Half a life ago, on a warm winter night in Canberra, a 17-year-old me stood at the back of the Australian National University refectory, arm in arm with two sweaty friends, hollering the lyrics to Elvis Costello's "(I don't want to go to) Chelsea" at the top of our lungs.
Costello and his band The Attractions had just left the stage after a blistering 2-hour set, in which they rampaged through their catalogue, playing every song my fanboy heart was so desperate to hear.
Except, for whatever reason, "Chelsea." And so it was that the three of us took it upon ourselves to complete the task, hoarse and out of tune, as punters filed out the doors and cleaners began to pick their way through the beer cans and plastic cups. We three were raucous. We were uninhibited. We were soooo happy. We were fans.
Looking back at that concert now, I remember an avalanche of movement and sound, Elvis's red shoes and black suit, his signature guitar (with name engraved between the frets on the neck) and the strangely joyful feeling of being trapped against the stage, of losing my sense of individuality in the herd.
I remember shouting. I remember singing. I remember not caring about being close enough to be sprayed with sibilant spit. I remember thinking that, for this night at least, Canberra could well be the coolest place in the universe for me to be (as you may understand, I didn't get to think that way often).
Afterwards, I spent half an hour carefully peeling a pink tour poster from a wall in Garema Place, in the middle of town. I still have it, framed and looking for a stretch of bare wall that my partner won't have to look at every day — inexplicably, she can take or leave Elvis. Actually, to be honest, she quite likes him, but next to my devotion it comes over as an indifference that borders on cruel neglect.
I try to be sensitive to it, but I fail more often than I succeed. She puts up with my forensic descriptions of his concerts, my overblown estimations of his albums and my drearily archival interest in bootleg recordings. ("But honey, I had to buy it: he played a different chord in Alison!") NB: Those who have read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, a novel about sadly obsessional men, may remember that it was named for an Elvis Costello song.
On Friday night, I saw Elvis, along with pianist Steve Nieve, play his fourth Sydney show in the past month. I went to all four. If he'd played Wollongong, Newcastle or Canberra, I would have been forced to canvass those options as well (the 1987 road trip to the Shellharbour Workers Club is another bronzed memory).
This follow-the-tour behaviour may be construed as very adolescent for a man of my age. It may also be construed as dangerously nerdy, but as the friend who accompanied me to all four shows said when I levelled the nerd accusation at him: "Yes, and your point would be?"
Perhaps I should have grown up by now. Perhaps the fact that I haven't explains why I'm still a rock critic. Professionally, I can rationalise that the ability to reconnect with the fan's experience, the foundation of music culture, is invaluable (as Barry Divola observed in his recent book, Fanclub, it's a fan's world — pop stars just live in it).
I can also console myself by pointing out that, unlike most rock icons, Elvis has matured as well as aged. God forbid that I should still be traipsing pathetically along behind one of the previous generation of rock heroes (don't get me started on whether he's a better writer than Dylan ... not as historically important, OK, but better ...) And supporting my decision to see every show was the fact that, unlike most rock icons, Elvis varies his set list each night, changing around half the songs; we saw and heard about 70 across the four shows.
But the truth is, I'd probably go if none of the above were true. It's good to be a fan. It's great to love something just because you love it. As a critic, used to having to evaluate, substantiate and justify, to think while I watch and listen, it's a rare, sensual pleasure to just let go. And though I am by no means nostalgic for my youth, I recognise that there are bits of me it's nice to visit from time to time — bits of a life that was ruled by dumbly happy things such as what records I listened to, rather than jobs, kids and mortgages.
On Friday, after Elvis's final show, I may not have had the raucous friends around me, or the youthfully exuberant lack of inhibition required to sing in the foyer of Her Majesty's, but I was warbling all the way home in the car, my aging fanboy's heart soooo happy.
And this time, Elvis played "Chelsea" every night.