His eyes were almost popping out and he was grabbing his Fender guitar like this was Custer's Last Stand. He was screaming it right into the microphone: "I'M NOT ANGRY!!!!!!"
Elvis Costello, who's on his way to becoming the Bruce Springsteen of 1978 seems like the quintessential last angry man of rock 'n' roll. He's reached the first critical plateau: Meet the press. Confront the hype. Be mysterious, but don't scare. Be polite but don't say too much — that special moment when the cult figure reaches the brink of fame's jettison.
There were unrelievable fury and rage and angst in the music Costello was playing Wednesday night at Philadelphia's Hot Club, a raucous little den where 600 fanatics were yelling "Elivs" and jumping up and down and pulling out their hair. Just like the good old hysteria.
What the two Elvises do have in common is rebellion, although Costello's is more derived from the music of his British countrymen in the '60s — the Yardbirds and The Who, with their wrenching metallic tones of dissent pumped through stacks of Marshall amplifiers.
The raw energy came out of Costello's mouth and amplifier Wednesday night. He's plugged himself right into the juice that elevated rock 'n' roll into orbit when his British predecessors showed the world what electric music was all about. They did it on a sonic level.
Costello seems to be a genuine anarchist. He's made at the world, a desperado with a guitar instead of a gun. "There ain't no such things as an original sin," he snarled in one lyric. The average age of the kids in the club was approximately 19, but they knew what he meant.
Costello is hitting the right chord so far. His first album, My Aim Is True, out for less than a month, has already sold 100,000 copies. That's unusual for a new artist, especially for a 22-year-old who six months ago was working as a computer operator in England.
Even before the record started selling and the anointed started lining up at clubs for Costello's first U.S. tour, he attracted almost manic attention from the media: Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and dozens of other papers have blessed him. Now, in a move that might rival 1976's simultaneous Time/Newsweek covers on Bruce Springstees (who has not become a household word). Time has a reporter on the scene for a potential cover.
Nobody seems more confused about all this than Costello who was sitting like a mere milliwatt of his stage persona in the dressing room Wednesday night. He brooded quietly on a couch, staring down past his blue-jeaned legs at the brown oxfords on his feet, even as the three other members of his band were whooping it up and downing vodka. He timidly got up and walked to the minibar and asked, "Could I have a small glass, just the juice, please?" Orange juice in hand, he sat down to stare as his shoes, only to be jacked up by a hyperactive record business person who pumped his arm like a demented gorilla: "Elvis, it was dynamite."
"Thanks very much," Costello said, and sat back down. Someone else walked up and said, "Is all this attention you're getting existing?"
Costello merely shrugged his shoulders and stared at his shoes again.