The billboard is gone now. For two weeks it stood hidden under canvas before being unveiled to reveal a portrait of the singer, perhaps 30 times larger than life, crouched behind a camera, as if taking note of the industrial barons and tastemakers cruising below on Sunset Strip. In spite of its having been removed by some quirk of planning a week before the singer arrived in Los Angeles for a concert at Hollywood High School, everyone agrees it was great while it lasted.
But there are still enough reminders of Elvis Costello's presence. At The Whiskey, the club on the Strip where the music is loudest and the gloom most stygian, patrons can feast on the "Elvis Costello Special," a dish that turns out to be nothing more exotic than fish and chips, while across the street a record shop offers prizes to the customers who are dressed most like him. With his swept-back hair, horn-rimmed glasses and ill-fitting budget suits — a look best described as early '60s impoverished filing clerk — Costello is easily parodied. "That competition is nothing to do with us," snorts his manager, Jake Riviera. "It's bloody annoying. It makes Elvis look like some kind of geek. It's his songs they should be emphasizing. That's what's important"
Three North American tours in 12 months, too many hours in anonymous hotel rooms and the converted Greyhound bus in which the band travels, have dispelled whatever sense of wonder Costello might have felt about being in what he calls "the promised land." When he's on tour he seldom rises before noon. He and his group, the Attractions, are staying at the Tropicana Motel, an establishment that prides itself on its rock music clientele. It's cheap ($12 a night) but has a lot of atmosphere: 14 years ago Sam Cooke, the soul singer, was shot dead in the Tropicana's office.
Elvis Costello's ascent has been meteoric by any standard. Eighteen months before his North American tour he was a computer operator in a London cosmetics company. Nine months later "Watching the Detectives" gave him his first top 10 single and he was being described by Elton John as the best rock singer in Britain. Both his albums have enjoyed success in England, but it is in the United States that his greatest potential lies. His first release, My Aim Is True, was the biggest-selling British import record of 1977, and Rolling Stone named it one of the best five records of the year. His second album, This Year's Model, coasted into the best-seller charts on a wave of equally extravagant critical praise. The release this month of his third LP should clinch his title as king of funky rock 'n' roll in North America.
Elvis Costello is not, of course, his real name. He was born Declan McManus, son of Ross McManus, a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra who now earns his living on the northern club circuit and singing in television commercials. As a boy Declan often accompanied his father to concerts and recording sessions. "If anything, that was a discouragement," he recalls. "Being a musician
has never seemed like a good job to do. I mean, it's not guaranteed to make you a better person or give you a stable kind of life. It's something you do in spite of your better judgment"
He left school at 16 in 1971 with neither qualifications nor ambition. "I probably could have gone to university if I'd put my mind to it, the same as anybody could. But I was just lazy." Moving from the family home in Twickenham to Liverpool, he took a job as a computer operator and wrote songs in his spare time. Four years later he moved back to London, married (he and his wife Mary now have a three-year-old son, Mark), and made up his mind to pursue a musical career. In the evenings he played in semi-professional groups; by day he would use the office stationery for his songwriting, and the telephone to call record companies and music publishers, trying unsuccessfully to interest them in his work. "I was actually walking into people's offices with my guitar because I figured a direct form of communication would do the trick," he says. "But it never did."
A newspaper advertisement for new talent brought him to Stiff Records and Jake Riviera, who had formed Stiff out of the conviction that most people in control of the record industry "are complete dinks who wouldn't know good music if it bit them on the arse." Costello's tape was the first Riviera received. "Elvis just didn't conform to anybody's idea of a rock star," Riviera says. "Because he didn't look like Peter Frampton — all long hair and aviator shades — nobody could see it. Record companies like the beholden, forelock-tugging approach. But guts, determination and character are really useful. Other managers see that was a handicap; I've always liked people who are so wrong they're right"
Riviera christened the singer in a West London pub (Costello is a name father Ross sometimes used for professional purposes) and the first album, My Aim Is True, was launched with a promotion proclaiming "Elvis Is King" — a heretical barb at Presley, who was still alive. Riviera put the company on the verge of bankruptcy with an advertising campaign that included a full-size poster spread across six pages of three separate British music papers (readers wanting the complete poster were obliged to buy all three). Elvis, however, is no longer with Stiff. Although still managed by Riviera, Costello now nestles in the ample corporate bosom of Warner Brothers Records in Britain and Columbia in the States. Ironically, Columbia's English subsidiary was one of the companies that originally turned him down. "When we headlined the Columbia convention in New Orleans the head of English A&R came up to me and said, 'Sorry I couldn't do anything with the tape you sent me, but it's worked out all right, hasn't it? I said, 'Yeah — for me.'"
Costello's refusal to court the media, his uncompromising stand before audiences and his infrequent public pronouncements ("I'm here to corrupt American youth," he told Newsweek, "but my visa will probably run out before I get to do it") have led the American press to tag Costello as rock's new "angry young man." Incidents such as the physical ejection of a persistent photographer from his dressing room and Costello's apparent fit on stage during which two guitars and an amplifier were destroyed — an aberration that puzzles even him — have compounded the image. Costello prefers to describe himself as an irritant "I'm contrary and awkward by nature," he says. "I like to disrupt people's preconceptions. Not simply from a destructive point of view, but any other way would be dull, and I'm not interested in dull things. That's the enjoyment I get out of all this — that it isn't dull, and I intend to keep it as varied and different as possible."
Costello harbors few romantic illusions. His best songs are impressive because of the universal feelings they express — frustration, rejection, the thirst for revenge, which are not often grist to the songwriter's mill — dealt with in tones veering from barely suppressed rage to ironic humor. Much of Costello's inspiration is drawn from the mediocrity he believes has permeated English life. "In America things are either dazzling or totally mundane: that middle ground which exists in England is so much more interesting, a seething sort of atmosphere in which nothing ever gets out of control, nobody ever raises his voice. You mustn't be too clever. At school you're not encouraged to think for yourself, to be too smart. Passions are suppressed, any extremes or freakishness are just soaked up. It's a country totally based on mediocrity."
He is a prolific writer, borrowing his ideas from snatches of overheard conversations, television programs and advertising billboards. His first song, "Less Than Zero," was written from a strong sense of repugnance after he had watched Oswald Mosley being interviewed on television. "It appalled me," he says. "That complacency, the attitude that 'It can't happen here,' can be quite scary when you suddenly look around and realize that maybe it could."
His appearance at a recent Rock Against Racism carnival in England was not, he insists, a political action. "To some people being associated with Rock Against Racism or the Anti-Nazi League automatically means you're associated with the Socialist Workers' Party. But I couldn't give a damn about the SWP. To say you're anti-racist is a humanitarian statement. Obviously I am anti-racist. But I have no sense of mission whatsoever, There's a James Thurber cartoon in which two people are watching a woman picking flowers in the garden and they're saying, 'She has the real Emily Dickinson spirit, only sometimes she gets fed up.' That's how I feel about politics."
For this concert at Hollywood High School, students have decorated the auditorium with blow-up portraits of the early rabble-rousers of rock — Presley, Eddie Cochran, et al — a clear indication of the tradition in which they see Costello working. But when he walks to the stage he confounds their expectations by starting with an impassioned ballad — a new song called "Accidents Will Happen" sung with a simple piano accompaniment. Only later does he turn to more direct rock.
Backstage, girls have insinuated themselves past the security guards and are standing patiently outside the dressing-room door, as if lining up for a bus. To sit down with the group and pick at the chocolate cake and salad laid on for refreshment is the highest of privileges for which some are prepared to suffer any amount of humiliation. The previous night a girl dressed in a nurse's uniform and a lapel badge announcing her as Dr. DNA-Clone was attacked by one of the Attractions with a handful of cold cuts after she polished off the last of a bottle of vodka. Tonight she hovers uncertainly outside the door.
Costello has no great love for touring. "I'd give it all up tomorrow if I felt it had become pointless — like working in a factory. I'm not addicted to the applause the way some people are. The smell of the greasepaint — that's a load of crap as far as I'm concerned. I'm not interested in routines. If you can't keep a fresh view of things you should get out."
Costello is very careful to keep a perspective on the attention and acclaim. He has observed the fate of enough rock performers to know the Faustian bargain fame so often demands, and has even noticed some of the symptoms in himself; moments of complete megalomania followed by a sense of unworthiness and contempt for everything, including himself. "The usual things everybody goes through, only magnified."
Shuffling in his seat, enhancing the impression he gives of wishing he were somewhere else, he admits that these are times when he would like to wind the clock back two years, to that time before he became Elvis Costello. Is there anything he feels he has lost since then? "Oh yeah, yeah, a lot," he says quickly, then checks himself. "But I'm not going to tell you what."
Outside the dressing room the crowd is eyeing Dr. DNA-Clone, banned from the inner sanctum, with a mixture of awe and contempt. Costello surveys the scene in disgust, "I do feel like Jesus in the temple," he sighs. "All this makes you feel very puritanical."