Why don't ya tell me 'bout the mystery dance?
Why don't rock singers deal with issues anymore?
Why don't popular singers seem immediate? Why does everything have to be couched in rhetoric that dates back to Chuck Berry's 1956 rock 'n' roll prosody?
Why doesn't Elvis Costello come right out and say something, instead of fussing around the stage folding and unfolding his arms like he did for over an hour last night at Zellerbach Auditorium on the University of California campus at Berkeley?
Why is rock 'n' roll so far gone that it needs nothing more than the history of rock 'n' roll to justify its own existence? Why indeed?
Costello walked out on the Zellerbach stage an hour after the opening group, Mile Hi, had started the show and Costello bellowed right into "Mystery Dance" — one of the most bellicose songs off his album, My Aim Is True.
A year ago, Costello was unknown in the United States. By virtue of My Aim Is True, he became an overnight sensation over a period of about six months and he has progressed in the Bay Area alone since last summer from packing in fans at the Old Waldorf nightclub to drawing a capacity crowd at one of UC-Berkeley's most sumptuous halls.
Therein lies the mystery. Costello's is a career that dances to the tune of mysterious indulgence. Deriving his melodies from such far-flung influences as Freddie Cannon and Bob Dylan, Costello has rigged up a sound-alike musical contraption that suits the '70s like an iron glove.
He walked out on the Berkeley stage in a rumpled suit with a loosened tie, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and crepe-soled shoes, looking more like a testimony to the hazardous effects of lifelong conformity than a rock star. He began right in with his songs of working-class quandary and the tone seldom varied throughout the 16-number set.
An Englishman and former computer programmer by reputation, Costello is less a rock star than a contemporary drop-out. He stared down at the audience and sang "Red Shoes," from his album, and what sounded like a garbled old rock song before addressing his admirers. Finally, he said:
"This is from the album My Aim Is True. This is called 'Less than Zero'."
Pigeon-toed, his guitar slung defiantly over his shoulder, that's exactly what he played. From time to time thereafter throughout the concert, he occasionally prefaced his tunes with abbreviated announcements, but his expression never changed — dead-eyed plaintiveness.
Some of his numbers sounded precisely like copies of fertile-period Bob Dylan pieces with newer and therefore hipper lyrics added. But they all presented Elvis Costello as rock troubadour; always he sang the songs straight-faced, staring into the crowd without a hint of concern. The coolest of the cool.
Costello represents something between punk rock (which lays no claim to lyricism of any sort) and revivalist rock 'n' roll. His deadpan approach and anti-social lyrics clash with carefully produced rock shows in the same way they mirror the slovenly meanderings of upward-bound hack outfits. He fits in somewhere between cerebral folk singers and mindless rockers in much the same way Dylan did a decade ago.
"Why don't ya tell me 'bout the mystery dance" is the repetitive chorus to one of his best songs and his choice of it for his first number presents a kind of mystery in itself.
Who is Elvis Costello and why are all these people paying money to — apparently — try and find out?