Elvis Costello is rock's man of the moment, and one would assume from the frenzied reception the full house gave him last Sunday at his Fox Theatre gig that the Costello ground swell will never ebb. But will Costello last? Good question. I've been to too many concerts where a performer does an absolutely dynamite performance to an audience that seemed to express undying loyalty, only to be forgotten a year later with his albums taken off the Licorice Pizza display racks. Is Costello the Next Big Thing, someone whose music will have a profound influence on the pop-culture to come, or is he just another in a series of throwaway performers an audience can play with awhile and then discard like an empty box of corn flakes? Good question indeed.
I'm forcing myself to be optimistic, though, thinking that Costello has enough talent to transcend the comic book tackiness that surrounds him — Woody Allen glasses, old jackets with skinny lapels and padded shoulders — and latch onto something firmer in the consciousness of a mass audience whose attention spans tend to be short and tastes fickle. Certainly, Dylan and Bowie had to contend with similar problems of image. Dylan refusing to remain, at different times, a mere protest singer, a mere folk-rocker, a mere country singer, and Bowie deciding to junk the Ziggy Stardust nonsense and show all his would-be glitter creep followers that he could make music as well as cutely contrived theatrics.
Costello, though, doesn't have the same initial problem that Dylan or Bowie confronted. Whereas the other two began with a limited base where everyone expected them to remain — Dylan with folk and New Left politics, Bowie with glitter-rock and an apocalyptic fantasy — Costello's music has an unbelievably broad base. His three albums, My Aim is True, This Year's Model and his newest, Armed Forces, comprise something of a short-order course in the history of traditional rock and roll motifs, a wide scope encompassing rockabilly, reggae, rhythm and blues, folk-rock, Phil Spector wall-of-sound-production values, Sky Saxon and other influences that elude me right now. Unlike the average phony fifties band who take old stuff and succeed in making the music more banal than it was originally — I'm thinking of Sha Na Na and Flash Cadillac — Costello reshapes these old ideas into fresh combinations, oftentimes mixing styles in the same song. Musically, the familiar sounds incredibly fresh.
What makes Costello's art more astounding (or confounding) is his knack for lyrics. In an age where the "important" lyricists of the Seventies — Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits — have produced a bulk of work that emulates but falls vastly short of middle-period Dylan and the Beat poets before him, Costello has come out of left field and caught everyone by surprise. His best songs are tightly-constructed first-person narratives, impressionistic glimpses at balled situations and the people in them, with characters who Costello has caught in the variegated acts of Bad Faith and the contingent malaise of non-actualization.
In other words, Costello gives the impression that he can tell the moment when someone, or something, starts laying on the bull, and can dissect the baloney bulwark with the well-honed epigram. His persona is that of someone who's being victimized by others, an overly sensitive soul continually on the defensive who's developed a brilliant capacity to put-down, pontificate and get in the last word. Through this visage, he takes aim at everything, whether it be lovers who use sex as nothing more than a peer group stock commodity ("Miracle Man," "Living In Paradise"), schoolyard bullies who grow up to be lame-brained thugs ("Two Little Hitters"), media organizations whose ability to Pavlov the masses borders on fascism ("Radio Radio"), or government services that bypass their humane premise and reduce everyone to a number waiting in line for minimal and impersonal service ("Oliver's Army," "Senior Service"). Other themes in his material are a bit harder to reconcile with one's innate Utopianism, like murder ("Watching the Detectives," "Alison") or misogyny ("I'm Not Angry," "Hand in Hand," et al). Any number of highly-considered rock stars have had these traits as well, like Dylan (still the darling of the New Left after all these years), Mick Jagger, Bowie. In any event, one has to take the best with the worse. I refuse to get hung-up in New Consciousness moralizing over Costello's alleged lack of humanity. Not to confront his world view is to duck the issues he brings up.
On the basis of the description of the ponderousness of Costello's themes, it wouldn't be unusual to assume that he would slip into the seductive fallacy that since all rock lyrics are now poetry, the music can take a back seat. Costello understands that even the most provocative of ideas will exist in a vacuum if the style of the message isn't grabbing. As described earlier, the music stands up in the best tradition of rock and roll, as strong as the Stones, more arresting than Dylan at his creative peak and more rivetting (effective) than the theoretical verve of all the New Wavers and punkers put together. This, finally, brings us to the concert itself. Costello's performance was an affirmation of the worn-out rock-critic adage which sustains that rock and roll is an art meant to be experienced live, not on album, something where the energy will make your armpits sweat, get the blood moving and provoke a response that goes beyond intellect, a response stemming from an instinct more primal. Costello passed this rather dreamy test of rock and roll metaphysics without breathing hard.
Costello was an imposing figure on the Fox stage, a slender, psychotic-looking man in a suit with padded shoulders and thin lapels, someone who would bug-eye the audience through his owl-frame glasses. His expression through the night was like someone giving you a if-looks-could-kill stare after you'd said something to offend him. Opening with "This Year's Girl," Costello and his band, The Attractions, pumped through the material with something of a manic drive. Costello would play his guitar, a Fender Jaguar, with hard strokes of the hand that looked as though he were sawing wood, and his legs went through a strange set of movements, buckling knock-kneed one minute, one leg thumping the floor, while the other was firmly rooted the next, and then pirouetting sharply. He paced the stage in pensive bounds, looking like someone who couldn't bear standing still.
The Attractions themselves were superb. Organist Steve Naive crouched at his spot, no chair for him. He would bounce about almost as erratically as Costello, producing thick chords, succinct fills and well-timed riffs that fleshed out the band's sound. The drummer and bassist, whose names sadly elude me, are the best rhythm section now working, interacting with the same verve that distinguished Keith Moon and John Entwhistle of the Who years before.
The material, mostly from the new Armed Forces, was received with open arms, but the audience was primed for older songs. The first chords of "Watching The Detectives" drove the crowd crazy. At one point, Costello discarded his guitar and took the mike by hand and played out the part of an alienated lover killing his girlfriend because she watches too much television. The line "...took my little finger to blow you away" gets the loudest cheer of the night. Costello tells them goodnight when the song ends.
After a five-minute ovation, they return and crank into "Pump it Up," played at a rapid, undanceable tempo. This encore lasts all of two and a half minutes, and they're gone again, with the audience yowling for more. They had, though, received more than their monies worth.