Spin, May 1989

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The man who would be king

Christian Logan Wright

At 33, Elvis Costello is the most important songwriter of his generation. Through 12 years of setting smokescreens, he's done his best to hide this. He's been a punk, a joker, a riddler and a brilliant mistake. But we'll always think of him as Elvis.

Elvis Costello bursts into the Park Avenue hotel suite mumbling "Hello," looking back over his shoulder to make sure his wife Cait O'Riordan is still following him. Her face hidden by a mass of dark hair, she looks only at him. He peers over the rim of this year's glasses and, taking laughably large, flat-footed steps, approaches, hand extended. "Careful," he says. "I might give you a shock."

Born August 25, 1955, the son of a jazz trumpeter, Declan Patrick MacManus grew up in working-class Liverpool, where he read the music weeklies because he couldn't afford to go to shows. In 1977, a 22-year-old malcontent with a wife, a kid, and an album's worth of songs recorded on sick days away from his computer job, he went to London and played in the street outside a CBS Records convention, hoping to get signed to a major label.

He released My Aim Is True, checkerboard cover framing a hostile geek calling himself Elvis Costello (he got the name late one night, drunk off his head in a pub, from manager Jake Riviera) and spitting things like, "Why do you have to say that there's always someone who can do it better than I can." The stage was set; the script boiled with dissatisfaction, sexual insecurity, political atrocity, the rage of a passionate boy in complacent company; and the actor was well-suited.

There's a table in the corner of the hotel suite with coffee and Perrier water on it. Elvis and Cait are fooling around, whispering to each other; she pours some Perrier water on him and giggles while he says, "Oh, that's a very rock 'n' roll thing to do." They moon about like they've got a secret. Elvis takes his coffee black and sits down on the end of the sofa. Cait, in an over-sized black sweater covering her four-month stomach, curls up at the other end, sniggering through the pages of a paperback novel, never saying a word.

He glances over at Cait from time to time — a silver chain on his left wrist reads, "Dec Ama Cait." When he leans forward, the cuff of his shirt pinches the flesh on his forearm and his thighs strain the inner seams of his tailored black trousers. "Do you know flowers are not the colors they are?" he asks. "Do you know this? Scientists have worked out the spectrum that insects and birds see and obviously we know the one that we see and they're completely different. And like daisies are not yellow and white, they're really purple and orange."

In the 12 years between My Aim Is True and the new Spike, Costello has been separated, reconciled and divorced; has abused drugs, philandered and quite recently remarried, this time to former Pogue Cait O'Riordan. He's been covered by Linda Ronstadt, Roy Orbison, George Jones and Johnny Cash, insulted Ray Charles, put out eleven albums, turned 33, and recorded under so many names that 1987's Out of Our Idiot, a compilation of b-sides and alternative versions, was credited to "various artists." The various artists — the Impostor, the Emotional Toothpaste, Elvis Costello, the Coward Brothers (with T-Bone Burnett), Napoleon Dynamite — were all Declan MacManus holding the world at arm's length.

"You can change your name but you can't change your face," he wrote in a song lyric, then in 1986 decided to legally change his name back to Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus. The "Aloysius" was his reward for enduring the life of Elvis Costello. Now he's the Beloved Entertainer, playing with society's sick fascination with the private lives of its stars.

Are there mornings when you wake up as Elvis Costello and mornings when you wake up as Declan MacManus?

No, I never think about those things.


Except when people ask me questions about it. People try to psychoanalyze why I've used different names at different times. It's just a device. I think sometimes people whose job it is to write about music ponder too much for their own sanity on the meanings of things and transfer their own neuroses about those sort of things onto people who do things for much more basic motives.

I wasn't questioning your motivation, it's just that you've been at it for so long. the line between the real and the public might have blurred.

If an actor kind of won't drop his role they think he's crazy. Nobody thinks anything of seeing an actor one day playing an old man and the next day playing a hoodlum.

What if he plays the same role over and over again?

I think with a singer it's so common to get one idea and make a whole career out of that. If you don't do that then you're a weirdo. You do what I do, which is just follow your feelings and use different characters from time to time to present something appropriate to the song, like I separated the song "Pills and Soap" from the rest of my material by [recording it under the name] the Impostor, which I thought was funny. I didn't want that to be me, even though it was me. It was very basic theater, just like an actor. And then suddenly it's gotta have some dark psychological meaning.

Nobody used to do that. [raising his voice] Nobody ever questioned — nobody ever said about Louis Armstrong, "Oh, there he is, old Satchmo, what does that mean? Maybe he's got a skin like leather." People had that image of him. But nobody ever separated it. It, it, it wasn't relevant, he was just a trumpet player, he was just a brilliant trumpet player. This all came out of that 1969 era when everything turned into damn art. Before that it was just music. Nobody ever said, "Duke Ellington, who the fuck does he think he is, calling himself Duke?" Now, people think, "Oh, Prince, that means he's a control freak."

But that's his name.

But that's much less interesting than listening to one of his records. Isn't it? I think so.

But, but...

I don't want to read a book about Prince. I want to listen to one of his records. I want to listen to Duke Ellington, I don't want to analyze him. The only point to all of this is just to tell people where to go and get it, it's like a signpost, the rest of it's just nonsense. I really do believe that. I can't agree with it. It's just wacky.

On Spike you worked with a lot of people: Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Alien Toussaint. Has anyone ever turned you down on a project?

No. I haven't ever really called up people out of the blue. There's nearly always some contact. The people I was most nervous about approaching for this record were Derek Bell, the harp player from the Chieftains, 'cause I didn't know him and neither did anybody else. And Roger McGuinn [of the Byrds], who wasn't originally scheduled to be on the record, but we met him while we were recording — and T-Bone [Burnett, one of Costello's producers] had met him on Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour in the 70s. I've worked with all the other people before in one way or another.

Do you find it ultimately confining or inspiring to work with other people?

Other people as opposed to just myself?


It's quite different. I love going in the studio and putting together rough versions. I don't make home demos very often. I usually get my ideas pretty clear and if I do any demos at all I go into a proper recording studio and start making a little record of it. I like to be able to use several instruments, and I never use a drum machine. So what you end up with is a completely chaotic version of a song, because nothing's in time. And I love these little demos, I've even put a few of them out — the ones that hold together enough. I love doing them 'cause I discover what I want to hear in the song. You experiment by getting in the music, and it's like being a child with a mudbath.

You use several of Tom Waits's musicians. Would you like to work with Waits?

I think it would be quite difficult to accommodate the two people. I really, really love his music but I can't really imagine how it would happen.

He's in a class of one. He creates a kind of crazy house with these funny little angles inside it, with the different players doing these things and the characters can't walk in a straight line anymore. They have to walk crooked around this stuff. It's like a little room and it encourages you into it, and then it's like a Venus flytrap — it all closes in around you. If you don't want to go in that room then there's no way you're gonna enter.

It sounds like a nice idea, working with him, yet that's a bit like making up your favorite football team. Some people might even think that's what I was doing with this record — to get these ideal people — but I honestly stand by all of the choices.

When working with other people on a song, like "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," which is full of surreal, non-sequitur images, has anyone directly involved ever questioned the lyrics?

No. I showed everybody the lyrics and I explained it in simple terms. I used to just put lyrics down and say, "The hell with whether people think this is stupid, because I'm taking a chance here by saying something in a strange way." But with "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," I demystified the lyric by explaining very, very simplistically, so there was absolutely no ambiguity in the meaning of it. I said, "Here's a drunk guy, he's on his way home, he won't go home, he's chasing something that isn't there. He won't admit his problem and he starts to hallucinate." It's a simple thing. Now, if I wrote that on the sleeve it would take away some of the mystery, and stop people from going, "Well what the hell does it mean, 'butterfly drinks a turtle's tears'?" You know, "Jesus wept, he felt abandoned."

You have to leave space in the room for people's imagination to run around in. I make no apology for using those images, 'cause they're very striking. I mean, what am I supposed to have? A voice that goes [whispering with hands cupped round his mouth], "And then he started to hallucinate." Wouldn't that spoil it? Isn't that kind of treating people like children?

But sometimes when you've got the musicians who are concentrating on the musical interpretation of it, you have to explain it in the most simplistic terms so it's not hidden to anybody. You have to be slightly disparaging about your own lyric so the music can really do its job.

Say with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, they don't enter until the first chorus. The guy is marching down and down this chord sequence; it's quite literal. And just at the point where he's at the most down point in each verse they enter like somebody picking him up again off the floor. They have the effect to my ears of sounding like they're picking this guy up, but only to look at his own reflection. And then in the last verse, where the hallucinations begin, they start to wind through the chords and do all these slurs: they slide between the chords. That's using the music in a visual way. I do see these things when we're arranging stuff. They've got such a — rich isn't the right word — such a grainy sound that it makes it not easy to understand, but easy to feel what's happening. Which is probably better than understanding it completely literally, because it isn't literal. It's hallucination.

What do you think is the most a song can accomplish?

What, you mean by effecting something outside its existence?

Yes. Why write them?

I've no idea. The most? I've no idea. "The Stars and Stripes Forever" really gets people going. So does "The Red Flag," so did "Faith of Our Father" or pop records, really I don't know. Sociologists will point at certain songs and say, "This changed the world, 'Rock Around The Clock' changed the world." "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." And then other people in their own little area will swear blind that some little folk singer that's going round now has changed the world, or Public Enemy has changed the world.

I produced "Free Nelson Mandela" by Special AKA. That achieved something because it actually increased the size of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in England. That record came out of the blue. It didn't come out of a firmament of opinion about apartheid, it was just Jerry Dammers's act of will to put the song together. He printed the address of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and it really did cause a big influx of letters and inquiries about the matter. Now, it hasn't achieved its objective because that would appear to be to free Nelson Mandela. But it did achieve something which maybe in the long run will be a tiny little like boomblock.

The arrogance of pop music is that you can do everything in one gesture, like Live Aid or the Mandela "Freedomfest" or the Amnesty tour. What happens is the bandwagon leaves town and the problem remains. That's the sad thing. Live Aid saved some people one year for them to starve the next. I'm not saying we shouldn't do the things, 'cause they help put the information out, but we shouldn't kid ourselves.

What importance do you think music has now? Has it taken the place of other media in terms of its relevance or significance to our generation?

I think music has been more important several different times in history than it is now.

Like when?

Like when? Like in the height of the era of opera, when every little town had its own opera. That's much more of an endeavor than every little town having an indie label. It doesn't take a tremendous amount of application to put out records or even to write most of the [laughs] records that come out.

I think when rock 'n' roll first started up, definitely. I think when music was a form of communication like in Greece. Or in Africa.

It's still a form of communication.

Yeah, but when it was the only form. Before people could write stuff down. The evidence that I see is that music's kind of an accessory. Like I've got a 14-year-old son, 13 is he? Fourteen on his next birthday.

Music is important 'cause it goes with his skateboard. Something like Guns N' Roses is that important to him. It doesn't dominate the picture in the same way as music used to for some people. The fact that there's a lot of it doesn't mean that it's more important. It means that it's just there all the time. It's omnipresent; it's not omnipotent. I really believe that. I think music was more important, more capable of effecting a change in people's attitudes, when it was less accessible. 'Cause it's just like drugs then, people want it 'cause they can't get it.

Before 1967, you could only hear pop music about three hours a week. So it made it very exciting. Because the knowledge that there were only three hours and when those three hours were up and you hadn't heard your favorite song, that meant you had to wait another week.

And that was better?

Well, I don't want that to come back, but we're kind of spoiled now. We can have everything we want, therefore we have nothing.

You've said that Goodbye Cruel World was the worst record you ever did...

Of the best songs. I just said that because it sounded good. What about it?

Well, there are people who...

Like that record? Well, I can't alter having an honest and unpleasant opinion of something, you know. There are plenty of people that don't like me. So I can't, I'm sorry, I don't feel — if they enjoyed the record, that's fine. The fact that I don't like it should be irrelevant.

But you made it, you're responsible...

Well, as it happens, I do think there are some good songs on it. Roy Orbison did a great version of "The Comedians," which restored the song to its original sound; that was the way it was written. I cannot remember why on earth we followed that crazy arrangement that obscured that song so badly. And I have picked holes in that record and I'm sort of tired of criticizing it. I actually think it's a wonderful record and it's probably my best record, you know?

It seems to me that you've never been intentionally obscure in your writing, but you've been often misunderstood. Have you ever thought, after writing a lyric, "This will definitely be misconstrued," and gone ahead with it anyway?

No. [pause] No, I can't of any occasion where I've really been thinking that people are going to misconstrue it. That would be kind of strange to do that. I acknowledge the limitations of songs and still take risks within those limitations, more than I did a few years ago where I just went ahead and did it anyway and just hoped for the best. Some of the songs that I think are good songs but aren't good records on Goodbye Cruel World, or are pretty good records on Imperial Bedroom, are the most experimental lyrics that I've written — like attempting to use lyrics where not everything is clear and that [clarity] isn't the intention. They're deliberately out of focus. I just did it without worrying about whether it worked or not. I suppose as you get a little bit more experience you start to be able to get like a song like "Satellite," where it's a very big story and, like a writer that writes a story would do an outline, you start to become more aware of the technical limitations of songs. And then willfully go ahead and try to put something into a song which really is too big to be in a song. But I think it's worth the risk because if you put enough information and enough images in to tell the story to your own satisfaction, a listener — one that's prepared to listen for six minutes, you know, but there aren't too many — can get the whole story; it's all there to be put together. Or they can make an even better story out of it because they've got their own imagination.

Talking about it always makes it sound much duller. Describing making a record is never as much fun as it is to do it. 'Cause you have this high-wire act going on: "Are we gonna fall off at any moment?" Same with writing a song. You've no idea when you start whether you're gonna get it done unless it's something very very simple and very definite like a "Let Him Dangle" type song. Where you've got a story, you've got to get that information across, and you don't need lots of ambiguity, lots of clever phrasing of the subject, you need to say it. Or like "Tramp the Dirt Down," which you mentioned at the beginning, where it just comes out as a reaction to the way you feel about something and there's nothing much you can do about it. You don't try and balance it up and make it a nice reasonable argument. I don't want it to be a nice fucking argument, I want it to be horrible. I don't even want it to be anything. It just is. Some things just are.

Does it make you happy, what you do?

Yeah! I'm having a ball. It's better than being down a mine. I went for a job as an Admiralty Chart Corrector, the first job I ever went for. Do you know what that is? They have these government offices and they get all the charts off ships and you get tracings from the Admiralty, the naval authority, and you have to lay them over the charts of the waterways, and if there's been any new wrecks or any changes in the sandbanks or the passages you have to trace them over. Fortunately, 'cause my handwriting is so bad, because I'm left-handed, I didn't get the job. I could still be in this Dickensian office in Liverpool. Then I got a job in computers, I could still be doing that. I used to work in a bank, they used to give me a whistle and say, "When they deliver the money, you stand outside and if there's a robbery you blow the whistle." Now, who do you think they shoot first in a bank robbery?

The whistle blower.

Yeah, they shoot the guy with the whistle. Or I could have been any number of other things.

But this is what you wanted to do?

Yeah [laughs], what do you think? This is not all that hard. This is actually very easy, this job. And sometimes it's monotonous: touring can be monotonous and people start to feel very sorry for themselves. It's better than working for anyone is what I think.

I see making records as separate from selling records. I don't feel that my job is over, really, in terms of this record. Like tonight I'm going on television to sing a song from it, then we're going on tour, and we'll play some of the songs. And right now we're talking about what would hopefully be some sort of signpost towards the record, to get people interested. Beyond that it serves no other meaning, except it fills up a magazine, which in itself should be some kind of entertainment, I suppose. When I used to buy them that's what they were. I didn't think it was philosophy.


Spin, May 1989

Christian Logan Wright interviews Elvis Costello.


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Photo by Christopher Kehoe.

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Contents page photo by Christopher Kehoe.
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Photo by Laura Levine.
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