How can anyone be so brash and so bold and so hungry for stardom that he'll accost record company executives on the street and insist on serenading them on an out-of-tune old guitar, and yet be so shy — or so contemptuous of the whole star-making machinery — that once he's made it half-way to the top, flatly refuses to talk to any members of the press?
And how can anyone write searing, tell-all songs about broken affairs and black-hearted jealousy while remaining, away from the glare of publicity, an apparently happily married husband and father?
Most of all, how can someone so young write songs that are packed full of hard-won experience, and deliver them with an authority that suggests years on the stage?
No doubt about it. Elvis Costello is an enigma. You probably know as much about him as I do, not that there's much to know. He was born somewhere in the U.K. about twenty-four years ago and was christened Declan McManus. He once worked as some sort of computer technician in an automated perfume and cosmetics factory and as a roadie for the pioneering pub-rock outfit Brinsley Schwarz. He has a wife and child somewhere in the suburbs of London, and had a brief but tempestuous affair with model/rock star companion Bebe Buell. Anybody who's reading this probably has at least one Elvis Costello album in his possession, so you know about his voice, which is always charged with passion even though it's not the most lovely instrument. You know his guitar playing is plainly functional but always appropriate, and that his band, the Attractions, is one of the tightest backup units in rock 'n' roll.
And by now you've probably heard about Costello's upcoming concert, scheduled for January 4th at the U.B.C. War Memorial Gymnasium. Will it be worth seeing? Well, that's a question that those of us who caught Costello's one and only previous appearance here have been asking ourselves since the date was first announced.
Although Costello's local debut at the Coliseum happened almost two years ago, for a number of different reasons, it's still fresh in my memory. For one thing, it was the first "new wave" show held anywhere larger than the Commodore. Among the button-bedecked, short-haired, and leathered contingent at the front, there was an unpleasant feeling that the music that they believed in was being sold out to the highest bidder. They were right, of course, but at the time it seemed entirely perverse to see someone like Costello, a high prince of the back-to-basics movement, in the hard rock/hockey palace.
After a suitable period of pushing for position and grumbling, the Battered Wives came on. Quite a surprise for those of us who had never seen a phony punk band before. With sparkling white t-shirts ripped just so, clean white jeans carefully zippered at strategic places, and guitars turned up to pure thrash levels, the Battered Wives remain in my mind as one of the most thoroughly objectionable groups that I've ever been offended by.
By the time the Toronto group had finished flailing their way through a set that seemed to last for hours, the crowd was in a surly mood. So, I suppose, was Costello. At any rate, he stormed onstage with the Attractions in tow, plugged in, and proceeded to blare and grimace through a forty-minute set that was all too short after the tedious hammerings of the Battered Wives. Then he stomped off stage without an encore and without even tossing a few words of thanks to the crowd.
Emotionally, Costello was a let-down, and musically the show was almost as disappointing, even though the live renditions of some of the tunes were quite brilliant. Costello was aloof, every inch the nerd that his horn-rims and unattractive suits made him out to be; while the Attractions, professional and polished as they were, seemed like clockwork toys almost to the breaking point.
I was so taken aback by Costello's cheerless stage demeanour that I went to see him again, two weeks later, when our paths happened to intersect in Berkeley. I only wanted to find out if he was really like that all the time. Sure enough he proceeded to deliver what was practically the same set, made up of the same songs, the same gestures, and climaxed by the same abrupt exit.
Reports of Costello's appearance at last summer's Heatwave rock festival suggest that the singer has loosened up enough to actually respond to an audience's approval. One critic went so far as to call him "ebullient." But when I go up to the War Memorial Gym on the 4th, it's going to be because of an almost masochistic curiosity. I won't be expecting to have a good time. I just want to find out what Costello's going to spring on us this tour. But I am going to go, nonetheless. Despite his onstage selfishness, Costello remains one of rock 'n' roll's finest songwriters as well as one of the music's most influential stylists.
I think it was the freshness of Costello's sound that first attracted me to his music. In late '77 and early '78 his spare, sixties-ish pop came as a welcome contrast to both the bloated excesses of radio rock and the ham-fisted bludgeonings of the punk copy bands. And even though Costello's sound has spawned scores of inferior imitations, his own music has managed to keep that refreshing clarity through four distinct stylistic changes, from the almost countrified, twangy neo-rockabilly of My Aim Is True, through the classic British Invasion pop of This Year's Model, the lushly arranged and almost psychedelic eclecticism of Armed Forces, and the harsh British R&B of Get Happy. Even though Costello has but a few instrumental resources to work with — his own efficient but unspectacular rhythm guitar playing, Peter and Bruce Thomas' solid if unadventurous bass and drum work, and Steve Naive's mawkish acoustic pianos and carousel organs — he has successfully managed to shift his musical focus each time that he has recorded. It's all definitely Costello. By balancing traditional rock structures with innovative arrangements, he has come up with an identifiably personal voice. At the same time, his style cuts across most conventional musical boundaries. The compilation Taking Liberties even finds him singing accompanied only by his own folkish acoustic guitar strumming, or stretching out into a cabaret jazz vocal on Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine."
But eclecticism and the ability to do a lot with a bare minimum of musical ability do not in themselves make for musical success. And the key to Costello's real appeal, and his real talent, might just lie in that cover version of the old Broadway tune, for like the best of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Costello's forte is in re-arranging familiar sounds while creating new lyrical insights. At a time when words have been devalued in favour of images, Costello is an anomaly, a lyricist who delights in the sound of words, in puns and clever wordplay, and in verbal illusions and allusions. At the same time, he always takes care that his flights of verbosity add up to potent statements.
Costello's favourite topics are "society" and heterosexual relationships: very often, in both cases, he writes from the outside looking in. He's most vicious when he's discussing British politics (his diatribes against corporate fascism and the National Front rank with the best of Dylan's political songs) and the twin problems of conventionality and militarism (a recurring theme through Armed Forces). But he's most powerful when he's observing love affairs — his own or others'. Costello can be almost tender, as on his well-known "Alison," but there's always an undercurrent of bittersweet cynicism and sometimes even murderous passion to his ballads. When he really empties the acid in his pen, his honesty is corrosive — there's no other word for it. Only a few other songwriters have the power to be as vitriolic — John Lydon and Mark E. Smith come to mind — but they all too often prefer to use musical obscurism as sort of a smokescreen. Costello's mind is as sharp as a rapier and his music is only slightly more subtle than a flying mallet. When Costello dissects an affair or pokes his nose into society's foibles, his observations are as definitive as pop songs can ever hope to be, and the operations are rarely bloodless.
Accompanying the master songwriter and his band on the 4th will be Squeeze — probably Costello's personal choice, as he has long praised the group's writing skills, and was even reported as having bought copies of their Cool For Cats album to give to the Attractions. Next to Costello, Squeeze is a comparatively light-weight group, but they share his virtues of economy and straightforwardness, coupled with a collective ear for a strong melody that's probably the best in the pop business today.
So it looks like a strong bill to start the New Year's concert season with, and if you're planning to go, now's the time to get those tickets before the scalpers do.