Des Brown, a snake-hipped, expressionless man who serves as Elvis Costello's tour-manager, is prowling in a downtown club called Great Guildersleeves as his sweating boss bellies up to the mic stand to sing the twenty-fifth song in tonight's three club, April Fool's Day marathon. After watching Costello play six sets in four days I find Brown's movements more diverting than the stage show. He is playing his nightly game of Search and Destroy the Film.
The drill is as routine as Brown's speed and determination can make it: scan the crowd for the dull glint of chrome, knife through the packed mass, snatch the camera. "He's got to make people believe that he can go crazy any minute," says a technician from a band that toured with Costello. "He can."
Brown has a sneaky strong, steeplechaser's build. He wears a white shirt with finger-tip sized polka-dots and sports one day's growth of stubble that looks velvety in the dim club. I watch him from 10, 15 feet away; if the chill in his eyes isn't enough to hush up the victimized photographer, the house bouncers are only too eager to pitch in with the tour's squad of roadies (some in green fatigues, others in plainclothes distinguishable by their nose-picker boots).
There are two extra heavies tonight; Costello has been getting death threats since last week, when word leaked out that he called Ray Charles "nothing but a blind arrogant nigger" in a spitting mad bar-room argument with singer Bonnie Bramlett. The bodyguards stand by the stage near two Hell's Angels who flank Brown while he pops open cameras and rips tape out of cassettes.
Two club bouncers in black t-shirts thud past, bulldogging a thickset, grunting teenager out the door. The teenager's face has been severely beaten. Blood trails from his scalp and out of one ear. I join him on the sidewalk just outside the door. "Who did that to you? The bouncers?" He shakes his head, no, eyes fixed on the door. " 'Bout eleven guys," he says. Onstage, Elvis Costello twists his neck to lean into the mic: "I never said I was a stool pigeon / I never said I was a diplomat / Everybody is under suspicion / But you don't want to hear about that."
Elvis Costello is arguably the most important proponent of New Wave, both critically and commercially, but on his 1979 U.S. tour, the anger and contrariness that created his mystique seemed to be gnawing through his restraint faster than ever. The press (whom he refuses to speak to), the radio, fellow performers and even adoring audiences have been treated as targets. By turns petulant and rabid, Elvis and his troops did not seem equal to the grand military metaphors of the promotional campaign that preceded them; they seemed, rather, to be conducting a messy police action bound to make doubters and even enemies out of his strongest American partisans.
The path to commercial success had certainly been well laid. His 1977 debut, My Aim is True, produced by Nick Lowe using Clover, the transplanted-to-England Marin County band, sold more than 300,000 copies. The followup, 1978's This Year's Model, sold a like amount. And Armed Forces, released early this year, has sold more than 650,000 copies (but was dropping on the charts) as Elvis took the stage at Gildersleeves.
The album sales are respectable, but they hardly match the critical acclaim Costello's records received. What may have held back album sales — and this is a matter that obsesses Costello and manager Jake Riviera — is that Elvis has never broken a single in this country. Late one night during Elvis' 1978 tour, trying to sleep as his tour party bounced off the walls of their hotel in Syracuse, New York, I overheard this snippet of conversation in the hallway: "I'll write ya a fuckin' single. I'll write ya a single that..." I assumed that this was Elvis and producer Lowe, watching the LP they'd made wither on the vine of album-oriented radio. "All I'm interested in is listening to the ones that sound like hit records," said Nick Lowe on that tour when I asked him about the songs Elvis brings in for recording dates. "If they sound like hits they're fine by me. He's got a million of 'em."
Such dismissals of any pretense to high art may sound flip, but Lowe understands Costello too well to puff up his mystique. "I've known him for years," Lowe said, recalling the days when Elvis the fan would come to Liverpool's Cavern Club to watch Lowe's Brinsley Schwarz band. "He lived in Liverpool then. I saw him from time to time; when he came down to London he used to sleep on the floor at my place. He even roadied for the Brinsleys for a while.
"One day soon after Stiff Records (the legendary independent label that launched Lowe, Costello, Ian Dury et al.) started, I ran into him at the tube station and asked how he was getting on. He said, 'Not very well.' He had his guitar with him and said he'd been to all the record companies. I said, "Why don't you try going to Stiff?" and he said that's in fact where he'd just been.
"I later took him back to Stiff, and Jake (at the time head of the label) was there raving about "Mystery Dance," which he thought would be a song for Dave Edmunds, (Lowe's partner in Rockpile). We listened to the rest of the stuff and flipped out. He just played a cassette he'd made at home — him and his acoustic guitar — and we said, 'Have you got anything more?' and he just started playing away in the office."