Uncut, May 2008

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Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett

London, July 1985

Allan Jones

In the days when Elvis Costello is still speaking to me and the mention of my name isn't something probably guaranteed to send him in to a teeth grinding funk, he calls me one afternoon at what used to be Melody Maker and tells me he's got a new record coming out, featuring T Bone Burnett.

I'm all ears. I'm a big Elvis fan, of course, and fascinated, too, by T Bone. I hear about him first from Mick Ronson, who I meet for a drink when he makes a brief trip to London after the first leg of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which Mick's ended up being part of. Mick plays me a tape he's made with some of the people he's fallen in with on the tour — among them, Roger McGuinn, David Mansfield (the young multi-instrumentalist who goes on to compose the sound track for Heaven's Gate), Steve Soles and T Bone Burnett.

The three or four tracks I hear sound fantastic warped, surreal country rock, for want of a better word, all of which subsequently appear on the first of three astonishing albums by The Alpha Band, who are by then just Mansfield, Soles and Burnett. About six people world wide ever get to hear The Alpha Band back then, and in the face of quite colossal public indifference they throw in the proverbial towel after 1978's The Statue Makers Of Hollywood. More recently, I've raved about T Bone's first solo album, Truth Decay, in a feverishly enthusiastic review in Melody Maker.

Back to Elvis, though, who's telling me the record he's made with T Bone, a single called "The People's Limousine," is going out under the name of The Coward Brothers, which is meant, I guess, to be some kind of wry side-project, for which Elvis explains he and T Bone have assumed the sibling aliases of Henry (T Bone) and Howard (Elvis). I tell Elvis I'd like to speak to him and T Bone about the record and he says he and T Bone will do an interview the following Sunday at the Duke Of York theatre in St Martin's Lane, where they are playing a show together, T Bone supporting. I'm going anyway, so this all sounds like a plan. There's one condition, Elvis now tells me — I have to fabricate a fictional biography for The Coward Brothers, and interview them in character, as Henry and Howard.

I duly work up quite a history for The Coward Brothers, and in the version of their careers I concoct, they're making a comeback of sorts with "The People's Limousine," after many sullen years of mutual hostility in the wake of an acrimonious split at the height of their popularity. I date the start of their reunion as the show the previous December that Elvis and T Bone had played at the Royal Festival Hall. It seems to read fairly convincingly, I must say, and I have it printed up as a bogus record company biography, along with a fictitious discography.

I then meet Elvis and T Bone at the Duke Of York. Elvis, who's going through one of his early beardy phases, introduces me to T Bone, and like everyone who meets him for the first time I'm struck by his wholly imposing height, his tallness, if there's such a word, some thing always remarked upon, as if you can't see his head for the clouds around it, birds of some kind of prey with breath-taking wingspans circling his of lofty noggin as they might some Andean peak.

We go up to their dressing room, crack open some beers and get to it, my first question about their early career as The Coward Brothers a bit, I'll admit, convoluted, as l try to sketch out some of the biographical background I've invented. When I've finished, they look at me blankly, especially T Bone, who then stares at me warily, like I'm a potentially spit-dribbling buffoon who'd benefit from a period of confinement under close observation in a home for the intellectually incapable.

I now remind Costello about our initial chat and his insistence, which sounded so important at the time, that I interview him and T Bone in character, you know, as Henry and Howard Coward, and that I should prepare an appropriate back story, at which Costello laughs out loud. "I didn't think you'd fucking bother," he says, and then admits that in what turns out to have been a fraught week, he'd forgotten, which has me rolling my eyes like someone expressing exasperation in a silent film.

"Let's start again," Costello suggests. There follows about 45 minutes of painful mugging by the pair and I think we're all a bit relieved when show time announces itself and I head for the stalls and T Bone's opening set. He'd been great at the Festival Hall, but tonight fails spectacularly to connect with the crowd. I sneak out to the bar, where I find Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve from The Attractions, both of them drunk and surly. It turns out they've just heard The Attractions have been dropped from the line-up for Live Aid, which Elvis will now play on his own. Steve's especially furious, as he's simultaneously discovered that Elvis and T Bone will soon be working together on an album, on which The Attractions are not from what he's heard scheduled to appear.

Steve becomes increasingly irate, eventually, very drunkenly, bursting into Costello's dressing room where Elvis and T Bone and a bunch of people are having a few post-show drinks, loudly accusing Costello of betraying the band and T Bone of trying to split them up. It gets very fractious, very quickly, Steve and Elvis squaring up to each other, Nieve screaming and Elvis shouting to make himself heard over Steve's angry squawking. There's some pushing and shoving and I'm waiting for someone to throw a punch when the fiery Jake Riviera weighs in with some colourful advice to Nieve, who's bundled out the door, still cursing T Bone, evidently the anti-Christ in Steve's opinion. It's an ugly couple of minutes, for which Elvis now apologises to T Bone. "Actually," T Bone says, a tower of calm, "I thought he took the news quite well, everything considered."

At which point, the dressing room door flies open, nearly coming off its hinges, Nieve trying to storm back in, before Pete Thomas picks him up and carries him out in a headlock, less than flattering things being said about T Bone as drummer and keyboard player quit the premises.

"And they wonder why I want a fucking break from them," Costello mutters darkly, T Bone, as ever, above it all.

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Uncut, No. 132, May 2008


Allan Jones revisits his 1985 article on EC and T Bone Burnett.

Images

2008-05-00 Uncut page 146.jpg
Page scan.

2008-05-00 Uncut photo 01 ts.jpg
Photo by Tom Sheehan.

2008-05-00 Uncut cover.jpg 2008-05-00 Uncut contents page.jpg
Cover and contents page.

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