Hitchcock could have done something with it. Elvis Costello, catching a plane in England's West Midlands en route to a performance in Ireland, found himself trapped in an airport lounge full of smokers when he needed to protect his vocal cords for a show that night. He became involved in a rapidly escalating argument with an airport security woman.
"She wouldn't let me leave," he explains now, from the safety of a Manhattan hotel room. "And when I protested, she started to act like I was doing something suspicious. She really did say to me, 'What is your destiny?' when she meant 'destination.' This is the person who holds my particular fate — or the fate of my throat — in her hands!"
Costello's immediate destiny (and destination) was a small empty room, to which he was banished, in preparation, he thought, for some formal punishment. Then, "at the height of the argument ... she recognized me. And it turned out that she actually liked my music and was secluding me as a favor. But it didn't in any way alleviate my unease. Because at that moment, when she had the power, she didn't know the different between those two words." He leans back on the sofa, eyebrows arched significantly. "It just seemed like that was a little indicator of where things are."
The story has the elements of a Costello song: menace (the fumes), a touch of fascism (the authority figure), horror at the state of our civilization ("destiny"), and a trademark dovetailing, especially in the retelling, of the personal and the political. And that final twist: his tormentor revealed as a fan. Ironic, no?
"Deeply upsetting," corrects Costello, straight-faced.
The incident is, in fact, immortalized in the opening lines of "20% Amnesia," a track from Costello's fine new album, Brutal Youth (Warner Bros.), a project he's eager to plug despite a bad case of bronchitis. Formerly guarded with the press, he's become downright loquacious; he talks ideas, not trivia. Sipping tea, an array of cold pills and fresh fruit before him, Costello looks well. Pale-skinned, with jet black hair and clothes to match, this year's model falls someplace between the scrawny Buddy Holly he seemed in 1977 and the portly, rough-bearded Jerry Garcia knockoff of a few years back. He seems boyish, even precocious. Yet this summer, rock n' roll's most brilliant angry young man will turn 40.
Brutal Youth is Costello's fourteenth original pop album. There've also been collections, soundtracks, classical excursions (last year's acclaimed Juliet Letters), a still-unreleased album of obscure covers (working title: Kojak Variety), songs written for others — even entire albums written for others (Now Ain't the Time For Your Tears, for Wendy James of Transvision Vamp). "Prolific" doesn't begin to describe it: Costello estimates he's composed 300 songs.
No matter what genre he's filtered his songwriting through — country, R&B, classic pop, even last year's "song sequence for string quartet and voice" — the melodic hooks and sharp-eyed lyric detail have remained pretty constant. Yet Costello, one of the most highly regarded pop songwriters of his day — covered by people from George Jones to Tasmin Archer — has had only one Top 40 hit in the States: 1983's "Everyday I Write The Book," which reached number 36.
Brutal Youth is notable because it reunites him with the Attractions — Steve Nieve, keyboards; Pete Thomas, drums; Bruce Thomas, bass — the ferociously proficient combo that invariably backed him during his startling first decade but dissolved in the mid-eighties. Nieve and Pete Thomas made occasional cameos on later Costello albums; Bruce Thomas wrote The Big Wheel, a barely disguised and not very flattering novel about life on the road with a rock band.
"I felt more sad than anything, because he seemed to say he hadn't had much fun for ten years," Costello says of Thomas's contribution to the world of letters. "And there are some spiteful moments in it. Equally, I had a little go at him here and there, you know. [Listen to "How to Be Dumb," on 1991's Mighty Like A Rose.] But any lingering grudge is far outweighed by the advantages of playing together. And he's never been anything but a great bass player."
Costello downplays the reunion, even though his old producer Nick Lowe is also on hand playing bass on several tracks, and an Attractions tour is planned for this spring and summer. "It was very natural," Costello says, smiling. "It wasn't a big decision: 'Let's get back together! The kids need us!' One thing led to another, really."
Much as it has all through his remarkable career. The excellent Trouser Press Record Guide calls Costello "arguably the most significant individual creative voice to emerge in rock n' roll since Bob Dylan." Born Declan Patrick MacManus in London and raised in Liverpool (he now lives in Dublin with his second wife, ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan), he was a 22-year-old married father working as a computer programmer when he delivered some demo tapes to an upstart new label called Stiff. Things happened fast. Renamed by his manager, Costello released his debut, My Aim Is True, in 1977 — punk's heyday. No one who heard it then will forget how fresh and inspired it sounded: angry and honest, yes, but also incredibly crafted. His image — bespectacled, knock-kneed avenger — was totally at odds with the prevailing trends. Then there was "all that stuff about 'revenge and guilt,'" as Costello puts it now — a reference to a famous quote, uttered during his first interview, about his musical inspiration.
"At least they weren't passive emotions," he says. "In a lot of the rock music you hear now, there's cathartic anger in the performance, but the philosophy — the feeling and thinking — behind it is very mushy, or studiedly vague. There's a strain of self-pity: 'I get off the hook because I had a bad childhood.' Whereas in the fifties it made you a dangerous threat — you were a hoodlum — now it makes you a victim. I kind of liked the other thing better." He adds, "I'm not that ill at ease with any of those [early] songs. I don't feel as though the sentiments have necessarily dated."
Costello recorded and toured more or less constantly into the mid-eighties, releasing nine albums in seven years. His output since has scarcely flagged, and he's racked up a clutch of indisputable masterpieces — This Year's Model, Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom, King of America — and maybe a half dozen more that are merely great. For a time, he tried to shake the "Elvis Costello" persona, recording as Declan MacManus, Napoleon Dynamite, the MacManus Gang, D.P. MacManus, the Imposter, the Costello Show, the Coward Brothers, and the Emotional Toothpaste. (It got to the point where one of his collections had to be credited to "various artists.")
"I was just trying to subvert that fixed image — the picture, ironically, that's on the cover of the Rykodisc box," Costello says, referring to the spectacles-dominated visage glaring from the cover of 2½ Years, a recent box set collection of his first three albums, a classic 1978 live show with the Attractions, B sides, and demos. "This unblinking puritan. Puritan because I was quite naive and completely unforgiving of decadent behavior — womanizing, drinking. At least for the first eighteen months — then I completely gave into it. First time I came to America, I went completely to the other extreme."
Despite his demons then — or maybe because of them — the albums still sound glorious. Due this month are 1980's Get Happy!! and 1981's Trust, which, like their predecessors, have been remastered and will feature unreleased and rare tracks. For instance, Trust now includes a version of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale." "There are things I never let out initially because they would have diluted the impression," Costello says. "I wanted it all to be very tight and specific. But issuing them now is honest. And, in a way, it makes the [original] record sound better."
Brutal Youth fits comfortably into the Costello canon; it's familiar sounding but less cluttered than some of his recent work. Subjects range from the unsettling to the darkly funny. Costello says he wrote half a dozen songs in a single day: "I got the guitar out, and it was like magic. For about twelve hours I could do nothing but write songs." Some are lyrically direct ("Still Too Soon To Know"), though more rely on his favored "little snapshot" approach that leaves some work to the listener. "There's a lot left to the imagination," he says. "You put a lot of detail in, but you don't want to tell everybody absolutely everything."
"20% Amnesia" presents a series of disturbing "snapshots" — including one of Gorbachev's fund-raising trip to London ("Mr. Gorbachev came cap in hand / From a bankrupt land"). "Kinder Murder" recounts a rape. "Part of me wanted to do a record that was all at that pitch," he says, "but I think that might have got a bit much for people." Other tracks include "This Is Hell," which, despite its lilting melody, concerns "one proposed hell, filled with embarrassments rather than torments"; the angry "All The Rage," which ends, "Don't try to touch my heart, it's darker than you think / And don't try to read my mind, because it's full of disappearing ink"; and the genuinely compassionate "Clown Strike," which Costello says is about a woman "standing on her head trying to be unique, when she doesn't need to be — she's lovable as she is."
Costello got the idea for the provincial paranoia of "Rocking Horse Road" in New Zealand while exploring "the antipodean New Brighton" and getting lost in a seemingly deserted residential Shangri-la. "This perfectly benign suburban road became somehow really terrifying. People rode by on bicycles — then vanished quickly," he says, practically shuddering at the memory. "Just my imagination, probably. But sometimes you get the feeling that if you lived [in suburbia], and you really lived up to your aspirations, they would find some way to kill you."
But it's his audience that will be at risk in the months ahead, as he and the Attractions hit the road with a formidable repertoire of old and new material. "You've got three people playing a lot, and somebody singing a lot of words — it's not a lot of room for a listener to breathe in," he says, clearly relishing the prospect. "We're taking in all the oxygen."