A couple of days before Christmas, trying to make it home on the London tube before I dropped a bottle of tequila and the Times Atlas of the World I was balancing in one hand while attempting to flip over the evening paper with the other so I could skim the Third and Fourth Division football results. I heard a voice somewhere say "Hello." More a surreptitious rasp than a warm greeting, the disembodied voice could, if my mind had been working that way that evening, have made think I was being contacted by some especially devious MI5 operative.
No such fun. When I turned around (slowly — tube etiquette demands vigilance against ex-professors asking 10 pence for a cup of tea and friends of the Maharishi trying to "give" you copies of albums with "George Harrison" in big letters on the front and "Guaranteed 100% Tortoise Turds" in invisible ink on the back) I was staring at Elvis Costello wrapped in a dark wool overcoat and sporting the inevitable shades. Seated next to him was one of the Attractions, Bruce, Pete or Steve, I forget which; seeing Elvis on the tube temporarily scrambled my powers of perception.
"Hi, how's it going?" We exchanged all that kind of embarrassment-easing small talk. We spoke for a bit about his show earlier in the week. I'd caught the first of his six nights at the Dominion. It's a 3000 or so seater, Greco-Roman cake decoration cinema usually used as the major London showcase for the latest piece of multi-million-dollar slop that's about to do the rounds — The Wiz is there right now. I'd found his show distant, lacking in real passion or contact with the audience (who admittedly did look like they'd come to check out the latest soundtrack for a habitat sofa) and told him as much, only in more euphemistic terms. He agreed and seemed to express slight unease about playing the place at all, preferring to look forward to the unseated venues later on in the tour.
He and his Attraction got off at Leicester Square so they could change trains to get to work; one stop on the Northern Line and they'd be at Tottenham Court Road station, right outside the Dominion, ready for the final show of their six-night stand.
Don't read too much into that brief encounter. I'm not about to claim I'm some special friend of the man — I've met him maybe 10 times — we are in the same business, more or less. Nor am I about to twist his received image through 180 degrees and pump him up as some closet friend of the people.
What I am trying to convey is that, like all the rest of us who ain't had our allotted 15 minutes of fame yet, Elvis is a mess of contrary emotions, counter-claims on his psyche and all-purpose messed-up confusions. Only, being a famous pop star and all that, everyone wants to KNOW ALL. Swiftly scanning press revelations about Rod or Bianca's bon mots about "life with Mick," what the general public secretly wants to read about is the night Rod or Mick COULDN'T GET IT UP, i.e. they want to gloat over the star's charmed life, then find those feet of clay, smash them to dust and smilingly prove that he or she is really just like us.
With Costello, this neo-cannibalism manifests itself in one of three forms: Those who've heard that My Aim Is True is a collection of chansons à clef about the break-up of his marriage and wanna know every last kitchen-sink detail so they can "understand" the songs; those who picked up on the little-black-book-of-revenge and photographers-having-accidents stories (they want the portrait of the artist as a young psychotic masquerading as a "rilly sensitive individual") and those who are obsessed by Costello's borrowings — they wanna be able to point the finger ("Hand in Hand" tiptoeing on the trail of Booker T and the MGs' "Time Is Tight," "Pump It Up" neatly filed under "Interstellar Overdrive" via "Neat Neat Neat").
More accurately, this last category again divides into two. Those who get upset by it and those who don't. The former can check out of this page right now — you patently never saw that the best thing about "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was that it was Dylan owning up to how much he wanted to be Chuck Berry by rewriting "Too Much Monkey Business" in too-much-junkie-business slang, or that the finest moment of Ted Nugent's entire career was when he copped the lick from Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun" in the middle of the Amboy Dukes' cover of "Baby Please Don't Go."
You that don't get upset and are still with me, can now have the perverse reward of a few randomly ordered sartorial facts about Elvis, to help you get laid on wet Tuesday nights.
The red shoes in the song of that title are cherry red Doctor Martens. Calf-high work boots with soles designed for cripples, they were the favourite footwear of skinheads when they were kicking the shit out of passing hippies. Also much favoured by scuffling rock stars affecting the common touch. Elvis is supposed to have lost a pair at an early pub gig. No, I don't know where the Angels were there that night.
Nowadays Elvis buys his jackets at the same place as me. He favors a chessboard pattern. I've stuck to pink slue.
The owner of the green shirt was Angela Rippon, a BBC news reader, kind of Britain's answer to Barbara Walters. Elvis caught a glimpse of her in the green shirt on the way out of Top of the Pops one evening. Hence all the red, yellow, orange and green turning into black and white.
"So what?" I hear you whine. So that crummy bunch of disjointed facts is what landed me with this crazy assignment, which has got me up till Clapton-knows-what-time of the morning — with 12.5 milligrams of Duraphet playing pinochle with the crevices of my cerebral cortex, and two or three gallons of orange juice dyeing my tongue the color of a pumpkin. I daren't look at the clock.
Like so many before them, Trouser Press had shafted themselves straight into the Elvis Costello bear trap. They'd scheduled a cover story on the man. He deserved it, they'd been the first American paper to put him on the cover, they'd always been behind the lad, made This Year's Model the TP fave album of the year, plus Armed Forces was suddenly big business. So there it was. Deft Kantian reasoning of unarguably symmetrical beauty. One problem. Elvis don't do interviews, even with old friends. Ask NME's Nicholas Kent.
Schulps got me on the phone first. Calling collect, he asked if I'd be up to rattling out an Elvis Costello "think piece" — man, myth and music... that sort of thing. Sure, I said. How can you refuse a man you let freeze to death on your floor each time he manages to blag his way over the ocean and inveigles you into showing him where to get a pair of genuine red suede Beatle boots made?
Obviously doubt raised its seductive head in the Trouser Press office that afternoon, as next morning, Ira Robbins — Publisher-in-Chief, no less — called up. "Hey Pete," he whined in that wonderful Noo Yawk accent of his, "hey, look, y'know, this Costello piece. It's not gonna be one big slag-off, is it?"
"What, me say something nasty about those truly delightful people of rock 'n' roll?"
He wasn't having any of that so, winging it by the seat of my pants, I rapid-fired him on the origins of the red boots and the green shirt. Suitably impressed, he told me to go ahead, take care and be sure I mailed it by March 26.
It's now April Fools Day.
Welcome to the alternative Elvis Costello bear trap — writing this damn story without the standard fall-back of 90 minutes of inconsequential tape or a 10-year history to spice up with a few unstartling personal observations.
Not that there's a shortage of things to write about the man. If they ever set up the Elvis Costello Memorial Archives, my notes for this piece [Can we see them? — Ed.] could be Exhibit Number One — Elvis Doesn't Meet the Press.
No, it's the originally shielded but unavoidable fact that to attempt to put down on paper something more than yet another facile piece of gush or bile about Elvis puts you right face to face with the big one.
Right now, commenting on Costello or the Clash, you're not talking about just another artist, you're confronting rock 'n' roll as a whole form as it stands now. They're both state-of-the-art, the living embodiments of more than a score of years and the linchpins of most probable futures. Who else is there? The Boomtown Rats are great fun and Geldof gives great mouth but us dumb lunkheads always thought rock 'n' roll could be more than brilliantly executed flash'n'tacky egocentrism. Springsteen is OK but why all the fuss about a low-rent Holden Caulfield with great taste in oldies and sax players? John Lydon and his "experimental cancer music of the '80s"? C'mon, who really wants old Can riffs regurgitated, even if they do come with astonishingly bad lapsed-Catholic poetry? Sure he's brave, but so was Gary Gilmore. So c'mon, who else is there? Dire Straits?
Please pass the smelling salts, nurse.
So you're back to the big two Cs, Costello and the Clash. And the Clash are real easy to write about. All that dynamite copy but genuine (if sometimes slightly forced) rude boy chic. Piece of cake.
But Costello, he's so, so tricky that anyone with any sense would stay at home, keeping clear of tapping out theories for a paper that'll scarcely pay me enough for the results of this piece to keep my cats in the manner to which they're accustomed for a week or two.
Ask any honest writer who's tried. I've certainly yet to read a memorable long piece on him. Nick Kent's original interview doesn't count. That was the drunken occasion that Elvis chose to launch his bitter-twisted-guilt-and-revenge image. With gorgeous copy like that how could it fail to make for gripping reading? (And I'm not belittling the fustian grace of Kent's writing.)
(If you're still in doubt, ask New York Rocker. Their original cover story was meant to be by Kent. He offered them a piece which had already appeared in NME. They rejected it — it finally turned up as Creem's cover story. Then they contacted my fellow Sounds writer, Sandy Robertson. Duly telexed at the last minute, his story was also dumped — too negative or something. Finally, Andy Schwartz hacked out nothing and called it "Elvis — The Story He Won't Tell." Won't tell? My grandmother could have told him and she's keeping the maggots company.)
Still, a challenge is a challenge, and, like most others, I can't help but be drawn like a voyeuristic moth to the panache of the Costello Blut and Eisen [That's "blood and iron," folks — Ed.] assault on the consciousness of the Western world. And the problem is that it's often difficult to pinpoint the precise reason for the success of that campaign — leaving aside, that is, the sheer hard work that's gone into it.
For starters, while everyone else around was heeding the rallying call of "Anarchy in the UK," here was this four-eyed squirty gimp winging on about some lost love named Alison. Worse, the American version of the single even featured that horror of horrors — synthesized strings.
Again, he's rarely struck me as anything more than a diffident performer. It's as though some innate traces of crippling shyness surface every time he straps on his Jazzmaster and faces a braying crowd with only the microphone there to shelter his sense of inadequacy. So, operating on the reaction-action principle, he tries too hard to project an image of mean moodiness laced with the odd piece of blather which is sometimes fatuous — like bothering to lower himself to slagging that St. Louis radio station on the air (a basically jejune gesture — why did he agree to the show in the first place?) — and sometimes not ("Everyone get up and dance!").
The only times I've ever seen him really cut it live — cut it so sharp to the bone that for a scant 50 minutes or so, you really do believe — was once in Belfast — where he was plainly terrified — and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where he spent the whole of Mink DeVille's set sitting at the side of the stage sucking on a bottle of wine. When he finally had the mike in his grasp, he was so deeply wired that he got so honest, his emotions were so nakedly displayed, that it verged on the embarrassing. Kind of like looking at photographs of battle front casualties.
The rest of the time, though, he seems to fall too easily into what's wanted rather than what's needed (there's a nice rehash of a Dylan/Costello paradox for you). Play the hits, keep the record company satisfied. And he plainly hates doing it. Sometimes, maybe, his brusque treatment of audiences has its roots in disgust at himself.
And, while he started out with that whole bagful of exquisitely crafted songs, My Aim Is True still sounds like everything was made to suffer grievously at the hands of Clover. Lovely blokes probably (although my sources indicate otherwise), but they still sound like the proverbial Marin County cowboys on Valium. Even the burgeoning talents of Nick Lowe couldn't salvage the likes of "Sneaky Feelings" from their grip. Anyway that was the least of Lowe's problems. If reports are to be believed, he kept on nipping back to the Stiff offices during the recording sessions for a spot of rest and recuperation and a few large Pernods, moaning, "Gawd, I can't take all this gloom and despondency much longer." Since Aim and the arrival of the Attractions, though, it's been a whole different story of course.
And finally, the most telling chink in his armor is his habit of sometimes reaching for the first facile phrase, metaphor or paradox that comes his way. Balancing the terse precision of "Pump It Up" (the perfect phrase describing doing it all to death) there's the likes of the glib and inane "Your mouth is made up / But your mind is undone." And sometimes he ladles on the menace so deep and so thick, as on "Hand in Hand," that it ends up sounding almost laughable.
Don't you know I've got the bullet boys out
Changing someone's facial design...
Don't ask me to apologize
I won't ask you to forgive me
If I'm gonna go down
You're gonna come with me
Really Elvis. You sound like a little boy threatening to bring in his dad 'cos he's bigger than the other kid's dad.
And yet, even taking all those Achilles tendons into account, Elvis is still one of those destined to carve out his name large in the history of rock 'n' roll. He's a sly, sometimes deceptively casual, songwriter. He's got passion, guts, aggression, compassion, insight, all those things which on the printed page can look so much bullshit, but are in fact the lifeblood of any worthwhile artist, no matter whether it's paint he's daubing or strings he's plucking.
So far so good; but the same things could be said of quite a handful of rock 'n' roll performers. What makes Elvis more compelling than the rest is the scope of his vision and the breadth of his ambition. Like the Clash, he's gonna use every last drop of his wit to ensure that his work is never treated as mere music.
And, at the moment, he's on a winning streak of almost awesome momentum. Like Dylan around the time of Highway 61, he's running before he's learned to walk and rubbing that uncomfortable fact in the face of anyone who dares to doubt.
Two years ago he was still the unhappily married computer clerk with a kid trying to hustle his way into the big time on the back of some country demos that he got DJ Charlie Gillett to play on the radio. First the deal with Stiff, then the overnight putsch which ended up with him, manager Jake Riviera and Nick Lowe striking out on their own. It was around this time that he tried to interest Columbia by busking on the pavement outside their conference at the London Hilton. They ignored him. He got busted. And, as in all good fairy tales, they finally signed him. (This, incidentally, has not always been the smoothest of relationships. Reportedly Mr. Riviera was asked to restrict himself to conducting his business over the phone after he accused one of the employees in the Columbia Art Department of being a defenseless little cripple. Unfortunately, said employee was a...)
Less than 20 months gone by. Three albums. Clutches of singles — last time I looked I had 11 of the blighters and that wasn't counting "What's So Funny" or the odd promo-only 12-incher. Wide-ranging tour after punishing tour — only now he doesn't have to squeeze the band and their guitars in one station wagon like he did on the first visit to the Americas. The wife's gone. She got the house and, I should imagine, the kid. He's got Bebe Buell. Such is the price of fame.
And still he wants more. As the man says, world domination.
Once upon an innocent time, I used to think that EC was satisfied with merely wishing he'd metamorphose one night — like a rock 'n' roll version of Kafka's creepy crawly — and wake up as Joe Strummer. That way he'd have real credibility. Now I realize this kid Costello don't stop at no petty aims like that. He wants to go the whole way. Consumed by the romanticism of the Prometheus myth, he wants to plunge deep into the realms of the untalked-about and capture the fire singlehandedly for the rest of us less determined souls... before lunch, preferably. And all that in full knowledge that, on his return, he stands a good chance of having a load of messy birds passing the time of day by gobbling lumps out of his kidneys. Of course, like Dylan, who had similar visions, he'll probably be satisfied by a couple of years playing Faust, after which he'll settle down and write a book.
Still, world domination. Now there's a worthy concept. Personally, these days I don't trust anyone who isn't bent on their own trail of world domination. Since the Great American Novel dream started going down the pan the day Kerouac got treated as a serious novelist, and finally gave up the ghost when it caught the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, since the idea of making the perfect rock 'n' roll album got lost soon after the twentieth tab of acid, what else is there for a poor boy to do?
In this Indian summer of a society, what hope of survival is there other than making sure you're the one that's calling the shots?
So Elvis has opted for bare-faced hubris, screaming at the gods to just dare to come and waste him. Which means, when all that's squeezed into song form, he's just as quotable as Dylan used to be when he was still patron saint to literate speedfreaks. What else is "bite the hand that feeds me" but the one true epigram for a generation that doesn't have the confidence or the misguided imagination to push "it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" to its ultimate conclusion?
And I'm sure that aura of overweening ambition is just what makes Costello so appealing to the wide wide world. Above all else, rock 'n' roll is melodrama. The chants, the lights, the violent jerky moves, a good part of the whole rock 'n' roll live experience is a late 20th century variant of the "died and never called my mother" school of art. Which is fine by me. Better that than an unceasing diet of Samuel Beckett.
With Costello, that melodrama shows itself in many ways. The surly but aggressive wit of his ad campaigns; the spindly fountains of white light that he used as a backdrop for his Dominion Theatre gigs in London; his hunched, tense postures at the mike; the Garbo-esque approach to interviews (in fact, he's probably better off avoiding them; while generally pleasant enough, he's rarely said something quotable that someone else hasn't already said better); the occasional step into pure hamminess like "Hand in Hand"; the global sweep of Armed Forces (from "Goon Squad" to "Oliver's Army" via the authoritative sounding "Moods for Moderns" — you can get a fair idea of where those songs are coming from without even listening to the music) and beyond all reasonable expectations, he's produced unsullied masterpieces like "Watching the Detectives."
The sheer eerie impotence of the lines "I don't know how much more of this I can take / She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake" is positively suffocating in its harrowing evocation of domestic disharmony: wife watches Starsky and Hutch, husband squirms in his chair wishing he could be up there with the big boys, telling it all to the world from behind his guitar instead of being stuck here in his safe West London home in front of the box with wifey.
When Elvis first started to sell enormous amounts of Aim on import in America, I expressed my bewilderment to Dave Schulps. "Oh that's easy," he blithely told me, "I got that one all figured out. All his songs are neurotic. All Americans are neurotic. They suit each other like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
I believed him at the time. But, honestly, neurotic? That's like saying a suicidially-inclined manic depressive has problems with his nerves.
Two little Hitlers will fight it out until
One little Hitler does the other one's will
I will return, I will not burn
A cunning and witty song for sure, but way beyond mere neurosis — these days even his private rage takes on an epic form. Which can be seen in the history of the song itself. Elvis thought of the title "Little Hitler" and mentioned it to Nick Lowe who promptly — such is the morality of the man — nicked the idea for himself and connected a lot of nonsense around one of his invariably quirky tunes.
That's the difference between Lowe and Costello. While Lowe trumpets on about pure pop, it's Costello who actually does it. Lowe's own songs — despite the radio reassurance factor of containing references to everything from Bo Diddley to Abba — are far too oddball in their construction for easy assimilation between, say, Gloria Gaynor and Showaddywaddy: pure pop for people with encyclopedic memories and a fair grasp of what the future might bring is more like it.
Elvis, however, is both more devious and more straightforward. He might be denied an American hit single by the innate conservatism of American radio (not that British radio is any better — just that he is homegrown talent), but the suppleness of his melodies are invariably a decoy for the sharpness of the lyrics. "Oliver's Army" has been both his biggest British hit (number two), and one of his most directly targeted lambasts of a power structure which recruits its killers in uniform from this year's tired poor wretched rabble. True subversion from a master of his past who's still fresh enough to be forcing himself to his own limits.
Maybe one day he'll even learn to tune his guitar.