Vanity Fair, November 2002

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Rocking around the clock

Elvis Costello

The perfect music for five AM jitters, nine AM bustle, two PM contemplation, eight PM assignations? The author presents a 24-hour soundtrack — Mary J. Blige, Haydn, Björk, Van Morrison, Hank Williams Sr. — that can only improve your day.

What wakes you up at 5 A.M.? Toothache? Heartbreak? Or the nervous rush that comes from too much wine the previous evening? You can tell yourself it is still "night" in the hour after four. Once five strikes it is indisputably "morning."

What sound will soothe as the sharp light floods past the ill-fitting curtains of your hired room? You need fine gauze for the senses. Outside, the last taxis with exhausted revelers skulk home as newspaper trucks sling piles that lie in doorways.

Play Joao Gilberto's "Aguas de Marco" (Polygram), a song that has no need to raise its voice. It's either this or John McCormack's Songs Of My Heart: Popular Songs and Irish Ballads (Angel) at a low volume. The circuit of the vanity clock commences. It's just another parlour (or boudoir) game; in the words of Errol Flynn, this is only "for fun and sport."

6 A.M.   A time of brief respite, before telephones and televisions assault us, and we may be still and patient enough for Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli sung by the Westminster Cathedral Choir (Hyperion). It was once thought that this work saved music in a time when dogmatic cardinals wanted to forbid the use of polyphony. Scholarship does a disservice to our imaginations by illustrating a more mundane reality. Listening to "Kyrie," you can believe that it would have been persuasive.

Voices are raised in praise. Perhaps it is enough to believe that they believe, but if that feels hypocritical, then you could always turn to Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna performed by the Deller Consort (Vanguard). It speaks of another kind of love and sorrow.

7 A.M.   There is a need for order and purpose to the day. Haydn symphonies are ideal at this hour. Concise and with an absence of bombast, they sharpen your wits with a wit of their own. Don't expect this from the slick machine of the modern orchestra. The period group is what you need, with the buzz and clang of the arcane bells, reeds, and bows. There are many recordings, but Volume 2 of the Haydn Symphonies Series, by the Academy Of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre), directed by Christopher Hogwood, is a good place to begin.

As the murmur of news seeps unbiden through the walls and windows, you may prefer the prophecy of the opening measures of the Mozart String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465," often subtitled "Dissonant," performed by Le Quatuor Talich (Calliope), or turn to the piano for "On An Overgrown Path" played by András Schiff on the album Leos Janácek: A Recollection (ECM), or Brahms's autumnal intermezzos "Opuses 117 and 118," performed by Radu Lupu (Decca).

8 A.M.   The day is picking up pace. Mingus is playing loud in the kitchen, something is boiling. It's Blues & Roots (Rhino), or the excellent Thirteen Pictures: The Charles Mingus Anthology (Rhino). Hit the repeat function on "Jump Monk." Like the motor of a city, the rattle of an overhead railway, blood coursing back to the heart, air propelled through the pipes of an old hotel. There is a hoarse voice rising to a shout with the force of life.

What else would work at this hour? The rock-steady beat of Tighten Up: Trojan Reggae Classics 1968-1974 (Trojan) or "Expecting To Fly" from Neil Young's great, reissued compilation, Decade (Reprise).

9 A.M.   The guitar and tender falsetto of Curtis Mayfield lead The Impressions in "I'm So Proud" and "Keep On Pushing." If you can't find Big 16 (HMV) or 28 Originals (ABC) on vinyl, then The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O) will spin you out of doors or across tiled floors.

Men of leisure and Victorian-minded are inclined to answer their mail at this hour. The distraction of Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (Atlantic) will save on postage. Mighty singers still walk among us. Solomon Burke's mid-2002 release, Don't Give Up On Me (Fat Possum), is all the proof you need. I must declare an interest in this one, having co-written one track, "The Judgement," with my wife, Cait. Songs from Dan Penn, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, and the album's producer, Joe Henry, recrown the King Of Rock And Soul. Now it is time to do some housework.

10 A.M.   Turn up Madonna's "Rays Of Light," or even that "Into The Groove" 12-inch single (Warner Bros.) until the neighbours complain. Dance around the furniture with the Hoover like Fred Astaire and his hatstand. The Pet Shop Boys' Please (Capitol) will assist with the dusting. Elgar's "Enigma" Variations conducted by Sir Adrian Boult (EMI Classics) may bring a little nobility to the washing up. Gentlemen, beware, that novelty apron will rob you of your dignity.

11 A.M.   Time for a cup of tea and a biscuit after all that hard work. Select a record from the dressing-up box - David Bowie's Hunky Dory (Virgin) or Elton John's excellent Tumbleweed Connection (Rocket), from his Annie Oakley period. This is also the occasion when you may seek out a lost gem like Judee Sill's "Jesus Was A Cross Maker" (Asylum) or "The Bells" from Gonna Take A Miracle (Columbia), performed by Laura Nyro and Labelle.

NOON.   If you are just waking up now, then you have missed a wonderful morning. Try playing the title song from Oklahoma! (Angel Classics) at full blast until you repent. For those of you just returning from your morning appointments, there is time enough for an act or two of a Mozart opera. Try the first act of Le Nozze di Figaro conducted by Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon), all temptation and intrigue, or the finale conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv), for some sublime forgiveness. It depends on how that meeting went. Those leftovers in the refrigerator start to look like lunch.

1 P.M.   Coffee is on the stove, if that is your poison. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra fill the air - it's Ellington At Newport (Columbia). Follow up with selections from Porgy & Bess (Verve) performed by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. This may be just the time to play Louis Armstrong's "Wild Man Blues" from The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia/Legacy). That cut contains everything you need to know.

2 P.M.   Switch off the television, disconnect the phone, and pull down the shutters. Abandon clock time for one hour in a cool, low-lit room. Everything can wait. Two works from the end of the catalogue occupy you now: Schubert's "Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D. 960," played by Alfred Brendel (Philips), followed by Beethoven's "String Quartet in F Major, Opus 135," performed by the Budapest Quartet (Sony). They sing of ideas beyond words. Tell whoever was waiting on your arrival that you had to see your priest.

3 P.M.   You are out of this world now. You might as well keep going. Skip James's Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo) will be your guide. The eerie falsetto ray sails out beyond the surface clicks and scratches. You may also need PJ Harvey's Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (Island), where the air is rarefied. By the time you read this you should be able to purchase Björk's Greatest Hits (Elektra). When you feel it is time to re-enter the atmosphere, cue up Ralph Stanley (DMZ/Columbia), a new installment of Dr. Stanley's beautiful art. Scare the pants off your death-metal nephew with the ancient tale "Little Mathie Grove": "And with his sword (he) cut off her head and kicked it against the wall."

4 P.M.   Music of the longer shadows is now needed, something where you can detect the glue and rivets holding it all together. For goodness' sake, it's the Mississippi Sheiks' "The World Is Going Wrong" from Stop And Listen (Yazoo). Richard Manuel's yearning voice cries "Tears Of Rage" from Music From Big Pink (Capitol), while Emmylou Harris's unsentimental Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch) reports the demise of a childhood friend. Finally, enter the world of Alice (Anti), Tom Waits's masterpiece of dark mirrors and the frozen earth.

5 P.M.   Let's try another language. Swinging Addis, Volume 8, or Ethiopian Blues & Ballads, Volume 10, of the superb Éthiopiques series (Buda Musique), will transport you in time and space. We whine about whether our records are free enough, and dupe ourselves into thinking that piracy is a blow against the capitalist marauders, when we just want something for nothing. Here is a country that had a pop explosion in the brief window of opportunity between a feudal monarchy and the insane repression of distorted Marxism. Imagine that you dropped the greatest James Brown records into a 5,000-year-old well of deep lamentation and you will get the idea. Do you really want me to care about the nasty little Reagan's children of the Napster generation or which nitwit is running AOL Time Warner or Vivendi Universal this week? They all deserve one another.

Blasting out from the opposite coast, "Envy No Good" is a standout track from the Afro-Rock Volume 1 (Kona/DMI) collection. A young Englishman went to Ghana to seek out the last vinyl copies of this music. He made sure the musicians got their royalties. Any record that contains the work of K. Frimpong and His Cubano Fiestas can only improve your day.

6 P.M.   As you gather yourself for the evening ahead, some cautionary words from Luke The Drifter may be advisable. "Too Many Parties And Too Many Pals" is one of Hank Williams Sr.'s homilies under that alias. You'll find it alongside terrifying ballads such as "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me" on two of Hank senior's numerous collections (Jasmine, Mercury).

George Jones sings of a man who did little to heed such warnings. As "The Last Town I Painted" concludes, "I painted it blue". Then check out "Mr. Fool" from Cup Of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years (Mercury).

Switching over to Merle Haggard, you can take some comfort in the recklessness of "No Reason To Quit" (Capitol). Get back in the mood with some of Muddy Waters's ferocious Chess sides; "Just To Be With You," "Too Young To Know," and "I'm Ready" should do it. Then take it up to the top of the hour with Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out" and "Commit A Crime" by Howlin' Wolf (various Chess compilations).

7 P.M.   You're in a car now, destination unknown. "Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today)" from The Temptations' Psychedelic Soul (Spectrum) compilation is rattling the bodywork. It alternates with Mary J. Blige's No More Drama (MCA) and El-P's Fantastic Damage or El-P Presents Cannibal Oxtrumentals (both Definitive Jux).

This might also be the time to revisit songs that you haven't heard for a while, such as "She Is Still A Mystery" and "Six O'Clock" from The Lovin' Spoonful - Greatest Hits (Buddha). You might prefer something by Salt-N-Pepa or Hanson, depending on your birthday.

At this hour, A Hard Day's Night (Capitol) is almost certainly a better Beatles choice for the motorcar than Revolver or The White Album. Then crank up Disc One of The Byrds' boxed set (Columbia/Legacy) for "She Don't Care About Time." Ignore people staring as you sing along with "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" while waiting at a red light.

8 P.M.   Assuming you didn't get pulled over for speeding, you are where you need to be right now. If you are with your beloved, then you already know what sets your scene. We shall discreetly fade to black. Is that Sonic Youth that I hear in the distance?

If you should find yourself waiting by the phone for an invitation that never comes, literal-minded selections may mock you as much as they comfort. In this respect, Al Green's Call Me (Hi) probably just beats Don Covay's "It's Better To Have (And Don't Need)" from Mercy Mercy: The Definitive Don Covay (Razor & Tie).

Resist the temptation to play old slow songs. "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" from My Fair Lady (Sony Classical/Columbia/Legacy) will only alarm the neighbors as they hear the stifled sobbing coming through the walls. Dogs fear human tears nearly as much as lighning.

9 P.M.   Face it, you are settling in for the night. Let Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece (Polydor) wash over you:

Fair play to you
Killarney's lakes are so blue.

These songs are beautiful and unfathomable:

Linden Arden stole the highlights
And he put his finger through the glass

For still more mischievous moods, dive straight into Bob Dylan's Love And Theft (Columbia). One song, "Floater (Too Much To Ask)," states:

I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves.

The very next, "High Water (For Charlie Patton)," advises you:

Throw your panties overboard.
There is lots of life in lots of old dogs.

10 P.M.   You've run out of explanations and tall tales. Miles Davis's In A Silent Way (Columbia/Legacy) rides on a Tony Williams cymbal all the way to the immaculate puzzle of Radiohead's Amnesiac (Capitol). "Morning Bell" at evening time. Something leads you to Surf's Up (Capitol), the Beach Boys' very own archaeological dig, you dig? The Brian Wilson title song is so beautiful and bold. The lovely track that Cameron Crowe used at the end of Almost Famous can also be found here. It's the work of brother Carl and is called "Feel Flows." Keep that remote control close at hand. Here comes Mike Love's "Student Demonstration Time." Will the madness never end?

11 P.M.   The day is almost done. Now there is a choice between words and another form of eloquence. Joni Mitchell's Blue (Reprise) sounds better than ever at this hour. All of today's confessional writers need to spend a year of pre-midnight hours with this record before sharing their pain with us.

Something still darker and stronger can be found in the tormented imagination of Gesualdo: Madrigals, directed by William Christie (Harmonia Mundi). It is hard to imagine the world from which these compositions came. Carlo Gesualdo was the heir to a prince and was said to have been a murderous cuckold who displayed the slain bodies of his first wife, her lover, and a child of doubtful paternity. It can make you uneasy about even listening to this music.

You probably have enough of your own troubles. Pablo Casals's recordings of the Bach Cello Suites (EMI Classics) will bring the day to a supernatural conclusion.


Can I cry a little bit?
There's nobody to notice it
Can't I cry if I want to
No one cares...

Randy Newman's magnificent "Just One Smile" comes from Dusty Springfield's Dusty In Memphis (Rhino). It's the record you selected just ahead of that pile of Peggy Lee albums you keep for this very occasion.

The blue mood is irresistible now. The hi-fi plays "You Don't Know Me" from Ray Charles's Modern Sounds In Country And Western (Rhino):

You give your hand to me
And then you say hello
And I can hardly speak
My heart is beating so...

1 A.M.   Surrendering to melancholy... Lucinda Williams's Essence (Lost Highay) plays as loud as the hour allows. Her tales of "Lonely Girls" and reasons to cry use only the essential words. This is a deeper shade of "Blue," her lovely ballad. She will inquire, "Are you down?"

If this is not the way to go for you, then put on John Prine's Great Days (Rhino), a collection of his finest moments, or his album of duets, In Spite Of Ourselves (Oh Boy). Finally, play Sam Phillips's Fan Dance (Nonesuch). It is in a world (and class) of its own and you can visit it.

2 A.M.Jimmy Reed will put a little motor in the mood with the woozy groove of "Take Out Some Insurance" and "My Bitter Seed" from Rockin' With Reed (Vee-Jay). The lights are low - there would be cigarette smoke, but you know that is a filthy habit ... and your heart can't stand another drink. This record does all the hurting for you. The world is winding down. Hounddog (Columbia/Legacy) is the perfect accompaniment. Mike Halby and David Hidalgo's impossibly slow blue pulse never sound better than on "I'll Change My Style."

3 A.M.   Quarter to three has come and gone, but that won't stop Only The Lonely (Capitol) from being the ultimate Frank Sinatra album for this time of night - weary, confidential, and completely self-obsessed. You could ask for no more than "Angel Eyes," "Good-Bye," or "One For My Baby." The only record that I know of that is more drained of expectation is Chet Baker's early vocal masterpiece "The Thrill Is Gone." Indeed. You can find it on Chet Baker Sings (Pacific Jazz), and he does. There is a James van Heusen song that both men share. Sinatra's version can be found on In The Wee Small Hours (Capitol). It is both noble and knowing. Chet's narcotic rendition could once be found on Chet Baker With Fifty Italian Strings and has now been reissued as the title track of Deep In A Dream: The Ultimate Chet Baker Collection (Pacific Jazz). It is altogether more troubling.

My cigarette burns me
I wake with a start
My hand isn't hurt
But there's pain in my heart
But we'll love anew
Just as we used to do
When I'm deep in a dream of you.

Now as you edge closer to the darkest hour, play "Ghost Of Yesterday" or "Laughing At Life" (with Lester Young) from Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia (1933-1944).

4 A.M.   Eyes are closing despite your struggle. Morton Feldman's almost seamless fabric of music for piano and string quartet is both hypnotic and transporting. I use the word "fabric" with good reason. The composer is said to have written in admiration of tapestries with just the occasional fascinating imperfection. The recording Piano And String Quartet is by The Kronos Quartet and Aki Takahashi (Nonesuch).

As you drift between the conscious and unconscious worlds, you may glance at a mute television to find that Oliver Postgate's Clangers is being aired. If you can't find a channel showing these stop-frame animated parables of the wonderful armadillo-like creatures and their planet, you can always use Vernon Elliot's lovely score (Trunk) to dream your own version.


Vanity Fair, November 2002

Elvis Costello picks music for every hour of the day.


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Gatefold cover.

Page scans.
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Photos by Jason Schmidt.
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