Uncut, July 2006

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Dublin: October 1988

Stop me if you've heard the one about
Elvis Costello, Bono and Paul McCartney...

Allan Jones

Elvis is frying up some veggie sausages in the kitchen of the penthouse suite of the hotel in Dublin he's called home for the last few months. I'm sharing a couch in the living room with his wife, Cait O'Riordan, the former Pogue. We're talking about the movie she's just starred in, whose premiere we are about to attend, a lukewarm thriller called The Courier, in which she appears opposite Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Bergin.

After the screening, Costello and I fetch up in some gaudy nightclub where the fluorescent throb and gash of neon drenches us in garish hues and strobes flash, a flickering derangement. We are drinking ourselves cheerily senseless when Bono arrives, his appearance among the heathen throng almost papal. First, the crowd parts in front of him, then gathers around him, reverent, adoring, as he advances across the club. He settles at a table opposite us and looks around the room with the empty dead stare of someone who has long since lost the plot, a distant, cold glare that sees very little and understands much less. He could be on another planet, and probably is.

Anyway, he's quickly surrounded by a small sea of smothering supplicants, eager to pay their respects, kiss the hem of his coat, be touched by his presence, blessed by his righteousness.

"Fucking place," Costello mutters grimly into his beer, "is turning into Lourdes."

We're trying to make ourselves heard to each other above the infernal thud of the disco, talking about his Blood & Chocolate LP. Costello's telling me that he'd been convinced this was the record people had been waiting for him to make since Get Happy!!, a return to the classic Attractions sound, the record that at a stroke would revive his faltering commercial ambitions, thoroughly thwarted for most of the decade.

This seems somewhat like very fanciful thinking indeed, Blood & Chocolate sounding for the most part like it had been ripped screaming from the clefts of bedlam, a record of conspicuous and noisy brutality, a howl from an outer darkness. So when Costello tells me he thought it would return him to the mainstream, my natural reaction is laughter. I don't, in fact, believe a word. A year later, though, in Dublin again, Costello is sticking to the same story.

"I honestly wasn't being disingenuous," he says, referring to our earlier conversation. "I knew in America, especially, they took a huge gasp of breath when we did Almost Blue, and although King Of America was one of those records that got me great reviews, Columbia just couldn't sell the fucking thing. So I did have a notion that when we came to do Blood & Chocolate that in the States at least, they'd throw their hats in the air and cheer. I really did think it was the album they wanted me to deliver. Because there were elements of it that I thought were stereotypical. It was like an older, grumpier version of This Year's Model, which I was pretty sure they'd go for. As it turned out, they did to it what they'd done to the two or three records before it. They buried the fucking thing.

"In retrospect," Costello goes on, simply no stopping him, donkeys being separated from their hind legs wherever you look, "I think we underestimated how fucking harsh it sounded. But that was the mood we were in. We wanted it live and we wanted it loud, and we achieved that at the expense of everything else. I mean, we tried to do a ballad on that record, a really pretty song called 'Forgive Her Anything', but we physically couldn't play it. It sounded like we were playing with boxing-gloves on. It needed too delicate an arrangement for the sound we'd contrived. And we got to really fighting about it. Like, 'It's your fucking fault, you're playing too fucking loud: 'No, I'm not. You're playing too fucking fast!' It was like the fucking Troggs. But there was nothing we could do with it. That sound we had, there was just too much barbed wire in it. It was just too fucking ferocious."

We had talked the previous evening about Costello's then-recent collaboration with Paul McCartney on the ex-Beatle's Flowers In The Dirt LP and Costello, getting drunk, had worked himself into a colourful lather about the jaundiced view some people have of the cheery former moptop. He'd even been told, he claimed at somewhat sozzled length, that working with McCartney had somehow soiled his own reputation.

"That's true," Costello says now, nursing a hangover. "People have actually told me that. But fuck them. They're people who wouldn't know a good piece of music if it boned them up the arse."

So what was your immediate response to McCartney's call? were you flattered? Suspicious?

"It might sound facile," Costello says, "but I didn't think about it in any of those terms. I just thought, 'Let's give it a go.' And it was all very unselfconscious - no big deal. We just got on with it. Occasionally, I'd look up and think, 'Oh, hell. It's him.' Because he really — don't laugh — he really does look frighteningly like him. The same was true of Roy Orbison. He's one of those people who look exactly like you expect them to look. You know, I think of him like he's Buzz Aldrin or somebody. Someone who's been to the fucking moon. None of us can conceive what it must be like to have been through what he's experienced. It's a unique experience, probably, in the 20th century, to be him. And that's not making too big a thing of it.

"People who criticise him for being sentimental are talking a lot of shit. Because in any other line of work, if a man of 46 wasn't sentimental about his kids, they'd think he was a fucking sociopath. He's a married man, he has a nice life. What's the fucking matter with that. Fucking hell, just because he's famous they want him to be at the barricades all the fucking time. It's just stupid."

While Costello is cooling down, I ask whether, when the invitation came to work with McCartney, there was a feeling he was being cast in the role that John Lennon once played? This merely starts Costello off again.

"No," he says, quickly. "Lennon's obviously not around to be fallible or great or whatever — some bastard shot him — so in America, I think, they're sometimes obviously fitting up a lot of people for the role. And it's a dangerous thing. In America, some really neurotic critics are trying to fit me into those shoes. And I think it's fucking irresponsible. You know, COME ON. DRAW A FUCKING TARGET ON MY BACK..."

Costello, of course, has been through all this before, after his ill-advised comments about Ray Charles in Columbus, Ohio on the Armed Forces tour when, in the space of week, he received more than 200 death threats.

"Don't remind me," he says with a visible shudder. "Don't remind me."

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Uncut, No. 110, July 2006


Allan Jones recalls a 1988 piece on Elvis Costello.


Andy Gill reviews The River In Reverse.

Images

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Photo by Chris Clunn.


The River In Reverse

Elvis Costello And Allen Toussaint
After his ballet and big-band projects, The Imposter
turns to N’awlinz R&B, with much better results.

Andy Gill

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By far the most appealing of Elvis Costello's recent batch of spin-off projects, The River In Reverse came about as a result of his and Allen Toussaint's involvement in Hurricane Katrina benefit concerts in New York. Understandably, the disaster underpins some of the songs here, most notably the title track and "Broken Promise Land," both of which are imbued with bitterness about how, but for aha'porth of tar, the floods could have been avoided.

Steve Nieve's burring Hammond organ and Toussaint's horns mark the rumbustious verses, before the sad chorus brings their enthusiasm up short, like voters suddenly disabused of illusions about leaders whose concerns are more, "How high shall we build this wall? / How tight can we shut that door?"

Built on a similar rhythm chassis to Toussaint's classic "Hercules," "The River In Reverse" likewise takes a jaundiced view of the affair: "Wake me up with a slap or a kiss / There must be something better than this / 'cos I don't see how it can get much worse / What can we do to send the river in reverse?" The river, of course, being not just the Mississippi, but a metaphor for the rightward drift of American politics.

It's not all flood-related gloom here, though. There are seven choice items from the Toussaint songbook given a fresh make over, including the uplifting civil rights anthem "Freedom For The Stallion," the gospel-styled "Nearer To You" and the classic "On The Way Down". With Toussaint leading the crack band of Attractions and New Orleans session men from the piano, Costello takes lead vocals on most tracks, singing with the enthusiasm and fun of a true fan. The exception is the rolling funk groove "Who's Gonna Help Brother," where Toussaint brings an assured momentum to the hook: "What happened to the Liberty Bell? / Did it ding-dong? / It didn't ding long."

The highlight in probably "International Echo," a new co-written track about the liberating effect of rock 'n' roll on kids thousands of miles distant, with characteristic Toussaint piano flourishes and horn figures, and a message worth sending: "Thought I heard a signal coming through / In a language that I never knew / I felt the pulse in a drum tattoo / Even though I knew it was taboo." Me too, and you, I'd warrant.


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Cover.

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