A NUMBER OF readers – people with too much time on their hands, I imagine, connoisseurs of daytime TV schedules , regular whispering voices on late-night phone-ins – have been kind enough to write in about last month’s encounter with a desperately hungover Elvis Costello, wondering how it all ended.
In answer to their question, we eventually spend a couple of hours talking about his new album, Spike, and then because we are by now both dying of thirst, Elvis calls room service for even more drinks, and the conversation becomes somewhat more anecdotal, Elvis sipping his stout and talking about Roy Orbison And Friends: A Black And White Night, the commemorative concert in LA at which Orbison was backed by an all-star cast, including Elvis Presley’s Taking Care Of Business band, Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, KD Lang, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen – at least a couple of these luminaries about whom in the past Elvis had often been less than what you might call flattering…
“Let’s be frank,” Costello laughs. “They were people I’ve often been downright fucking rude about. In fact, I’ve usually slagged them off, which I think is fair enough. I have my opinions about them and they probably know what they think about me. They might get a little outraged, but I don’t give a flying fuck you know.”
So how did you get on with Bruce?
“I thought Bruce wasn’t too bad,” Costello says.
“I mean, he didn’t come until the day of the show. But he turned up, no entourage, no bodyguards, no manager, no roadie. Carrying his own guitar, as far as I could see. And I assumed he knew the songs so well he could just busk it. But I have this nice little image of him… where we did the show was at the Coconut Grove, in the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was shot. Anyway, all the boys were crammed into one dressing room. And you couldn’t move for all these baskets of fruit. It’s Hollywood, you know, so every fucker on the show gets a basket of fruit with nuts and fucking cheese. And, anyway, we’re all packed in there, and it suddenly reminded me of when I was a kid and I used to go to the Joe Loss shows with my dad… all the guys in the band, standing around in their underwear, smoking. It was great. And just before we were due on, I looked around and there’s Springsteen. He’s got a Walkman on, and he’s got his electric guitar and he’s got the chart of ‘Only The Lonely’, and he’s looking really intense and worried. And suddenly he went, “Oh, fuck – that’s how it goes.’”
Elvis, by now, it in a pretty expansive mood, and it soon talking about Van Morrison.
“I think what I really admire about him,” he says, “apart from the fact that he makes the most incredible fucking records, is his single-mindedness. People go on about him being difficult, but he does it his way and if you can’t accept that, then go somewhere else. I don’t think he’s gonna cry. He’s tougher than that. He’s in a class of one, and if you don’t like it, fuck off. There are only two or three people with his kind of singular identity in rock’n’roll. Van, Lou Reed, Dylan.
“I’ve met Dylan a few times, yeah,” Costello says then. “We had a strange conversation once. I met all his kids in a parking lot in Minneapolis. He came to this party with all his sons. Lined them up like they were on parade, and I had to shake hands with them. Dylan said, ‘This is Jesse. He knows all the words to “Pump It Up”’. And, I thought, ‘Now there’s something wrong with this statement, Bob. He knows all the words to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is probably what you mean.’ Jesse was a punk fan. I don’t know how old he is now, but then he was into The Clash and people like that. I think maybe he thought his dad was a bit old-fashioned. Maybe he’s since realised that his dad was a bit more happening than Mick Jones. I hope so. I mean, I love old Mick, he’s great. But Bob’s always been a bit more happening than Mick, let’s face it.”
What do you talk to someone like Dylan about? The weather?
“Actually, yeah. With someone like Dylan or Van, I figure if you just have a normal conversation with them about the weather or something they’re less likely to be withdrawn or whatever. If you steam straight in and it’s like, ‘C’mon, Bob – where ARE the Gates Of Eden?, you’d be straight out the fucking door.”
More drinks arrive, a couple of pints each. Costello is now wondering where all the anger and rebellion and wildness of rock’n’roll is currently hiding.
“I dunno,” he says wearily, exhaustion creeping up on him like a slow tide. “It does seem at the moment that there’s no real willingness to test anything. But it’s not surprising really. All the mannerisms of rebellion in music seem to have been used up. You only have to look at Guns N’Roses to realise that. Cait (O’Riordan, Elvis’ wife at the time) got their LP, and it’s fucking terrible.. It’s like an Outlaws record or something. ‘I’m goin’ down the road with my geetar and I’m a baaad muthafucker.’ Fuck off, you little twat. God, it’s about as rock’n’roll as fucking David Nixon. You can’t keep leaping out of the cupboard going ‘Boo’ to people. It’s not frightening any more.
“And the funny thing is,” he says rallying, a bit more wind left in him yet, “the real wild men are still unacceptable. I’m not talking about someone like Johnny Rotten. He’s completely acceptable. He’s just like Quentin Crisp. An English eccentric. But Jerry Lee Lewis, man. He’s still fucking unacceptable to most people. T-Bone (Burnett, producer of King Of America and Spike) went for a meeting with him, because he’s been working on the film they’re doing about him. And they went to this real chi-chi Hollywood café and this little waiter comes up and goes, “Hi, I’m Cwithtopher and I’ll be your waiter tonight. Is there something I can get you?”
“And Jerry Lee says, “Yeah. What about something blonde, 21, with big fucking tits.’ Just starts straight in. Brilliant. And people like that are always gonna be on the outside. He’s definitely the real thing. And there’s no one else around who’s that unique, that singular. I don’t see anyone like that around any more. I see a few interesting eccentrics. Morrisey. Michael Stipe. Myself, maybe. But those heavy metal bands who think they’re so fucking outrageous, I just think, ‘Fuck off, pal. You don’t even own the territory.’
“Because I look back at some of the things we’ve done, and it’s no fucking contest. I mean, we’ve had our fucking moments, man. And they don’t even come close. Do you fancy another one?” he asks, and of course I do.