therefore getting people's attention. And people will invest more curiosity in a new thing, just as they did in me when I started.
I'm passionate about what I do, but people are sceptical that you can mean it as much as you do, this far in. But I do. I mean it a lot more than some people I can see who are coasting. But I'm sick of working as hard as I do for no reward in terms of selling records. That had to stop. But the actual music's there for as long as it remains available. I think if they had any decency they'd sell it back to me and let me sell it properly, because I'm good at it and they're not. The Demon catalogue proves that.
Is it cool being Elvis Costello? Do you still look in the mirror and say, "What a cool life I'm having"?
— Chris Pine, New York
What a cool life I'm having! That's my mantra, I say it every day. No. I'm very lucky, I do the thing I want to do every day. The main frustration is not reaching your objective in the studio or writing, if I'm struggling with the song. And the unhappy things that happen are the same as in everybody's life, they're just magnified by being in public.
Any advice on handling hecklers and drunken ticket-bearers?
— Sean O'Brien, Los Angeles
Anyone comes on the stage, they're fair game, unless they're coming to kiss you. And we always had the rule: anything thrown on the stage that's heavier than a paper cup, then we're off and we don't come back. One idiot is trying to get the attention.
In 1978 in Britain, people would gob on you because that was part of being in the gang at punk gigs. In America we were the short haired weirdos and there were people in the audience who looked like members of the Marshall Tucker Band, taking Mogadon, so we actually alarmed people with the speed we were playing at. They'd complain we played too fast for them to hear. The first time we went to LA there were a lot of people walking around in bin-limers thinking that was what was going on in London. It was pretty sad, like seeing a swinging '60s movie and walking round in Beefeater outfits.
Do you still consider Goodbye Cruel World your worst album, or has a more recent album taken over the title?
Mindy Stuekel, Chesterfield, Missouri
It's my worst album of good songs. There's albums of worse songs. I'm not going to say what they are, but none of them are recent.
Has the Spice Girls' film whetted your appetite for more acting roles?
— Simon Cobcroft, New South Wales
They always cast me against type. Because I talk a lot they give me roles where I get to say nothing. In Scully (the Alan Bleasdale series) I had one word in four episodes. What I'd really like to do is a full-length movie score.
Would you consider writing a musical, and how much would it take for you to collaborate with Andrew Lloyd Webber?
— Philip Brennan, Wigan
I'd need a lease on Jupiter to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
What's your favourite Dylan record?
— Mark Kellett, Dunbartonshire
Time Out Of Mind is fantastic. I think it might be the best record he's made. There's records I've made that perplex people, I know, but part of the process of music is to perplex them. Even if they fail commercially I still know they're good records. If they're hits in the studio they don't become misses in the bargain bin. That's the truth.
Early in your career you famously said, "I won't ever hang around to witness my own artistic decline." Did you ever consider honouring this pledge around the time of Goodbye Cruel World or Mighty Like A Rose?
— Jim Wilkinson, Accrington, Lancashire
Well, I'm still getting better, so that doesn't come into it. Commercial fortunes can go up and down, but I know I'm getting better. And I haven't even started yet... (Peers at letter) Accrington? That's close to Manchester, isn't it? That's a real Mancunian question. I thought Mighty Like A Rose was a great record, so there you go.
Any thoughts about the current Labour government?
— Sarah Hill, Oldham, Lancashire
It can't be written down, we need a new typewriter with new words, where you just put your fingers all over the keys. No, I don't know yet. Nothing's ever as great as it should be. I think there are some well-meaning people who are there for the right reasons and I think there are some career politicians, like in every party. Some of them are definitely dodgy. I'm with Harry Enfield over Mendelssohn. I mean Mandelson... Mendelssohn! That's who they should have got!
What do you think of music on TV?
— Jill Newton, Isle Of Wight
Much as I like Jools Holland, is he really the only person that can do a music show on television? Is it a rule? In the '60s, Clodagh Rodgers, Bobbie Gentry, Cliff, Cilla, Lulu, Dusty all had their own shows. And apart from Cilla they weren't really polished entertainers. I reckon I should have had a mainstream television program but they are too cowardly to do it.
I'm dead serious. I could do a weekly show, no problem, but they haven't got the guts. You know why? It's like what Brian Clough said about being the England manager: If they'd given him the job he would have fucking taken over. If you got all the smart people in, too many people would lose their jobs that don't know what they're doing. And that's why most music programmes on TV are crap.
Would you still tramp the dirt down? (as per 1989's song, set by Margaret Thatcher's graveside)
— Ian Berrisford, Manchester
I'd burn her in Parliament Square.