From the outset, the Armed Forces tour of America seemed destined to draw fire, set tongues wagging. turn heads in its direction. Eyes, for a start, will have popped when they saw Costello and The Attractions rolling into town in their maroon-trimmed Silver Eagle tour bus, especially since the bus had "DESTINATION CAMP LEJEUNE" emblazoned across its front in letters a foot high.
This was obviously just bloody-minded provocation. Camp LeJeune was the United States Marine Corps training camp in North Carolina, and no one will have been greatly amused by Costello's smirking, smart-arse declaration that this was where he was headed. This was March, 1979. America was only four years out of Vietnam, and memories of that dreadful debacle were still raw; rasping echoes of the conflict and its consequences still hung in the air. The country was in no mood for caustic reminders of its recent military disasters.
Costello's manager, the famously truculent Jake Riviera, nevertheless, was ruthlessly determined to pursue the aggressively militaristic promotional campaign he had devised for Armed Forces in the UK and followed it through now by dressing the entire Costello road crew in Army fatigues, giving them the look of a marauding squad of renegade commandos. This might have seemed like a grand joke to Costello and his entourage. a bit of a lark, something to laugh at, wired, drunk, in desert motels and downtown bars as the tour dragged across the country. For less partisan observers, though, it was just another example of Riviera's belligerent insensitivity. There was another message being spelled out here, of course. "Nobody Fucks With The Marine Corps" was a popular military boast. The clear implication of the "Camp LeJeune" sign was that nobody better fuck with Costello and his people. either. The sign was a kind of mobile hands-off warning. a stark reminder to anyone even thinking about getting anywhere near them that they'd be better off keeping their distance.
Fred Schruers made the connection vividly in a dramatic report on the tour for Rolling Stone. "A mixture of paranoia and arrogance," he wrote, "made the Armed Forces tour party as mean and as squirrelly as any platoon of marines trapped behind enemy lines." Schruers was not impressed by Riviera's confrontational tactics, predicted nothing but grief for Costello if he didn't ease up. "By turns petulant and rabid," he observed, reflecting upon the generally unhinged behaviour raging around him. "Elvis and his troops did not seem equal to the grand military metaphors of the promotional campaign that preceded them: they seemed, rather, to be conducting a messy police action bound to make doubters and even enemies out of his strongest American partisans."
Given their highly-strung, combative mood, it came as no surprise to find Costello and his hyped-up wrecking crew quickly at war with the local civilian population. Hostilities broke out first in Seattle, where the audience reacted violently to Costello's appearance at the Paramount Theatre. The Attractions were by now geared up to scorching 50-minute sets, intense, concentrated hit-and-runs. This sort of show had become standard in England, punk had seen to that, where there had been a rapid stripping down of performances after the indulgent spectacles of the early Seventies. The crowd in Seattle, however, weren't used to this routine. They just thought they'd been short-changed, and there was bedlam when Costello refused to return to add anything more to what had already been said, which he was convinced had been enough. Roaring their disapproval, the audience refused to leave the theatre until the Costello road crew turned up the amps and produced a multi-decibel shriek that drove the irate masses into the street, where they made a bonfire out of torn-down concert posters.
There were similar scenes further down the coast. at the Berkeley Community Centre. where Costello was in a bitter, recriminatory mood. Maybe he'd been incensed by The Clash, Who were playing San Francisco the same night and had plastered the Bay Area with posters that proclaimed them as "THE ONLY ENGLISH BAND THAT REALLY MATTERS". This would have been enough to infuriate Costello at the best of times, but does little to fully explain the tempestuous ferocity of his performance. He treated the Berkeley audience to a scourging 40-minute set and split, rejecting the clamourous demands for an encore. The audience was livid. They howled for more, and when they didn't get it they started ripping out seats and stoned The Attractions' tour bus. smashing windows. With the crowd turning really ugly. Costello and his then-girlfriend. Bebe Buell, were whisked through the backstage area and made a hasty, heads-down exit.
Greil Marcus, the distinguished American critic, was at the concert and managed to persuade Jake Riviera to escort him backstage for a word with Costello. Costello promptly ignored him, turned his back and stalked off. At which point, Marcus later claimed, Jake turned on him and hissed: "If you quote me. I'll kick your ass." Marcus duly reported the encounter in New West magazine. "The only reason I wrote it was that Jake threatened to do me bodily injury if I did." Marcus subsequently informed Rolling Stone.
"Jake's just a little thug," Marcus went on. "His commercial strategy has always been We don't need you,' and it's a perfectly decent strategy. The concert was meant as an insult and performed as such. and people caught on."
The tour turned south, into Texas, still beleaguered, hounded by trouble and bad luck, Costello was hit by a stomach virus in Dallas. A week of shows was cancelled. There was, simultaneously, a growing disenchantment within the Costello camp with the way Columbia were promoting both the tour and the record, the feeling that the label wasn't flexing enough muscle to keep the momentum going flat-out. When a New York radio station received more than a quarter of a million calls for 1,200 free tickets they were raffling for a Costello concert in the city, Riviera had approached the record company for the financial backing to book Elvis into Shea Stadium. Columbia turned him down. Jake was typically furious. The next day, he sent a van-load of shovels to the Columbia office, addressed to its chief executives. There was a note, too. "If you really want to bury my act," it said, "I though you could do with some help..."
There were more problems in St Louis, Missouri. Columbia had agreed with the city's premier FM radio station, KSHE, that they could sponsor Costello's concert at the Kiel Opera House. As part of the arrangement, KSHE would broadcast the show. Before he went on stage, Costello had learned that KSHE had only given his albums moderate exposure, while their main local rivals, KADI. had been pumping out his music on their wavelength. KSHE were therefore horrified when Costello dedicated his first encore, "Accidents Will Happen". to "all the boys at radio station KADI". The KSHE people were even more stunned when Costello went on to introduce "Radio Radio" with another unflattering broadside against their organisation. "Now I want to dedicate this song," he began, "to all the local bastard radio stations that don't play our songs ... and to KSHE!"
The KSHE bureaucracy were furious. Costello's records were dropped completely from their playlists. Columbia were also irate. The label was worried about dropped sales for Armed Forces as a result of the KSHE ban. Apologies were demanded, and it was left to Alan Frey, the head of Costello's US management company, to placate the offended programme controllers at KSHE. After four days of smooth-talking persuasion, KSHE backed down and Costello's records went back on the air.
By then, of course, Elvis was long gone from Missouri. He was heading north, now; through the gulping darkness of the great American night, which, in a town called Columbus, in the state of Ohio, would threaten to rise up and swallow him, bones, buttons, hair, temper and all.
This is what you would have noticed most, if you'd been there: the desperate clutch of the dead, dry air. It is always the same in these places. The whistling hum of the air-conditioning; the dim lights, the dumb waiters: the hard luck stories at the bar; the dentural click of ice against glass as the drinks keep coming, round after round.
It was the night of March 16, 1979, and The Attractions were in Columbus, an inconspicuous, medium-sized mid-western city on Highway 40, half-way between Cincinnati and Cleveland. The group had just played a dull, routine show in town and Costello and Attractions' bassist Bruce Thomas were back at the Holiday Inn, drinking. Costello wasn't drunk yet, but he was getting there.
That night, Stephen Stills had also played a gig in Columbus. He was in the Holiday Inn bar now, too, with his manager, Jim Lindersmith, and various members of his band and road crew, including backing singer Bonnie Bramlett and Joe Lala, his percussionist.
Stills had been a founder member of Buffalo Springfield, legends of West Coast rock in the mid-Sixties. He had gone on to form Crosby, Stills And Nash, whose winsome harmonies and melodic acoustic strumming had made them darlings of the Woodstock generation. With the subsequent addition of Stills' old Buffalo Springfield sparring partner, the maverick guitar brigand Neil Young, CSN&Y, as they became, went on to even greater fortune as one of the most popular American supergroups of the early Seventies.
Since the demise of that band, however, Stills career had only spluttered along. beset by drug abuse and a general cantankerousness that made him increasingly difficult to work with. He was now muddling through a forlorn middle-ground, his music of no reasonable interest to anyone apart from die-hard nostalgists for a wiped-out era. Bramlett, meanwhile, was a hard-bitten former Ikette who had enjoyed some success as one half of Delaney & Bonnie, a husband-and-wife white soul act that had been briefly fashionable at the drag end of the Sixties. Following her divorce from Delaney and the collapse of their group, she had struggled through an undistinguished solo career and ended up a bedraggled alcoholic. Rehabilitated now, she had joined Stills for an appearance at the Havana Jam, two months earlier.
Together, Stills and Bramlett will have represented everything that Costello despised about American rock — its self-indulgence, its corpulence and slothfulness, its abject worthlessness. When he accepted an invitation to join the Stills entourage for a drink, Costello must have known that he was tempting the devil.
The trouble started when a local fan started pestering Costello about his attitude towards America and Americans.
"We hate you." Costello snarled. "We just come here for the money. We're the original white boys and you're the colonials."
This was an example of a heavy-handed line in provocation that had been patented by Jake and which had since become familiar to anyone who'd come across the Riviera-Costello circle during one of their more intolerant ranting moods. Most people, finding either Jake or Elvis on course for this kind of volcanic verbal onslaught, very sensibly kept their heads down until the storm blew itself out and conditions returned to normal. What you didn't do was show any visible sign of being upset. This only encouraged them.
Stills and his party unfortunately fell for the whole routine and became immediately defensive. At which point, Costello upped the tempo and apparently dismissed the entire American nation as "just a bunch of flea-bitten greasers and niggers." This was bound to cause the uproar Costello was looking for, and of course it did. One account of the incident has a member of Stills' crew grabbing Costello by the scruff of the neck and telling him in no uncertain terms to keep his mouth shut, of which there was by now no chance. Costello had gone too far to back down. According to a report in the Random Notes pages of Rolling Stone, Costello now turned his attention to Joe Lala and called him "a greaser spic." Stills is then supposed to have grabbed Costello and given him a good shaking before storming out of the bar, angry and disgusted, with Bruce Thomas yelling "Fuck off, steel nose!" after him — the latter remark being an ill-concealed reference to the surgery Stills was alleged to have undergone to repair his nose after a lengthy addiction to cocaine.
The argument now centred around music. with Costello badmouthing most American acts he could think of, including Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Bramlett accused him of stealing and plundering from America's rich heritage of black music. citing James Brown and Ray Charles specifically. Costello then contemptuously dismissing James Brown as "a jive-ass nigger".
This was insensible on Costello's part, and even in the depths of his staggering drunkenness he should have known that he was pushing it too hard, too far. But he blundered on, the hole he was digging for himself getting deeper and darker with every ill-considered remark.
"All right, you son of a bitch," Bramlett demanded, incensed, "what do you think of Ray Charles?"
"He's nothing but an ignorant, blind nigger." Costello seethed venomously, beyond legitimate defence now, mischief turning to malice, a litany of brutal abuse. Bramlett was appalled, and told him to keep his damned opinions to himself.
"Fuck Ray Charles." Costello allegedly roared, "fuck niggers. and fuck you!"
This was too much for Bramlett.
"Don't put the tongue on Ray Charles," she yelled, taking a swipe at Costello that according to one report dumped him arse-over-shoulder onto the carpet. Costello would later contend that Bramlett's punch was wild, didn't connect, that he was, in fact, set upon by no less than five of Stills road crew who beat him to the floor, at which point a full-scale brawl broke out. When the warring factions were eventually separated. the Stills party was hustled out of the hotel to their waiting tour bus while Costello stumbled to his room nursing an injured shoulder.
The next day, the Armed Forces tour moved on to Cleveland, where Costello turned up at a concert by country singer Nicolette Larsen with his arm in a sling; the result, he told fans, laughing it off, of a bust-up over a drink with Bonnie Bramlett. This was typical of his immediate reaction to the fracas in Columbus. which he seems not to have taken terribly seriously.
Talking to people he knew about what had just happened, Costello was determined to play it down, make light of the entire event. The photographer Roberta Bayley, who had known Costello since 1977 when she did a photo-session with him during the recording of This Year's Model, clearly remembers hearing about the incident within 24 hours, from Elvis himself. He described it as a simple bar brawl, an insult match." she later recalled. "He just said, 'I had a fight in the bar last night with these obnoxious people.' No big deal."
For the first few days. at least, after the fracas in Columbus. Costello might well have believed that he'd got away with it, that there would be no public repercussions; that he wouldn't have to answer for what he'd said during his poisonous tirade, that his remarks wouldn't rebound on him in the most terrible way. If this was the case, Costello had reckoned without Bonnie Bramlett, who certainly wasn't prepared to forget what had been said, what had gone down in those awful drunken minutes in the Columbus Holiday Inn. What Costello didn't know, as the Armed Forces tour swung towards Boston and New York, was that this vengeful woman had already been calling virtually every newspaper, wire service and magazine on the East Coast, giving them explicit details of his outburst, branding him a racist and a bigot and demanding retribution. Costello didn't know it then, but there was going to be hell itself to pay for what he'd said.
The first posters appeared in New York the week after the debacle in Columbus. "ARMED FORCES' LAND IN NY!!!" they shrieked. "WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ELVIS COSTELLO WEEKEND?" they wanted to know. There were two dates stencilled beneath a portrait of a typically brooding Costello: "MARCH 31/THE PALLADIUM. APRIL 1/NOWHERE..."
The poster campaign was part of the graphic overture to what would soon become known as the "April Fool's Day Marathon". It was Jake's idea, of course, and the plan. as usual, was outrageous: six gigs in three days. starting with a concert at the Capitol in Passaic, New Jersey. backed-up by two shows the next night at the Palladium in New York, followed on Sunday, April 1, with three New York club dates. beginning at six that evening at the Lone Star Cafe, moving on for a performance at nine at the Bottom Line, and ending with a midnight appearance at downtown club called the Great Gildersleeves.
Jake had devised this unprecedented blitz as the grandstanding climax of the Armed Forces tour. It was essentially a massive publicity binge, intended to overwhelm New York, capture the city's imagination like nothing else in recent memory and grab every available headline for Costello.
If it hadn't been for what had just happened in the bleak precincts of Ohio, Riviera might even have pulled it off, securing Elvis' future celebrity.
By the time Costello arrived in New York, however, the full story of the Columbus brawl was already breaking. The New York press was less concerned with where, when and how often Costello was going to be playing that weekend than they were with what he was supposed to have said two weeks earlier to Bonnie Bramlett.
The first published accounts of the Columbus incident had appeared in New York's Village Voice and Rolling Stone. These had been followed by reports in People magazine and national and local newspapers. From these, Costello had emerged as a sinister bigot. The East Coast media was outraged by Costello's fiercely disparaging comments about America generally, and James Brown and Ray Charles specifically. By the end of March, they were whipping themselves up into a frenzy of liberal indignation, demanding explanation, public apologies and retractions of what they had already decided were Costello's racist views.
"It was just incredible," recalls Kurt Loder, at the time a senior writer on Rolling Stone. "When I first heard about what was supposed to have happened, it just sounded like a really put-up job. I couldn't imagine that Elvis would ever genuinely think that Ray Charles was a blind, ignorant nigger, but there were people, you know, who wanted to lynch the guy.
"I don't think anyone really believed all the stuff that was coming out. I don't think anyone really believed that Elvis hated niggers, blind or otherwise, but because of the attitude he'd had previously towards the press, he really set himself up. He should've known that if he said anything out of line, it was going to get blown up into a really big thing and that they'd really go for him. Which, of course. they did, and it hit him real hard. Because of who he was and this real hands-off attitude he had, there were some people, definitely, who were ready to push him on this one.
"What he said was stupid, but he was talking to burned-out people, Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, these real burned-out guys. You can imagine what they were like. He probably got so mad at them, he said these stupid things. I'm sure he was just trying to egg these people on, because they were just California garbage, full of bullshit. Hell, you can imagine it. Imagine being in a bar with Stephen Stills. I'd probably get into a fight, too. The guy's terrible. But he should've known that people like Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, they needed publicity, they were bound to build it into a major incident.
I mean, here he is touring America, putting down Americans. Some people, they're gonna think that's bad enough, and they're gonna want to get him for it. Then he picks on Ray Charles. You're talking out stuff that people grew up on. Like, everybody thinks Ray Charles is the greatest. I'm sure Elvis felt the same. So what he said was just dumb. He was asking for it. Here's a black guy and he's blind, and Costello starts putting him down. Nobody's gonna get away with shit like that. It was the stupidest thing anybody could've said."
What had started out as a drunken exhibition of mean-mouthed malice in a bar in Ohio was now a full-blown scandal whose damaging momentum even Riviera couldn't control, rein in or wriggle out of. In fact, what was happening now was out of Jake's hands. The press was screaming for Costello's head, civil rights and anti-racist groups ware calling for a boycott of his shows, and the cranks were starting to crawl out of the woodwork, dangerous, anonymous, lunatic. Within a week of ariving in New York, Costello had received around 150 death threats, some of them from people who sounded like they meant business. Jake at least took them seriously enough to hire armed bodyguards to provide Costello with 24-hour protection.
"There were two guys with guns with him at all times," Roberta Bayley would subsequently recall, an article in Spin magazine. "A car would backfire and everyone would hit the floor. It really was that bad."
Something had to be done to defuse the mounting hysteria, calm the anger and outrage that had been provoked. Costello decided to call a press conference at which he would confront the most vociferous of his critics. On the morning of Friday, March 30 invitations went out to the New York rock press, asking them to meet Costello at Columbia's Manhattan offices.
"It was embarrassing," Kurt Loder remembers. "I think CBS must have panicked. I mean, to hold a press conference like that in their corporate headquarters, Jesus! Things must have been bad.
Although they'd been given only two hours notice, there were more than 50 journalists gathered in the 14th floor conference suite of the Columbia building when Costello turned up to face them. Most of them had been waiting a long time for the opportunity to take a pop at Costello, and it was obvious they weren't going to back off now. According to Loder, the mood was hostile. These people hadn't come to listen to Costello's explanations, his excuses: they'd come to watch him squirm.
"This room," Loder goes on, was packed. "It was a panorama of every rock writer in New York." Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau were there, representing Village Voice; Chet Hippo and Fred Schruers were there from Rolling Stone. Costello finally appeared, dressed in a garish polka-dot suit and tie with a lapel badge that pleaded "DESIRE ME".
Most of the journalists were lined up on the far side of the room, in a pack. Kurt Loder was standing just behind Costello, with another Rolling Stone reporter, David Fricke, whose tape recording of the press conference provides the basis for the account that follows.
"You could see straight away how nervous he was," Loder says. "He was shaking, all clenched up, real tense, thinking, 'What am I doing here?' I felt a lot of sympathy for him at that point, because it was rear obvious from the moment he walked in, man, that whatever was gonna happen was gonna be just awful. And it was."
The room is as noisy as a mining camp, gold discovered on the outskirts of town, grizzled whoops and hollers the only language left. Costello struggles at first to make himself heard. His voice is thick, all phlegm at the back of his throat, tongue too big, his mouth full of worried vowels.
"I never... ever... thought I'd be in this position," he begins, and it's clear from the start that this is not going to be one of his best performances. "Hey — I tell you what..." He is talking to the photographers now, the whirring of motor-drives distracting him, flashlights going off in his face. "Do you think you could lay off the flashes until I finish talking, yeah? I don't mind if you take pictures when I finish speaking..." Trying to keep his irritation in check, he sounds merely lame, but at least he has the attention of the mob.
"It seems," he says, and the words aren't coming easily to him, "that it's necessary for me to come here today to make just one statement, which is that I am not a racist. Now, in Wednesday's Voice, I believe it was, there was a report of an incident which occurred in Columbus, Ohio ... an argument, or a brawl, whatever you want to call it ... between me and another artist, a group of artists. And the details of it were somewhat confused, understandably, and I was misquoted out of context in it. I don't really want to get into a trivial feud with another act, but I think it's necessary to point out in what context these remarks, which, although they weren't strictly correctly reported, were made ..."
Costello's voice trails off here, nervous, unsure, but he makes a quick recovery, desperate, from the sound of it, to get this over with. "In the course of this argument, it became necessary for me to outrage these people with about the most obnoxious and... offensive... remarks that I could muster, to bring the argument to a swift conclusion and rid myself of their presence." He pauses here, not all sense of timing gone. "It worked pretty good," he says, setting up his punchline. "It started a fight."
There is some laughter, but nothing too hearty, at this, and Costello continues briskly, taking advantage of the brief lull in the prevailing hostility, maybe thinking that some of these people are on his side, after all. And that was the main thing," he says, and it was at that point I did say some things. which, quoted out of context, appear really offensive towards the people, you know, whose names I was taking, I suppose you might say, in vain ..."
"What was the context?" someone asks simply, determined to draw Costello out on this, no one here really prepared to let him get away with anything as simple as a mere apology: they want the full story, nothing less will satisfy them now.
"The context..." Costello starts to reply, and hauls himself back to the statement he has apparently prepared, safer ground for the moment than extemporised explanations, the muck chew and chatter of what went down that bleak night. "Well, let me just finish what I'm saying first of all..." And he begins again. "These people now seem to have chosen to seek publicity at my expense by making it a gossip item. And it's getting understandably confused and I expect it will get misquoted even further out of context as time goes on. And it worries me that people are gonna pick up on words that have been said and presume that is my opinion. It was in a context of an argument that I used certain words, and that is not my opinion and that's what I've come to say today.
"I mean, as I said before, I don't want to get into a trivial feud with other acts. At the same time... I am sure... that if any of the artists who were mentioned in the Voice article ever read about this, they might wonder what the hell was going on, because I'm sure everybody shares the high esteem towards Ray Charles and James Brown and anybody else that might be added to the list, which I'm sure there will be as it gets more and more out of hand.
"And also... I'm sorry," he continues, forcing out a reluctant apology, not wanting to be seen to be on the run, which, as far as he seems to be concerned. would be a capitulation to the pressure brought upon him by Bramlett's disclosures, "if people got needlessly... uh, angry... about it. And I'm sure there have been, because there's been already some picketing and phone calls to the clubs we'll be playing in the next couple of days.
"Really," and this sounds like he's said as much as he wants to say about the entire incident, "I've just come here to kill it stone dead now, and say that I'm NOT a racist, and if anybody wants to ask any questions or wants me to clarify it any further, that's all I can say..."
Costello barely has space to catch his breath after making this final point before the entire room is in uproar. Everyone has a question and someone is shrieking, "MISTER COSTELLO, MISTER COSTELLO!" Obviously, he wasn't off the hook yet.
"Hang on, hang on," Costello pleads, asking for some order here.
"Can you be a little bit more specific about the circumstances that made it necessary for you to say something so outrageous?" he is asked.
"Yeah... I'm sure..." Costello flounders, before losing his temper, finally, with the photographers. "Uh... these cameras are really bugging me," he snaps. "After a couple of reels, it all looks the same... yeah," he goes on, returning to the question, no other route open to him, anyway. "I'm sure," he says, trying to stay calm and emphatic, an important point coming up, "that everybody's had occasion to go to absolute extremes... in order to, you know... even to say things that you don't believe, you know. Ask Lenny Bruce."
"MISTER COSTELLO." It's that voice again: sleek, determined, sly; the voice of the prosecution, villainously suave, slippery, something out of a court-room melodrama. "MISTER COSTELLO," it goes on, deliberate, a little chilling. "I haven't heard the album Armed Forces but, according to the Soho News and the music review there, they're talking about your album Armed Forces, and you refer to 'Checkpoint Charlie', 'itchy triggers', 'white niggers', 'Palestine', 'Johannesburg', 'darkies'. Things like that. Is that in your record? I haven't heard it."
"Yeah..." Costello answers, flustered, not sure where this is heading, but pretty sure he's not going to like it when he gets there.
"But in the context of the lyrics," he begins to rally, "...once again, those words have been taken totally out of context.
"That's what I'm saying... if you use emotive words in a song or in conversation, if you're then quoted out of context, it can make you look anything from an angel to... you know... Adolf Hitler."
"But, then," the prosecution continues, debonair, eyebrows raised, "you have a history of saying this. If you say it in a record, it just comes out naturally."
"Yeah, but it doesn't make me offensive," Costello counters.
"But you have said it on a record?"
"I haven't heard Armed Forces," the prosecution admits blithely, his apparent ingenuousness fooling no one.
"What's your point?" Costello asks, sharply.
"I said you have a history," the prosecution replies, unruffled, vaguely menacing. "This isn't something that just came up. You have a history of referring to 'niggers' and 'Johannesburg darkies'."
"I have a history of referring to lots of things," Costello says, and you can feel him starting to seethe. "I think that's really irrelevant."
"That's all I wanted to know," the prosecution concludes with a minor flourish, apparently convinced a major point has been scored here. "Thank you."
"So far," someone else observes, "you've said that you've been quoted out of context. You have not yet told us what the context is."
"It was basically just to make them mad," Costello insists, and he's losing patience now. "I chose the one thing that I thought would be the most offensive thing I could say to them."
"What happened to cause the fight?"
"Basically, it worked," Costello spits, and he's beginning to sound abrasive, worked up. "I just wanted to get rid of them."
"What happened to cause the fight?" the questioner persists, nagging. "What caused the argument?'
The argument," Costello says, exasperated "was just being in the bar with the people..."
"Were you drunk?"
This catches Costello on the hop. "We all were... had... were drinking..."
There's a flurry of laughter here, but the interrogation continues; no one's loosening up.
"So you were drunk?"
"I'm sure we were," Costello admits trying to sound light about it, get a little of that old hell-we've-all-been-there sympathy on his side, which is what he needs right now. "I'm sure they were as well," he goes on. "Judging from the way they reported what I said, I know they don't have it any clearer than I did."
This just puts him back on the ropes, however.
"I talked to Bonnie Bramlett," someone announces, and Costello's heart must have sunk at the mention of her name, "who does not drink, and she said that basically everything that has been reported was true."
"Well, I dispute that," Costello offers, unconvincingly.
"Well, that's what she told me," comes the inevitable backhand volley.
"I have not yet finished with my question..." They're starting to close in from all sides now. "I still would like to know what was said, why, and to whom. Because you are asking us to discredit or not pay any regard to something that was in the Voice, and that's fine, but I would like to see the other side of it so I can make a valid decision."
"I don't quite understand what you mean," Costello confesses, helplessly adrift of the question, but this reply is howled down, blatantly derided. Costello ploughs on, head down, getting further into it. "What I'm saying is, I made remarks... if they'd been art fans, if I'd said Toulouse Lautrec was a dwarf, you know, just to piss them off — do you understand me now? Am I making myself clear enough?"
"No, you're not," comes the awful reply, rueful, calculating.
"Well, I'm sorry," Costello says, annoyed and showing it. "I can't make it very much clearer than that"
Someone else wants to get specific about the use of the word "nigger".
"How is that word used, if not to piss people off?" they want to know. "What would be a legitimate context to use that word?"
"I don't think it has a legitimate context," Costello explains, carefully, patiently, wanting this to be made clear. "That's the whole point."
But isn't that what you're claiming? That the context makes it legitimate?"
"No... no," Costello huffs wearily. "I'm not going to argue semantics with you."
"Isn't it a racist word whenever it's used?"
"Uh, no..." Costello knows he's losing this one.
"Haven't you made racist remarks?"
"NO." Costello pleads, crowded, swamped by this line of questioning. "I'd dispute that."
"What made you so angry that night?" This is a question from the back of the crowd.
"Well, there's plenty of things that make me angry about America," he begins, and this is typical of Costello: losing the battle, he inadvertently starts another war.
"But that particular night?" the reporter insists, bringing Costello back to the original question. forestalling another potentially anti-American tirade.
"It was just in the course of a conversation," Costello says testily, tired of going back over the same ground.
"Could you have got up and left?"
"I suppose you can 'always get up and leave, but they didn't leave," Costello says, sounding bitter, harsh. "But when you're involved in an argument... I never expected that they would start talking to the press and making a big deal out of it. It was an argument between them and me. They are the ones who have chosen to make an incident out of it."
"What was the original argument about?"
This is what everyone still wanted to know.
"I suppose we were just talking about conflicting opinions, about music and about the way we work," Costello says, "usual bar room talk, you know. I'm not saying it was a profound conversation. That's why I'm saying that it's so ridiculous that you're all here, and I'm answering questions about this thing. Which was basically just a conversation that went on in a bar in Columbus, Ohio. I can't think of anything more ludicrous."
"Do you have a low view of America?"
"No, I have American friends." Costello is exasperated again, wondering what he can do to get these people off his back. "I don't have an overall low view of Americans," he struggles on. "There's a lot wrong with America, there's a lot wrong with England. There's a lot wrong with the world."
"Could you give us a couple of specifics?" someone asks.
"NO," Costello snaps, angry, temper on the blink. seeing red, "because I'm not here to criticise America. I've come here to explain these things because it's getting out of hand..."
Another voice enters the debate now, irate, outraged.
"There's a quote here saying, 'We hate you.' referring to Americans, 'we just come here for the money.' Now is that TRUE?"
"It can be true one minute," Costello replies, fighting his way out of a tight corner, "and not true the next, can't it?"
"I don't know," his current interrogator howls. "CAN it?"
"Well. yeah." Costello says, not backing down. "It can."
"In what respect?" the questioner wants to know. not satisfied by this response, still angry. When do you hate Americans, when don't you?"
"When I'm made to feel that I'm only here for the money." Costello answers. "Some days you feel great, and others you don't."
"Excuse me." and this is yet another voice, "in an interview in the New Musical Express, you said you were not — I'm going to quote you exactly. but then again. I'd agree with them, you know — 'I'm not a balanced, mature person as far as I'm concerned.'"
"Yeah," Costello is quick to point out, "but nobody says that to make records you have to have a certificate that says you're a nice and wonderful person."
"Yeah, but there's being nice and wonderful and being balanced and working with a full deck of cards."
This is too much nonsense for Costello. "All right, I'll just go home, then," he announces, bewildered, exhausted. "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"
"Were you crazed when you made this statement?"
"I think I'm crazed all the time."
"Oh, well." the reporter says, somehow miffed.
"How does the band feel about this?" David Fricke asks, trying to get the conversation back on track.
"The Attractions? Well," says Costello, dealing with this more capably, "they're disturbed that our gigs here are going to be placed in jeopardy. I mean, we're just here, doing a job."
Kurt Loder pitches in now. "If you wanted to make somebody mad," he asks, "couldn't you find some other way besides insulting artists like James Brown and Ray Charles?"
This just lights Costello's fuse again. "I just told you," he explains. "at the height of the argument. I picked the most offensive thing I could think of to say to them."
Loder, again: "Wouldn't that be offensive to you, too. if you heard somebody say that?"
"Plenty of horrible stuff is written about me, the same as it is about everybody else. I'm sure much worse has been said about people like that, and much more seriously. I mean, I've seen films of people talking about the nigger music, and all that. And those people in the Fifties, in Alabama, they meant it."
A question from the other side of the room, a female voice: "What would you say to Americans to make amends for what you said?"
"I'm not trying to make amends," Costello says despairingly. "I'm not making amends. I'm not apologising to anybody other than somebody who might misunderstand the context of what I said. I'm interested in clarifying it. It's a personal statement: I am not a racist."
"And you're not apologising?"
"As I'm not a racist," Costello hisses, on to this in a flash, "why do I have to apologise?"
"What would you say in order to change the image that you think has been created?"
"Well," Costello says, prepared up to a point to be reasonable, "I would have thought that's up to you. It's how you write it up now. It's whether you think I'm telling the truth or not. That I said these things purely for the effect on that person... if I'd called the press conference now and said, 'Look. all those things are in the Voice,' and I'd said, 'Look, this is what I want to say about black people today...' and then read that out, then I'd be a racist. Because then I'd have called you all in here specifically to say that that's what I wanted to say to you..."
Richard Goldstein is not much taken by this line of defence: "What is the purpose of this conference?" he wants to know. "Are you covering your own behind?"
"Listen," Costello replies, and he's incensed. "I don't really care all that much, you know. I can leave right now."
"I'm just asking the purpose of the news conference," Goldstein continues, refusing to be rattled. " Why did you call it? Are you apologising?"
"I don't want people out there," Costello hits back, voice rising, annoyed, "hearing things third-hand from friends, misquoted even further out of context."
"You weren't available for comment. I tried for hours to reach you," Goldstein harries Costello. "Can you just shut up for a second." Costello barks, "while I answer this?"
Goldstein isn't put off, won't be deflected: "We tried for hours to reach you," he barks back. "You were unavailable for comment."
"I'M ON TOUR!" Costello shouts.
"You were not," Goldstein sneers. "You were in a place in Vermont. We were not given your number. We tried endlessly to reach you for comment. You made yourself unavailable for comment."
"No," Costello persists. "I did not."
"Your entourage made you unavailable."
"Well... that's not my responsibility," Costello fires back, weakly, walking back into the inevitable flak.
"Nothing evidently is." Goldstein remarks, sarcastically, winning the point.
"The quotations in the Voice this week are in essence accurate, but taken out of context," someone else asks, and I think this is Christgau. "Is that true?"
"Certainly," Costello replies, then has second thoughts. "...Uh... well, not verbatim... cos there's all bits chopped out of it. I mean that you don't remember, you know..."
"'That's all Ray Charles is, an ignorant, blind nigger,' you did say. Either in context or out of context."
"I've no idea whether I said those exact words," Costello says. and he sounds desperate. "Like I said, I tried to pick the most offensive thing I could think to say to them..."
"Do you believe." another voice asks, "in the saying that a drunken mind reveals what a sober mind conceals?"
"No... no, I don't," Costello answers quickly. "But that was a good try."
This gets some laughs, goes some way to breaking up the tension. The next question is almost sympathetic, less immediately provocative.
"Even if one accepted your explanation, which I'm in some ways inclined to do, one is left with the notion of the intensity of the hostility in this thing, and your anger. And, throughout your career, there have been innumerable reports of hostility. If that is true... to some extent true... does it bother you about yourself, your own self image, that there's so much anger?"
"Well, no," Costello replies, regaining some of his composure. "Because the press are not infallible, and nor am I. So I understand there's a certain amount of misinterpretation ... that's why... I mean, anybody here — I don't honestly know you all by name, I know some of your faces — but anybody in the music press, at least here, pretty much knows our history with the music press is one of pretty much not talking to you, for very good reasons. You must understand that it seems important enough for me to want to come here myself and not make a press statement that could then be misinterpreted again. That's why I'm here, so you can ask me questions about it."
Costello seems to have thought that this made some sort of sense, but his audience isn't entirely convinced.
"That's not what I was talking about," his inquisitor finally says, and you can imagine heads nodding in agreement, frustrated by Costello's evasiveness.
"It is the point," he insists, however, trying to make himself clear. "Because any hostility towards the press has usually been because of misunderstandings or misinterpretations of things I've said, or doing interviews and then getting them in print and it not being anything that I've said."
"It seems to me that there's a misunderstanding here, that maybe could be clarified." This is Christgau, again. "What you don't seem to understand is that by saying, 'I am not a racist,' you're not going to convince many people in this room, especially the black people, that you are not a racist. That is not what constitutes not being a racist.
"But it does seem to me that, although you don't want to apologise, because that's not your style."
"No, no... no," Costello interrupts, "you're missing the point, man, you're missing the point..."
"OK, let me finish," Christgau goes on. "You have in fact said that you do not believe the things you were quoted as saying, even though you did say them. Is that right?"
"Yeahhhh!" Costello caves in, sounding like he can't really believe this is happening to him. "How many times have I got to say this?"
"Well, you never did actually come out and say that."
"OK, well..." Costello says, weary, pretty much beaten down. "I'm saying it now. All right? Have you got it down now? Have you? I didn't say those things because they are my beliefs. How much clearer can I make it? I said them for the effect of the words on the people I said them to. It was not a statement to the world in general. Who cares what I think, you know? It's only when people get offended by it being written in the press, when it was only intended to offend somebody in a bar."
"I was called down here to find out your side of the story," pipes up another correspondent. "You called this press conference obviously to explain what your intentions were. , even if it was out of context, no matter what you say it was about, it's still out of context to me personally, because I wasn't there... maybe it's trivial to describe the circumstances, but maybe you have to. Because I have to understand exactly what you meant when you said those things. so I can believe you..."
Costello is already beyond this kind of burden. "What do you want me to do?" he asks, fuming. "Recite the entire conversation as far as I can remember it?"
"That would do it," someone calls out, much to Costello's annoyance.
"That would make it all right for you?" he leers. "Well, I'm sorry, I can't remember every single word."
This just starts the mob off on another round of familiar enquiry.
"Why were you so angry at Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett? We haven't been told ..."
Costello must have felt like tearing out his hair. The answer floods out, a gush of words.
"We just became entangled in an argument. It started off quite trivially. It escalated. And escalated. Until it became more serious."
"Couldn't you have found something that nasty to say about a white artist?"
"I found numerous things to say about white artists before that."
"They weren't quoted."
"That's not my fault," Costello almost screams. "That's not my fault, because it doesn't make good copy."
"And you were not available to comment when we tried to reach you!" This can only be Goldstein again. You made yourself unavailable!"
"No. I did not make myself unavailable."
Goldstein is having none of this. "Don't blame it on the press," he bellows at Costello, "which you've been doing all afternoon here. It's not the press, IT'S YOU!" Goldstein is shrieking now. "YOU said it, and you were unavailable to clarify it!"
"I'm here now," Costello snarls back, threateningly, like he's squaring up for a fight. "TAKE ME!"
Kurt Loder steps in smartly to take the heat out of the brewing confrontation. "Would you be offended under other circumstances if somebody insulted Ray Charles like that to your face? Would you take umbrage at that?"
"I would probably defend them, yes, of course," Costello replies, tired, but still simmering, "That was the thing. That's precisely the point. If somebody said that to me and I thought they meant it... that's the whole point. I was just trying to shake them up... if somebody said those same things to me about anybody like that, that I admired, I'd defend them or get angry..."
Chet Flippo sees an opening here. "What if someone called you a sawed-off limey poseur?" he asks nonchalant, but malevolent, a nasty edge to his voice. "What would you say?"
Costello just laughs, nothing to be gained now by punching anyone out. "I think that was something that was said that night, actually ... I think there were several things along those lines ..."
"Would you insult Frank Sinatra like that?" someone wants to know.
"I might do," Costello says.
"If you did, I don't think you'd be here right now," announces a wit in the crowd, and Costello responds to this with genuine amusement.
"No... I probably wouldn't," he says, and there's more laughter at this, a feeling that everyone's running out of steam, and Costello is quick to follow it up with another point. "Like you said before, the lady down the end there, the things that have been printed are only the things about the black artists because they were the things that really annoyed them most of all. That makes good copy, right? That makes good copy. They didn't print the things I said about Crosby, Stills And Nash ..."
"What did you say about them?" comes the inevitable question, but Costello isn't falling for it.
"I've said enough." he answers, getting even more laughs. He can't, however, stop himself having one last dig at Bonnie Bramlett. "And they didn't," he snipes, "print the things where Bonnie said that all limeys are lousy fucks and couldn't get it up anymore."
"How would she know?" David Fricke asks, deadpan.
"I dunno," Costello laughs. "Anybody got any last questions?"
The Voice speaks up again: "How much damage do you suppose this has done to your career? Has it done any damage?"
"I would say it has." Costello admits. "I mean, if the gigs are in jeopardy and if things get awkward enough — I don't want to have a million bodyguards and stuff if threats start coming in and things like that..."
"How many threats have you had?" someone asks, concerned.
"I dunno," Costello says. "Listen... I've had them before and over much more trivial things. That's why it's so important to come here today and try and make people see that this is not something worth getting excited about..."
The Voice hasn't given up yet; they're still looking for ways to hang Costello. "Is that the real reason for this press conference?" they want to know.
"Yes ... it is."
No ... no," Costello protests, and he's had enough of these people now. "It's to prove the point. I told you what my point was. I AM NOT A RACIST. It's to apologise. I'm not afraid of using that word 'apologise' to Ray Charles or James Brown. To anybody that might read what I said and presume that was my opinion of them. Because I don't want them ta think that's the truth. Because it ain't the truth. And to anybody that has got unnecessarily wound up, anybody that's kicked in the TV or burned their copy of the Village Voice in anger, it's unnecessary.
"Because it ain't the truth," he says finally. "And that's all I'm gonna say."
However sincere and contrite Costello might have thought he sounded by the end of his press conference, his performance didn't, as he had hoped, kill the controversy. The press wasn't that forgiving. The civil rights groups, still aggrieved, weren't satisfied by his explanations, were unmoved by his apologies. They confirmed they would picket his weekend concerts. What Jake Riviera had planned as a weekend New York would always remember had turned into something he was probably already wishing he could forget.
The "April Fool's Day Marathon" went ahead, starting at the Lone Star, where Costello opened with a wry aside to the audience. "This playing three clubs in one night is somebody's idea of an April Fool," he said, "and I think I know who the fool is." The New York chapter of Rock Against Racism picketed the Bottom Line, carrying placards that read, "KICK HIM AGAIN, BONN" and "SEND ELVIS BACK TO COMPUTER SCHOOL". Costello replied by starting his show there with a version of The Merseybeats' "I Stand Accused" and his own "Accidents Will Happen."
With Costello still receiving death threats, security at the shows was tight. The first glimpse of a tape recorder, say, or a camera brought an usually immediate and vindictive response from a Riviera-inspired snatch squad, led by The Attractions' tour manager, Des Brown, whose job it had become to wade into the crowd, apprehend the potential bootlegger or photographer and bully them into handing over their tape or film, or else. This had become a nightly routine, and the consequences were sometimes unpleasant.
At the Great Gildersleeves, the last stop in the "April Fool's Day Marathon," Fred Schruers noticed two extra bodyguards at the side of the stage, scrutinising the audience. There were also two Hell's Angels flanking Des Brown, ready for any emergency. During the show, Schruers attention was distracted by the club bouncers frog-marching a bleeding teenager out of the exit door, onto the street. Schruers followed them.
"The teenager's face has been severely beaten," Schruers wrote later, in Rolling Stone. "Blood trails from his scalp and out of one ear. I join him on the sidewalk just outside the door. 'Who did that to you? The bouncers?' He shakes his head no, eyes fixed on the door. 'Bout 11 guys,' he says."
On stage, Schruers remembers, The Attractions were ploughing through the paranoid trawl of "Green Shirt."
"I never said was a stool pigeon / I never said I was a diplomat," Costello was singing, voice hoarse, wrecked. "...Everybody is under suspicion / But you don't want to hear about that..."
There were more shows in America after New York, but the heart had gone out of the tour; everybody now just wanted to get home.
Jake could only make sure there were no further disasters and count the cost of the damage already done, which was plenty. The day after the Columbus dog-fight, March 17, Armed Forces had climbed to Number 10 on the Billboard album chart. With a lot of sales presumably still to come, the Costello camp must have been confident of a Top Five final placing. By the end of April, however, Armed Forces was already out of the US Top 30 and sinking fast. The tour Costello was completing. which should have been the start of a massive Stateside clean-up, was the end of a brief commercial supremacy, not the beginning of the popular domination Riviera had envisaged. Costello would not sell as many copies of a single album in America again. It would be another 18 months in fact before he even toured there again, and longer still before he began to recover fully from the dire consequences of that drunken night in Ohio.
As late as 1982, in a long |interview with Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone, he was still clearly haunted by what had happened.
"It's become a terrible thing, hanging over my head," he reflected. "It's horrible to work hard for a long time and find that what you're best known for is something as idiotic as ... this.
The first thing that a lot of people heard about me was that incident. I think it outweighs my entire career — which is a pretty depressing prospect.
"Fred Schruers wrote a piece about it — a sort of 'tenor of the tour' piece. He said it was like an exercise in paranoia. To an extent, it was. The anti-journalist thing we were doing, the anti-photographer thing, had reached an almost excessive level by that point. Schruers said that the press were looking for something to crucify me with, and I fed myself to the lions. There were words to that effect. I remember them distinctly. And I couldn't help but agree, to a certain extent, looking — aside from the incident itself — dispassionately at the effect of what happened.
"What actually happened was this," Costello went on, after all this time still trying to explain himself, make himself clear in a way he'd been unable to at his 1979 press conference. "We were in the bar — Bruce Thomas and I were in the bar after the show in Columbus, Ohio. And we were very drunk.
"Well, we weren't drunk to begin with — we were reasonably drunk. And we started into what you'd probably call joshing. Gentle jibes between the two camps of the Stills Band and us. It developed as it got drunker and drunker into a nastier and nastier argument. And I suppose that in my drunkenness, my contempt for them was probably exaggerated beyond my real contempt for them. I don't think I had a real opinion,
"But they just seemed in some way to typify a lot of things that I thought were wrong with American music. And that's probably quite unfair. But at that exact moment — they did. And I said the most outrageous thing I could possibly say to them — that I knew, in my drunken logic, would anger them more than anything else."
Marcus asked Costello whether he had any idea that what he had said would prove to be so offensive when it was repeated in a public context, provoking the biggest scandal of its kind since John Lennon claimed that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ.
"No," Costello replied, simply. "Because it was never intended — if I hadn't been drunk, I would never have said those things.
"If it had been a considered argument, I probably would have either not pursued the argument to such extreme length, or I would have thought of something a little bit more coherent, another form of attack, rather than just outrage.
"Outrage is fairly easy," he concluded, a man who'd obviously learned his lesson. "Not in terms of dealing with the consequences, but in terms of employing it as a tactic in an argument."
Out of all the column inches, the comment and the babble that followed what happened that night in Columbus, two contributions to the debate are worth recording here, finally.
The first is a letter that appeared in Rolling Stone some weeks after the incident; a measured, straightforward response to the chorus of incensed disapproval provoked by Costello's remarks, written by his father, Ross MacManus;
"First of all, may I thank you for the review of my son's LP (Elvis Costello In Love And War, RS 287). It is the most perspicacious of all the reviews in any paper (and I have the cartoon of 'El' framed on my wall!). 'Oliver's Army' is an important track for me, and your reviewer, Janet Maslin, so quickly picked up on the 'white nigger' significance. My grandfather was an Ulster Catholic, and, as a child, I lived in an area where bigotry was rife. So we are those white niggers.
"This brings me to the disturbing reports that I have seen branding Elvis Costello as a racist. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My own background has meant that I am passionately opposed to any form of prejudice based on religion or race. And El's mother and I were both branded as hotheads and Marxists or anarchists.
"So you can see that we don't have any chic, white liberal attitudes (and El has publicly despised the latter many times). This is the water that Elvis has been born and bred in, and he swims in it as naturally as a goldfish. His mother comes from the tough, multiracial area of Liverpool, and (think she would still beat the tar out of him if his orthodoxy were in doubt.
Ross MacManus, Twickenham"
The second is from someone who found himself accidentally at the centre of the general furore: Ray Charles. When someone asked him what he thought of it all, he was touchingly forgiving, a legend of understanding and tolerance.
"Anyone could get drunk once in his life," he said. "Drunken talk isn't meant to be printed in the paper, and people should judge Mr Costello by his songs rather than his stupid bar talk."
Elvis Costello could probably have done with more of this kind of simple, unaffected generosity during those wretched weeks, early in 1979, when it must have sometimes seemed like the moon — pale, dangerous and mad — had come howling through the roof of his world.
Armed Forces is re-released in its original vinyl format and original packaging later this year by Demon Records.