When the New Musical Express recently probed Mick Jagger's feelings on punk rock, the estimable Stone replied that he rarely listened to rock music performed by whites, and that included everything from Elvis Presley through the Sex Pistols. And so it goes. There is no doubt that the popular music marketplace is flooded with disco and soul sounds, while the well-publicized new wave's scanty sales remain a puzzle. The key, of course, to breaking the American marketplace would be the emergence of a punk-rocker who could appeal to the dewey-eyed romantics as well as the hard-core nihilists. With the release of former Stiff recording artist Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True on Columbia Records and his subsequent appearance at the Bottom Line this past Tuesday and Wednesday nights, I am tempted to say that the punk savior has arrived.
The fact is that hard rock has never been a popular form, at least not as far as sales go. The Rolling Stones needed a ballad like "As Tears Go By" and the Beatles a soother like "Yesterday" before the adult masses responded in numbers. Similarly, when pigeon-toed, wall-eyed, butch-cropped Elvis leaned into his beautifully yearning love song, "Alison" and uttered those words of sincerity, "You know my aim is true," I could feel the crowd melting in Costello's arms. I dare say no one will feel the same warmth toward Johnny Rotten and company when they finally deem themselves ready to invade (of all places) Pittsburgh.
Which is not to take anything away from the Sex Pistols, who are truly aberrant creatures in the rock and roll menagerie; but if you want to talk about punks in rock and roll who combine bitterness with sweetness in classic proportions, Elvis C. takes his place alongside Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Elvis P., David Byrne, Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith and the Nils Lofgren of 1 & 1. Mr. Costello can rail one moment about a girl who told him to "drop dead and left with another guy," and the next moment pledge undying devotion regardless. He is angry and revengeful, but he is a believer. He is a loser who manages to transcend his misery through the joy of the music. If we listen to black music, let it be reggae, which doesn't prescribe "boogie" for escape, but rather a turning inward to the nervous, syncopated JA beat of the music itself. Elvis actually uses reggae rhythms in his masterpiece "Watching the Detectives," a brilliant cinematic vision of an outsider passively and then not-so-passively watching a murder mystery unfold. "She sits filing her nails as they drag the lake." Elvis may be seething, but he hasn't given up completely; he is still observing and trying to make sense out of what he sees.
All those journalists who were so quick to label acts as "punk" are now just as quickly retracting the appellation from artists they respect. The daily reviewers all pointed out that Elvis should not be lumped into the three-chord school, but this misses the point. The beauty of what is loosely called the new wave is that disparate approaches are all gathering momentum from association with the movement. Mr. Costello's original record company, the prototypical independent label, Stiff, stands as a symbol of what can be accomplished in spite of the majors. Elvis' plaints are now being heard by one and all after years of lugging his homemade tapes from company to company with little success.
Although Costello probably has more in common with Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny than he does with Johnny Rotten, his scrawny, neurotic persona is fully a rock and roll creation for the future. Unlike Parker, Springsteen and Southside, Costello's band does not seem to respond to his every move with the honed instincts of a veteran performing group. There are moments, in fact, where they seem at cross purposes, especially when the drummer, for instance, pounds his kit while Costello frantically waves him to be quiet so he can capture a mood. But, even this works for the diminutive crooner, who often appears as one man against the uncomprehending world.
Ian Hunter once wrote, "Rock 'n' roll's a loser's game; it mesmerizes, I can't explain." People like Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Johnny Rotten, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Elvis Costello are truly outcasts of society. They are waifs who care desperately not only about fitting into society, but turning that society around. To the extent that the major conglomerates control what we hear, we may never have heard any of those people unless there were demonstrated alternatives. And there are. The new wave cannot be stopped; not by unsympathetic critics, nor even by unfeeling disco-robots. Costello has come from nowhere to appear in the sky like some flaming meteor, careening into our not-so-innocent lives. If the Sex Pistols have managed to outrage what is left of the establishment like the Stones once did, Mr. Costello warms our selfish cockles like no one since, dare I say it...
Music is an outlet for our frustrations; Elvis Costello unleashes his anger in such a way that we can't help but feel we are all a part of this "Mystery Dance" called life. And, rather than let our own hateful feelings dominate, we are willing to forget and embrace this awkward little man as if he were an alien from space offering us the comforting notion that we are not alone in our repressions.