The Australian, January 23, 1999

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This year's model


Susan Chenery

Fresh from his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello is touring Australia. This is a very different Elvis from the snotty young punk who first toured Australia 20 years ago.

The scorching sun flashes off the perfect steel curves of the Chrysler building, Glances down those steep vertiginous towers and monuments, those outsize symbols of raw ambition and power. Lingers across the glittering peaks of the great metropolis and plunges down into the pungent streets. Down here Elvis lives.

Not that you would immediately know it was an Elvis sighting. At first you think he is a Cuban criminal or a felonious wide-boy. You assume he is up to no good lurking like that outside the luxury hotel. You get out of his way, sharpish. You are mildly alarmed when he advances towards you in full lurid colour, hand outstretched, smile benign. It is only when the hirsute face is right up close that you realise with a small shock that this is The Man, Elvis Costello, in palely loitering person.

Costello's fluorescent socks are aggressively, relentlessly yellow. The jarring hosiery asserts its dominating presence, you can hardly fail to notice, because his black trousers are too short. Then there's the hat. That hat cries out for a fat Havana cigar. The hat is small and straw; with a stiff unturned brim and tilted breezily back on the head. Underlined by facial hair, which sprouts like a neglected lawn run wild, and heavy-rimmed, sinisterly tinted glasses that are so large his small eyes seem to float to the side of his head. The overall effect is both alarming and comical. And the orange shirt, well, the shirt just clashes with everything.

Elvis Costello used to be disgusted but now he tries to be amused, as he himself once wrote in a song. Used to be thin and belligerent and get ranting drunk during interviews. Used to be meaner than a junkyard dog. Egotistical, difficult, defensive. A man who could hold a grudge. Oh, that Elvis — he was a punk.

Whey-faced and full of contempt, turning his hostile back on audiences, causing a riot at Sydney's Regent Theatre when he cut short a performance with his band, The Attractions, because the audience reaction was "too mechanical" on one disastrous tour of Australia; a nightmare. Used to write ferocious, sneering, misanthropic songs about rejection and impotence back when he was the bespectacled, knock-kneed, new-wave iconoclast of the late 1970s.

"Well, a lot of people were pissed off back then," he says, slumping into a well-upholstered floral chair inside the New York hotel. "There was a very, very wicked government in England. And, when you are starting out, everything is happening very fast and your thoughts are coming to you fast and you believe, in the arrogance of youth, that everything is original.

"Therefore you are impatient of anything other than those thoughts, that maybe reflect other options. Therefore the certainty with which those things are expressed comes across as aggressive. Particularly if you have got my face.

"I am not exactly pretty and I don't have a pretty voice and all the songs are a bit hard. The impression is one of terrific fury. But I am always bewildered by the description of being angry."

He is not angry now, though. No. He just looks tired. The bruised eyes behind the glasses reflect the deep weariness of the man who has travelled through several time zones to be here with us today The combative early Elvis has been replaced by a late Elvis, swarthy in body and humorous in outlook. "I have always feared that I would have a massive hit with the song I hated most and I would have to go around the world singing some hideous song forever."

Late Elvis sure can talk. Famously verbose, his songs usually tell stories and he has often used them for political purposes. It is surprising the number of timeless Costello songs that have taken their place in the soundtrack of the times. He is a barbed, ironic lyricist of densely packed narrative. Words just trip out of him, faster and faster in ever expanding sentences and he's racing. Yep, Elvis at 44 is a motor mouth. "When I am writing a song I will cram in words like a few extra notes on the end. I'll think, 'Oh, what does it matter.'"

Perhaps his traversal across the wide divide from 1970s angry young man to the solicitous, attentive, if violently dressed, 1990s Elvis — is best illustrated by his recent collaboration with 'Mr Easy Listening', Burt Bacharach, and the resulting lush, sugary lovelorn album Painted From Memory. And from the glaring artistic differences (the vinegary Costello and the saccharine Bacharach), it is Bacharach who appears to have emerged triumphant with his flugelhorns firmly intact. "I am not an effortless singer, I am a fallible vocalist. I have no problem with showing the effort. I don't have any need of using a lot of tone and a lot of singing towards beauty."

A great deal of effort apparently goes into the effortless Bacharach sound. "You know, Burt is very pleasant company; he is very gently spoken but he is very definite in his ideas and exacting in his focus. All the musicians who worked on this album commented on how contrary he was to his image of 'Mr Laid-Back'. He has an intense, driven kind of focus; he was driving the orchestra, he was pacing everybody.

"We did frequently disagree but we didn't just settle our problems by compromising, we would work it until we found a third way that pleased us both, rather than a solution that might end up with both of us in a weaker position."

But then again, Costello's tastes have always been all over the place. Growing up as ordinary Declan McManus in Liverpool, his father was a singer in a showband and his mother worked in a record shop. There has never been a time in his life when he has not been deeply immersed in music, sweet music. His knowledge of the subject is notoriously huge and eclectic, and (trust me on this) he can talk about it till the cows come home. "I have a 23-year-old son who is in a band. We have lunch together and talk about music all day. We go for a walk and just talk about music all the time. Music is the topic. Music and the comedies of life that make it move along."

Oh yes indeed, Elvis Costello is a one-man workaholic music-fest. "My father would bring songs home in order to learn them for the weekly radio broadcasts. After my parents' divorce, I didn't see him but my mother worked in the record shop, so she would talk about music all the time."

And Costello has certainly mixed it up in his time. He is in a permanent state of reinvention. Now you see him here, now you see him there, now you see him everywhere. Never static, never still, out of step with the thrust of the contemporary pop he once so crucially articulated, stretching himself to the max. A perfectionist master craftsman of so many styles and genres that he is impossible to categorise. The less his own albums sell, the faster he seems to run. "I am travelling all the time, so time with the family is very precious."

He dashes from jazz, to orchestral, to the cerebral Brodsky Quartet — with whom he made an album — to country, to classical, segueing into folk and duets, music everywhere, even, in a surreal moment, turning up in the Spice Girls film. And the band plays on. "I just wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I realised in 1979 being a pop star wasn't going to go on forever. I am not doing it to be eclectic. I am eclectic.

"It is just the trip I am on, you know. So everything gives you a different kind of push, as a vocalist, you know. The cushion of those strings or the cushion of that woodwind and brass from the orchestra is one thing, but the oommph of the bass drum in the back of your legs and the electric guitars flying around your head with a rock band is another kind of thing, it pushes you in a different direction vocally and emotionally as well. But I'm guilty of saying yes to too many things."

When Costello smiles his gap-toothed smile it is surprisingly sweet. A sudden burst of sunlight in the dark heavily draped hotel room. His freckled arms grip the chair, his chunky legs sprawling, his socks practically sending up flares. You could get a migraine looking at those socks. He is an engaging man, expansive. An energetic intellect, a hectic intensity, effortlessly entertaining, droll. There is a solid confidence about him, with a tendency towards the blunt honesty of the Northerner: "I have had plenty of attention for even the slightest thought."

A man clearly not given to self-doubt, but who experiences alarming moments of introspection nevertheless. "I don't think there is anything wrong or pretentious in having a thought about mortality in the middle of a song. One of the greatest fears is that if you wake in the middle of the night, even if you are with somebody and you suddenly think about eternity, it can be very frightening. That is when you reach for that person's hand.

"You suddenly think, 'One day we won't be here and I don't think there's anything else.' That moment is like an abyss opening up. It's not wrong to talk about that. It's not comfortable and it's not the stuff of happy-go-lucky pop songs, but I don't write happy-go-lucky pop songs. I write proper grown-up songs about real things."

Uh-huh. Would this be a looming midlife crisis, then, these dark thoughts of mortality? "Nah, not me. That came from something my dad said to me when I was eight years old. That was when I first became obsessed with mortality. I think I have been a lot closer to it in the past, I have had people wanting to kill me."

Ah yes, fame — and its dangerous downside, the weirdos. Early Elvis certainly knew how to infuriate people, but who would want to kill Elvis?

"In England," he is laughing now, "you get the English version of it. In England it is sort of like, 'My husband is very cross with you because when I hear your voice it makes me think naughty thoughts.' And then it is followed by a picture of my wife cut into little pieces, you know. Over here it is someone that you may have known once at another time in life and they are maybe writing to you sometime later to remind you that they are still a hot chick and maybe sending their daughter round to check you out.

"Of course, you get the analytical thing, you know, the thesis from some university. It is very flattering but you think, 'Maybe you should be reading some proper books, you know, not poring over the lyrics of a pop song.' It is an awful lot of effort to go into understanding something that you can understand in two seconds anyway."

This would appear to directly contradict the long heartfelt 'songs about real things' monologue, but you go with the contradictions; hey, Elvis is on a roll. In fact, there has always — even in his most political songs, even at his most embittered and truculent — been a certain delicacy in the songs of Elvis Costello. A sudden shining, tender love song, a Good Year for the Roses, an intimacy and a sweet coyness in his voice. "Well," he is leaning forward, confiding, "I mean Everyday I Write The Book, which is a reasonably well-known song of mine, I wrote that in 10 minutes. It never seemed like anything really substantial to me, but people really love it. And I managed to write a song for [the Coen Brothers' feature film] The Big Lebowski in a yellow cab on the way to the studio here. Some of the most celebrated haven't been the best songs, truthfully."

Costello is sinking further and further into his chair, seriously slouching but manfully pushing back the exhaustion and still spraying the room with words. You can only feel a tiny bit of scepticism when he wearily declares himself beyond words these days.

"As I have become older, the words-and-music battle in my head has gone more towards music over the years and away from words. I am always fascinated by what music can suggest beyond words. There is an emotional thing that is tangible that lies just beyond where words end. I am not as interested in words as people think I am, I don't read much at all really."

Journalists hound Costello, but given his mauling of them in the early Elvis years, it is usually from a safe distance, "Once in a while on a slow day at the news desk I will get a call. I usually offer to go around and rearrange their face. You know. Or send the boys round. I have four younger brothers who you definitely wouldn't want to tangle with. My father married again and I have these brothers who you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley Actually, they are nice boys, they are manageable, but they are much bigger than me. They all play in a band."

Costello's home — on the odd occasion he actually makes it home — is near Dublin, and he lives with his wife, Cait O'Riordan, former bassist with The Pogues, and their children. "We are up in the Dublin mountains, above a village. It is isolated enough to have as much peace and quiet or make as much noise as we want."

In recent years, Elvis has shed skin and re-grouped, parting with Jake Riviera, his forceful manager of 17 years, whom many believe was responsible for his aggressive image, and parting acrimoniously from his record company, Warner. He managed himself for a few years but now has a new manager and an open brief with Mercury Records.

"It is a whole new set of circumstances, some of which are great and some of which require resolutions. I do care about the money. I have a lot of responsibilities. I have a family that I want to make contributions to. I may have earned a lot of money over the whole course of my career but I've mostly invested that back in. All my records go over budget, I go on tours that wilfully lose money because of the type of venues I wanted to play."

He won't have the lush Bacharach orchestra when he performs in Australia this month. It will be Elvis with Attractions' keyboardist Steve Nieve, "It's just piano and voice. That gives us an unbelievable freedom. We can play songs from 20 years ago in the same program as songs from last week with a real coherence. It is a way you can look at songs in their purest form. The date stamp on them isn't so apparent when you strip away the rhythm section. They come across as very fresh. It means you have to dig into what you really feel about them now. You can't hide behind the musical gestures. Even the oldest songs are still very shockingly distinct."

Songs that were written in the fire of gifted youth, alcohol, suspicious substances and angry idealism. Late Elvis has moved with the times, "I don't drink at all now. My wife says she has only seen me drunk once. Some of it inspired some very good songs but I just lost the taste for it. And I haven't taken drugs for years and years. It was just becoming monotonous."

Late Elvis is looking at his watch and beginning the struggle to get out of the chair, into which he seems to have moulded his chunky body. Gradually he pulls the vivid ensemble together and rises slowly to his feet. And Elvis and his hat bob on down outside. A man and his hat in New York.

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The Australian Magazine, January 23, 1999


Susan Chenery interviews EC ahead of the concert with Steve Nieve, Wednesday, January 27, 1999, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, Australian.

Images

1999-01-23 The Australian Magazine page 26.jpg
Page scan.

1999-01-23 The Australian Magazine photo 01.jpg
Photos.

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