Washington Post, June 16, 1994

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Elvis lives!

A trip with the angry '70s rocker through the Ohio of his soul

Richard Leiby

Things always seem to go to hell in Ohio. Maybe your amp blows up, like it did last night. Or a fan huffs up and walks out in the middle of a song. Right, that happened in Cleveland. And that ugly bar brawl. Wasn't it Columbus, 15 years ago?

Yes. Ohio is where it all blurs together. Ohio: the price you pay for being a practitioner of rock 'n' roll.

"This is always the toughest part of any tour," says Elvis Costello, who you'd think would have better things to do than spend two months in a rumbling bus with his old band, the Attractions, and his lovely and talented but (let's be honest) moody wife. "It always seems to be Ohio where you drive up and down the same stretch of highway. You feel inevitably like you're going around in circles."

So, naturally, this is where we've come to see him. Because there is something poignant and possibly meaningful about watching Elvis Costello play to 4,200 yuppie fans in a riverfront shed with his amp on the fritz and a new album that's No. 195 on Billboard's Top 200 chart ... and falling.

Costello, who helped restore rock's essential anger when it needed it most, way back in 1977, is alleged to be turning 40 this summer. You can see him live tonight if you care to park your blanket on the turf of the Prince George's County Equestrian Center — which seems like a perfectly lousy venue, except maybe it's just perfect for this incarnation of Elvis.

In Cincinnati he arrives on stage already overheated, wrapped in a heavy dark suit with a tightly buttoned vest, carrying a guitar with his name inlaid on its neck. But there isn't a violin or cello in sight. Just his three Attractions, masters of the organ-drum-bass combo. They rage into "No Action" and "The Beat" and some other old anthems. Then Costello spits out "Sulky Girl," a great new song that radio won't play, from Brutal Youth, his 18th album.

Then he pauses and peers over his designer eyeglasses. "It's been quite a while since these gentlemen and myself stood in front of you," he says. "The last time was 10 years ago, on the occasion of my 30th birthday. And as you may know, I'm just about to turn 21 again."

Yes! We roar approval. We laugh with glee. We may own computer businesses, we may be doctors, we may be sitting in $40 seats, we may listen to NPR, we may have to be at the kid's preschool graduation ceremony tomorrow morning ... but by God, we'll always have Elvis. Our Elvis.

"This is Hell. This is Hell. I'm sorry to tell you, it never gets better or worse." Costello's lyrics waft acridly through the cinderblock hallways as he and the band rehearse some new numbers at an afternoon sound check.

A publicist with Warner Bros., Costello's label, waits backstage with a color fax. It's a photo of Costello posing with singers k.d. lang and Tony Bennett, whom he joined for a recent MTV Unplugged session; he's got to approve the shot for an album Bennett will release.

"So how are things back at the home office?" Costello asks the publicist. She smiles and makes flattering small talk, but the real answer would have to be "Not good."

Elvis hasn't had a hit in five years, since "Veronica" — a bright, peppy number about Alzheimer's disease that he co-wrote with Paul McCartney — sneaked into the Top 20. He departed from pop entirely with The Juliet Letters, a 1993 collaboration with a classical string quartet. This despite the commercial failure of 1991's Mighty Like A Rose, which some critics deemed too "rococo" and "experimental."

The label was hoping that Brutal Youth's built-in nostalgia angle — Elvis back with the Attractions after eight years! — and its relative simplicity would help lure disaffected fans. But MTV spurned the album, and so have most radio programmers. Even two appearances on the Letterman show didn't kick-start sales. Now "we're hoping Tony Bennett's [Unplugged] album sells a million — it would help Elvis," says the publicist.

This is palpably ironic: the old American crooner giving a leg up to the British avatar of "alternative" music who can't otherwise move product in the '90s. But Costello never saw himself as a punk or new waver or anything else. He's been covering standards by Cole Porter and Hank Williams since the early 1980s.

"We're singers," he says of himself and Bennett. He's been a fan since age 10, when his mother took him to see Bennett in 1964 in London.

Suddenly a tall woman wearing sunglasses shoots into the ready room, interrupting Costello's huddle with the publicist and journalist. It's Cait O'Riordan, his wife of eight years. The former bassist for the Pogues, an Irish pub-punk band, she effectively gave up her performing career when she married Elvis.

She doesn't wish to shake hands. Her look says you'd be bloody well smart to back off ...

Later, while Elvis is in the middle of telling jokes, she reminds him pointedly, "You're on in 10 minutes." He spins around with a grin and dashes off, theatrically practicing vocal scales.

What I do is a matter of life and death to me. And I'll keep doing it until somebody stops me forcibly.
— Elvis Costello on his first U.S. tour, 1978

There are some musicians you have to take on their own terms. Bob Dylan. John Lennon. Neil Young. Prince. Miles Davis. They have their egos and self-indulgent flaws, but they are so brilliant that the corporate suits rarely balk at their artistic demands and the true fans buy whatever's offered.

For millions in the post-hippie late '70s, Costello's first album, My Aim Is True, represented an awesome fork in the road. You listened to this nerdy, snarling ex-computer operator (real name: Declan MacManus) and said so what, or you immediately put aside your Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac records and followed the new king. There was no turning back.

Many critics rank Costello at the very top of pop's singer-songwriter pantheon: "Still Britain's best lyricist by a country mile ... the supreme thinking man's rock star," declared London's New Musical Express upon the release of Brutal Youth. Even American critic Greil Marcus, who detected a "careerist panic" in the new album, had to concede its magnetic appeal: "I kept playing Brutal Youth, precisely because it was the most unpleasant thing I had in the house."

Elvis makes pain delectable. He serves his lush poetic feasts with shards of loathing and despair. "So tonight I'm drinking to your health / because I just can't stand myself," goes the new single "13 Steps Lead Down," which pairs S&M imagery and 12-step allusions.

In the rock biz, this is a competitive summer tour season, what with such long-of-tooth acts as the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd out to pack the stadiums while a raft of new mosh-pit stars stir younger libidos. Elvis falls somewhere in between. For the Attractions reunion tour, promoters felt obliged to pair him with a young Canadian band, the Crash Test Dummies, who happen to have a million-selling album and Top 20 single.

Another irony: It was Elvis Costello who made the world safe for artsy crossover bands like the Dummies, whose lyrics smugly quote T.S. Eliot.

Says Elvis: "I don't feel that I have to compete with some new group. I don't feel like 'I wish I was as successful as such and such.' It's not a race. It's not an egg-and-spoon race, music."

He makes no apologies for his noncommercial forays: "I wouldn't change a note."

Says Elvis: "The thing is, nobody's forcing you to listen. I'm not holding you down. You know, if you don't like it, don't listen. There's plenty of other records."

That's our Elvis.

The armed forces are the only other line of work that encourages such unsuitable people to travel the world.
 — Elvis Costello on touring, 1989

He seems to remember every town, every show, every flaw. He can re-imagine every slight. The guy who stood up and walked out in Cleveland was wearing a cap and a T-shirt — "he looked like a cartoon of a rock fan" — and it was the Spike tour, summer, and the song was "Miss MacBeth." Which Costello admits is one of his "weirder" compositions, but he still sees no cause for such behavior: "To him it wasn't rock-and-roll, I guess, because it didn't sound like John Cougar."

He then proceeds to apologize for last night's show, which he says included "sonic irritants" and "distractions" that perhaps nobody noticed, but he feels like a "charlatan" when people congratulate him on a substandard performance. "That's just pride in what you do," he says.

We have come to the official interview portion of the program, which includes cappuccino at a downtown four-star hotel and an exceedingly gracious subject. A far cry from the Elvis who once said of prying journalists: "I tried being reasonable. It means you have to be nice to people you hate."

He eagerly puts himself down — "I'm by far the worst musician in the band" — but he won't tolerate others doing so. "Recently I've had to listen to some inane criticism that I somehow don't 'mean it as much, man,' because I don't put my songs in the first person all the time."

Ah, those would be the critics who claim Costello's life is too settled and satisfying to summon genuine anger.

"They don't know my life," he shoots back.

Last month in the Chicago Tribune, he was accused of "nostalgia at best, hypocrisy at worst" for playing the classic "Radio, Radio" in concert. Elvis penned that 1978 rant ("I want to bite the hand that feeds me / I want to bite that hand so badly") at a time when he was struggling for commercial airplay.

"I think that song's as true now!" he says. "We're still being largely ignored by the business. Until all the idiots are gone, I won't stop singing that song."

Elvis can be heard in some niches, such as the "modern rock" playlist of Washington's WHFS-FM or the new "adult alternative album" format, but not on classic rock radio or Top 40. He despises music-programming consultants and the confining labels they invent.

"One minute I was 'new wave,' next thing you know I'm a 'grand old man.' And I'm falling between being too intelligent and not intelligent enough. I can't remember which it is anymore. When we first came to America we were told we couldn't play our instruments. Now we're told we play too well, we're too good!"

The matter isn't raised, but it lingers as subtext: That headline-making night in Columbus, 1979, when Elvis got roughed up by Bonnie Bramlett at a Holiday Inn bar after he instigated a fight by racially maligning James Brown and Ray Charles. It was a conquest of punk-rock persona over common sense. It was classic Ohio. He will always regret it, but "you can't adjust the past," he notes.

The edge, aggression and confrontation remain in the music, and Elvis says that's where they belong. No more benders with the boys, no 14 Pernods in the bar, no trolling for groupies, no surly behavior on this tour. "It's a lot of wasted energy," he says.

Some fans are amazed the band got back together. After Elvis and the Attractions parted ways, bassist Bruce Thomas wrote a roman a clef of life on the road titled The Big Wheel. It lampooned The Singer's weight ("we simply called him 'The Pod'") and love of country music ("In our perverse quest for obscurity, we'd cut a record in Nashville"). Costello answered these carps with a 1991 song titled "How To Be Dumb," directed witheringly at "the funniest {expletive} in the world."

In Cincinnati, Thomas still seemed to be the prodigal Attraction. He played as if removed from the band, and didn't crack a smile until 1 hour 45 minutes into a two-hour set. "I must admit I'm not the world's best person on the road," he said after the show. "My purpose for doing this tour was basically to make friends with everybody again. I don't know if we'll ever do another tour after this one."

For the audience, Costello says, this may well be a "nostalgia trip"; not so for the going-on-40 Attractions. Bruce Thomas has just written another book (on Bruce Lee) and practices martial arts. Drummer Pete Thomas is eager to talk about his 9-year-old daughter's progress on the piano, and to find a suitable swimming pool in which to do his laps. Keyboard player Steve Nieve hooks up his portable computer. Elvis visits art museums and holds hands with his wife.

"Everybody's dealing with the tour amazingly well," he says.

Still, there are flashes of friction. There's don't-quote-me talk of a "soap opera" playing out between the singer and his mate. A stranger might conclude there is a battle going on here: the old wife (the band) versus the new wife.

Or maybe it's just this one day in the dead center of a rock 'n' roll tour, in Ohio.

The big silver and blue tour bus is rumbling somewhere in upstate New York. Costello, persuaded to allow some follow-up questions, is on the mobile phone, sounding as if he's speaking through a beehive.

Is this the last gasp for Elvis Costello and the Attractions? "I have at least two albums in my mind that could very well involve the band," he reports. But still ...

"I'm sorry there isn't a greater sense of urgency about this tour," he says. "This tour is seriously underrated as an event. This is a world-class band. It's easily on the level of the Stones. The media are quite quick to lionize the mediocre and the average."

It's not an egg-and-spoon race, but for some reason he sounds a tad defensive about the size of his crowds: "Five thousand people or however many it was in Cincinnati is nothing to be sniffed at for a band that doesn't have a record on the charts."

He talks about his father, Ross MacManus, a big-band trumpeter, still out there playing. And what it's like to have a 20-year-old son, Matthew, who's very good on the bass. "We are finding that we share a lot of things. I'll go over to his place and he'll show me a record he loves that I had 20 years ago. I went through the same experience with my father."

It's no big deal that he's turning 40, he insists. That remark in Ohio about turning 21 again? "I was being facetious," he laughs. "I lie about my height, not my age."

Look for no deeper meaning. But for some reason, when talking about the old days — the days when "drinking and chasing strange women around would put me in the mind to do the show" — Elvis sounds wistful. For some reason he can't resist saying this: "I'm looking forward to my second childhood. I hope it hurries up and gets here."

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The Washington Post, June 18, 1994

Richard Leiby profiles Elvis Costello following his May 31 concert in Cincinnati, and ahead of his June 16 concert, Upper Marlboro, MD.

Elvis' current Top 10

Richard Leiby

What's on Elvis Costello's mind these days? Here's his Top 10 list of cultural divertissements:

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective: "A guilty pleasure. I saw it one afternoon in the hotel when things were a bit grim and I just didn't feel like doing anything intelligent. And I just laughed myself sick."

The Age of Innocence: "Saw it on a plane. It surprised me. I thought it was going to be boring, but it was really romantic and beautifully made. It's as close to The Magnificent Ambersons as you're going to get these days."

The Art Institute of Chicago: "Everything is integrated — the engravings, prints and sculptures. They made such a great case for art as a thing that sustains human life. I was there over Memorial Day and it was very crowded. Isn't that great? When we've got to worry is when the museums are not crowded."

Also: "In the Royal Academy in London I saw a little painting that Goya did on ivory. It's called A Man Picking Fleas From His Little Dog. It's one of the most wonderful things that you can imagine, that anybody had so much patience and love to draw this tender portrait."

Bikini Kill by Bikini Kill: "It's great fun to play that record before the show. Their record label is called Kill Rock Stars. We're probably on their list."

Martinis & Bikinis by Sam Phillips: "I fear it might be like Aimee Mann's record. It might almost be too good {to get air play}."

The memoirs of composer Hector Berlioz: "A great read. Very funny and romantic. And full of blood."

"All These Things" by the Uniques: "I love this, it's one of my favorite Southern records. My vinyl copy is all scratched from playing it so much, and now I've got a pristine copy on CD!"

Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack: "Wonderful stuff. You should get that."

Mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter: "She's Swedish. She's one of my favorite singers in the whole world. She's just put out Love's Twilight, a beautiful record. That's at the top of my hit parade."


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