Toronto Globe and Mail, January 9, 1978
Jittering into prophethood — the
A year ago, Elvis Costello was just a rumour, a faint rock and roll rattle that came out of London's pub rock scene. But that rattle has crossed the Atlantic to become a clatter and Elvis Costello is being talked up as a pop-musical prophet for the eighties. While his pictures show an awkward, pebble-complected short guy with thick glasses, Elvis Costello is not as good-looking as those pictures. And while he sounds, on record, pained and gravelly, his live performance is mostly spittle and jitters. His visual and vocal signature, is in fact so hopelessly ungainly that a lot of viewers moaned and turned away when he staggered toward the camera lenses on NBC's Saturday Night recently. But for those who love him — and those who promote him — it's all to the good because Elvis Costello's genius lies in the way that he insists the world made him a prize misanthrope.
On his song, "Mystery Dance," Elvis enunciates carefully against the mad stutter of his rhythm section, letting us know that the hypocrites had him trapped into misogynistic wrath from the very start: "Well I remember when the lights went out / I was tryin' to make it look like it was never in doubt / She thought that I knew and I thought that she knew / So both of us were willin' but we didn't know how to do it / Why don't you tell me 'bout the mystery dance / I wanta know about the mystery dance..."
Yes, it's just like the insightful motto Columbia coined for their Costello display ads: Until he picks up his guitar he's just another Joe. Even with that weighty fender electric strapped over his hunched neck, Elvis has the kind of magnetism that repels before it attracts: who is this splay-footed geek shivering with alienation and boring in on some rock and roll goal that excludes interviews, sweetening, or smiling, but sells 40,000 import albums, then 100,000 U.S. discs, in a matter of weeks.
The litany of known facts about Costello is not quite as extensive as the apocrypha about him. It seems clear, however, that up until his break came a few months ago, he was working as a computer programmer for a branch of Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. (He calls it the vanity factory.) Prior to that he had played regular gigs fronting a bluegrass group called Flip City. Elvis, whose real name is Decklan and whose heroes are country fatalists Graham Parsons and George Jones, was then known as V.P. Costello.
Now 22, Elvis was born in London and raised as a Roman Catholic in Liverpool. It is said that his father was a band leader. He is married and has one child but to date he has offered absolutely no information about his family.
From the testimony of the few who have lingered at all in Elvis' presence he's almost uniformly hostile and hidden. He reached some sort of public relations nadir in Chicago after a recent performance. As he stood against the dressing room wall Elvis was approached by the program director of Chicago's biggest AM radio station, WMBC. AM program directors are the guards at the commercial bottleneck of pop music; gold drips from their fingers; they control airplay and airplay controls sales. But one such mandarin, known for his progressive play list, approached Elvis and said that he had really enjoyed the evening's set.
Elvis didn't waste a word: Slag off.
In the corporate hallways where pop images are created such stories can be bartered for ink; but in plain business terms Elvis was coolly chopping off his own arm, and a giant radio market with it.
It shouldn't have surprised anyone. One of Elvis' as-yet-unrecorded numbers, "Radio Radio," is an acrid thrashing of radio play lists. He gave it a stuttering, very nearly inspired, rendering on Saturday Night.
That performance was so expertly off-putting that his sado-masochistic following sitting in their living rooms had the pleasure of being skewered on the jibes of non-believers. Elvis' opener was a black ditty called "Watching the Detectives." Singing most precisely against an unsprung calypso rhythm, Elvis manages to link a heartless siren — "She looks so good that he gets down and begs" — with a diatribe against the wedge that television can make between two people on a loveseat: "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake."
The song is full of the subliminal musical fillips that producer Nick Lowe uses on his quirky records — a long, nervous purl of organ, Elvis' own vocal lines overlapping each other, and a stringent faithfulness to that small-band sound. His four-piece unit — drums, base, organ and Elvis' own guitar — handled U.S. television with an easy sneer. And since they had gotten a last-minute booking on the show when crafty manager Malcolm McLaren pulled his Sex Pistols off the program, Elvis' drummer wore a T-shirt that read Thanks Malc. When the band appeared on screen for their second number, Elvis seemed to quiver with readiness. A few lines into "Less Than Zero," a song which indicts British television for letting rightist Oswald Mosley appear on a talk show, Elvis stopped dead and flapped his hands. Stop, stop, stop! Ladies and gentlemen, he cried, in a wild burst of politesse, and immediately twisted around to organize his band and lit into "Radio Radio," stumbling to and fro as his guitar clattered against the mike stand.
It was a key gig — Saturday Night's audience does like their humour to scorch a little — but many people in that audience were surely wondering why they were watching such a cruel-lipped, embittered twirp.
Maybe that's how it had to be — Costello's alienation seems to guarantee his integrity. Still one had to wish that he had played "Alison," a wheedling ballad of frozen love. "Oh it's so funny to be seeing ya after so long girl / And with the way you look I see that you are not impressed / But I heard you let that little friend of mine / Take off your party dress."
He's known rejection. He's known a lot of rejection, says one record industry woman who was backstage at the Los Angeles and Chicago dates during Elvis' quick December tour of the U.S.
And, she adds, He is an incredibly hostile man. The woman speaking then recalls a backstage scene in which Elvis approached her girlfriend. The girlfriend had been nervously discussing her new boots when Elvis, moving over to her, hunched his shoulders and looked her in the face, You want to kick me with those boots, don't you?
It is that near-puerility, that ravening need to twist his plug-ugly face into a smugness that is both a limitation and a strength in Elvis. In him we see the twist that adolescent pain has wrought, and it's hard not to respond to that.
Elvis' anti-image is dangerously authentic. He was too brilliant to keep playing in pubs, but he's strung too tight to go showbiz. His behaviour in the U.S. indicates that we may have our first un-rock star. And that's fortunate, because Elvis salts the wounds that otherwise might not heal. And we all need that — almost as badly as he does.
Fredrick Schruers is a freelance writer living in New York.
The Globe and Mail, January 9, 1978