The haircut is straight out of the '50s; the rumpled suit looks like a reject from a thrift-store bin. With huge horn-rimmed glasses covering half his face, Elvis Costello, 23, looks vaguely familiar as he swaggers awkwardly up to a microphone. Ah, but of course. He is that same little guy who couldn't buy himself a date back in high school.
The British-born Costello may look a bit like Woody Allen with a guitar, but there is nothing timid about his music. With a three-piece band behind him, he blasts out a stream of riffs that recalls the piston rhythms of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Little Richard and the early Beatles. The songs are angrier than the soft rock that spun out of Southern California onto the record charts this year, and Costello sings them with a prophet's urgency. In the light of his sizzling reception on a just completed U.S. tour, the message seems clear: rock may still he smooth and sophisticated at the top, but it is getting good and rough again down below.
Much of the grit has come from punk and New Wave bands whose songs favor sledgehammer subtlety and three-chord accompaniment. Costello, however, dismisses American punks as "rich hippies whining about the Viet Nam War" and resists any invitation to describe himself. "The minute you become self-conscious about what you're doing, or start analyzing it, it's all over," he snaps. "I choose not to explain it."
Like his countryman Graham Parker, Costello combines the punch of early rock forms with very contemporary lyrics. In "Radio, Radio" he jabs at Top 40 conservatism that he feels has helped throttle pop creativity for a decade.
The radio's in the hands
Of such a lot of fools
Trying to anesthetize
The way you feel...
In "Welcome to the Working Week," the blue-collar drudge gets some droll sympathy:
Welcome to the working week
Oh, I know it don't thrill you
I hope it don't kill you...
Costello's underdog sympathies come easily. Born Declan Patrick McManus, he was the only child of a marriage that ended when his father, a jazz trumpeter and cabaret singer, hit the road for good. Costello grew up in a blue-collar section of London. At 18 he became a computer man in a nearby suburb. His first songs were composed to the whir of machines and the rumble of trains, and on weekends he scratched for pickup jobs as a guitarist.
Last year he signed on with a small London record company, accepting an amp and tape recorder as his only advance. For his stage name, he borrowed immodestly from rock 'n' roll's first king and then picked Costello from his mum's side of the family. A couple of singles recorded during his days off led to his only album so far, My Aim is True. When CBS Records executives came to town last July for their international convention, Costello grabbed his guitar, rushed over to the London Hilton and staged a street-corner audition. Although the police promptly arrested him, the Columbia execs eventually offered him a contract.
Applause has not sweetened his disposition. He rails at his countrymen because "they settle for so little, and they are stupid for having a queen." He quickly adds: "I also hate the Americans because they've got so much and they do so little with it." Of the 14 U.S. cities on his tour, Chicago suited Elvis the best. "People were rude, you know? People on the West Coast were so nice it was driving me mad. If one more person said, 'Have a nice day,' I thought I might kill him."
Elvis enjoys running through the things that he is not. An artist, for one thing. "Even the word musician I kind of balk at." He is also not a pop activist. "The word issues conjures up an image of Joan Baez and placards," he allows. "What could be worse than that, now?" What he does approve of is short tunes, no more than three minutes, and gut emotions. "Many of my songs involve revenge and guilt. The stronger feelings, the ones you are left with at night."
Onstage, Costello moves from song to song with neither pause nor comment, often seeming to hide behind a howling wall of sound. When a drunken front-row heckler broke his concentration at the Whisky in West Hollywood, his temper was quick. He tossed a drink in the man's face, then brandished a broken drinking glass to fend off an attack. He finished the scene with his usual dramatic intensity — staring at his foe and breaking into an especially dark version of "Watching The Detectives." The song is demonic ballad about a fellow trying to get his girl's attention while she is enthralled by a violent TV cop show.
Elvis is returning briefly to the relative calm of London, where his wife and child are waiting. But he will not stay long. After finishing his second album, he will be back in the U.S. for another tour early next year. Even he may not be able to deny that life is beginning to sound like another one of his songs:
Well I used to be disgusted,
And now I try to be amused.
But since their wings have got rusted,
You know the angels wanna wear my red shoes...