Elvis Costello has a better chance of being remembered by future generations than many present day musicians, thanks to the remarkable diversity of his work, his slew of classic songs and his refusal to rest on his laurels.
But transcending his time means less than zero for this constantly evolving singer-songwriter. What makes him happy is creating music that challenges and rewards him and his listeners, not worrying about his legacy.
"I already wrote a song called 'I Want to Vanish,' and that's fine by me," said Costello, 44, who performs Sunday night at Copley Symphony Hall with Steve Nieve, his keyboardist for most of the past 22 years.
"I don't have any yearning for a big place in posterity. What do I care? I'm going to be dead, so I don't give a (expletive). I do what I do in the moment. But it's all just stuff. There are people in China, who have never heard of The Beatles, or me, or Eminem, and they never will. And they don't care.
"When you think of things like that — like, when you're a kid, and you ask: 'What's behind the sky? Does it go on forever?' — what does it matter? It doesn't. And that's that."
Costello's comments might lead some to conclude that this once quintessentially angry young man of rock has grown diffident with middle age, but nothing could be further from the truth.
His enthusiasm for his work is greater than ever. So is his desire to explore new vistas, no matter where they might take him. And during the past decade alone, Costello has visited more musical destinations than most pop artists can dream of.
He wrote and recorded an album of art songs with England's leading cutting-edge string quartet, the Brodsky Quartet, duetted with crooner Tony Bennett and, in 1994, reunited with the Attractions, the mighty rock band he led from 1977 to 1987.
The tireless music maverick also teamed up with a dizzying array of other collaborators — from Little Richard, Brian Eno and Ricky Skaggs to Ruben Blades, Chuck Berry and Paul McCartney, who favorably compared the experience to his Beatles-era work with John Lennon.
In addition, Costello has performed with everyone from Bob Dylan, avant-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and top Irish traditional music group the Chieftains to New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band, gospel vocal stalwarts the Mayfield Four and pioneering pop songwriter Burt Bacharach, with whom Costello won a Grammy Award earlier this year.
And he contributed to tribute albums honoring Van Morrison, Arthur Alexander and the Grateful Dead, as well as performing with such disparate artists as the Jazz Passengers, bassist Rob Wasserman and contemporary classical composer John Harle.
One from the heart
"It is a very rare position I'm in," Costello acknowledged from the south of France, where he was shooting a film appearance as himself. ("I drive into a gas station and scare the hell out of the attendant," he said, explaining his brief role.)
"A couple of friends of mine have said that, one of these days, I should write a musical memoir. Because I have worked with an extraordinary range of people. And some have been little 'working holidays,' like doing the Charles Anzavour song, 'She,' for the (new Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant) film, Notting Hill.
"I probably got that offer because of my album with Burt (Bacharach) — people can suddenly see me as a romantic vocalist. It doesn't mean I'll make a career in that music, but I enjoyed it."
Has Costello ever been intimidated by some of the music legends with whom he has worked?
"I wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't up to it," he said. "But, sometimes, you go in over your head, like when I was appearing with Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra in New York in 1982, and I lost my voice. To be on stage with the orchestra and the Count, — if I had been in the best voice, I would have been seriously out of my depth. With no voice, it was a nightmare!
"But I had a loaded crowd, full of fans rooting for me. I didn't get tomatoes thrown at me and I have a funny tale to tell. Those 'working holiday' things are the rewards you get for showing your affection for music."
Costello's abiding affection for music of all kinds is perhaps his most endearing quality, at least for forward-looking fans who want to grow with him, not live in the past.
One of those fans is Pretenders' leader Chrissie Hynde, a longtime pal. Hynde, Costello and Van Morrison will co-headline the 10th annual Fleadh festival, which takes place July 10 in London.
"The thing I love about Elvis is his enthusiasm, and his total love for music and devotion to it," Hynde said from her London home. "He's such a committed artist, and he's so passionate about it. You never feel for a moment that he doubts the music or that he would grow tired of it. He's always there, and he always give it his all.
"I just spoke to him yesterday, and it's his sheer enthusiasm that I find so inspiring. He's a great songwriter and singer and craftsman. But what makes him special is the joy that he seems to get out of it, and that unabashed pleasure he finds in music."
Two for the road
In recent years, Costello has found that pleasure working in a duo setting with erstwhile Attractions pianist Nieve.
Their first U.S. tour in 1996 yielded an often splendid concert recording, the "extremely limited edition" five-EP set, Costello & Nieve. It featured refreshing new versions of such early Costello gems as "Alison," weathered torch ballads like "My Funny Valentine" and a heartfelt cover of the Grateful Dead's "Ship of Fools."
Costello and Nieve, who kicked off a European tour in April, have a rare musical empathy and a shared appetite for aural adventure and spontaneity. Rather than feeling confined in a duo setting, Costello finds it liberating to work without a full band.
"When you get back to songs you've played lots of times before, with a band, there is a danger of falling into a pattern," Costello said.
"This way, with just the two of us, we shake them back to life. You have to play them in the moment. Also, I get to play a few songs that were overlooked, either because they didn't work in a band context or didn't get attention on the album."
This approach allows Costello and Nieve to throw in unexpected songs on a moment's notice, much to their mutual delight.
"We opened our recent show in Milan with 'Little Triggers' from (1978's) This Year's Model, " Costello said. "I was taken by the mood to sing it, and Steve and I worked it up that afternoon. With two of us, we can do that, because he's a very resourceful pianist. And I have a go on guitar, and know what I want to hear when I sing it.
"On a few occasions, I've gone into songs I know we know, without any rehearsal or warning, and see what happens. And sometimes that results in a really great new arrangement, one you can't repeat. One night, in Australia, I went into 'High Fidelity' from (1980's) Get Happy, which you wouldn't expect from the two of us, because it's a thumping thing. But we took it a little slower. And Steve had worked out some very unusual ways to play things. It's constantly changing, so we change the show radically every night."
Costello is an avid fan of jazz artists as varied as Duke Ellington and Henry Threadgill, with whom he recorded on the 1992 Charles Mingus tribute album, Weird Nightmare. Does working now in a duo setting enable him to engage in a greater degree of improvisation?
"In our own way, we're trying to be true to that spirit," Costello said. "I wouldn't say we indulge in it, but we take part in it and enjoy it. It's a jazz ideal and dynamic. We play much more quietly than we do with a rhythm section, but that's not to say we don't play some up-tempo songs.
"In rock shows, you only stop to breathe for a ballad. I've done all that, and it's great and exciting, and — no doubt — I'll do it again. But now it's in a different shape. And some songs, like 'The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes,' have a poignant feeling, because I'm now exactly twice the age as when I wrote it.
"Back then, it was a song about a young man looking with trepidation to the compromises that come with age. And, now, I am that age that I feared then. So it wouldn't be honest to sing it with the same inflections, without denying anything about the song, which on another level is a broken-heart love song."
And what would Costello say to those diehard fans who come to see him perform now, but want him to return to his angry-young-man days of the late-1970s?
"Why would you waste your money, if that's the way you felt?" he mused.
"I don't think it has anything to do with age. I think there's an edge to playing like this, that a band covers up. A band can bluster through things. This doesn't feel like something that is easy, like when you get older and can't cut rock 'n' roll. Quite the opposite — people at 50 trying to jump around like they're 22 is hard. But this is much harder."