Wet, May 1981

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  • 1981 May

US magazines

Elvis Costello

Tough talk from the moralist of pop

Robert Hilburn

Elvis Costello has made some brilliant records and people are curious about him. His penchant for provocative behavior and refusal to meet the press have of course further piqued public interest. The paltry bit of biography that has leaked out: Declan Patrick MacManus was born twenty-seven years ago, an only child. His father was and still is a jazz musician and Declan grew up in a blue collar section of London where he worked at various odd jobs prior to launching his kamikaze assault on the music business. His first album was recorded while working as a computer operator at Acton. He has a wife named Mary and a six year old son named Matt. Costello is a family name on his mothers' side. No visible scars or birthmarks. No known vices or drug problems.

Prior to Costello's totally severing relations with the press, critic Robert Hilburn spent a few hours with him in Dallas, when he and the Attractions were stateside for their second U.S. tour in 1978. For a variety of reasons the interview never found its way into print, so in an effort to shed some light on pop music's enigmatic avenging angel, we herewith present a few of Elvis Costello's back pages. Hope it doesn't make him mad, but it probably will.

In talking with you, you seem quite rational and calm, in fact, the exact opposite of the way the media portrays you.

Well, moods change. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm becoming mellow. I actually feel more dangerous now because I'm more in control than when I wrote the songs on the first album. When we made that album I had no idea whether it would even come out, much less what would happen to it after it did. I had no idea of America and never even thought of touring England. Then in very rapid succession we formed the Attractions, toured England, got an American record deal and by December were in America. We just couldn't believe where we were. I wrote "Lip Service" one afternoon and we performed it that night. Obviously things were moving very fast.

What was your state of mind during that period?

At that point there was an explosion of things in my life. I was doing a lot of press but the record wasn't being played. Until we left England for the first American tour we couldn't get on the radio and I was annoyed about that. Anyhow, now I've arrived at a point where it's important not to burn myself out wasting energy in an attempt to maintain anger about things I'm not really angry about just because it's part of a persona I've had foisted on me. I've never seen what I'm doing as a negative. This Year's Model was thought to be particularly negative but just because you say you don't want things doesn't make a point of view negative. "This Year's Girl" is the one that bugs me the most as far as its being misunderstood as a negative song. I get accused of being a misogynist all the time and it really gets on my nerves because that song is anything but that. People fail to see that it's in sympathy. Just because you're critical doesn't mean you hate people, and it's critical of something that needs criticizing. When I first wrote it I didn't think it was particularly good because it was very literal, and usually I like to leave elements of doubt so that people can fill it in for themselves. When you're too literal it becomes like preaching. But still, I do believe everything I wrote in that song.

Was it a difficult song to write?

Not really. Something triggered it off.

Would you mind talking about what triggered that song?

I suppose not. It was written with somebody particular in mind, as most songs are. I don't write about abstract ideas too often. I don't think it's a good idea to turn diary writing into songs — that tends to be very dull. There are some people who sing songs that are so close to them that you feel as if you shouldn't be listening. Joni Mitchell is a prime example of that, although she sometimes strikes a good balance between a really personal thing and something you can feel comfortable listening to. Then there are other people who strive so obviously to write the universal sentiment that it's transparently phony. You can't try to write teenage anthems — those things only come about by accident. When "My Generation" first came out, the things it said looked for real and that's why that song became the anthem that it is. You can always tell the real thing when you hear it. I don't have any difficulty understanding the real thing and I can't understand why so many people are so often taken in by imposters.

How do the romantic songs come about?

They come from things that are on my mind, but aren't necessarily from personal experience. Also, I've always wanted to write songs that don't repeat pop clichés. Smokey Robinson wrote songs that had never been written before, and a song like "Sneaky Feelings" — there is no song I know of that is, lyrically, anything like it. There are countless songs that liken love to butterflies but there's never been a nasty greasy little song like "Sneaky Feelings." So I wrote it purely because there hadn't been one. My songs are not all about life and death. Some are written just for the fun of writing them. There's a lot more humor in my music than most people give me credit for, although I'm not particularly bothered whether people see it. I'm not making jokes, but I'm not possessed by some kind of spirit either. I don't go into a trance and write about visions of Johanna. Sometimes it's really intense writing a song, other times it's not. That's why I resent being portrayed as this kind of vengeful figure, because it means that people only understand one aspect of the whole thing and can't figure out how "Sneaky Feelings" or "Blame it on Cain" fits into that narrow mold. The songs don't match the expectations.

What's the reasoning behind your refusal to deal with the press? Is it simply boring for you or do the reasons go deeper?

I've had very bad experiences with the press in England and worse ones in America after my first tour. I did a Time interview that was a real disaster. The guy who interviewed me was an idiot and he was a journalist on top of that. I took great pains to explain my terms to him, and he still managed to misinterpret what I was saying. He misquoted me four times in a one page article and used things I specifically asked him not to, biographical information about my personal life. I asked him not to include those things not for any perverse sense of secrecy but because it was none of his business. Then the guy had the audacity to rewrite the article and have it reprinted in Crawdaddy! I've found that most journalists lack the imagination to grasp anything beyond the most obvious aspects of your personality and then they exploit it as a kind of image. It can be useful to be easily identifiable, but a sharply defined image always boxes you in. I understand that Columbia Records is a business selling a product, which is something they accomplish with a campaign based on the way you look or a certain aspect of your personality. It would be impossible to present a complete person. They can't say "hold on a minute world while we tell you about the whole twenty-three years of this guy's life." But I was starting to feel limited by expectations that were primed by articles in the press, so I figured I would rather rely on situations where I could speak to people directly — radio or TV.

The media seems to be focusing on the anger in you and your music more than anything else. In fact, I was just reading about some fight backstage in Milwaukee.

Yeah, another journalist's exaggeration that really distorted what actually happened. The guy asked for it, he caused the trouble and threw the first blow. And one person, not a group of people and not on my instructions, interceded. I don't need to have people jump on people for me. I'm quite capable of looking after meself.

The Time Magazine article implied that you were upset with American audiences because they were too passive.

What I said was I was sick of the West Coast have-a-nice-day attitude. You find a lot of that sort of phony pleasantry here, and the more I see of America the more confirmed in those opinions I become. It's a bit better in the South where the people are either genuinely friendly or else they're openly hostile. I much prefer that to the West Coast style of behavior. Of course you encounter more of that sort of thing in the record industry because it attracts people with a lack of moral character. Club and concert goers in America are a different crowd and class from concert in England. Gigs are expensive here and it's a very middle class province. England is a poorer country and it's more a working class thing. For some Reason people there go see rock 'n' roll quite a lot and we find a lot more fourteen-year-olds at our gigs in England. In America the audiences are older.

How did you come up with the name Elvis Costello?

My manager Jake Riviera and I were talking one day and just decided well, why not? I wanted a name that was out of the ordinary and it seemed like a nice idea. I never gave any thought as to whether people might find it sacrilegious and I still haven't given it any thought. Can't bring myself to think about it actually.

I was just reading some quotes by another artist - Willy DeVille - who was making comments along the lines of "where do you get off calling yourself Elvis?"

Willy DeVille's a jerk. He's not even in the same league as us, although I'm sure he's dead serious about the comments he made. He told the Chicago Sun-Times we'd be washed up by the end of this tour.

The music you were writing four and five years ago was very foreign to what was popular then. Did you think you'd ever find an audience or interested record company?

Unless you have a vivid imagination it's hard to imagine yourself a performer on-stage, or to expand a song on an acoustic guitar into something that sounds like Yes in your head. I didn't give it any thought and didn't give a shit actually. I suppose I had a bit of an elitist attitude but I didn't know what I was going to do. I was aware, had my eyes open and, wasn't naïve at all. My father was a musician so I knew quite a lot about the workings of the music business. I also knew for quite a while that most of what I was writing wasn't at all commercial. Lots of the songs I'd written at the time I was signed to Stiff in England, didn't end up on the record and still haven't been recorded because they weren't commercial enough. A lot of them were probably overtly mature musically, the kinds of songs you imagine people writing on their ninth album. I'd gone through a period of listening to controlled writers so I was writing songs that were almost obsessively uncommercial. Then the minute I got signed to a record label I just went beserk and started writing pop songs, which was something I'd never done before. Since then I've developed the discipline to tear up songs that aren't worth recording. No matter how good they sound, if they don't have a point, they're not worth recording. I've got tons of songs that are wonderful to listen to but lack any kind of edge. Maybe I should give them to Linda Ronstadt or somebody like that. I've got loads of songs Linda Ronstadt could have massive hits with.

Why are you writing overly mature, uncommercial songs?

I didn't have an outlet so I was writing for fun. I had this obsession with country music so I wrote lots of country songs, which was absolutely pointless because I couldn't possibly be taken seriously as an English country artist. There's no such thing. It's like an English blues band - you'll always be second best. But I was good at writing like that because I can emulate styles, which is something I learned by writing more or less pointlessly for about a year. Suddenly I got an outlet and felt the spark to write about all the things I ever really wanted to write so it was a good thing that I'd kind of bottled it up for a year. I learned the craft of songwriting and now I can write in any form I want. I'm not tied to one format like Bruce Springsteen.

What other artists do you feel a kinship with?

I'd rather listen to Graham Parker than Yes any day, and it's unfortunate to see artists like Parker not get the breaks they deserve. I don't understand why bands like Yes become so popular. Maybe everyone has shares in Yes stock. Maybe it's the fault of journalists who build it up as art. Then, bands like Ted Nugent are more successful than anybody and carry on through every trend. It's awful. I went to see Delbert McClinton last night and he was fuckin' great. He's such a great singer. It was so casual the way he was playing in this little place and it was no big deal for the people who were there. He's like the second coming to his hard core fans in England, which unfortunately aren't too big in number. There are a lot of people who play up to that cultist thing and enjoy it. A lot of writers foster that mentality, that jealous coveting of performers, but it's a shame really. There are people like Richard Hell, probably the most brilliant guy in American rock 'n' roll, and nobody even knows who he is. A lot of those cultish fans resent it the minute the object of their affection achieves any success. But then, often it's rightly so. A lot of people blow it the minute they have any success.

I understand that George Jones and Gram Parsons are big favorites of yours. That's a bit of a surprise since your music has such a strong pop/rock orientation.

People tend to assume that you must sound like the people you like the most. Occasionally I'll do a straight country song — "Stranger in the House" for instance — but I've never felt that comfortable adopting country styles. George Jones is probably the best singer I've heard. He can sing useless material and make it listenable. Dusty Springfield is the same way as far as tone and the things she can do with her voice. And I'm not talking cleverness either. I'm not overly impressed with Al Jarreau, who has a brilliant but ultimately feelingless voice. Cleo Laine is another example of that. Lots of jazz singers are like that. Their main failing is a certain lack of feeling.

So jazz doesn't appeal to you?

It's like pole vaulting or some kind of physical feat. I've never understood instrumental jazz. It's too intellectual in a musical sense, and the references and cleverness of it are in-jokes that I can't really share. Jazz singing doesn't appeal to me because of the trickery involved. Even someone like Dionne Warwick, who at her best is really an emotional singer, can also resort to that trickery. Then some of that jazz stuff, people like Miles Davis, is just too studiedly cold for me. But then, it's good in that it poses a challenge in saying that not all emotion is warm and forceful — some emotion is restrained. Too much jazz and a lot of disco is not intelligently cold, but is simply devoid of emotion completely. I like David Bowie's disco music because, like cool jazz, it's completely drained of emotion — even if I don't choose to take it as my personal creed. I can still appreciate what's behind the choice. The Bee Gees, on the other hand, are just robotic music without any emotion. Lots of disco is devoid of any human element at all, or the human element is damaged. I like Donna Summer from a technical point of view. "I Feel Love" is just a fantastic record. ABBA is also really good. They have a song called "I Kissed The Teacher" that's fuckin' great. They're capable of sounding quite vacuous and a lot of the things they sing about are contrived, but still, there's a lot of feeling in their music. They can make absolutely heartbreaking records, like some of the more sugary things the Beach Boys did. They lose sight of what they're singing and just get into sounding really really pretty.

What were the first records that got you excited about music?

I don't remember any one particular record that made me want to take it up. The first record I ever owned that I liked was Please Please Me" by the Beatles.

When did you start getting into country music and Sun?

I've only really heard bits and pieces of that stuff. I don't have many records and don't have any Elvis, Buddy Holly or Jerry Lee Lewis. Actually I'm not familiar with rock 'n' roll at all although there are rock 'n' roll records I like.

Is your cynicism about the music industry lessening?

No, it's increasing. Jake Riviera is in the business of making himself unpopular on my behalf, which is a manager's job really. We think very much alike about certain things and he's good at getting things done. We have the same ambitions about this business, which is basically to dismantle it. So I do what I do and Jake's the one who malfunctions the machinery and draws all the bad press and personal attacks. A lot of people who attack Jake simply don't know that I hate them as badly as he does. I'm sure I'd be at least as unpopular as he is if the truth were known.

If you're posing a challenge with your music, what's the point of also being unreasonable on a business level?

Because people take advantage when you behave reasonably. I've tried to be reasonable but it just drains you and gets you no where at all. It means you have to be nice to people that you hate. I don't give a fuck about people's expectations because I know the truth and I know the way I feel. I'm not going to write angry songs if that's not what I feel, but I'll always remain unreasonable about the mechanics of the way we do things, even if I start writing songs like John Denver — although I doubt that I will, because his sentiments don't appeal to me. I got into this business because it's better than working and it still is like that. Sometimes you feel a bit fatigued but basically, being in Dallas playing music is a damn sight better than being in an office in England. A lot of people think I should be grateful for the position I'm in but I don't think I need be because it's not a life of luxury. We work hard and I have no one to thank outside of the people in my management and a few people scattered here and there who have some sense. I don't have to be beholden to anybody for the success we've achieved so far.

If you're not making any compromises in your music and it's being well received, as it is, they what are you angry about?

I'm angry that we're not bigger than the Bee Gees and we're not on AM radio. That's what we want, and any artist who isn't worried that his music isn't on AM radio doesn't deserve to be. I don't see any point in doing this unless we do it all the way and at this point we're still just touching a very small elite market. I'm not interested in making peace with the record industry. I want the whole thing — everything — and I won't be satisfied with less. The only way things are going to get any better is when somebody breaks things down. I don't care who follows us in there. Anybody who's got the nerve is welcome.

Wouldn't you say the Sex Pistols did a pretty good job of breaking things open in England?

Yeah, in a way, but they had to sacrifice themselves in the process. We're a little more devious. I don't want to be a trained circus act on Saturday Night Live. I want the whole fucking show. That show's a joke anyhow. We did something really live and they went berserk, which really annoyed me. They want it to be live only as long as they know full well what's going to happen. I hadn't given much thought to what we were going to do but in retrospect I can see that what we did was a real challenge to their narrow concept of what a live show is. We started out doing "Less Than Zero" but then I realized it was too English a song (Ed. note: the song denounces a BBC attempt to rehabilitate National Front leader and former Hitlerite Oswald Mosley) so we switched to "Radio, Radio" and the guys behind the camera went mad and started giving us the finger. It was a typical media experience and that's why I won't be content until those neat formats are destroyed. It's not for personal gain that I'm doing this because there's nothing personally that I want. There are no money or prizes that can be given that will shut me up. I mean, I'll take all the money that they can give me. I want everything that's coming to me, every last penny of it, but I'm not going it for that. Nor am I doing it like some hippie for the greater good of the world. I'm doing it purely because I want to fuck people up. You don't have to be aggressive to challenge people — you can do it with wit. Cheap Trick are very entertaining and don't have any particular axe to grind, but they're almost like a parody of show business and that's how they make things interesting. It doesn't have to be like a sermon and that's why I'm so against being boxed in by that angry image. I'm not angry about everything. I'm just extremely irate about some things. Perpetual rage loses its impact and becomes tiresome.

What sort of effect do you hope your music might have on listeners?

I don't care so long as they don't sit there like a load of lemons. They don't have to get up and dance, because I'm not into that "everybody get down let's boogie" stuff. But sometimes when I'll feel they're just sitting there I'll scream "get up you lazy fuckers" because I feel like abusing the privilege of being onstage. (laughing) I can shout at people just because I feel they deserve it. I don't give a fuck if they think I'm abusing them after they've paid good money to see me. If they don't like it they can ask for their money back. I don't want them to sit reverently and analyse. It's got to hit them in some kind of real way. Some people have lost the ability to feel because they're being constantly bombarded with things totally lacking any substance. When I first heard Gram Parsons I burst into tears because his music was so full of life I couldn't believe it. I think his first album is one of the best records ever made. Everything is perfect about the G.P. album because the playing is so good. The playing on the Burrito Brothers' albums was always a bit under par, but then, that's almost the attraction. It's like the Dylan albums where the band was all over the place because he kept playing out of time and everyone kept trying to follow him. "Like a Rolling Stone" is horribly out of time. You can hear the group frantically trying to keep up with him because the guy's totally undisciplined. And that's the attraction of that rough kind of music. Hank Williams was always breaking the meter. I don't know much about Bob Dylan, in fact, I've never really heard an entire side of any of his albums, but Planet Waves is my favorite record he's done.

How do you feel at this point? Are things in good shape?

I don't know whether we'll bother to come back to America actually. I don't want to get routine about things, so unless we find a new plan of attack, then why bother. Once we start having tour logos, "Oh yes, here they come again," it's time to quit. We sell out shows and it would be easy to pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves yeah, we're wonderful, but we've not even begun to accomplish what we're after. People seem to have an inability to understand what we're here for and think that if they toss us the soupbowl maybe we'll go away. It was disappointing to find that radio won't break down. I mean, we are fighting a losing battle and I'm quite aware of the fact that we are kind of doomed because we've flat out gone for the throat. They can't write us off the way they did the Pistols, because we're not unmusical. And because I am articulate, the more we come out in the open the more they're afraid of us. They try to write me off as some kind of psychotic weirdo when they discover that I'm actually quite calm about it and do really mean it. They know that I couldn't give a shit and am not prepared to be nice just to get my records played. It makes me dangerous to them that I'm not addicted to the money or applause. I don't need it that badly and I certainly don't need America.

Do you feel any kinship with your audience?

It's encouraging that some people do seem to enjoy what we do and you've got to feel flattered and draw strength from the fact that it means a lot to some people. But I don't know about kinship. That's rather like brotherly love isn't it? That's a fuckin' weird concept.

Thanks to Robert Hilburn for his generosity in giving us access to this interview. Redactions by Kristine McKenna.

Tags: Declan MacManusRoss MacManusMy Aim Is TrueMatt MacManusThe AttractionsDallas3rd US TourLip ServiceThis Year's ModelThis Year's GirlJoni MitchellSmokey RobinsonSneaky FeelingsBlame It On CainTime interviewCrawdaddyStiff RecordsLinda RonstadtBruce SpringsteenGraham ParkerDelbert McClintonRichard HellGeorge JonesGram ParsonsStranger In The HouseDusty SpringfieldDionne WarwickDavid BowieBee GeesABBAThe Beach BoysPlease Please MeThe BeatlesElvis PresleyBuddy HollyJerry Lee LewisJake RivieraSex PistolsSaturday Night LiveLess Than ZeroOswald MosleyRadio, RadioCheap TrickThe Flying Burrito BrothersG.P.Bob DylanLike A Rolling StoneHank Williams


Wet, No. 31, May - June 1981

Robert Hilburn interviews Elvis Costello.


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