These days its a big deal for me to take a train down to CBGB and a major odyssey to get into a record company bus to zoom out to, say, the Nassau Coliseum. So imagine my surprise at finding myself, not 48 hours after arriving in London for the first time, on the road in Northern Ireland. Picture it: I'm looking out the window of this gorgeous Austin Princess limousine at the picturesque Irish countryside. I coulda sworn I went to sleep and awakened in a movie.
"Cripes, lookit those rolling hills! Those quaint old farmhouses! Check out those cows! Those — those SOLDIERS?!?" Sure enough, there was a British Army landrover at the side of the road, a soldier leaning out the top, aiming his automatic rifle at us as we approached the checkpoint. A distinct contrast to the winos cadging quarters outside CBGB. What the hell was I doing there? I was on my way to see Elvis in Belfast on St. Patrick's Day.
When I'd gotten into London, the album had just come out and his name was on everyone's lips as usual, but he'd only begun his British tour and would reach London after I'd left England. However, I hadn't counted on Glen Colson.
Colson is the one-of-a-kind rascal who taught me what "ligging" means (i.e., "hanging around," or, more specifically, "hanging around and grabbing all the freebies that come your way although you've done nothing to deserve them whatsoever"). Glen wound up working for the crafty, if off-the-wall, manager of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, Jake Riviera. No sooner had I called to say hello than he said "You are, of course, coming to Belfast with me to see Elvis, aren't you?" How could any sucker refuse?
Not this one. Which is why I wound up at a delightful little hotel outside Belfast (delightful except for the parts that had been blown away by bombs) drinking the afternoon away with my colleagues from the English papers, and thence whisked away to the concert in Belfast, a large old hall distinguished mainly by small wedges of seats behind the stage on either side of a mammoth pipe organ. The less-than-stupendous Mickey Jupp Band were on first, so I nipped up to the dressing room.
The band were chatting with the press and drinking orange juice or this revolting excuse for beer in cans showing briefly-attired young ladies. Elvis nervously moped about, and I took the opportunity to ask him about his touring plans in the States. I mentioned the gig at a 600-capacity room at Rutgers University in New Jersey that I'd last seen him at, and he spoke earnestly about doing high schools next tithe instead of playing for "college students with their notebooks" and academic orientation. He was just getting into it when the five minutes to go signal was given and he had to break it off.
We journalists had no seats, and so we stood at the back, which afforded us a panorama of the audience. The band was strong but obviously still limbering up as El interspersed older material like "I'm Not Angry" (taken at a slower pace, as he projected a quiet bitterness-beyond-rage) with newer things like "Living In Paradise" and "Radio Radio" (an odd choice since it's not on the UK pressing of This Year's Model). The audience was enthusiastic but politely reserved, only showing signs of real excitement as Elvis launched into "Chelsea," the newly-released single from the LP. It was almost an omen that at this point I noticed that Elvis' shadow loomed large against the wall behind him, like some gigantic specter. But regardless of such metaphysical speculation the performers and audience were warming to each other; a couple of kids got up to leap about frantically, and then a couple more. The standing contingent edged up a few rows toward the stage.
And then, late in the set, it happened. Three or four kids strolled up to the stage. I decided to join them. The other standees joined me, and before I reached the foot of the aisle, people were streaming into the aisle, and I was caught up in a vast pogoing tide. There was no way not to pogo — otherwise you couldn't see and would likely be mashed by your flying neighbors. Besides, the excitement was infectious, and the music intoxicating as only great rock 'n' roll can be.
After a few minutes my endurance ran out and I hopped on top of a seat. But I kept bouncing as I watched Elvis lead the final charges. He was less reserved than I'd seen him in America, interacting with the audience, moving about with a fire even manifested in half-windmill guitar strums. And the band followed close at his heels, sweat pouring off the lot of them : Steve Naive ranging over his keyboard, Pete Thomas masterfully pounding his drumkit like a man possessed, and Bruce Thomas looking cool from behind his sun-specs, despite his perspiration, as he lunged about gracefully. Suddenly it was over, but the crowd wouldn't let go. Not even after four encores; it took quite a while to disperse them. I marvelled at their reaction, and as we passed some more soldiers in the street on the way back to the reception at the hotel, I pondered what this must have meant to them.
The reception was dullsville until Jake and the band arrived, at which the festivities began in earnest. Highlights: Pete Thomas searching for a hash pipe, and failing to find one, using a device concocted from my Hawkwind badge and an upside-down glass; Jake and I having a verbal sparring match — "Oh, Jim Green from Trouser Press, what are you doing here?" "Well, I'm just on holiday..." "Nonsense, you Trouser Pressers are always up to something." "Well, while I'm on vacation I still gotta do some stuff, but here I'm just along for the ride." "Jim, did anyone ever tell you nobody likes a smartass?" "Sure. Did anyone ever say that to you, Jake?" — and so on (Allan Jones in Melody Maker the next week mentioned "an unfortunate American journalist" whose "first mistake was talking back" and who, despite "a valiant rearguard counterattack... lost on points" to Riviera. Ah, ya can't win 'em all, but when we meet in Vegas I'll kayo da pug); Jake searching in vain for rolling papers ("Now come on now, all you mob in ere was once hippies, long hair, Earth Shoes, listened to Grateful Dead records, so where's the skins, eh? Christ!"); Colson, Naive and a roadie having a beer fight.
I did manage to speak to Bruce Thomas about the Elvis tour strategy. "Sure, we could avoid doing gigs like these, slogging around on trains and in vans, but these kids, especially a place like Belfast" — many a band has pulled out of gigs in Northern Ireland for fear of getting caught in the midst of a violent situation — "don't get too many concerts, and they deserve it. We may never play here again, or not for a long time, and these kids are the ones who buy the records, who put you on top." We spoke of what Elvis had said about playing American high schools, and he said, "We'd like to do that. They've offered us huge venues but we'd like to play for the kids more directly. Maybe that means more gigs, but..."
I interrupted: "Doesn't that mean diluting your strength each performance?" "Not so much if you give 110% each night. The technical thing may vary, but the feeling will be there, and that's what counts."
On the way through the checkpoints and detention-camp style airport facilities, I realized he was right. If Belfast show is any indication, Elvis may well one day be King.