Could he be turning over a new leaf? The day before Elvis Costello had appeared on Jim'll Fix It allowing a young lad to realise his ambition of joining the road crew. Now, following a knockout performance at Manchester's Apollo Theatre, fans are being permitted backstage. Not too many of them, mind, and not for too long. But long enough to get an autograph indulge in a little small talk and maybe grab a quick Instamatic snap of themselves with the star.
After four years of surliness and apparent disregard for the people who had put him where he was Elvis was playing Mr Nice Guy.
Some of the more ardent, not to say enterprising, aficionados had managed to procure backstage passes. The rest were admitted in twos and threes at regular intervals before being shunted out again.
But some things never change and one of them is Costello's policy towards the Press. He still doesn't like journalists and refuses to do interviews. Up until a couple of years ago there seemed every justification for this. As with his namesake and all Hollywood artistes since time immemorial for that matter, his attitude is to equate the concepts of star and enigma.
Inaccessibility is essential for enhancing these qualities with the eventual effect of transforming an everyday character into a living legend. Greta Garbo got away with it in the forties and others too numerous to mention have sought to do the same ever since.
In the case of Costello there was the added incentive that he didn't need the publicity. From 1978's cataclysmic This Year's Model he was amongst rock's hottest properties. Marathon tours paved the way towards cracking the English and European markets whilst America and other major territories also looked suitable cases for conquest.
For not only was Elvis the most gifted songwriter since Dylan and Springsteen but his band, The Attractions, was one of the tightest imaginable whilst he was a dynamic visual focus. The following year saw his third album, Armed Forces, enjoy a seven month sojourn in the British charts, its "Oliver's Army" 45 hovering round the top three for several weeks, making Costello a household name. So no need to do interviews, especially when you can still get front covers without them.
Yet thus far 1979 represents the height of his success, especially in England. Last year's Get Happy!! LP stayed on the charts only half the amount of time as its predecessor and 1981 has seen a further decline in Costello's fortunes. Excellent though it is, the Trust album managed only a mere seven weeks in the Top 75, Elvis acknowledging its poor sales with a wry remark from the Manchester stage.
Worse still, his last two singles stiffed completely. "Clubland" limped to No. 60 before disappearing whilst "From A Whisper To A Scream" never even made the chart.
There seems no tangible reason for this downhill slide other than the fact that today's young record buyers have gone for newer heroes. Apart from Blondie, The Jam and The Boomtown Rats who, like Elvis, "graduated from the Class of '77," attention to him has been distracted by Adam & The Ants, The Police, Stray Cats and Spandau Ballet.
There's scarcely the space here to analyse the reasons why they should be enjoying widespread success at his expense but one thing's for sure: whereas all the aforementioned make themselves readily available to the growing number of music papers and magazines which collectively sell more than a million copies each week. Costello still flatly refuses to talk to the Press.
With not having done interviews for so long, it's getting to the point where he's lucky to have his picture printed. Out of sight out of mind and so what better way of re-establishing contact with the consumers than via the media?
A realisation of this on the part of his management probably accounted for the Jim'll Fix It appearance. And since personal contact with what's left of the fans also seems a good way of nurturing a revival, why not let 'em backstage?
Talking to journalists, however, remains out of the question. Only recently he told the Observer, in some surprise dialogue for their "A Room of My Own" series, "journalists hound me, which is why I haven't given an interview for years."
This made me more determined than ever to be the exception to the rule and the only way it seemed possible would be by masquerading as a fan. An acquaintance of the hall manager, I obtained a backstage pass, which at the end of the show proved to be invalid.
Fortunately I also knew the promoter, Paul Loasby and he signalled to one of the tuxedoed security guys that it would be okay for me to join the fans. But the penguin refused to believe him and in order for Paul to impress upon him that he was in charge, he ended up wafting the evening's paycheck under the bouncer's nose. The promoter again then instructed him to let me backstage, adding the immortal jargon, `he's part of the situation."
Confidently, if cautiously, I trekked up the stone stairs to the dressing room only to be confronted by Costello's manager, Jake Riviera. Now Jake, known to his relations as Andrew Jakeman, is the arch-villain' behind his charge's non-interview policy. He has the reputation amongst journalists of being an aggressive, unpleasant little man and is renowned for his showdowns with reporters.
Four years ago, when he co-owned Stiff Records, I nearly got involved in a nasty situation with the guy myself, simply for talking to The Damned who were with that label at the time. Obviously, a lot of water has flown under the bridge since then and he didn't recognise me.
“Good evening”, I offer, on seeing him seated in the middle of the dressing room; contentedly nursing a large drink.
"Good evening." he replies jovially, "help yourself to booze:" Unhappily such a predisposition towards hospitality was not to remain for the entire evening. I poured myself about a pint of wine.
By this stage Costello himself has unwound and is greeting his supporters. A pretty teenager opines that he's a genius and can she hug him? "Yes," he responds bashfully. He's in a good mood.
Usually when one is trying to conduct an interview, fawning fans are a nuisance. Tonight they provide the perfect decoy. My Aiwa S30 stowaway strapped round my waist, concealed under an old Joe Punter conventional leather jacket and switched to "record." I join the fray.
Although there are no outward signs that I'm a journalist, some subtlety is obviously called for. For example, much as I would like to discuss his song-writing, any question too specific will give the game away. However, one song can't resist asking about is "Watch Your Step", that brilliant encapsulation from the Trust album. What inspired it? Surely not a recent experience?
"No. I wrote it about five years ago, actually. It just seemed to fit in with the mood of the new LP so I included it."
Was it part of the 400-odd song stockpile he was rumoured to have at the start of his career?
"No, but we do have a lot of material, which is why we're able to vary the set each night. Like this evening we included those Bobby Blue Bland and Merle Haggard songs."
How's the tour been going? I've certainly come away from your gigs less impressed in the past.
"Great. The audiences have been fantastic. We got called back eight times one night."
You intimated onstage that you're a bit put out that Trust didn't sell better — are you expecting the tour to revive sales?
"Well that's what tours are designed to do but to be honest one of the main reason we're on the road is because we suddenly realised we hadn't played for two years — apart from those few seaside gigs last Spring."
What have you been up to in the meantime?
"We did most of Europe during 1980 and started this year with an American tour."
How did that go down this time round?
"Okay — considering. We're concentrating on the bigger venues there now rather than clubs. Anything from a couple of nights at two of three thousand seaters like the Palladium in New York to 8000 further west."
The reason he qualified his reply with the word "considering" was as a result of almost blowing his career over there in one fell swoop just under two years ago. To re-cap, he was sitting in a bar in Columbus, Ohio, after one of the many slap-bang-let's-get-it-over-with gigs of that particular tour.
Well worse for wear from drink, he got into a spitting row with ageing US-hippies Bonnie Bramlett and Steve Stills, roundly slagging off the American nation. its customs, curiosities — and entertainers. Two of those he singled out were Ray Charles and James Brown. One he called "a blind ignorant nigger", the other "a jive-ass nigger" before getting roughed up by some of the Bramlett entourage.
The media got wind of these remarks, the incident escalating to a national outrage, precipitating death threats and picketing of later gigs. Even a hastily-convened apologetic Press conference failed to clear the air and it was reckoned that within the space of a couple of drunken moments Costello had irreparably damaged his chances of comprehensively cracking the States.
Do you really believe the mishap affected your Transatlantic progress so severely?
"Yeah, there's no doubt about it. I mean I'd got into this stupid argument with them and to try and finish it deliberately set about winding them up. But I was touring and working so much at the time and it wasn’t always easy to stay in control. As that night proved.”
Nevertheless, the fact that he's still undertaking American jaunts speaks for itself. Despite all the foreign travel, have you been keeping up with the English music scene — particularly with the proliferation of bands coming out of your native Liverpool? What do you think of The Teardrop Explodes, for example?
'I think that single's great. Echo & The Bunnymen? Not really, apart from 'Rescue`. That "Wah! Heat" single was pretty good, too. No I don't like Orchestral Manoeuvres but the Original Mirrors are okay. Their singer used to be in Deaf School with Clive Langer, who's with our label. I don't know why Clive hasn't sold many records — he writes good songs and he's a great producer."
Mention of this unsung hero brought to mind several others who have been named alongside Costello in the past. Like Graham Parker, for example. Why do you think he's never really happened?
"Dunno, can't understand it. He's got one of the greatest voices ever. I know his American record company never gave him much support over there and I suppose he's fed up with flogging the same old circuit here."
How about Squeeze who are now involved with your management? They write great songs yet haven't had the success they deserve.
"Yeah," he agrees. "I think as far as lyrics go. Chris Difford is really the business. I can't understand what's wrong with Squeeze, I don't know whether they'll be signing to F-Beat, don't have much to do with that."
It occurred to me — while interviewing him — that another act notorious for not doing interviews is Dexy's Midnight Runners, who like Elvis in his Get Happy!! days have a strong Motown sixties vibe running through their sound. What do you think of them and their attitude towards to Press?
"I think they're such idiots that can't help but like them. Actually prefer the Q-Tips. They're amazing. I wanted them for tour support as it happens."
Yeah, but they're too derivative. They'll have to start writing their own stuff if they're going to have any credibility.
"I told them that. Otherwise the trick is to pick older or less well-known numbers like I did with Sam And Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."
With the conversation looking like it's getting too close to being an interview for comfort—it's taken some manoeuvring not to get shuttled out with the autograph hunters. I can tell you — I deflect attention from myself by ushering through some more fans. One of them is evidently a fanatic, giving Elvis every record he's ever made to sign — including the rare and not inexpensive Live At The El Mocambo promotional LP. Maintaining his avuncular pose, Costello dutifully scribbles across every sleeve, exclaiming disbelief at having released so many records.
By now some 40-odd minutes have elapsed and arrangements are being made to board the tour bus to go back-to the hotel. Being in possession of my own wheels, I go on ahead, enter the hotel bar and I'm immediately greeted by two middle aged gents wearing six gallon hats.
It transpires they are from Oklahoma, think I'm one of the band and enquire when the "priddy fiddle gurls" will be arriving. Accepting a tequila from one of them. I reply that don't know about that but in any case Elvis is a fan of country music and will no doubt be glad to talk to them. This seems a good ploy to get Costello to come over and hence continue the undercover interview.
After a couple of minutes Elvis arrives and makes a bee-line for the bar. I introduce him to the good ole boys and he also buys me a tequila, pulling out two fivers to pay for a £3.50 round. Clearly he's as pissed as I am and our re-continued conversation degenerates into rubbish.
After about half-an-hour's serious drinking he gives me a quizzical, glazed look which precedes the challenge "You're from Record Mirror."
Whatever makes you think that? I protest innocently.
"You're too suss!" he retorts, sort of admitting defeat. `What are you, a stringer?"
And the rest, squire. Any road, I'm a fan as well.
"Yeah, but Record Mirror's got it in for me."
Nonsense. Your last two albums have had five star reviews. In any case, if we've got it in for you, what about papers like Sounds?
"I'm not even going to talk about Sounds!"
He doesn't seem to mind too much that I'm a journalist, reckoning that won't remember anything he's said anyway. Well thank God he's not sussed about the tape machine as well. There follows a quick run-down on practically every writer in the music press which is suddenly brought to a halt by Jake Riviera. The manager has been informed of my identity by Clive Gregson of Any Trouble. Gregson is an old mate of Costello's and was probably afraid that I'd give him away for telling me where the band were staying. So he shopped me first. And to think of the complimentary reviews I gave his band last summer!
I start babbling about not just being a mere journalist but having great potential as a TV personality. Didn't he think I could be a whole lot better than Russell Harty?
"I don't care about Russell Harty," Riviera replies somewhat testily. Ah, Er, looking for any new songwriters, then?
"No. You're coming outside."
"Yeah," Elvis agrees.
Suddenly I feel all alone in the world and many miles from home. Funny thing is, my mum only lives down the road. Um, any reason why I shouldn't-finish my drink in here, I was in the process of replying before a viciously executed forearm smash caught the side of my cranium.
A foot — presumably aimed at the groin — then crashed into my knee and judging by the way I was suddenly held back. I must have returned the compliment. Difficult to say, really. It all happened rather quickly. What I do know is that there were no more offers to go outside. Which is fortunate since I didn't want the stowaway to get smashed to pieces in a brawl.
Otherwise (says he, taking a mighty deep breath) I would have taken him on. I'm taller than him and though skinnier, probably fitter and as intent as anyone in teaching him a lesson. Meanwhile there were one or two bemused expressions in the hotel bar. For one minute here I was talking to this affable chap in glasses — and a tall hat which looked as if a rabbit might be pulled out of at any given moment — and the next being threatened by a guy who to all intents and purposes didn't appear to have anything to do with us. Advice was offered to cool it and I eventually exited.
interviewing Elvis Costello is abnormal but all things considered don't regret getting hit and see no reason to bear a grudge against an artist whose work I admire. It's not the first time I've been involved in a fight and almost certainly won't be the last. Plus all the best stories have a sting in the tail. This one just happens to have a bang on the head. Now what was that about Bruce Springsteen not doing interviews?