Des Brown, a snake-hipped, expressionless man who serves as Elvis Costello's tour-manager, is prowling in a downtown club called Great Gildersleeves 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 ten, fifteen 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 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 at a tube station 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."
"I was actually walking into people's offices with my guitar, because I figured a direct form of communication would do the trick," Elvis told London Sunday Times reporter Mick Brown. "But it never did."
Until Lowe and Riviera, that is. Lowe played bass on the two studio tracks they quickly cut as a single: "Less Than Zero," backed by "Radio Sweetheart." So in 1975, Declan MacManus (Elvis' name before Jake christened him anew in a bar) left his job in the "vanity factory." Costello had been working as a computer operator in a London cosmetics company since 1971, when, at the age of sixteen, he moved from the family home. He had been married in 1974: His wife, Mary, now looks after their three-year old son, Mark, in her own home while Elvis continues his seemingly out-of-character liaison with jet-set model Bebe Buell. The son of Ross MacManus, a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra who now makes a living from lounge dates and jingles sessions, Costello became a musician as "something you do in spite of your better judgement."
To Elvis, recognition had not come soon enough. "He's a very bitter guy," says Lowe. "He's had to go around making a prop of himself in people's offices. I mean, going around playing his songs to people who don't know anything about music at all. Who took a look at him and thought, "This guy ...I can't sell this bloke!" So he's very bitter and twisted about it.
Fifty-three concert dates in sixty-nine days: the 1979 Elvis Costello and the Attractions tour move from city to city in two semis and a Silver Eagle bus. The maroon-trimmed bus Elvis rode in said CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. on the front. Nobody fucks with the Marine Corps. Indeed, a mixture of paranoia and arrogance made the Armed Forces tour party as mean and squirrelly as any platoon of marines trapped behind enemy lines.
The trouble started in Seattle, where Costello's sound crew turned on a high-decibel whine that cleared the Paramount Theater of customers who had protested Elvis' short set.
Further down the coast in Berkeley, California, Costello barely played forty minutes before lock-stepping offstage with no intention to return. When writer Greil Marcus convinced Jake Riviera to walk him backstage to congratulate Costello on what he felt was an effective, albeit short performance, Costello snorted and turned away. According to Marcus, Jake then said, "If you quote me, I'll kick your ass."
"The only reason I wrote that about it was that Jake threatened to do me bodily injury if I did," said Marcus, who reported the encounter in New West Magazine. "Jake's just a little thug. His commercial strategy has always been, "We don't need you" and it's a perfectly decent strategy. The concert was meant as an insult and performed as such, and people caught on. When I came out they were jumping up and down in the balconies. An hour late people tried to break into the box office." Then, after a few days of peace, there was an outburst in St. Louis.
Elvis, playing before 3000-plus fans at the Kiel Opera House, did his usual slam-bang set, hardly pausing for applause. The staff of radio station KSHE, St. Louis' dominant FM outlet and the one that Costello's label, Columbia Records, had chosen as the unofficial concert sponsor, was shocked when Costello dedicated his first encore, "Accidents Will Happen," by sending it out to "all the boys at radio station KADI." Apparently, someone had told Elvis that KSHE had been ignoring his albums on their playlist, while the rival KADI was playing his tunes. "But we'd been playing the key cuts of all three albums in heavy rotation to support the show," complained a KSHE spokesman later. Little matter — Elvis plowed on, introducing "Radio, Radio" with: "Now I want to dedicate this song to all the local bastard radio stations that don't play our songs... and to KSHE!" Costello's albums went from "heavy rotation" to no rotation on KSHE until four days later, when Alan Frey, who heads Elvis' U.S. management company (A.R.S.E) called up to make amends.
In questioning people about Elvis Costello during his 1978 tour, I kept hearing the word, kid. "He's really still a kid," people would say of the twenty-two year old. And one could forgive a lot from this knock-kneed, squinty-eyed wonder who wrote songs that (as Marcus and others pointed out) took our own sins, from imperialism to narcissism, and paraded them before us in all their shabby selfishness. The guy was clawing his own flesh, too. Couldn't we forgive him as he insulted us?"
We could have forgiven a lot. But after a distressingly routine set in Columbus, Ohio, Costello went out and got drunk, and — in an outburst that all his piety and wit will never cancel a word of — he delivered his now-famous slur on Ray Charles and called James Brown "a jive-ass nigger." He said plenty more, railing against the American nation ("a fucked country") and its various customs, curiosities, and entertainers. But with that one horrible, six-letter epithet, whether it came out of the air or from his heart, he fed himself to the wolves.
In Boston, two weeks after the Columbus incident and three days before Gildersleeves, the Costello camp has sent ripples of obstinate wrath out from their zealously guarded dressing room, and some swine strongman at the Orpheum Theatre refuses to go back there and find my contact so I can enter the hall. Have I raced out to LaGuardia Airport for the shuttle flight, rented a gas-sucking Mercury and checked into a hotel room on the same floor as Riviera Global Enterprises to stand panting in the Boston drizzle with my ear set against a bolted door? The scalpers are gone, and not one of the big hall's guardian wants to make a few bucks for himself by looking the other way for one lousy second.
Finally, some anonymous steward of the public interest lets me by on the strength of a press card. I scramble into the hall midway through the third song — "Two Little Hitlers." Costello has just finished "Goon Squad" and before that, a new number called, "I Stand Accused." Later, he will call this the best show of the tour to date. Looking a bit clownish in a checkered coat and pink tie, Elvis steams with the kind of fervor that turns his four-piece band, which can often sound as rote as a windup toy, into an insistently kicking mule.
He plugs the two previous albums ("This is a song off our first album, called My Aim Is True; it's called "Alison"), but without the kind of defensiveness that made him blurt out "and you better fucking clap" when he brought Lowe on to do "Heart Of The City" at a 1977 press showcase at the Ukrainian Ballroom in Manhattan. On "Alison," which became the band's meal ticket when Linda Ronstadt covered it, he seems to be pulling out all the stops that are left in him after wheezing through the songs hundreds of times. His gestures are familiar — the left hand creeping slowly along his brow, then temple, then distractedly fingering his horn-rimmed spectacles as he leans on the mike in his trademark pigeon-toed stance.
The crowd had risen without prompting as Elvis finished "Hand In Hand," but when he segues from the pounding end of "Lipstick Vogue" into "Watching The Detectives" and the lights go up full before dimming to spooky, funhouse green, they scream. Oddly, there are large numbers of pubescent girls present, and they now bolt for the stage. After slowly opening his hand to say "It only took my little fingers to..." Elvis cocks an ear to the audience, and they shout "blow you away" like prize pupils. Elvis fairly spits out "mu-sack radio" on "Radio, Radio," he dedicates the song to WBCN-FM, a station whose staff had walked off when the owner threatened to change the format. "They had the guts to strike," says Elvis.
In Boston, Elvis has bloomed, and the two encores the audience calls him out for are "Mystery Dance" and "You Belong To Me." "You... do... belong... to... me...," he recites as the Attractions bring the show to an end in a wash of chords. Nobody in the Orpheum is denying it.
News of the Ray Charles incident, which Riviera would label "a drunken barroom idiocy," had spread far and wide. Within the week, Elvis had called a New York press conference and now, on the fourteenth floor of CBS corporate headquarters the day after his Boston concert, he tries to deflect the accusations that he is a racist.
Backed into apologizing, Elvis seems an odd mixture of the feisty and the humble as he faces the press. Steeling himself against a slight case of "the shakes" (and wearing a small lapel button that says DESIRE ME) he explains, "it became necessary for me to outrage these people [Bonnie Bramlett, Stephen Stills and their entourage] with the most offensive and obnoxious remarks I could muster to bring the argument to a swift conclusion and rid myself of their presence."
Something disarmingly droll in Costello's manner almost lulls his questioners into sleep. The Village Voice's Richard Goldstein, though, yelps him down: "You made yourself unavailable. We couldn't reach you. You blame it on the press. We tried. It was you! It was you!" Critic Robert Christgau asks if Elvis was afraid to really apologize "because it's not your style."
"How would you feel about someone calling you a sawed-off limey poseur?" asks Rolling Stone's Chet Flippo, and although Elvis gets a laugh by joking that someone had done just that in Ohio, the question lingers in the air. Especially the "poseur" part.
One of the statements Elvis makes a good deal of insight into the way he monitors both his life and art: "I'm sure everybody's had occasion to go to absolute extremes," he says, "even to say things you don't believe. Ask Lenny Bruce."
My personal encounters with Elvis number two: A nearly silent wait backstage in Syracuse over a year ago with Elvis and the band, and ten weird minutes in the Lone Star Cafe several months ago. I had sat down with Elvis as he waited for Delbert McClinton to begin a set. Even as he complained about America and vowed not to tour here again, the man was almost kindly. When I took out pad and pen, he said, "put the pad and pen away," clipping each consonant off with some annoyance. But I had to feel his ogre image was at least partly a pose.
Like Elvis, Jake Riviera, 30, does not have his mean act quite down: He's perennially saucy-eyed, ready to laugh even as he grinds one of his dandyish shoes down on the foot of some snooping reporter or photographer.
The night after Elvis' marathon and four days since the press conference, Jake won't talk: "I'm not interested that you're interested," he snaps when I quiz him about his discussion with singer Richard Hell at the bar of Manhattan's Hotel Mayflower. He does say he has his doubts about taking Costello into Philadelphia, in range of the faltering Three Mile Island nuclear plant. "I suppose they'll clear the Yanks out first, wot?"
Later in the same night I am sitting in a Burger King on Eighth Avenue with some faithful friends, staking out the Indian restaurant across the street. Riviera is in there with Attractions drummer Pete Thomas (who was in the first band Jake ever managed) and Thomas' girl. Thomas had refused to talk me that day; bassist Bruce Thomas (no relation) stops outside the restaurant long enough to say that playing three gigs was "more a matter of stamina than creativity"; and organist Nieve (Steve Nason), strolling to a local coffee shop with a girlfriend who calls herself Farrah Fuck-it Minor, has nothing to say.
That leaves Elvis, who has been sitting in one corner of the small restaurant with Bebe Buell, while David Bowie and his date occupy another. The two English stars had left each other alone, and something in me very much wishes I could do the same. As he walks across misty Columbus Circle to his hotel with Bebe and two bodyguards, I circle around and meet them on the sidewalk. Elvis listens with a tight grin as I prattle about his New York dates. "You're Fred," he interrupts. One bodyguard, so unprepossessing that I am sure that he can break bricks with his hand, shouts in my ear: "Why don't you go home? We're not gonna tell you anything, all right?" I seem to be making a few small points with Elvis by ignoring this lout, so I persist: "If you're going to work with Richard Hell, why don't you give him some press?" "Why didn't you come with us in England?" he counters. (Elvis had brought Hell along as the support act on a series of English dates.) I open my palms to the freshening rain. Elvis goes on: "I still haven't forgiven you for telling that stuff I told you at the Lone Star. I thought you were just a regular guy. You turned out to be a journalist. Asshole."
This last expletive is half deleted by the hotel's revolving door, and my last look is at the bodyguard baring his teeth.
Rock Against Racism, founded in England several years ago, had enlisted Elvis as a headliner for last summer's anti-Nazi rally in London. But in the wake of his drunken comments to Bonnie Bramlett, their New York chapter sends pickets to his Bottom Line date. I address one bearded fellow who's holding a banner saying, KICK 'IM AGAIN BONN, "Aw, he's still cool with me," says the picket. "I think it'll be best if Elvis finds he doesn't have loyal fans, but fans who keep an eye on what he says."
I can't put it any better than that.