Elvis Costello may be thought of as the angry young man of the British New Wave, but as he and his wife, Cait O'Riordan, greet me in the elegant piano bar of the Four Seasons Clift Hotel, the thirty-three year old Costello is looking not particularly young and not at all angry. Instead, he appears to be jet-lagged, having just flown from his home in Dublin to San Francisco — site of his debut American show in 1977 — to begin two weeks of schmoozing on his first-ever promotional tour, in support of his new album, Spike. And at the moment, Costello seems a little choked up.
I've given him an advance cassette of the soundtrack to Let's Get Lost, Bruce Weber's documentary about Chet Baker, which features the late jazz trumpeter and vocalist performing a heartbreaking version of Costello's beautiful torch ballad "Almost Blue." As it turns out, Costello — a longtime fan of Baker's who worked with the jazz great before his death last year — had no idea that Baker had recorded his song. And for a moment, Costello huddles with O'Riordan, whispering about this pleasant but apparently unsettling surprise. As Costello regains his composure, a familiar but incongruous melody being played by the hotel bar's tuxedoed pianist catches his ear. "That guy's playing Tom Waits's songs from Rain Dogs," Costello says, looking around at the somewhat stuffy room full of executives. "What the hell is going on here?" Minutes later, a commotion erupts as a cowboy-hatted Martina Navratilova crosses the lobby, dragged by six dogs on leashes.
Considering Costello's longstanding reputation for being difficult with music-industry types and combative with journalists, the strangest sight of all may be that of Costello sitting calmly on a love seat with O'Riordan, sipping tea and rather amiably discussing his life with a member of the press at the behest of his new corporate home, Warner Bros. "Help me, I'm a prisoner of Bugs Bunny," he says with a laugh, referring to his Warners colleague.
The next morning Costello and O'Riordan are off to hit the first radio station on the promotional tour — KUSF, the small award-winning college station at the University of San Francisco. As Costello makes his way through the campus parking lot, he pauses, opens his brown leather briefcase (complete with Spike decal) and begins to read aloud a powerful, acidic passage on the insidious nature of nostalgia from Testimony, the memoirs of the late Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Once inside the station, O'Riordan gamely finds a quiet spot on the studio floor and pulls out a paperback copy of The Odyssey to help pass the time, while Costello gets down to the job of being charming. Not that he's lost his sense of mischief entirely. Informed of the school's religious affiliation, Costello says gleefully, "Let's see if we can say something to piss off the Jesuits."
"Elvis is not quite as livid as he used to be," says his friend and colleague Nick Lowe, who produced Costello's first five albums and served as Costello's opening act on his recent solo tour of U.S. colleges. "The thing you need to understand about Elvis is that he's never suffered fools gladly. Unfortunately, he happens to work in an industry made up almost exclusively of fools. I know he's been particularly unpleasant to some people, but generally deservedly so, I've found. He thinks things should be done a certain way, and he doesn't give a toss what anyone else says."
Costello has plenty of reasons not to be livid these days. He's released Spike to rave reviews and, for an artist sales have never equaled his artistic impact, strong commercial response. His solo tour, which he's now continuing in Europe, is a captivating crowd pleaser — and demand is such that he's currently putting together a band to join him for a summer tour. And, as Lowe puts it, "the guy's completely in love, and that never hurts."
Costello and his first wife, who have a thirteen-year-old son, divorced in 1985; he married O'Riordan, the former bassist of the Pogues, in 1986. Asked if his current domestic bliss has any relation to the strength of his recent work, Costello says, "Yes, without a doubt. Unashamedly so and unabashedly so. But it just goes to prove that happiness needn't inhibit you. Being in love doesn't necessarily mean you start singing about moonbeams and puppy dogs. I think I'm playing better than I've ever done, and I wouldn't be able to get through doing all of this now if Cait wasn't with me." (O'Riordan, who stays close by her husband's side during many of our interview sessions, has co-written a number of songs with him, most notably "Baby Plays Around," a ballad from Spike.)
Is this a kinder, gentler Elvis, then? At times, it certainly seems that way. In March, Costello made his first appearance on Saturday Night Live since the infamous night in 1977 when he and the Attractions filled in at the last minute for the Sex Pistols. Costello had enraged the show's producers by stopping his scheduled performance of "Less Than Zero" and breaking into a vicious rendition of "Radio, Radio," a bitter diatribe against media manipulation.
When the older, slightly heavier Costello returned to the show twelve years later, the evening's biggest shock came from host Mary Tyler Moore, who, in her opening monologue about loosening network censorship, introduced the musical guest as "Elvis Costello's penis." Elvis Costello — in his entirety — delivered riveting performances of the two songs from Spike that he'd told the show's producers he would do: "Let Him Dangle," a blistering real-life tale of crime and punishment, and "Veronica," the moving pop-rock hit that was inspired by his late grandmother's flights of senility.
The latter song is one of the first fruits of Costello's collaborations with Paul McCartney. In 1987, McCartney called Costello, and the two have since co-written an impressive batch of songs: two — "Veronica" and the infectious rockabilly "Pads, Paws and Claws" — are on Spike; four more — "My Brave Face," "That Day Is Done," "Don't Be Careless, Love," and "You Want Her Too" — are on the former Beatle's upcoming album Flowers in the Dirt.
Declan MacManus (Costello's real name, and the one he uses for collaborations with McCartney) has come a long way. He was born in 1955, in London, though for his last two years of secondary school he moved to Liverpool with his mother. She was by that time divorced from his father, Ross MacManus, a big-band singer with Joe Loss, whom Costello describes as "the English Glenn Miller." Educated in Catholic schools, Costello took an early interest in pop music. By age eleven he was a member of the Beatles fan club, and through his father, young Declan had the thrill of hearing early acetates of Beatles albums that were sent to orchestras to encourage covers. By graduation from secondary school, MacManus was playing guitar and writing songs. In order to support himself, MacManus found himself welcomed to the working week as a computer programmer for an Elizabeth Arden factory. He also started playing in a folk-rock band, Flip City, around Liverpool, and in 1974 he met Nick Lowe, who was appearing with his folk-pop group Brinsley Schwarz at the famed Cavern club.
Two years later, Costello was signed to Stiff Records, a small new label cofounded by Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera (who remains Costello's manager). Working with Stiff house producer Lowe, members of the northern-California rock group Clover and a very low budget, Costello took enough sick days from work to complete his still-astonishing 1977 debut album, My Aim is True, on which the unlikely-looking rock hero emerged with a sound that combined the passionate attack of punk with a profound gift for intelligent songcraft. In a short time, Costello was a star in England and was signed by Columbia Records in the U.S.
Costello (the new name was Riviera's marketing notion) quit his day job and formed his own phenomenal band, the Attractions — Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass, and Pete Thomas on drums — and recorded an even stronger follow-up, This Year's Model.
"That lot had a very strange relationship," says Lowe. "It was very abrasive. There was never any real warmth between them. But you don't have to be in love with the bass player to make great records. They certainly respected each other. But they were never really pals."
By most reports Elvis and the band were a hard living group, and they stirred up their share of controversy. Most notable, if overhyped, was a 1979 incident in Columbus, Ohio, in which a drunken Costello and Bruce Thomas got involved in a fight with members of Stephen Stills's band. Trying to say something that would outrage them, Costello — an outspoken critic of racism — made a racist comment about Ray Charles.
"You have to understand I had never made my living with music," says Costello. "Suddenly I had all these ludicrous things to live up to. And I reacted badly to it. That made good copy — not just the Columbus thing, but other punch-ups that we had with various photographers that wouldn't take no for an answer. We were all moving very, very fast. And there's a tremendous amount of fun to be had in terrorizing people that are so thick-skinned. So we kept going along like some sort of bizarre episode of The Monkees, running around, drinking lots of vodka, and turning up in these places where things were so comical that we'd just push 'em right up into the absurd rather than even try to rationalize them."
In the next decade, Costello and the Attractions maintained a furious pace: the icy pop of Armed Forces (1979); the soulful Get Happy!! (1980); the dark, drunken Trust (1981); the Nashville field trip Almost Blue (1981); the ambitious critically acclaimed Imperial Bedroom (1982); the frenzied Punch The Clock (1983); the confused Goodbye Cruel World (1984); a greatest never-quite-hits collection, The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Vol. 1 (1985); and two collections of B sides and unreleased tracks, Taking Liberties (1980) and the import-only Out of Our Idiot (1987).
Costello has never become the blockbuster superstar many feel he should have, but persistence appears to have won out. "Veronica" is threatening to become a big hit single (he has only broken the Top Forty singles charts once: "Everyday I Write the Book" hit Number Thirty-Six in 1983). And, as Billboard recently pointed out, Spike is his eighth Top Forty album in the Eighties, putting him in a five-way tie with Pat Benatar, Rush, Barbra Streisand, and Prince for second place in that category (Kenny Rogers is first).
Along the way, Costello also managed to find enough free time to produce three remarkable albums for others: The Specials (1979); Squeeze's East Side Story (1981); and the Pogues' Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash (1985). "I'm batting a thousand as a producer," says Costello. "That's better than Phil Spector." By 1986, Costello felt the need for a little independence from the Attractions. Working with producer T Bone Burnett and a few of Elvis Presley's favorite backing musicians from a group called the Confederates, he made King of America.
That same year, Costello, the Attractions, and Nick Lowe reteamed to record the blistering but underrated Blood and Chocolate. "It wasn't a cozy album to do," says Lowe of the sessions. "But by that time I was used to the odd bass guitar curving in a graceful arc from one end of the studio to the other, towards the drummer's head."
To support both albums, Costello set off on an ambitious, financially debilitating world tour that saw him joined alternately with the Attractions, the Confederates, and various celebrity guests; he also employed the Spinning Songbook, an audience participation prop.
Afterward, Costello kept an uncharacteristically low profile. "People seem to think I just went on vacation," says Costello. "The fact is, as far as I was concerned, I was working almost all the time." Increasingly frustrated by the efforts on Costello's behalf by Columbia Records, he and Riviera sought out a better American deal and settled on Warner Bros. He began a series of collaborations, writing songs with McCartney, Rubén Blades, 'til Tuesday's Aimee Mann, and David Was of Was (Not Was). He also composed an instrumental film score for The Courier, a small Irish film that starred O'Riordan. And, of course, he began writing the songs for his own new album.
Spike — on which Costello works with an incredible array of musicians, including McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Christy Moore — is one of his most impressive efforts, reflecting his wide-ranging interests in music. (Costello can quite happily spend hours on the phone talking about other people's music.)
His solo college tour was a low-tech but high-intensity crowd pleaser featuring a new audience participation gimmick — a giant satin broken heart on which Costello placed an ever-changing selection of his own choices for deadly sins, including the sins of Bogus Insights, Awesomeness, Trump, and Architecture. Costello says he wanted to play colleges because he sought an audience that was "mathematically eliminated" from being overly nostalgic about his original glory days. At C.W. Post College, forty miles outside of New York City, Costello lashed out at the new generation's points of reference for him: Bret Easton Ellis's lethargic novel Less Than Zero and Justine Bateman's atrocious cover of "Mystery Dance" in the abysmal movie Satisfaction. "Hello out there," he told the crowd. "I'm a guy your mother used to know."
Q: Do you have a lot of trepidation about starting out on this promotional tour? about having to go out there and be Mr. Nice Guy?
A: No. The misconception is that I was a two-headed monster to begin with. I only turn into a two-headed monster when people give me justification. All impressions to the contrary, I'm a very nice guy. I trust everybody until they give me reason not to.
Q: Is it strange for the guy who wrote "Radio Radio" to go out there and have to play radio sweetheart, hitting all the stations, shaking hands, and posing for pictures?
A: No, because I think that they must know that I'm daring them to say, "We're not those guys." And I think people put too much store in that one song. I could write another song about radio that would be more precise, now. Actually, I have, and it's called "...This Town..." That song's about that same awful tendency to want to control everything. But those radio people know who I am. And I know who I am — I don't need their confirmation. I don't cease to exist if they don't play my fucking records.
Q: Talking about radio, have you heard "Radio Romance" by Tiffany?
A: Yes. Tiffany's my heroine. She's godlike. I love that record.
Q: Are you serious?
A: Yeah. I was on a review program, on the radio in London, and they played her and Julia Fordham back to back, and I had to say, "Come on, you yuppies out there, 'fess up." I said, "Tiffany sings the hell out of this song. Julia Fordham overemotes, she overextends herself at every turn. And Tiffany's giving this one trashy little love ballad everything she's got."
Q: Maybe you and Tiff could be the new Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye for the Nineties.
A: More like Maurice Chevalier and Kylie Minogue [laughs].
Q: You just spoke about trusting people. How does that relate to your feelings about the media? For someone who is very much a critics' favorite, you certainly seem to harbor resentment for critics.
A: Critics always look at things in a great big overview that's arranged after the fact. There's all these grand theories of the social and musical frustration out of which punk and New Wave came. But I was there, and the way that I felt frustrated was the fact that I'd had my tape sent back from every goddamn record company in England. I used to take my guitar and sit 'em down and make 'em listen to me. People would take phone calls in the middle of the song — they didn't even have the fucking courtesy to listen one song out.
Q: Have you run into any of those people subsequently?
A: Yeah. Yeah. Virgin offered me a deal in 1979, and I turned 'em down on the strength of that. Offered me a lot of money. I asked Richard Branson [the founder of Virgin] to name two songs off of my last album, and he couldn't. So I told him to fuck off.
Q: Don't you ever think about where you fit in rock history?
A: I really don't care. When Sgt. Pepper came up for its twentieth anniversary, your magazine rang me up for one of those quotes, as they do from time to time. And I had to say, "Sorry, fellow, I don't think rock & roll is like Mount Rushmore." I don't hold with all this Hall of Fame bullshit or whatever. Guess I'm out of the running for that one now [laughs]. I think that's all crap. It's like the Grammys. It's just bullshit — all this kind of nostalgia for things that are barely past us is very difficult for me.
It's all a consequence of making rock & roll really important. America's the only country that thinks this way about rock & roll. Everywhere else it's just pop music. Over here it's culture — because it's the only damn culture you've got. So you make it more important than it is. Here you can find leaders who will secretly go home and put on their favorite blue jeans and put on Lynyrd Skynyrd records. It's impossible to conceive of that being the case in England. The only thing you might get is a few hip Labour politicians who think there's something credible about liking Billy Bragg.
Q: But aren't Prince Charles and Princess Di rockers, throwing the Prince's Trust concerts...
A: [Interrupts] Well, what's that got to do with rock & roll? Have you ever listened to those groups that play those shows? That Michelob music has absolutely no relationship to rock & roll. It's Invasion of the Body Snatchers music. It came down and zapped Phil Collins and Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and left these people that look superficially the same as them but play this kind of bland beer music.
Q: So we shouldn't expect you at the next Prince's Trust show?
A: No. I wouldn't do anything with the royal family. They're scum. Why do we subsidize this family of buffoons? What makes them so damn important? I just don't understand why we subsidize people who seem to just go on holiday all the time. So now you won't be seeing Elvis Costello live at Buckingham Palace.
Q: Do you think using the name Elvis Costello made people take you less seriously?
A: No. I don't think it's hurt me at all.
Q: Do you think of yourself as Elvis?
Q: Do your friends call you that?
A: Those that I've worked with, yeah. I use it like a nickname. Like being called Buzz or something — like Buzz Aldrin. Similar to Buzz, really: somebody that's been to the moon. I think of Elvis Costello mainly as a brand name, like Durex [a brand of British condom].
Q: Why, then, do you periodically switch to other names — including your own real one?
A: I've done it for theatrical reasons. Christopher Reeve plays Superman, but when he does other roles, nobody expects him to come along with his underpants over his trousers, do they? With actors, you don't think anything of it. In fact, they think it's funny if the actor won't put the role down — like if Tony Curtis became the Boston Strangler, people would worry about it.
You know, This Year's Model was going to be called Girls, Girls, Girls, but then Elvis died. And we had to be very careful. The Elvis name was very good for getting noticed, but nobody anticipated that Presley was going to die. So the minute he did, I had a dilemma. I didn't want people to think there was any disrespect meant to him, 'cause you didn't know what kind of crazy people were out there. People were killing themselves. Terrible things were happening. We were actually on the road not long after that, in America, in the South.
Q: Many Americans' first memory of you is when you replaced the Sex Pistols as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. How did you relate to the punk scene?
A: By the time the Pistols were due to do that show, they were really over. What I wanted to do was approach the music with the same attitude, the same attack as punk, without sacrificing all of the things I liked about music — like, say, tunes. As a result, we had a goody-goody image to a lot of people.
Q: You were the Herman's Hermits of the punk era.
A: Right. Whereas, in fact, we were much nastier than any of those groups. In fact, all of them put together.
Q: How so?
A: Well, we just played better and much more aggressively than they could. Most of the punk bands couldn't play in time. So it was just cacophony that didn't mean anything. Whereas the Attractions could actually get on with the thing and make it musical. Plus we were really horrible to people. The Clash were like other people's political ideas, and the Pistols were other people's anarchistic notions. None of them actually thought for themselves very much until a lot later on, like when the Clash did Sandinista! and Lydon did PiL.
Q: So you're the real punk, after all?
A: Sure. I recorded my first album for a couple of thousand dollars, while a lot of those punk bands were really well produced in expensive studios. The Sex Pistols recorded in Air, a fancy studio, with Chris Thomas, a real producer. So the idea that the Pistols were some kind of up-against-the-wall, rebellious thing is a lot of nonsense. We were the real punks — the folks who recorded for Stiff Records. But like all really good things that are spontaneous, Stiff only really lasted for three months. And then the label exploded, or imploded, I should say. And Nick Lowe and Jake and myself left.
Q: In America, punk ended up more as a fashion statement.
A: Yeah. During my first trip we went to some club, the Whisky or something, when we first got to Los Angeles, and that was really when I realized that Johnny Rotten had died for nothing, you know?
Q: Do you think music means as much to kids today as it did to you growing up? What music does your son listen to? Does he listen to your music?
A: Don't know [laughs]. Interview him, put him on the cover of Rolling Stone. He's nearer the age. He knows about skateboards. He likes Guns 'n' Roses.
Q: And do you like Guns 'n' Roses?
A: Yes, I do. But I like Donald Duck as well. They're both cartoons, aren't they? You know how much my son likes Guns 'n' Roses? You know Swatch watches? There are these little plastic things you get to put on your Swatch to protect the face. He likes Guns 'n' Roses about as much as that. Everything for kids these days is that important.
Kids today have an order of priorities about their accessories to their life in a different way than I did. 'Cause I'd put the record on first and then bother about whether I had the coat that went with it. Now it's like you have the coat, you have the skateboard, you have the sneakers, you have the watch, then you put the record on. I don't mean to put Guns 'n' Roses down. Heaven knows I think they're really dedicated, and I like that "Sweet Child o' Mine" record — the one that sounds like Led Zeppelin? I think it sounds less pompous than Led Zeppelin doing it. But I didn't like Led Zeppelin to begin with, so you're asking the wrong guy. I like Howlin' Wolf. I like the stuff Zeppelin stole from. I don't need to hear a facsimile of a facsimile of a facsimile.
It's like people in Europe will come ask me what I think about rap, because rap's a very fashionable music to like. I'd say rap's like starlight to me — by the time it reaches you, it ain't there anymore. I really believe that.
Q: You mean it loses meaning when it's removed from the street?
A: It's removed from the neighborhood that it's intended for. I think that's when it's really true, it's for, like, a two-block neighborhood somewhere that we don't live in. And all we can do is admire it at a distance. So the affectation of saying rap's everything, it's the new language — that's just an affectation. It might be a pleasant affectation, like the Teddy Boys, who wore their hair like Elvis Presley to show admiration for the guy's style. But some middle class white guy from England suddenly affecting a Chuck D. outfit is kind of ludicrous.
Q: So it's safe to assume you don't hang out in the acid-house scene too much?
A: I think acid-house is very similar to punk. It has the attitude that supposedly everybody can do it. Well, just 'cause everybody can do it doesn't mean that everybody doing it is interesting.
Q: How much substance abuse went on when you were with the Attractions?
A: The drinking might've slowed a few gigs down, but there was always ways of speeding 'em up again. Whatever we did didn't do any harm, and it didn't do any good.
I hate all that confessional shit. You know, go to Betty Ford and then do an interview in People magazine, talk about all your problems. Who cares? There's people been doing much harder jobs. People who drink bottles of whiskey at night and then go down in a mine or something. I neither have any time for the confessional aspect nor for the self-aggrandizing: how tough you are because you can survive it. You can either survive it or you don't, you know? But please don't wheeze on about it afterward.
I read a few interviews with Keith Richards, and I thought, "Well, great, he's not self-pitying." Nobody asked him to take drugs, you know? I mean, I did some stupid things, but nobody asked me to do 'em, you know? I did 'em myself. I paid my dues. [He breaks into a Sinatra croon.] I did it my way.
Q: Do you resent questions about your personal life?
A: It's voyeurism, you know? For years and years, Bob Dylan wrote all these great songs, then he wrote that song "Sara," and people assumed "Sara" was Sara, his wife. But does it matter? It never diminished any of his other songs that we didn't know who he was speaking about — except for those garbage-pail diggers that insisted on finding out who it was. Who cares? If someone like Bob Dylan or myself wanted to put that detail in, we would've written an extra verse saying, "and what I really wanted to say is that so-and-so woman I split with is a bitch that I really hate/ This is her name and address/ And, if you want to, go and burn down here house."
Q: And while we're on the subject of split-ups, it's been clear for years that relations were strained between you and Columbia.
A: I had no quarrel with Columbia. They, after all, signed me. I appreciate that. So Columbia didn't sign me and immediately ruin my life. They sort of worked up to it [laughs]. We just could never reach agreement about promoting my individuality as opposed to promoting my similarity to everything else. It was obvious after the last two records that the honeymoon was truly over, and we started looking. For a while, Columbia kept me around, hoping they'd get back all the money I owed 'em. But they realized that they were probably taking more and more of a gamble, because I was just never conforming to their expectation of what my records should sound like. Of course, they would never tell me what they wanted, either. But it's no big disaster — Columbia is not going to go out of business just because I owe them a fair chunk of money. They've got my back catalog. One hit record, and they get it all back.
Q: The word is that the company felt alienated from you and your manager, Jake Riviera.
A: I don't think people in Columbia's marketing and promotion departments are charter members of the Jake Riviera fan club. Jake has an unfortunate tendency to attack people personally when he's angry with them about business. Unfortunately, this collides with the fact that American record executives have this tremendous inability to withstand personal insults. On some occasions we had people at Columbia that we'd known for years who were openly apologetic for the complete indolence of the company to promote Blood and Chocolate. So I would never run them down as, say, "They're all bastards." It would just be really dishonest. But some of them are such nancies, you know? I thought these were the guys who were supposed to be bribing people with money and cocaine. If they hated us so much, why didn't they just take a contract out on us, you know? It would've been quicker [laughs].
Q: Did you have much contact with the powers that be at Columbia?
A: I think I met Walter Yetnikoff [the President of CBS Records] once.
Q: And Al Teller [former president of Columbia Records]?
A: The last time I saw Al Teller was at the taping of the Roy Orbison special. I'd left the label, and Bruce Springsteen came over to me. Al had come to see Bruce play with Roy, and he came over, too. He said to me, "You know, we don't need to not speak just because you're not on the label." It really matters not a damn to me whether he draws another breath, quite honestly. He's irrelevant in my life. He might be a very charming person, but in terms of my career he was nothing but trouble. You know, I don't wish him any ill personally. I just don't make small talk with people who are irrelevant. And he said, "So, have you got a record coming out?" And I said, "I think there's plenty in the racks, don't you, Al?" And he didn't see the joke.
Q: Will your last record with Columbia, Blood and Chocolate, also be your last with the Attractions?
A: We haven't played together for a while, but Pete came and played on Spike a bit. We almost did a charity show recently. So as far as I'm concerned, their nonappearance on this record is down to Steve, and possibly one of the others, looking at the group differently than me. Steve thinks of the group like the Monkees — a four-way thing, an equal battle of egos. To me we're four individuals, but inevitably I have to call the shots, 'cause they're my songs. So when I made up my mind to do Spike the way I did, I said to them, "Listen, fellas, there's four or maybe five songs on the record that we could approach, sometimes in collaboration with other musicians, sometimes just the four of us." And Steve didn't want to do it. He said, "It's all or nothing." I think that's an honest disagreement. So from my point of view, if there's a good reason for us to come together, then great. But no amount of throwing money out would make us do a nostalgia tour.
Q: Talking about nostalgia, wasn't it ever daunting for a Beatles lover like yourself to be sitting around the piano writing with Beatle Paul?
A: Oh, yeah, occasionally, I'd go, "Oh, God, it's him. Ooh, it's him." But that was definitely a momentary thing.
Q: How did you and McCartney start writing together? You met at the concert for Kampuchea, right?
A: Yes, and then we used to run into each other a lot in the studio in London. When he was doing, like, Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, I was doing Imperial Bedroom and a couple of other records. He's a very personable guy — he'd always say hello, play Space Invaders, have a cup of coffee. But I wouldn't have said, "Oh, have you met my good friend, Paul McCartney?" So as far as I was concerned, when he called me about working together, it was just fairly out of the blue.
Q: How familiar is he with your work?
A: I've no idea. Obviously he knows I don't write Barry Manilow songs, or there'd be no point. I've got nothing to gain in knowing whether he has a very scanty or a comprehensive knowledge. What's important is what we're doing now. The main thing is we're trying to write new songs. We're not trying to write old songs again. Of several things you have to consider, one is that he's been Paul McCartney longer than he was a Beatle. And for that matter, I've been a solo artist longer than the Beatles existed. By four years. So you know, I'm a professional. I don't have as many hit records to my name, but I have just as many credentials in terms of writing songs. If he was gonna pick anybody to write with, then why not me?
We started with a song he had, "Back on My Feet." He had started the track, so my input to that song was limited to lyrics. And I brought "Veronica," of which I had a verse and the chorus; "Pads, Paws, and Claws" likewise. But it's not always fifty-fifty. You don't have any secretary sitting in the corner taking notes, going, "Then Mr. McCartney suggested a B-flat minor," you know.
Q: Did you ever question his motivations in writing with you? Did you ever think you were being brought in to make him hip, to add the anger and passion that John Lennon was supposed to have contributed to his songs?
A: No. No. But it's just a stupid exercise to talk about things that way. It's like putting together your favorite imaginary baseball team. I hate the way this industry turns people into kind of bubble-gum cards or cartoons, distillations of their personality and what they represent, particularly in the last year or two with John Lennon. I find it very disturbing when somebody who meant a lot to me is suddenly remolded for the benefit of somebody's script, whether it be Albert Goldman's or the makers of Imagine or anyone else. So I ain't gonna be involved in any of that crap. It's sentimental nonsense.
Q: What exactly is the mythical image of you?
A: Well, it's the one that Rolling Stone has been very good at kind of fostering over the years, by lying in wait outside my hotel waiting for me to make mistakes.
Q: What irks you most about your image?
A: It's just so fucking narrow. It doesn't acknowledge that I'm a person living my life. And most journalists are just not good enough writers a lot of the time to represent people. Now, if you have Nikki Sixx or whatever his name is, you don't really need many words to describe him, 'cause he's making himself into a cartoon. He wants to be comprehended on a certain one-dimensional level. That's fine, but if you want to sort of be able to move around and do different things, you don't want to be limited by a preconceived idea that you're over here standing with a bloody hatchet in your hand, you know?
Q: Haven't you occasionally been the obnoxious jerk you're supposed to be?
A: Not really. Maybe once or twice in a confrontation, I would just be exactly what people would think. As it says in "Miss Macbeth" on Spike, "Sometimes people are just what they appear to be." So sometimes, yes. But only in a standoff. The French call me Mr. Hate. I'm not Mr. Hate, I'm Mr. Love.
Q: But in "Tramp the Dirt Down," from Spike, you basically wish for Thatcher's death. You've been openly critical of her for years. Has she ever called you up and said, "Careful, Elvis, one more outburst and no knighthood for you"?
A: [Laughs] I don't think there was ever any danger of that, really.
Q: But she hasn't made a personal plea for you to stay in England?
A: No. To paraphrase the Ayatollah, she said that even if I was to become repentant and become the most pious man on earth, it's still every Englishman's responsibility to see me descending to hell [laughs].
Q: On "God's Comic," you get a zinger off at Andrew Lloyd Webber. You may have blown your chances to collaborate with Webber.
A: I'm heartbroken. That and the knighthood. The two are connected, I suppose.
Q: When you introduce the song, you suggest God is a Bret Easton Ellis fan. Have you ever met Ellis?
A: I met Bret once, yeah. [Breaks into a parody of Ellisian prose] I walked into a bar, Bret was standing there. He looked disinterested. I took some more cocaine. He didn't look any better. I had another vodka. The vodka didn't make me feel any happier, so I switched on MTV. I wanted to fuck Blaine, but Blaine didn't want to fuck me, so I called up Judy, she came over. She gave Blaine a blow job. I fell asleep. I woke up, I felt disinterested.
Q: You have your fist novel halfway written.
A: Well, I have Bret's novel halfway written, at least [laughs].
Q: Considering some people think you're the greatest living songwriter, why hasn't more of you're material been covered by other artists?
A: I used to be very disparaging about this. I had some funny covers, and sometimes the motives have not always been right. But if you'd asked me in 1977 who I would like to cover my songs, I'd probably have named some of the people who have now recorded my stuff — George Jones, Roy Orbison, Chet Baker, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash. I mean, that ain't bad.
God, I was watching Solid Gold on tour, and Marilyn McCoo comes on and goes, "Now we have Johnny Cash." I thought, "Great, Cash is on the program, finally some proper music." He comes out and does "The Big Light," from King of America. I thought I was hallucinating.
Q: But why do you think you're not covered more than you are?
A: Well, even Bob Dylan hasn't had that many covers, really. If you have an unusual-sounding voice, then people can't separate your voice from the melody. When it comes to my songs, there's sometimes a line in it or something that just puts people off. When I was working with McCartney, he said this thing about the famous line in "Hey Jude" — "The movement you need is on your shoulder." That was supposed to have been a dummy line that got left in, because Lennon took a liking to it. McCartney's good about that. If the lyric was getting too strange, he'd say, "I can't really imagine Wilson Pickett attacking this. He's gonna get to that bit about dismantling the Russian doll or something, and he's gonna be a bit perplexed by that." You've got to imagine other people in other styles of music interpreting the song, and that's not a bad criteria. But I don't think it should be everything. Otherwise you could end up being bland.
Q: How did you feel when the Columbia ads for Imperial Bedroom consisted of the word "masterpiece"?
A: It was masterpiece — with a question mark!
Q: Oh, so they left the matter open to debate.
A: Yeah. Thank you, fellas. If they just said, "This is a fucking masterpiece!" I would've had a lot more respect for that. There were some ludicrous things claimed on behalf of that record.
Q: Suddenly you were being called the Cole Porter of the Eighties.
A: Thanks a lot [laughs].
Q: How did that affect you?
A: It could be momentarily flattering, and then you realize that strange as it may seem, some people don't like Cole Porter, you know?
Q: At any point did you try to please Columbia and just go for a hit?
A: But what does that mean? When we did Blood and Chocolate, I believed that's what Columbia wanted, a rock & roll by the Attractions — with no country influence, with no string orchestras, with none of the interesting things that I had tried before.
But I don't lose sleep over record sales. I once tried to explain to a lawyer why I run my career like I do. He was completely perplexed, because it runs against all logic with the lawyers and accountants and all the record-company people when you tell them that you deliberately try to lose money. I do things to keep interest in my career, bold things like a gig with the Royal Philharmonic, an eighty-six-piece orchestra. It was a disaster, but it was interesting. Like doing the last tour with the Spinning Wheel and two different bands while playing thousand-seat theaters. Do you know how much money I lost on that? But it was worthwhile because people damn well talked about it.
That's the good side of show business — doing something interesting. Doing something that matters to you and to the people who come to see you. Playing 11,000-seat open-air theaters in Chicago with corporate sponsorship is not interesting. It's not interesting for people sitting out in the back, anyway. And it's not interesting for the band. No wonder people drink beer and eat popcorn all the way through concerts; how do you expect them to be involved from half a mile away? So if Rick Astley or Kylie Minogue outsells me on a given day, it doesn't matter. We're not in the same game, are we? The truth is, I would rather do it my way and lose money.