JFK Stadium seemed a very unlikely location for an Elvis Costello concert. The Beatles played the joint in '66, and the Rolling Stones kicked off their American tour there last September. But when I think of JFK Stadium, I think of Tunney beating Dempsey in the rain in 1926, or the clock running out on Navy with the ball on the Army 2-yard line in 1963, or the deafening finale of the Flyers' Stanley Cup parade in 1975.
Even in more intimate surroundings, like the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, Costello is not the world's most charismatic performer. At the Tower, in January '81, he was not much to look at from Row 9. He rarely moved his feet or spoke to the crowd, and he didn't even bother looking at the crowd most of the night.
What would he do to keep the attention of 90,000 people at JFK?
Dance on top of the amps, like Bruce Springsteen? Blast the crowd with a fire hose, like Mick Jagger? Bash his guitar into smithereens, like Pete Townshend? Do a Chuck Berry duck walk across the stage while the Attractions hammered out "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes?"
The location seemed especially odd considering the sort of music Elvis produced on his latest album, Imperial Bedroom. The new album has critics from coast to coast going ga-ga, and Costello and his admirers alike have been making all sorts of noises comparing his music yo Lorenz and Hart, Cole Porter and others of that ilk. But there isn't a single first-class rocker on Imperia1 Bedroom.
Imperia1 Bedroom is a richly-produced album, full of nice harmonies, tuneful melodies and Costello's renowned cleverness with lyrics. The euphoric critical reaction to it is typified by Robert Palmer's article in The New York Times: 'Elvis Costello - Is He Pop's Top?"
"Imperial Bedroom, wrote Palmer, "is a decisive step forward. The album seems to be a conscious attempt to get away from rock entirely, to write songs worthy of a Sinatra, or an Ella Fitzgerald — the sort of pop songs that become standards."
Well, that sounds swell, but questions arise: A decisive step forward, but toward what? The sort of pop songs that become standards, but for whom ? Steve and Edie? Robert Goulet? Barry Manilow? I admire Sinatra, too, but I haven't the slightest desire to hear Old Blue Eyes sidle up to the mike at Resorts and sing "Get Off My Cloud" or "I Saw Her Standing There."
But Costello is determined to put some distance between himself and rock. He told Palmer, "I was making a conscious effort to remove the dominance of the beat. I don't want to be yelling and screaming. I'm not a wild man as such."
And on Late Nite with David Letterman, he said disparagingly of those who long for the good old new wave days of My Aim Is True, or This Year's Model:
"(The new music) confuses people over here. They like the same old thing, over and over again, until you fall asleep." Of his concert repertoire, he said, "We do what pleases us, and hopefully that'll please them."
Ah, but would it please the teeming masses at JFK, many of whom came to see Blondie, Genesis or local hero Robert Hazzard?
Unfortunately, while Hazzard was doing his thing, I was on a subway train somewhere between Upper Darby and South Philly, but Blondie was well-received, with hundreds of people doing a big snake dance across the field during their encore of "Start Me Up" (a surprise) and "Call Me."
(Although in view of Costello's comment that most rock singers are "pretenders — bozos dressed in silly clothes," it would be interesting to know his reaction to Debbie Harry's get-up for the show — a bizarre costume composed of huge white shades, black skirt, black nylons, and a black blouse with giant white zigzags all over it.)
Genesis followed Elvis, and the huge gasp which went up when the lights dimmed indicated that most of the 70,000 had come to see them. I left after three songs, but my opinion definitely was in the minority. Most of the crowd were smiling beatifically toward the stage, like the kids watching E.T. as he flies home. As for Costello, he seemed a distant image from my vantage point, approximately 10 miles from the stage. In fact, he was so far away that it was hard to focus on him.
Unfortunately, what makes Costello's records special is lost when he walks out on stage. Forget about harmony — the Attractions aren't even miked for vocals; and forget about a layered, textured sound (espeially Steve Nieve's keyboard work). The sound comes through as a muddled, soupy growl of guitar, bass, drums and Elvis' uninspired vocals. So, let's wish Elvis Costello the best as he tries to make the transition from the Black-and-White World to the Sunny Sunny Side of the Street. Who knows, if Sinatra made a hit out of "New York, New York," why not "New Amsterdam"?