Assigned the daunting task of meeting Elvis Costello for the first time, even the most etiquette-shy social misfit has to spare a thought for protocol. Doesn't happen every day, does it? What do you say to a man who's managed to soundtrack the lives of anyone growing up in the punk years and beyond?
Timeless songs from "Alison," "Accidents Will Happen" and "Less Than Zero" to assertive mid-'80s fare such as "Veronica" are really only the tip of the proverbial, iceberg. Blame that voice — rabble rousing in "Pump It Up," a rallying cry for the 'Fever Pitch' generation — but also fully invested with plaintive emotional urgency and anger. as in his rendering of "Shipbuilding."
This is the voice that's wrapped itself around Sleeper's "What Do I Do Now?," an interpretation that leaves no doubt about the emotion Louise Wener's lyric actually carried all along, giving Lou a well earned chance to put her tongue out at detractors.
So you know EC's songs, even if only in greatest hits fashion, because 20 years of cajoling pop listeners to become just that little hit more serious has paid massive dividends for... ummm... what shall we call him today? Elvis? Declan McManus? Napoleon Bloody Dynamite? Sir?
"Actually," Louise Wener says, slouching across the spacious back seat of a black cab, "whenever he rings you up you always pick up the phone to hear him say, 'Hey! This is EC!'"
Louise isn't being blasé: she's far too pleased with her new-found friend, who waltzed into her life last spring. Along with Tricky and Lush, Elvis Costello admired Sleeper and fancied a low-key, high-concept collaboration. "I wanted to do singles in a different way, like a bulletin board or old-fashioned broadsheet, and I thought it might shed a different light on the songs if each week the lead track was a different song," he explains.
"One of the ideas was to have other people, with no direction from me, except they'd he someone that I liked and I thought that they might do something interesting. After that, they were on their own. It doesn't do any harm to extend an invitation. particularly when Sleeper's version of 'The Other End Of The Telescope' came out in such a charming way. Then the idea came up about me doing a song in return."
Things like this have happened before: Noel Gallagher courts Weller. Damon courts Ray Davies. Brett courts Bowie. All, it seems, are courted in return, as if seeking some sort of musical bunk-up will lend the young'uns credibility and give the veterans new links to the present. But appearances can be deceptive. Unlike other attempts to bridge pop's generation gap. the Sleeper/Costello interface happened on the quiet — you won't be reading about the link in Rolling Stone... for the moment.
Right now, it amounts to little more than mutual admiration and song-swapping followed by Sleeper's low-key support of EC on a handful of American dates. But it makes sense. Both have become vitriolic box-bedroom icons misunderstood by pedantic, faux-liberal critics, and both have grown accustomed to half-truths about themselves being printed by the press. But, more important, both have created something lasting from what they first imagined was a disposable pop blueprint.
"I never imagined that anyone would want to hear songs I wrote 20 years ago past the end of that particular year, but pretty soon they'll give me a gold clock," EC says with a laugh. "Now that people do want to hear them I have to accept that and have some relationship with it. After all, the disposable nature of pop only lies in its actual commercial availability. Once the song's in here, in the heart, it matters to people."
Louise agrees. It's hard to gauge the ultimate value of a song when it's still only a track. "Listening to your own records, you can't help but hear how involved you were in the way it was made, and that's strange. When someone else sings a song you've written, you see things from, a different perspective altogether," she smiles. What Elvis Costello has done to 'What Do I Do Now?' is to supplant a kind of innocence with an emotional Molotov cocktail.
"I just thought the song was brilliant. The words, the uncertainty in the relationship. The sadness." EC says. "Obviously the advantage of living that little bit longer than some other people — I'm 42 — I can use that to some advantage. I know the feeling that's on the song very well, but it's not my direct lyrical experience, it's Louise's."
The recipient of this compliment now sits on a big blue sofa looking shyly up at Elvis Costello, holding her tongue. He's animated and garrulous, wearing a burly black coat despite the room's vest-friendly temperatures, talking 20 to the dozen about cherished songwriters — an opinion over-spill. And it's not as if Louise is giving her gob the day off either: naming your five favourite songwriters is difficult for anyone, and no simpler for those who spend half their 'free' time doing interviews. Serendipity intervenes in the shape of the bar staff's choice of music, The Smiths' Hatfull Of Hollow. Who wouldn't take the prompt to first name...
"Morrissey," she exhales. "He makes incredibly astute observations, so how someone can miss the humour of him I'll never understand. You still talk to people now who say, 'My God, he was so gloomy', but he's one of the wittiest English writers."
Elvis concurs: "No, the songs aren't miserable. Morrissey has more in common with English writers like Alan Bennett and more modern writers like Jarvis Cocker. I'd like to see what else Jarvis can do," he says affably. "I like Richard Rodgers, not with I Hammerstein, so I'll say Rodgers and Hart, because their songs are sad, but beautiful. There's one I really love that's kind of like my theme song: it's called 'Glad To Be Unhappy'."
So we laugh. "Bob Dylan," says Louise mischievously. "Whenever anyone talks about Bob Dylan they just go, 'Sad hippie'. But I think his vitriol is lost on people. It's not this airy-fairy, 'Let's all love each other and take our shoes off in the park', business. Listen to 'Positively Fourth Street'!" This may well be the junction of opinion where the two songwriters meet; Elvis Costello is such a massive fan, Dylan's the only artist he's ever supported. Ever. "When I hear people of absolutely no ability at anything speaking of him with disrespect, I always think, You have no idea what you're talking about!" Elvis fumes. "You're talking about someone who's written lines in songs better than anything you'll ever even think about. There isn't anyone who throws out as many words, and as many of them useful, as Bob Dylan. So he would be my second choice."
The spirit of cabaret duly informs the next brace of choices, but kitsch is out of the question despite the pantomime-dame qualities of some of the star turns on offer.
"I'd like to pick Johnny Rotten, or even the Sex Pistols, period," Louise says. "There's an incredible lyricism and turn of phrase there, which is needed because nobody's got the guts to rage against a specific thing, which is that the human condition is still pretty wretched. It could also just be for their attitude; people seem to have lost the ability to hate these days. Since the Sex Pistols, people have just been writing 'Shiny Happy People' over and over."
Yes, and they probably like the guilt-free irony of cheesy listening too. Watch those undercurrents, warns EC. "Burt Bacharach is a popular guy to quote at the moment, but I got acquainted with his lyrics because we did a song together," he explains. "People who've heard of him because of easy listening and Mike Flowers are missing the real emotional thing. He's come in for some attention, some of it patronising. I'll vote Bacharach so people will listen past his sweaters."
Shouldn't there be a yawning chasm of a generation gap to contend with? Quite simply, this is going too well. However, we live in hope for prickly conflict.
"David Bowie's probably my next choice, but at the same time I'm for Bowie, I'm against The Beatles. I adore the way the records sound and I love their production, but it seems passionless; the songs never seem to be about anything, I grew up with them and they were so omnipresent it was like listening to adverts," Louise explains.
As a child of the '60s, EC signposts his early musical development using Lennon & McCartney, but knows he's not alone. "I could make a much more artful list, but to be truthful, The Beatles were the first records I got and the first records I learned to sing harmony to. They were tearaways who'd been exposed to a few arty things. In Hamburg, they'd had an experience of life that was more common to merchant seamen in those days, and then they became famous singing 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'! There's a heavy sense of the tongue being firmly in cheek there. The Beatles opened up our ability to grow up a little bit and the best of the songs opened up possibilities for people drawing diagrams around a basic blueprint."
Taking the fifth is hard for Louise, because the obvious answer sits beside her, chuckling. "I'd have to say Elvis Costello, which is really crap because you're here!" she giggles. Louise Wener's favourite songwriter number five looks genuinely touched, fiddles with his famous glasses and pulls himself together. His rendition of Louise's hit single is a fine enough tribute, but Elvis Costello's fifth choice remains a mystery, even unto himself "Actually, I don't have a fifth because I'm reserving that space for the next good song I hear..."