The news that Elvis Costello was to tour Australia late last year was greeted with universal enthusiasm by his many admirers and the proponents of New Wave who felt Costello was just the kick up the arse New Wave needed in the land of Oz.
I remember when I was first told by Michael Coppel of Australian Concert Entertainment that they had the tour (after some frantic behind-the-scenes manoeuvres between ACE and Evans-Gudinski) and although I was happy with the news, I warned him that he could expect a hard time from the Costello contingent, particularly Riviera, when they got here. Well, sometimes history has a strange way of being prophetic and that was one prediction that not only lived up to expectations but indeed far surpassed them. Costello's troupe hit Australia and during their two-week stay, the shit well and truly hit the fan on a number of occasions.
While the tour was progressing I kept in touch through a running report from the promoters who, unlike some people in this country, are prepared to tell the truth, even when it means dealing with the decidedly nasty diplomatic situation that Costello's tour presented. In the aftermath of the tour it was a little easier to sit back after the smoke had cleared away and take a more sober perspective on what went down, but more importantly, why did Elvis Costello and his belligerent manager Jake Riviera (real name Andrew Jakeman) cut up so rough on several occasions? Were the histrionics and infrequent violence all part of a carefully nurtured master-plan by the Costello people to deliberately crease a stir which, by the time it hit the media, helped propel a few more thousand bums on seats, and went a little bit further towards confirming Elvis Costello as the angry young man of our times? Or was the whole shebang just everybody being their normal, hyper-active sensitive selves?
Well, Riviera's recent entrepreneurial past suggests that there is more than an element of Riviera simply going about his business like a bull in a china shop, but whether the charging bull is carefully motivated to perform in such an unorthodox and aggressive fashion because he KNOWS it creates a certain sort of vibe and charisma (no matter how shitty the media may think it is) that sort of reaction is just the type of knee-jerk response he might be seeking.
Jake Riviera has had a long involvement in the rock business. His career is chronicled elsewhere and all I will throw in is to add that as Dr. Feelgood's road manager, he was loaned money by the Feelgood's Lee Brilleaux to start Stiff Records with Parker's manager Dave Robinson. Stiff was certainly for a magic six months in mid-77 the most innovative, imaginative and manic independent record company in Britain. It turned marketing concepts on their ear with almost casual outrage. It had two of its initial batch of albums among the most successful (both critically and financially) of the year — Costello's My Aim Is True and Ian Dury's New Boots And Panties. Many people still today look at Stiff Records as the huge success story it was in 77, but the truth is the company by the very nature of its operation, was bound to burn brightly for a time before the energy and the pioneering spirit began to erode.
It was towards the end of 77 that the first crack in the Stiff facade began to appear as the brilliant but erratic Riviera began to get bored with the day-to-day details that were required to be handled by a record company executive. Riviera was more the ideas man, the springboard for many of Stiff's most daring and effective successes, but he was bored and pissed off. How much was down to others' inability to handle the volatile Riviera is open to speculation but it's not difficult to imagine that while Stiff may have held regrets for the defection of one of its founding fathers, there must also have been a huge sigh of relief as his passing. Riviera as Costello's personal manager joined forces with the A&R head of United Artists in Britain, Andrew Lauder, one of the most respected executives in the British recording industry. Together they launched Radar Records and, of course, success was guaranteed from the start with Costello on its roster. The roster was later expanded to include Iggy Pop and James Williamson with Kill City and The Yachts. But a crucial factor in the Riviera-Costello-Radar-Stiff escape was the defection also of Nick Lowe. The Jesus of Cool as Stiff's in-house producer was a vital cog in Riviera's wheels of good fortune as they spun towards international recognition and acceptance. If Lowe's credentials needed any boost, his production of Costello's "Watching The Detectives" will prove one of the classics of its era. It was from this coterie that Riviera launched the final phase of Costello's grab for power — international acceptance.
New Wave was the single biggest event in the British rock industry in 1977 and every major and independent record company in Britain had scrambled like scavengers at a butcher's picnic for a share of the spoils. After EMI made its momumental fuck-up with the Sex Pistols, only to then see the American major A&M blow its bundle even more emphatically in a record seven days, the subsequent success the Pistols enjoyed after their shift to Virgin stuck it in the eye of the industry, which, only too keenly realising the error of their ways, set about signing every Tom (Verlaine), Dick (Hell) and Harry (Debbie) they could find. Of course, the problem then was that although these new signings could be cajoled with promises of record releases, the financial commitment in many cases was insignificant compared to the previous bargaining that record companies enjoyed (not that they ever did) with the more conventional signings of yore, who were paid quite substantial sums of money for the "X" in the appropriate place. In the New Wave boom, few bands or individuals were paid big money for their signature. Apart from the Pistols, Blondie (because they were brought out of their existing contract with Private Stock by Chrysalis), The Clash (as the first CBS signing from that ilk), The Jam (likewise with Phonogram), Generation X and Tom Robinson, very few of the New Wave-Punk bands were paid big signing-on fees.
But a serious problem with many of the bands for these record companies was their limited viability outside Britain. Sure, the Stranglers could have hit singles and charting albums in Britain and even on the Continent but how many records have they sold in America or here in that hot bed of punk acceptance — Australia? So selling these bands to the yanks — the numero uno marketplace for the big bucks — was unfortunately out of the question in most instances, America simply didn't want to know about pommie punk; it didn't even want to know about its own domestic punk apart from the stray areas like New York and Los Angeles. Television, The Ramones, even Talking Heads until very recently, and Blondie, have been like voices in the wilderness, charter members of the we-don't-want-to-know syndrome. It was against this background that Riviera had to try and score a deal with a major U.S. label to try and break Costello in America. At the time it was an achievement that had been denied a number of British Punk-New Wave bands including The Damned, The Stranglers and even the Pistols despite one of the biggest self-perpetuating publicity blitzes ever. They all failed in the most important area of all from the record companies' point of view — the marketplace.
The hard sell necessary for Riviera to therefore score a big juicy carrot from an American company mindful of Punk-New Wave's singular lack of success in America was therefore considerable. I remember talking to a friend in London who worked for the CBS New York office who told me about Costello's impending signing with CBS and although there has never been any figure mentioned that I've seen in print about what CBS paid Costello, my friend assured me it was 300,000 big ones (dollars or sterling, I can't recall now). At the time I thought CBS, if that was true, had gambled a monumental amount of money on an artist who, to be sure, in musical terms was a justified investment, but there were so many variables divorced from the music that could affect Costello's commercial viability in America that cast the gravest doubts on the deal from CBS' point of view, to me. History has subsequently shown that since Clive Davis departed as El Supremo at CBS, the Costello signing was one of the company's best decisions. The man responsible for the final decision has no doubt since been suitably rewarded by a grateful corporation. So Costello picked up his major U.S. label and almost single-handedly of the class of 77 from the British Isles, he has scored big in America.
In Australia, Costello's train was, as expected, a little slow in pulling out of the station. His debut album sold well on import: alternative radio such as 2JJ, 4ZZZ and 3RRR helped push the thing along and perhaps most importantly, Nightmoves gave him invaluable television exposure. By the time This Year's Model came around the Costello name was no longer the sort of insidious thing radio programmers found scribbled on their toilet walls with rude question marks hinting that somewhere there was a message among the bog paper. "Watching The Detectives" finally put the whole thing together for Costello and that wonderful thing called "airplay" fitted the final piece in the puzzle. Is Costello a profitable touring proposition? Once, the answer among local promoters was yes (even despite some reservations) it was only a matter of time before the bespectacled one ventured to the land of Fosters on a cultural exchange.
When ACE finally put the tour together, Costello had been putting the finishing touches to the new album Armed Forces. The reviews from his recent overseas concerts were encouraging and so everyone stood back for the first genuine upper echelon of the New Wave to visit us (and don't try telling me Parker fits that category, or even Blondie, when they didn't have their shit' together apart from what they were putting into their veins). It was a naturally nervous ACE contingent that greeted the Costello arrival, but for the first 24 hours everything seemed hunkey dory. However, the soundcheck prior to the first Sydney concert was to invoke the first fearful crack of the Riviera whip, which until the party departed the country, was to embroil the touring party in one controversy after another.
Riviera gives the impression among those who have met him, of a fighting cock who is cool and on top of things for some of the time, but then something begins working a transformation so that as the alcohol winds things up a few notches, Riviera finally becomes a provocative person. In Sydney, he was ostensibly aghast at the sight of so much facial hair. He made it plain he hated beards and moustaches and by dint of relating them to hippies, complained loudly that there were too many hippies in the touring party. Jake don't like hippies. Problem was that both Michael Coppel and Zev Eizik, the promoters, and tour manager Neil McCabe (more about him later) possessed hairy additions to their facial characteristics. Riviera probably realising the total impracticality of taking that direction any further, latched onto a more substantial foul doing — namely, he thought the equipment should go down the dumper. He hadn't personally authorised it, therefore it wasn't authorised and therefore, needless to say, it was totally inadequate for old Elvis and the boys.
But these little gripes have a weird way of working themselves out and eventually the peace pipes were being smoked again. However, later that night at the stately Regent, all the chooks came home to roost with a vengeance. Riviera had as I said, served notice that they were not happy with the equipment even though his own company had authorised the gear on stage down to the last transistor. When Elvis played a crunching 55 minute set, then departed from the stage to one of the best receptions accorded to a visiting wanker, never to return, it took just 10 minutes of painful realisation by the punters to see that despite a great gig UNTIL THEN, the final touchdown had been made and Elvis and The Attractions were not returning for the obligatory encore.
The resulting trashing of the Regent has already been dealt with in all its sordid detail so little is served by parading it before you once again. Of course, while the pitched battle was taking place in the stalls or wherever out front, backstage was also providing a rather rivetting confrontation between the frisky, excitable boy, Jake Riviera, and the affable and decidedly non-violent Zev Eizik. Understandably as the theatre was undergoing an unscheduled renovation, the promoter with still three more concerts looming after the renovations, felt that the crowd's mood might logically be diverted by being given an offer to drop what they were dropping from the upstairs lounge to the stalls below, to see the band delivering the expected encore. An appeal to Riviera's reason surprisingly showed Riviera to behave with some degree of consistency when he was into his trip of being a shit. Finally, exasperated by the Costello contingent's refusal to see sense and do the only practical thing, Eizik told Riviera that if he didn't ask Elvis to go back out, it was obvious he didn't care about the fans who had paid $9.50 to see Little Hitler impersonations (the Hitler bit is my journalistic invention with apologies to no-one). As Eizik walked away from Riviera he made the often fatal mistake of turning his back, and before he could say "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me" he noticed this leg with boot attached coming into vision and aimed at his balls. Fortunately for Eizik and any future Eiziks, Jake's aim was not true. Riviera then hurriedly called out his boys from their bunker and told them that Eizik had told him they didn't care about their fans. While Elvis jumped up and down on the spot, a couple of The Attractions, knowing what it is to keep the boss happy, started wading into Eizik, while Big EL chanted to the bemusement of neighboring observers: "Who says I don't care — I care, I care." Before any real physical damage was done to anyone, the fracas was broken up. What a fun start to the tour and still eight shows to go! If ACE was looking for an exciting act to take Australia by storm it seems they had booked themselves a bloody hurricane, and after the first little blow, the hatches were battoned down and both sides with steely regard for the others' motives, were preparing to weather the ensuing inferno. "Armed Forces" indeed. The battle lines were being drawn and who was to say what would happen to the tour beyond this point? The three remaining Sydney gigs were in doubt following the extensive interior decorating, with the indications being that extensive plastic surgery involving several people was also a consideration up for grabs. Elvis was certainly finding little difficulty in proving his potential for being an irritant.
In the relative calm after the storm when I discussed the Riviera run-in with Zev Eizik, Zev — as nice a guy as anyone will find in this sometimes sordid business called rock 'n' roll, said that he thought Riviera had misunderstood what he had to say, not only that night but also subsequently when he was quoted in the press the next day as saying he would have been pissed off with Costello for only playing 55 minutes, if he had forked out $9.50 to see him.
"Jake misunderstood some of the things I said in our first argument such as he said that "I didn't think his band was worth $9.50." It was that belief by Riviera that was to spark the second as yet undocumented account of the second close encounter of the vigorous Jake and Zev Eizik in Adelaide after the final concert of the tour — but let's not get ahead of the story. Brisbane and Melbourne presented little problem to the promoters apart from the fact that the Melbourne concert was, it seems, just about the worst of the tour. Be that as it may, I've seen Costello twice in London including the Stiff Live Stiffs tour, and now Melbourne, and each time I thought he sucked live. I thought the stage sound was totally shitty and Elvis' voice seemed shot. Maybe I was unlucky to cop what those who saw the tour say was definitely a bum gig, but even allowing for the fact that it seems Elvis likes to have his music mixed like mud, and his voice was gone because of two concerts the previous evening and a six-hour recording session squeezed in before the Melbourne gig, I'm convinced I'll never get into Costello live although his albums enthrall me. Jesus, back to this yarn, anyway. Canberra was an off gig but then I can't see how a bunch of public servants are gonna go apeshit over Elvis (the hotel people certainly didn't when keyboardist from the Attractions, Steve Naive, showed he hasn't let his mature age of 19 stand in the way of a good time, by smashing two plateglass doors and trashing his room phone when he found he couldn't reach anyone on it).
Perth was an interesting one because local band The Elks (an excellent live contemporary blues band who are well worth checking out — end of plug) supported, but received little in return, it appears. Elks singer Terry Serio ended up having a confrontation with Riviera backstage and when the chips were down, the local lad found out where the Australian tour manager's loyalties lay, although Serio had the last laugh when he let down the tyres of the Riviera limo outside the gig after he had been unceremoniously tossed out of the theatre on the orders of Neil McCabe at the behest of Riviera.
Michael Coppel told me that he had been told by McCabe that Serio had abused Riviera for not giving a shit about local bands because he had, it seems, not bothered to check out The Elks performance. It seems he was making such a nuisance of himself that finally Riviera asked that he be removed from the dressing room doorway where this confrontation was alleged to have taken place. Several days later Serio spoke to me on the phone from Perth because The Elks had heard there might be some publicity about the incident and guessing rightly that I might know something about it, rang me. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to kill my particular Costello story which detailed Coppers second-hand account of the incident which was subsequently published in Juke. So in fairness to Serio, his account is related here and needless to say it differs substantially from the previous account. Serio claims he was totally knocked out by the Costello gig and went backstage after the gig to tell Costello how much he had enjoyed it. He was standing outside the dressing room doorway when Riviera arrived on the scene and asked him what the fuck he was doing there and told him to "fuck off'. Serio, slightly put out by the relative hostility of Riviera, and not knowing who he was, replied: "Who the fuck are you?" From there, there was some pushing and shoving after Riviera told Serio in no uncertain language to piss off and began to try to make the request a fact by trying to physically remove the stocky Serio who was having none of it. Meanwhile the local security guys, who all knew Serio, were reluctant to step in even when requested to do so. According to Serio, Riviera told McCabe to have the security throw Serio out. Serio said he wasn't going anywhere, he was a member of the support band who had every right to be backstage. By now there was some subtle protocol and delicate ego involved. McCabe was put in the difficult position of having to weigh up agreeing to the excessive and crass command of Riviera to throw Serio out of a gig he had just played, against the fact that Serio naturally had every right to be there. He was a hometown musician who was popular and knew the men who would be required to "assist him to the door." Does McCabe align himself with the unreasonable demand of a visiting manager or risk alientating him in what would be a humiliation for Riviera, thereby bringing on dangerous consequences as a result of such a smack to the ego of Riviera; or does he stick up for the local musician who is being railroaded, which was probably the news the security guys would most probably have welcomed? ACE might be paying their wages then, but it's the Terry Serio's in Australia who are their bread and butter.
Thus, in this one incident, was encapsulated the essence of a rather perplexing problem for the local musicians. For years they have been the Aunt Sallys in the local industry. While the visiting musicians stay in the best hotels and have their every whim catered for (well, you know what I mean, within reason) the local support musicians have had to suffer the indignity of continually being reminded by the very low priority they are accorded by promoters, that they are second-rate, inferior. It was therefore absolutely no surprise to anyone, least of all Serio, that in this particular standoff, Jake Riviera, manager of Elvis Costello and co-owner of Radar Records, would receive the nod of approval long before Serio — nought but a humble Perth musician — ever would. So out went Serio reluctantly escorted by his local security friends. Score strike one for Riviera and strike two against Neil McCabe for not standing up and being counted as a defender of truth, decency and the Australian musician. But perhaps I'm being hard on the man and should get back to writing about that "punk shit," as he terms it. But if Perth was Riviera's Trafalgar, Adelaide was his Waterloo.
Following the Adelaide concert, Riviera started abusing everyone in sight after a few drinks. According to Zev Eizik, Riviera would always be "a bit cutting in his remarks." He says Riviera just in general conversation by the cutting nature of his remarks could quite easily offend a lot of people.
"I took the attitude of 'stuff you'," Eizik told me at the end of the tour. By now well used to the vagaries of the Riviera character, Eizik found the best way not to be fussed by Riviera, was to just let it all sail above, below, around, whatever. This studied casual indifference was no doubt one of the best tactics which could be employed against someone like Riviera, and like the schoolyard bully who had picked on the weak guy only to end up on the receiving end, with the Sydney debacle still imprinted in his mind, he had, it seemed, some unfinished business to take care off. Zev Eizik takes up the story:
"I was in a good mood in Adelaide and Elvis had done about a one and a half hour show before the curfew by the management forced him off. Now there were people outside in Perth handing out handbills outside the gig, saying people should boycott the gig because Elvis was supposed to play less than he should. But in Adelaide at the Apollo Theatre, the crowd was great, the gig was great and everyone was happy. After the gig Jake had had a few drinks and he became more belligerent than usual with a few drinks under him — but I suppose that's his trip. He argued with me over the press reports in Sydney quoting me as saying I didn't think the fans got their money's worth at the first gig. 'You fucking promoter' he said to me, and then he came from behind me and tore my shirt from me and then tried to get me in a bear hug from behind. As I said, I was in a good mood and up until then all I had lost was my shirt and my temper, so I decided to walk away, saying 'Jake, come on'. He then said 'you fucking promoter' and he came after me and tried to kick me from behind near the stage. I grabbed his foot and held it in mid-air and with his foot being out in the air, up went the rest of his body and down he went. I hopped on him with my knee on his chest in a sort of Brute Bernard fashion and took hold of his tie. I thought the best thing to do was to pull both ends of his tie together so that the noose gets tighter. At this point Jake asked me not to tear his tie up as it was one of his favorite ties. So I said, OK, I'd tear up his shirt and was about to do that when Jake begged me not to, saying he didn't have many shirts. So I just let him up and walked away. We had a few drinks later and Jake apologised for the "difficulties."
When Eizik was asked if Costello was totally au fait with his manager's rather pugulistic philandering, he said that he had had a talk with Elvis just before the Adelaide concert when he took him to see a doctor, and Eizik felt that Costello was not sure what was going on during the tour.
"Musically, he's very talented," Eizik opined."He doesn't do the conventional and an encore is something that is not regarded as important by him. He's motivated by the crowd's reaction and depending on that he goes off and stays off or he comes back and does an encore." Further discussion about the svengali-type role of Riviera as Costello's left and right hand led Eizik to conclude that Costello trusted Riviera and that they had a good working relationship.
As far as Eizik is concerned, Costello, contrary to a considerable volume of opinion (mine included) does not have a problem fitting his head between doorways. "Elvis doubles/up with one of the guys from The Attractions and refused to have his own single suite on tour. Elvis told me Jake gets the single suite because he does the work. He's not into a star trip at all," Eizik said. Interestingly earlier I was told by Michael Coppel that after the touring party had been booked originally into their Sydney hotel in single rooms. Riviera said they wanted to double up — that was the way they travelled. Yet, 24 hours later, he was complaining about the promoters having single suites while they had to double up. Figure the Riviera logic out for yourself.
Further thoughts and observations on Costello from Eizik elicited the following:"He doesn't enjoy most of the press he does (what fucking press in this country?) because he's non-conventional. He's found that he dislikes most of the journalists he's met (seeing most of them have been the ego-tripping English wankers, I'm not surprised). He doesn't want to arse-lick to get anywhere] he just wants his music to do it for him and he won't compromise that. He enjoyed the audiences here and said he had a good time. He thought that generally the audience reaction was stronger than he expected. He enjoyed himself away from the gigs. He nearly always went out after his shows and saw a few bands and he got on well with Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons, particularly Wilbur Wilde. He also enjoys chatting up the ladies behind the bar at gigs and I think he might have done alright for himself at least at the Stagedoor Tavern in Sydney one night."
One amusing incident Eizik recalls is receiving a telephone call from a girl in Melbourne who claimed to be Costello's cousin and they hadn't seen one another for years since her family moved to Australia. Eizik thought it was bullshit but when he gave Elvis the details, it checked out. So they got together with the rest of her family and had a reunion. Eizik said that unlike someone like Jackson Browne, he found Costello quite easy to talk to, and the only problems that arose with Elvis and his band, he thought was brought on when Riviera kept the band on the edge to whip up the excitement quotient for performing.
Eizik's view on Riviera was that he was a very witty, but cutting person — a fast thinker who possessed many of the qualities a band needs in a manager. He is totally motivated towards the band, although Eizik noted that he thought Riviera neglected to take care of the finer details. He also naturally enough thought Riviera pushed people too far. "He really does push people too far at times and he'll get burnt one day for it. I have respect for the guy but I just couldn't work on the sort of level he does. I could also fault his managerial decisions on many levels." When I asked Eizik for an example, he rather surprisingly replied "He made some decisions — financial decisions — which I think were bad for the band." Further to that, one wondered if Riviera wasn't also trying a little too successfully to work Costello's butt off. While Costello was in Sydney he went into Trafalgar studios and worked on four new songs as well as recording two tracks for inclusion in an American movie called Americathon, in which he has a brief role as a Justice Of The Peace. Costello flew out of Australia at the end of the tour for two days' filming on location in New York. After the Big Apple, it was back to Britain where he was doing a tour that Eizik said consisted of anywhere from 60 to 80 dates. Then on to Europe before packing off to the States for another 40 dates in 55 days. That's the sort of workload that would flatten a bull, so how the delicate bespectacled one will handle it is anyone's guess, but with Riviera roaring around the wings, he probably just pumps Elvis up and on he goes — last year's model ... this year's workhorse.