Elvis Costello is the biggest little star there is. He doesn't need the canonization afforded him by Jay McInerney — who in his latest novel Story Of My Life, has its central character constantly quoting the man. Unwilling 'spokesperson for a generation' though he may be, Costello, still stands on the outside. He's not interested in coming to the party anyway. Not if it means he's going to end up in a compromising position.
In his native Britain, Costello is an elder statesman of a post-punk scene, who has amazingly survived for this most fickle of audiences, not only because he hasn't sustained a success which would threaten his credibility, but also because he has consistently produced invigorating music.
Few performers, in fact, have managed to sell so few records and make so much noise about doing so. In sync with the superstar process to this extent at least, Costello has cultivated his own myth, fronted by the image of the bug-eyed insect with a poison sting in his tail, an image as iconographic as a Madonna or Billy Idol, those hornrims are as much a symbol as Michael Jackson's glove. You can almost see Elvis taking his place in that silly Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, sneaking in the back door, peering out from between Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp.
Since the release of his first album My Aim Is True in 1978, Costello has issued virtually an album per year, sometimes more, which have kept his fans glued to the edge of their seats.
The release, then, of the first new Costello album for some eighteen months, his first for his new label, WEA, would have to be something of an event. Fans might immediately want to know, why Spike, as the album's called, has taken so long to come?
"Well, if you think most people release records every eighteen months, and I maybe release one every nine months, it's not really a long time," says the man. "It took a little while to set this up, getting my record contract aligned, boring practical things like that."
Costello adds that he's hardly been idle. After touring the US, Europe and Australia in 1987, as well as getting Spike together, which involved sessions in London, Dublin, New Orleans and Los Angeles, he married for the second time, to Cait O'Riordan (formerly of the Pogues); has written a film-score, and written songs with Rubén Blades, Aimee Mann and Paul McCartney (two of which are included on Spike, one — "Veronica" — being the first single); and has moved from England "a very tatty, Third World country") to live in Ireland.
"You see, also, you reach a point," he continues, "where you get offered things to do that seem interesting, that you might learn something from, you might enjoy. And because I'm not in competition with anyone but myself, you don't have to do everything motivated by: Is it going to get me on the charts? Is it going to get me on the cover of Rolling Stone?
"It's not the most important thing in my life, you know. Enjoying my life, and doing things the way I want to, and having the freedom to do that, is, you know, a much better way to be than on some schedule."
Costello was in Australia to shoot the video for the first single, "Veronica", in Melbourne with Evan English and John Hillcoat, the Rich Kids team that recently made the film Ghosts of the Civil Dead.
He's no stranger to Australia, Australia seems to like him, and he Australia. He came here for 'the first time in 1979, for that controversial tour with the Attractions. Since then, Australia's seen quite a lot of him — even in rare appearances with T Bone Burnett, under the moniker the Coward Brothers, and in late '87 with the Confederates, his band made up of the real Elvis's old backing band.
"I saw that John Pilger documentary on the Australian Bicentennial, Costello offers, "and it showed Bob Hawke at this millionaire's dinner thing, you know, licking Holmes A' Court, Kerry Packer and Alan Bond's arse, and this is a Labor Prime Minister, and I thought, 'God, this must be a proud moment for the Australians!'
The little man with the big mouth had agreed to a couple of interviews and the record company had advised me Elvis only wanted to talk 'about the new album'.
About forty-five minutes into my allotted three-quarters of an hour with him, I had to say to Elvis, who was dressed head to toe in crisply-pressed black, "I was told you only wanted to talk about the new album, and so far the only thing we haven't talked about is the new album."
Elvis has never been one to suffer journalists too gladly, and this one had ruffled his feathers. In a review of the year in music last year, in a local magazine, the journalist took a facetious shot at him. As far as Elvis was concerned, it was a case of "some very cynical person deciding to write me off in a couple of lines because I'm past my Use-By date."
Whether it was meant as that or not — and it wasn't — Costello was off and running. He decided to fill me in on his view of the current scene. And he wasn't going to stop until he was finished.
"The scene itself... I get to the point where I know the things I like, and they're private to me. And I don't tell anybody." He did, however, reveal he liked DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.
'I only trust people with corporate sponsorship, he added, naturally without a facetious tone. "I like to know they're really solid upright citizens. Like Jon Bon Jovi. I think if they're good enough for Coca-Cola, they're good enough for me. I mean, I think you're safe that way. It's like making sure you've got a good locking system on your car, you pretty much can't go off the road with Whitney, Michael, Jon...
"But I really do like 'Bad Medicine, I'm not kidding you. I'm not being facetious. I really think it's a great pop record. I think Jon Bon Jovi's a lot less despicable than a lot of the other, very arch people around, who've got one eye on the charts and the other on, like, being in The Face.
"I mean, he's literally got it down. You know, he sings about partying, and not being put down by parents and authority, and you've got lots of long-legged girls with big breasts in the video, and I think he really believes it. That's one definition — there are people that live that life, and that's all they want. They don't want to know about the government, they don't want to hear about politics. Which is fair enough. It's just what's important to them."
So you're saying Jon Bovi Jovi isn't offensive because he's not cynical about what he's doing?
"Yeah, because Jon Bon Jovi has as much faith in what he does as I do in what I do. He just believes different things are important. I think he really believes it, he really believes in all the myth of rock 'n' roll, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
"It's like Elvis... you know the thing James Burton said to me — name-dropping again (Burton played guitar for Elvis Presley, and more recently with Costello) — he said, 'You know the thing I liked about Elvis? He really believed he was the King of rock 'n' roll.' That's the cool thing about him. He really believed it all. I think he fucking died for it, you know.
"But I don't, you know, I don't believe it."
But even if it isn't cynically calculated, Bon Jovi's still bubblegum. Elvis Costello is considered an artist of substance. But in the image-peddling of modern pop, is it not all illusory?
"I would say that I break through to people more often than a lot of these other people do,explains Costello. "They never get any closer. They give the illusion of proximity. I don't think it makes it any less real to just write the songs and play them and release records the way you want to, than it is to stand on stage and look out and see 15,000 facsimiles of yourself, the way that in so many rock 'n' roll songs the only definition of them is that everyone wants to be them (the performer), or fuck them.
"To some people it (fame) is everything, like it's the best thing they could be. Did you see that movie, The Decline Of Western Civilization? All these interviews, they're with all these people with these huge haircuts, talking about 'well, when I'm famous...' And their definition of famous is, like, big cars, girls, and all the drugs they can take. They just see it as a conveyor belt."
"These people don't want to think about why they're there, what it means, what they can do there, they just want to be there."
Given Costello's consistently outspoken political commitments — his involvement in the early days of Rock Against Racism, his having produced the Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela" in 1984 (perhaps the first "choral protest" record and the only one of any artistic merit) and having written such songs as "Shipbuilding" and "Pills And Soap" — I would have liked to have asked his opinion of all the current Aid for Everything.
I would have liked to have asked him lots of things. I would have liked to have asked him what he thought of Tracy Chapman. But I could barely get a word in edgeways.
"George Michael!" he flies off again. "Personally, I think George Michael's incredibly overrated. I don't think he's a very good songwriter. The coincidence of his pop celebrity, with his very small grasp on songwriting technique, even though he's capable, I think what's out of whack is that the minute he makes a commercial mistake he'll discover how much he has to learn about songwriting.
"I mean, he's blessed with the look, and he looks exactly like he does in his pictures. I met him recently, and he's one of the few people who does look exactly like his pictures, except a little shorter. But he just isn't very interesting, he's not a very interesting person. His whole image is very contrived, and it doesn't have any humanity to it. Really, what does he sing about? It's like Michael Jackson. He's got the ears of the world, and what does he sing about? He does Pepsi commercials!
"Most people are not ten years into their career trying to do what I've done with this record. Whether anybody likes it or not is kind of irrelevant. Most people don't put much effort into making a record. I mean... this is a fucking good record. It's exactly what I wanted it to be, and perhaps if I'd had more expectations upon me as a commercial, big successful artist, maybe I would be in the kind of dilemma that, say, Michael Jackson is. Does he make a record which is going to maintain his phenomena status, or does he just make a musical record he's capable of making. Because Bad is complete crap, compared to Thriller.
"It's just a question of how limited a lot of music is. The very self-consciousness of pop music has almost taken away all of what's left of its possibilities. I mean, these trends that go through the mill. It's boring, the music's boring.
"There's no — it's imitation wild. You know, acid house — it's like drug music for people who are afraid to take drugs. I'm not trying to encourage anyone to take drugs. There's no unpredictability about it. The artificial nature of so much of it means that the potential of the really inspired moment is diminished, just by the law of averages.
"That's the thing. Everything's brighter, all the colours are brighter, but there's no real excitement. I mean, how much more of a good time can you fucking have?
"That's the fallacy of acid house — the day is still 24-hours long.
'I'm afraid the reason that I still do love a lot of the music I love is because it is human, it does sweat. It's like not trusting people that don't drink. Like, if you've got a good reason not to drink, fine, but if you're just afraid of losing some of your inhibitions, if it's only because you don't want to crease your suit, I think that's a dumb reason. I'm not advocating it as an everyday practice, but, you know, you might enjoy falling on the floor once in a while?'
If anyone thought signing — directly — to the corporate giant Warners might have diluted Costello's muse, they'll be thinking again. Spike — named, after an old American musical comedian Spike Jones — isn't going to be an easy record for Warners to sell.
"No, no, but I don't think I've ever made a record that's easy to sell, Costello counters, "that sounds like everything else on the charts. Surely that's why they signed me, because I don't sound like everybody else."
Spike marks another wry, if not wilfully peverse turn in Elvis Costello's oeuvre. His is a body of work marked by inconsistency as much as a defiant vision, petulance and arrogance as much as compassion and humour, spontenaiety and inspiration as much as solid workmanship — which is of course, in an all but totally homogenized environment, a great part of its beauty.
After Goodbye Cruel World, which Costello himself described as a 'pretty terrible record', in 1987 he released King Of America. Produced by the singer in collaboration with T Bone Burnett, and using a floating, mostly American, aggregation known as the Confederates James Burton, Jerry Scheff and Ron Tutt (the latter two also worked with Presley), Jim Keltner, Los Lobos's David Hidalgo, Mitchell Froom and Michael Blair (of Tom Waits' band) — King Of America was to this listener Costello's most listenable album ever.
Then he turned around and later that year released another album, Blood & Chocolate, which was about as far away from King Of America as you could get. Returning to the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe, where King Of America was fairly well refined, Blood & Chocolate was raw and savage. It's too easy to dismiss Elvis Costello as merely the voice of undergraduate angst, or even mid-life crisis, or even as a Revenge of the Nerds. He speaks to people who distrust appearances, and refuse to submit to the control of radio programmers and out-of-touch tastemakers.
For all his 'difficulty' though, it's Costello's gift for turning out the most easily singalongable — classic, Sixties' pop-influenced — melodies, and lyrics that roll effortlessly off them, that makes him appealing to a lot of people. He's a clever wordsmith who asks his audience to get involved with the songs, and whatever sort of arrangements he puts them to. It's the words and the tune that remain his hook. You just have to go to a Costello concert to see that — so many in the audience will know all the words to every song, and mouth them along with him.
Clearly, Costello's saying something to these people, but not unexpectedly he's quite unprepared to take the weight of a generation upon his shoulders.
"It's not like I've ever said I was some kind of guru figure,he explains, "with lots of to-be-unlocked multi-layered-meaning songs. I mean, some of the songs I wrote earlier on, technically speaking, were less than transparent. But more recently, since I've been writing clearer, I decided that that's the way I want to write now, the songs, I think, are very easy to understand. So I get less of those neurotic reactions these days."
But as much as Costello still inspires a passionate devotion among his fans, there's an even larger number of people whom he leaves completely cold. A clue as to why that is could be contained in something Costello told an interviewer last year. "While the Attractions, he said, "are brilliant at creating a claustrophobic sound, the Confederates, being American, are good at creating space."
The sound Costello trademarked as his own on his earlier records with the Attractions was perhaps so claustrophobic, so dense it was to many people impenetrable. King Of America, however, was a record that had light and air, it breathed, and since then Costello's cultivated this breakthrough.
Spike is unlike anything he's done before. Produced, again, by Costello and T Bone Burnett, the album's credits list a remarkable gallery of contributing musicians — among them, Roger McGuinn, Paul McCartney, Cait O'Riordan, various of the Confederates and the Attractions, Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers), Allen Toussaint, Marc Ribot (from Tom Waits' band), even Irish picker Christy Moore on one track, and New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band on a few others.
At times the album is reminiscent of earlier Costello fare (the single "Veronica," for instance), but at other times — and more often — it sounds like nothing so much as recent Tom Waits. And nobody knows as well as Waits how to use space, dramatically.
"In some cases, it's a case of less is more, says Costello, "at other times, the arrangement are quite full, but they're slightly upside-down.
"I just took the blinkers off as to what sounds you can use to portray the songs. Most of the time, what governed it was, 'Here's the song, this is what it's about, now how are we going to bring it to life?' Instead of it being, like, 'Well, here we are, we're a band, and we play rock 'n' roll', you can sort of say, 'Well, I can do any fucking thing I want'."
Costello speaks highly of Paul McCartney, with whom he's now written nine songs, Spike's two being early fruits of the liason, and for that reason untypical.
"People knock him and say his music's empty. I think they're making unreasonable demands on what he is and what he represents. People are afraid to like him, almost, because they see him as too homely, or something. He's a great bass player and a terrific singer."
Costello is lined-up to do a tour of the US in April, performing solo, in small theatres, but he can't predict if or when he will tour with a band, or what shape it would take. Let alone suggest what his next album will sound like.
"Well, that's a great thing, isn't it, because it's a big adventure. When it comes to certain things, the reason we have 7-11's and Coca-Cola, and Bon Jovi, is because they're reliable. You know exactly what you're going to get. And there's something comforting about that in the modern world, people seem to need it.
"But my role isn't to do that. I'm the opposite. And I think I'm having a lot more fun. When I see cynicism I react to it badly, because I'm having a ball, you know."
The way Costello keeps trying to convince me how happy he is you begin to wonder why. But even if he is all very happy — and ultimately I imagine he is — the fact that he doesn't seem to have lost a Scouse sense of belligerance, that he does still seem to have bees in his bonnet, is perhaps what drives him on. He can still get angry, and rock certainly isn't worse off with at least one angry man still around. "You know, he says, "I'm getting paid to do exactly what I feel like. As a way of life, that's a lot more than most people have.
"And I don't think I'm being self-indulgent, and a lot of the songs are about real subjects. The serious moral dilemmas that you find in the world, everywhere, and I'm not trying to trivialize them, and I'm also not trying to say I've got the ultimate answer.
"But I am free to say what I want exactly the way I want to, and nobody can fucking stop me."