Somewhere I remember reading a quotation about how so much is said of love as a motive agent but so little is said of hate. Elvis Costello is motivated by hate. A punk Woody Allen, he hates the rich, the successful. his fans, and most significantly, himself. "I don't wanna he your lover / I just wanna be your victim," he sings, grimacing behind his horn-rimmed glasses like an owl on mescaline, and later he dedicated "This Year's Girl" to "all the girls in the audience — the ones that came alone."
It's hard to believe he has a wife, let alone a child; if the man had a normal sexual attitude, a great creative talent would be lost.
It's partly that talent that lets him and his misfit band get away with so little. The stage at the O'Keefe looked almost bare: a single three-tier organ for the Warren Zevon clone on keyboards, a minimal kit for the punk drummer, bass to the right and Elvis on guitar at centre stage, looking like the older brother of the man on the cover of My Aim Is True.
The performance bore out this appearance. being more laid-back than anyone who had heard his El Mocambo appearance last March (available on bootleg) might suspect.
Costello arranges his songs so that they fit together, not so much flowing into one another as telescoping into a jampacked burst of energy. There were a few surprises: Steve Naive switching to piano for a Burt Bacharach cut ("I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" from Stiffs Live), an actual guitar solo (when you cram 13 songs onto an album, who's got time for solos?) and even some of Costello's epileptic puppet dancing. which beats Max Webster hands down.
At times it seemed his guitar was fused to his hip: and at times he treated it like a rabid cat, jerking riffs out with apoplectic horror.
The performance, lasting just under an hour. seemed rather homogenized; the sound was smooth, even in the earlier cuts which were meant to be tense and breakneck.
Some time before, I had an argument with two members of the defeatist school of music appreciation, which feels that nothing will ever equal the Sixties and there's no sense in trying.
You can't reason with people like that, but Costello played a major role in my platform; now I was not so sure.
It could have been that even Costello paled next to the high-energy opening of Battered Wives, who despite the voltage provided mainly comic relief (their chief benefit was sparking a small demonstration by the Women Against Violence Against Women, who paraded outside condemning the band while hundreds of kids surrounded them chanting "Bullshit! Bullshit!).
Could Costello's impact be ephemeral. merely a passing fad?
Any doubts I had were assuaged by the second performance, which I attended out of deference to the guy who introduced me to Costello.
In contrast to the O'Keefe crowd, the people at Hamilton Place sat placidly in their seats. and it could have been in response to this that Costello froze up again, restoring some of the panic and urgency to his music and movements.
The band was constantly on their toes, the drummer beating the hell out of his set. and all pretenses vanished as Costello tried in seeming desperation to liven up the audience.
It was a marvellous performance. from the old stuff like "Mystery Dance" and "Radio Radio" to the newer songs like "I Stand Accused" and "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" (just released, on what may be the best 45 of the year).
Finally, after the crowd failed to respond to repeated exhortations during "Pump It Up". Costello's patience wore thin and he left the stage without an encore.
As the houselights came up. canned ABBA started insulting the crowd, and I barely restrained myself from trying to explain to the grumbling chowderheads around me (looking more like they were there for a lecture) how 55 minutes of Elvis Costello was better than two hours of damn near anyone else.
Definitely the best concert the university didn't have this term.