Rock NYC, July 8, 2014
A look back at one of my favorite albums:
In 2005 I had a relationship with a younger woman and I mention it here because I was very in love with her before throwing my heart at her feet and quite shocked when she told me the feeling was mutual. It didn't last long and in the devastation that followed I wrote a novel filled with music criticism, that left me with a taste for writing about music again and eventually Rock NYC.
If Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True had been released in 2005, I wouldn't have been so thrilled by and the reason I mention this is
1. The important thing to keep in mind when it comes to FAVORITE albums is timing.
2. Ditto for romance.
In 1977 I was living in Manchester, England and in the middle of a non-romance that was killing me. You would be humoring me if you called it a relationship, I loved her she loved me but not that way. One early evening my best friend and I were watching Tony Wilson's What's On in a hungover daze when Tony introduced a new rocker in skinny tie and horn rimmed glasses like Buddy Holly meets Brains of Thunderbird. Indeed, the singer looked a lot like me. Elvis Costello, for it was him, had released his debut album in July, though I'd missed it, was performing his third single "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." The right song at the right time. "I said I'm so happy I could die, she said drop dead and left with another guy."
Forget punk, this was a variant on country rock any way, the miracle isn't that The Sex Pistols were singing about political frustration but that nobody else was singing about male sexual frustration. Of all the great subject matters for rock, what could be greater? And it has been mined before, Sinatra did an entire album about it, but not with this mix of rat-a-tat lyrics, melodic rock and spitfire attitude. Much the way Rotten personified working class drudgery, Costello personified middle class frustration.
The Live Stiffs tour was playing the Manchester Ardwick Apollo that night so my buddy and I went and, yeah it was exactly what you think it was, and for me, it changed something in my DNA. But only to a degree (I remember being pretty insane about Ian Dury and Nick Lowe on the same bill), it was the album, My Aim Is True, which I bought the next day, that revolutionized my thinking.
Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admire, goes the first line of the song as this year's model rubs his nose in it and Costello strips her bare in rage and cynicism "I heard you say that the city's alright though you only read about it in books" he sneers, a clutch of unfinished romances follow to the half way mark (end of side one) finds Costello throwing out bon mots like "we can sit like lovers staring in each others eyes but the magic of the moment might become too much for you." Flip the album over and Costello gets laid and finds himself "stuck between a doctor and a magistrate" the first time and waiting for the end of the world.
This was not reality for Costello, the son of popular jazz musician Ross McManus, and married with a child, who, if he worked in a factory, it was mostly out of choice. But it was a vision of reality which resonated much more strongly with me than, say, Born To Run (check out Edward Huerta's recherchez elsewhere), and not simply New Jersey Doomed Romantic versus Liverpool myopic misanthrope but classic rock versus new wave rockabilly. And, a vision of a world electrified in neon versus a world of black and white disgrace.
Outside the confines of My Aim Is True, listen to the honky ton demos, "Poison Moon," "Wave A White Flag," "Radio Soul" and the epic "Imagination (Is A Powerful Deceiver)." The latter is a masterpiece of angst left off, I am not sure why. Perhaps because it is was too long and too complete un-new Wave, a strung out disaster on the dance floor. Not to mention "Watching The Detectives" a brother song to "Less Than Zero," the protagonist is watching television with a girl in both songs, in the former thwarted desire leads to murder, in the latter Sir (!) Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union Of Fascists, is complicating Elvis's attempted seduction, with a homosexual rape and the English voodoo. In the States, they thought he was writing about the JFK assassination and so Costello changed the lyric from, "to teach him he's alive before he wishes he was dead" to "to teach her she's alive and suddenly he's dead." One Oswald or the other, right. The political side to the album is there, in those two songs, on B Side "Radio Sweetheart," on the dead end of "Welcome To The Working Week," people, Costello, is stumped and paralyzed emotionally and political, he is a juggler running out of hands.
Using country rockers Clover (who would morph into Huey Lewis And The News) as his back up band, the complaint has been the band lack sting, personally I think they sound great and Costello, who came out of jazz and pub rock, was too smart to pretend to be a three chord punk rocker. It wasn't true. The cleverness on this album is all over the place, "we can force me to use a little tenderness" echoes right back to Sam Cooke (or Otis Redding) and the heart on sleeve pop, career changing "Alison" proved, yes, even this early, Costello was a serious songwriter of immense proportions who would be selling his skinny ties in a couple of years. Clover chug where the Attractions would power punch, but there was a lot of power punch going around in those days so maybe it is just as well that.
It was the personal that was resonating with me. The "Miracle Man," "No Dancing" and "Blame It On Cain" on the first side, and not the politics of the second side and while that all may be true it isn't how the album functioned. It started with a wake up call, continued with three sparkling acid works of self-degradation, and a lost love, then ended the side with a new romance in the flits and starts. Side two opened with the clarion call to all sexually retarded just post teens everywhere, followed by a slice of early emotional fascism, rockabilly sex song about premature ejaculation, a shot good wedding, anger and the apocalypse.
And that's not how it functioned for me. For me, it evolved from "Miracle Man" to "Pay It Back." A form of rock 'n' roll self-flagellation, no dancing and dancing without parole and for me at 21 years, in love with a girl who slept with everybody but me, the sound of guilt and revenge. The desire to get back at her, the need for something opening and closing, a cheap reward (to name another song) for all his desire and love and pain.
It works as a series of axioms, "Oh I know that she has made a fool of him" Costello sings in "No Dancing," "Hey girl I wanna shake your hand, all I ever do is bow," "I wanna get right through the way I feel for you," "I can't be wounded because I've got no heart," "they told me everything was guaranteed, somebody somewhere must have lied to me," "if I was a Saint with a silver cup…," "I can hear you whispering as I crawl past your door" … it is like every line goes bing in the back of your pain valve.
This wouldn't have mattered as much as it did if not for on top of timing, lyric and sound, the melodies stand up so solidly and the album feels like an extreme statement of discontent, like Costello suffers from anhedonia and the girls from misandry.
We are discussing favorites not best here, This Year's Model is better, the follow up, to name but one. But by then, I was passed it and so was Costello. I mentioned seeing him live in 77, by the time of the This Year's Model tour, I caught him at the Palladium in New York, he had the Attractions backing him up and was the complete rock star. He didn't matter in the same way by then.
I once wrote a novel, maybe 20 years ago or so, about reincarnation. An old man moves back to Connecticut after his wife dies and falls in love with a much younger girl, who he seduces, only to discover his actions have caused him to lose the opportunity to have a great romance with her in a future life time. Towards the end he keeps on seeing his late wife in dreams and she tells him the secret to life is SKINGEL. At the end, after he has managed to save his future romance, he sees his wife one more time and begs her to explain the secret of life. "SKINGEL." She takes out the cover of My Aim Is True and printed over and over again: ELvisiSKING.
That's what your favorite albums do to you.
Rock NYC, October 2, 2016