You say you stood in line out in front of El Mocambo the other night? You got there at 1 in the afternoon because you wanted to be sure to get a seat, for the Elvis Costello Toronto debut, for a set that was scheduled to begin at 11:30 p.m. You didn't mind waiting — you knew that this was going to be the rock event of the year. Everyone said so. But you didn't get in — you had to leave the line, and when you returned you found 1,000 people ahead of you, waiting for approximately 300 seats, a good portion of them already allotted to record people, radio people, newspaper people. So now, although you might not believe it anyway, you want someone to tell you that it doesn't matter — that you really didn't miss much.
You'd he right not to believe it, because you were right all along, and if you were not there, you did miss the rock event of the season. Elvis Costello, the British working class singer (real name: Deklan McManus) who has released one album (My Aim Is True), who once worked as a computer programmer in an Elisabeth Arden factory, may not he the rock Messiah some have said he is, but he has come along at exactly the right time to remind all of why we started listening to rock and roll in the first place: because it was honest, and pure, and uncompromising, and defiant, and dangerous. (Not to you, of course, but to the people who don't want to understand it)
He pushes through the crowd to the stage. He's wearing a sloppy grey jacket, sloppy tie. His hair has been clipped close to the scalp by a pair of dull manicure scissors. He's wearing glasses: black horn rims. Buddy Holly? Closer to a dyspeptic Woody Allen — Buddy Holly had a softness about him physically that made you think puberty never quite took; Elvis has a sharpness about him that makes you think he emerged from the womb with a shaving kit and a tube of Clearasil — he's always been on adolescent. A nasty one. A smart one.
The first song is "Mystery Dance," which is about fumbling, backseat sex "So both of us were willing but we didn't know how to do it." He buys dirty picturesbooks: "What's the use of lookin' if you don't know what they mean?" The pubertal plea, but thrown out as a challenge, as on order: "Why don't you tell me 'bout the mystery dance." None of this is recalled with nostalgia, with condescension or with grown-up "understanding" — it's all recalled with bitterness. When he does learn to dance the dance, it doesn't help: "Do it in the morning, I'm not satisfied." Never will be. In Elvis Costello's world, everything pretty much stinks, although — from another song — there are times when "I feel almost like a human being should."
Elvis Costello, like his name-sake, takes the rage of being young and turns it into rock (in Costello's case, into pub rock via R & B); his lyrics call reality to task for failing to come up with the promised goods, while the music (hard, and fast, and too complex to be punk; too classic to be new wave) celebrates his own nihilistic tendencies. It's good, the man implies, to be young and to refuse to believe any crap; it hurts, but pain is more honest than phony pleasure: "I don't want to be your lover," Costello sings, and the 'o' in the word 'lover' is elongated into a verbal sneer that lets you know he wouldn't he able to substitute the word "husband" if he wanted to; marriage is beneath contempt. "I just want to he your victim." If Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill were alive today, and writing songs, and if they turned their obsession from politics to personality, they might sound like Elvis Costello — there is the same screw-it-all attitude hiding a belief, expressed often in the music but more rarely in the words, that if you don't say it out loud things might turn out all right.
The audience, by now, is standing. Elvis, earlier, asked the audience to stand, a move that contrasted sharply with his normal stage demeanor, which is to ignore the audience, or glare at it; the request to boogie was answered by some, but not by many, possibly because it seemed out of character, too show biz for this singer whose art is predicated on denying the recent excesses of rock art. When the audience does stand, it's because the music has demanded it, which is as it should be. One of the last songs, before he leaves to return later for an encore, is "Pump It Up" ("till you can feel it"), a number delivered with such precision the band begins to sound like one many-voiced instrument, and the message — exhortation — is as primal as the riffs.
He returns with Nick Lowe, his producer, who sings "I feel like breaking glass." Costello stands off to the side, twitching in his jerky, mechanical fashion, slapping a hand to the top of his head and holding it there for a double beat. Someone in the audience, holding a beer in salute, screams "Elvis" and the new Elvis acknowledges the kind of adoration the old one used to receive by slowly running his tongue across his bottom lip in a movement that is, at once, invitingly erotic and repellently hostile. That is what rock and roll once was; it looks like the what was might be the what is again.